The Year in Theater 2017 saw politics and theater collide on the stage and in the seats of Hamilton; gave voice to women’s everlasting struggle for agency and equality (A Doll’s House, Part 2, The Red Letter Plays) in a year that was finally defined by the #MeToo Movement; got carried away by rock star power (Springsteen on Broadway, Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!) and launched polemics over representations of disabilities and race on stage (Sam Gold’s The Glass Menagerie and New York City Center’s Big River). But that’s only scratching the surface of shows and stories that garnered the biggest headlines. Exeunt reviewers have their own take on the year past. Here are the shows that inspired us, in the broadest sense of the term, in 2017.
-James Anthony Tyler’s Dolphins and Sharks, produced by Labyrinth Theater. Tyler’s take on social and racial inequality in a Harlem copy shop managed to land jabs at a host of NYC issues: gentrification, landmark preservation, rent inflation, racism in the NYPD, the economic sustainability of the MTA, access to the city’s colleges and universities, immigration and historical memory, thereby lending context and immediacy to the play’s broader focus on equality and mobility across the city’s incredibly diverse demographics. The production’s tight-as-a- drum performances helped made this an invigorating blast of humor and hope at the height of the Trump travel ban last winter.
-A Downtown Death Trilogy: A tonic to our society’s obsession with youth, the season offered a moving triad of plays about aging and death by our best downtown theater voices, some of whom are moving into middle age themselves: Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno (age 52), Samara by Richard Maxwell (age 50) and Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (age 32). All three looked death sincerely, honestly, generously even, in the face, without a hint of uneasiness or the irony that often attempts to cover it. Eno and Jacobs-Jenkins both started from the same chilling question we will all ask ourselves: is it time now to die? But whereas Jacobs-Jenkins seems to want to caution his fellow thirty-somethings to question what a life well lived is while they still have much of it ahead, daring to dust off the morality tale and hold it up to his generation, Eno is very much looking back from middle age on choices and decisions that can’t be reversed, but finding everything to celebrate, in a huge burst of joy at the play’s conclusion. Maxwell’s Samara is a mythical voyage along the same path, played out on the vast stretches of a now lost American frontier, but that brings his own Midwest origin story into the circle of life and death he draws, and into which Soho Rep director Sarah Benson so effectively drew us, with music by Steve Earle, proving there is still a place and an audience for pure poetry in the theater.
-International productions: As a rebuttal to the paucity of international programing that comes through such a vast theater market as NYC – where it will get that much slimmer in the wake of the recently announced cancellation of the Lincoln Center Festival – I want to mention Jack Charles V. The Crown (a co-production of New York Live Arts and P.S. 122), by the Ilbijerri Theater of Melbourne, a company founded by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to tell Indigenous stories in their own words. An outsider artist if ever there was one, both petty thief and drug addict, Jack Charles told the story of his “years of of frustration and rejection from bureaucracy” at the hands of Australia’s forced assimilation program and while trying to work as an actor of color in the land of Crocodile Dundee. Jack Charles gave a hell of a performance as himself. Finally, I thought Ariane Mnouchkine’s A Room in India was inspiring as a piece of political theater in the best French tradition, something that was overlooked by critics and the public here, mostly distracted by the show’s farcical tone and décousu narrative. Through its vehicle, the Théâtre du Soleil exorciates the failure of the international community to stop the civil war in Syria and halt its resulting atrocities just as it makes the connections between the political turmoil in the Middle East and terrorism at home, in the immediate wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. And they went further still, not only asking themselves what art can do when social and political realities seem to render the pursuit of art a luxury, but calling into question the Théâtre du Soleil’s very existence, as practitioners of a vast, multicultural theater of understanding in the face of a brutality that wants to sow ethnic, cultural and religious hatred. Is theater vital, can it challenge the status quo, make us think, keep us free? I doff my hat, as the French say: “Chapeau!”
It’s been a hard year to be a critic and leave your emotions about the day and the world at the door. I have not always been successful and I’m not apologizing. There was value to seeing the pattern of abusive men in the news bleed into the storyline of M. Butterfly making it feel part of the ongoing conversation happening outside the walls of the theater. Or personally connecting to the rage emanating from the riot grrrl cast of Riot Antigone and watching a younger generation of women and non-binary performers wrestle with their place in the world with a familiar anger from my own youth. There were many shows that I read anew in the moment and it’s a good reminder why we might return to certain texts again and again and find new meaning at different points in our life.
-I found more value than most in Sam Gold’s Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie as he worked hard against the grain of the text without changing a word and for me it liberated the female characters in ways I had not seen before and desperately wanted to see. Finding female agency in characters who are so often played as victims, I reveled in this rebellious interpretation.
-I was grateful for the thoughtful nuance and emotional reckoning of The Play Company’s production of Guillermo Calderón’s VILLA which refused to be easily boxed in. Although about Villa Grimaldi and the violence General Pinochet inflicted on the people of Chile, the work opened itself up to many applications of relevance. It made the audience think about how many experiences of violence there are and how many opinions there could be about truth and reconciliation after national or personal trauma. And it carefully laid out these complexities when national and personal trauma are mixed together into one.
-The strangest and most delightful intersection of politics and the moment for me had to be the Broadway musical SpongeBob SquarePants. Wholly unfamiliar with the TV series and expecting some sort of Frankenstein-score by various pop artists and a saccharine kiddie show, I found it instead a unified vision, a welcoming place, and healing in an unexpected way. Between it’s casual queerness and open-hearted embrace of kindness and friendship, it was the hope I needed in these dark times. Every day can feel like an onslaught of screaming heads, political rhetoric, and a constant battle to fight for more inclusivity and progress in our culture. And here comes this optimistic sponge to show us how it can be done so naturally and easily. The musical does not shy away from its darker characters and it is honest about the unhappiness people (well, sea creatures) feel and their struggles to be understood by those around them. But then it goes hard at what comes from a mob mentality and the abandonment of community. Because we are under the sea, gender is very fluid. But because this is Broadway, that still feels incredibly rare. Maybe this is a school of fish but it’s also several male actors in dresses and there is never a moment where that is the butt of a joke. A big dance tap-line involves male and female performers but they all wear the same costume–a costume that may more typically be found on the Rockettes. This is a production that eschews the binary in many ways and that may seem like an odd thing to fixate on, but because it is so rare and inclusive AND in family-oriented material this to me feels radical. Tina Landau’s production uses its bigness in smart ways and she is not afraid to keep things simple and small even within this massive production. It’s the show I’ve been encouraging everyone to buy tickets to because I cannot think of a single person who does not need this right now.
-Other artists and works that deserve mention this year include: In Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Richard III Lars Eidinger, who in the year since I first saw this production, has only dug deeper and become more dangerously charismatic as the Richard you would most like to fuck, marry, and kill. Having seen it before, I was surprised by how much he could startle and unnerve me again; Denise Gough’s troubling disappearance into her role in Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places, & Things and the cutting raw nerve of the finale of that explosive play; Michael Urie’s fervent struggle as Arnold in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song in trying to find a way to have the life and love he wants in a story that captures the moment in time it was written but also made a good case to revisit it; the heartbreaking confrontation between father and son in August Wilson’s Jitney with John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden leaving no emotional stone unturned; I flew to Colorado and it was worth it to see Lenne Klingaman as the boisterous, self-aware, self-doubting female Hamlet whose gender does change the way we look at the prince’s introspection and the way we judge these historic roles so often played by men; the mixture of Korean-American and Korean identity narratives in the musical KPOP reminded me how rare these stories on stage are and how much we need them; Aaron Tveit’s out-of-town Sondheim work has weirdly been some of the best work he’s ever done and he wore his Bobby in Company at Barrington Stage so well you worry about what his real life married friends are doing to him; the sly undercurrent of sexism in Hollywood so quietly trod out in Annie Baker’s The Antipodes; and I was filled with hope for the future when I saw the impressive Broadway debuts of Jai’len Christine Li Josey in SpongeBob and Hailey Kilgore in Once on This Island who are just starting out in this business.
-William Inge in Rep: The works of William Inge, the oft-neglected troubadour of midcentury American angst, have fascinated me since I first encountered them in high school. When I heard that the ever-inventive Transport Group planned to stage his two best-known plays – Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) and Picnic (1953) – in repertory at the Gym on Judson, I knew it would be something to remember. Indeed, it was: Jack Cummings III’s intimate productions, performed for audiences of 85, stripped away much of the artifice that’s attached itself to these works in the ensuing decades, foregrounding Inge’s sublime sense of character study and his innate understanding of the quiet desperation that infused working- and middle-class lives of the period. The spectacular ensemble cast – many of whom appeared in both plays – included Heather Mac Rae, a heartbreaking yet eternally hopeful Lola in Sheba; Emily Skinner, a sassy but soulful Rosemary in Picnic; and the terrific Hannah Elless, as both plain-Jane Millie in Picnic and spunky, sexy Marie in Sheba.
Some moments that have stuck with me from 2017: the disastrous birthday party in The Present, the skeleton dance party in Everybody, Joe Mantello breaking through the wall of the Belasco in The Glass Menagerie, Kecia Lewis singing as the walls collapsed around her in The Skin of Our Teeth, Emily Skinner’s heart cracking open in Picnic, Laurie Metcalf, at the tip of the stage, using her glove to demonstrate a husband’s possession of his wife in A Doll’s House, Part 2, the slow crawl of The Hairy Ape’s massive turntable, everything about Indecent, props appearing and disappearing in The Antipodes, Carolee Carmello giving the warmest, most calculating, hilarious, and best-sung Mrs. Lovett since (and maybe including) Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, Gayle Rankin and Peter Friedman rising from the dirt in Hamlet, the plywood wasteland of Fulfillment Center, Carrie Coon’s relentless optimism and its infinitesimal cracks in Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, Michael Urie’s hysterical and heartbreaking performance in Moisés Kaufman’s excellent revival of Torch Song, the gut punch of People, Places and Things’ final scene, Katrina Lenk – what else can be said? – in The Band’s Visit, the madcap inventiveness from Tina Landau, David Zinn, and cast in SpongeBob SquarePants, Tina Benko aging before our eyes and Max Gordon Moore turning into the definition of evil in Describe the Night, Michael Arden’s joyous production of Once on This Island, and the elderly dance routine in The Children.
-Waterwell‘s Hamlet, directed by Tom Ridgely at the Sheen Center. Waterwell stayed true to its mission of “bold re-interpretations of the classics.” Without ever offending the dedicated Shakespearephile, Waterwell’s production managed to make the well-known play feel fresh and the choice of making it a semi “dual-language” production set in circa 1920s Iran/Persia actually worked well beyond being a gimmick. As well as making a clear pitch for the importance of art in building community across cultures, their interpretation successfully drew out nuances of the play text and characterization with a new eye. Hamlet‘s insider/outside position as a student returning to his home, for instance, became particularly clear and resonated with the conflict facing many young people in immigrant families also. The original composition and mise-en-scène also added aesthetic richness.
-Another fresh-take an a newly resonant classic – Theatre For a New Audience’s The Skin of Our Teeth directed by Arin Arbus vibrantly embraced the defiant absurdity of Thorton Wilder’s text with a genuinely funny production that never lost the undercurrent of pit-of-the-stomach profundity. Laughing in the face of the apocalypse, the show crackled with significance in 2017, almost as it must have done in 1942. It also showcased some superb acting and design, with a scene-stealing performance by Mary Wiseman as Sabina in particular.
-Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (currently playing at the Lincoln Center), directed by Lila Neugebauer is still resonating with me. It felt so searingly honest–brutal and compassionate at once–and almost shockingly refreshing to have the female teenage experience, which I remember so well, given a completely privileged place on stage, whole-heartedly embodied by talented young actresses. Aesthetically too, it had a vibrant clarity that allowed the overlapping dialogue to shine – definitely naturalism at its best. At the risk of sounding cliché: I laughed; I cried.
-Special mention too to another show that provided a much-needed and powerful female perspective – Diana Oh’s hybrid rock concert/performance piece/personal monologue/installation piece/call to arms, co-directed by Orion Stephanie Johnstone at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater was provocative, hilarious, empowering and immensely entertaining. Cynic that I am, I could probably have done without the audience bonding sing-along at the end, but Oh herself has a fantastic voice and stage presence and the men who yelled at me as I walked from the subway home only cemented the relevance of her work.
-Indecent: I loved the fierce intelligence of Paula Vogel’s script, the intricacy and complexity of Rebecca Taichman’s direction, the passion for the story and the characters that came through at every turn. It was also the rare show that I got to see twice, and the second time it stood out as a love story to theater and the singular nature of the experience of both making theater and being in the audience. I haven’t produced a show in almost ten years, and Indecent made me miss that (possibly for the first time in said ten years!).
-KPOP: A tour de force of production and design for immersive theater, KPOP transported an entire multi-theater complex into another place (the Korean pop music industry), giving behind-the-scenes insight into a world of cultural production that I’d never really known much about. Every sequence burst with enough color and energy to fill three less exuberant shows, and every member of the enormous ensemble cast was terrific.
-Escaped Alone: Caryl Churchill is one of my all-time theater heroes; Cloud Nine changed my understanding of what theater could be and do forever. Escaped Alone captured the unsettling nature of existential dread, of living with terror of the future but yet going about one’s day-to-day with attention to all its mundane details–and given how much existential dread 2017 has brought, it was perfectly suited to its times.
–My favorite play of the year was Jitney, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Ruben Santiago-Hudson finally succeeded in his long quest to complete the Broadway run of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, and the effort paid off marvelously. The tense scenes between father John Douglas Thompson and son Brandon J. Dirden were the show’s high points, but the ensemble was uniformly excellent.
–In Chelsea, the Irish Rep revived its 2009 acclaimed production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones with great success. Obi Abili was a fierce, confident Emperor around whom director Ciarán O’Reilly constructed a dark, haunting mise-en-scene full of terror-ridden masks, disquieting puppets, and enchanting lights.
–Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning Sweat at Studio 54 was unflinching in its critique of American capitalism and stunning in its staging behind the direction of Kate Whoriskey. Across the river in Princeton, the McCarter mounted a gorgeous production of Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, directed lyrically by Jade King Carroll and featuring a striking lead performance by Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
–David Greenspan’s six-hour solo performance of Strange Interlude was a gripping piece of theater and a stunning physical achievement. In this Transport Group production directed by Jack Cummings III, Greenspan confidently and fully embodied each of Eugene O’Neill’s eight characters, delivering both the lines they share with others as well as their psychologically racked internal monologues, offering a fresh and spellbinding rendition of this dusty melodrama.
–Choreographed and directed by Andy Blankenbuehler (a frequent collaborator of Lin-Manuel Miranda), Bandstand was a blast. As it did upon its premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the WWII musical swung with vigor to a rollicking big-band score without losing sight of its compelling story of soldiers struggling with the post-war adjustment to everyday life.