Features Published 29 December 2019

Most Memorable of the Decade

Exeunt critics reflect on the their most memorable theatrical experiences of past ten years.

Exeunt Staff

We are coming to the close of a decade of theater. It’s also Exeunt’s 10th birthday too. We thought back on the shows, trends, and performances that we still carry with us from the past ten years.

Performances of the Decade

Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Broadway Leading Ladies: A quick shout-out to the unforgettable performances I saw from Broadway’s leading ladies, seasoned and new: Kristen Chenoweth rousing my first-ever theatrical belly laughs as the ultimate diva in On the Twentieth Century (2015); an instantly iconic Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple (2015), echoing what it must’ve felt like when Barbra Streisand first took the stage; a single spotlight on Glenn Close’s supernaturally expressive face commanding its own (well-deserved) standing ovation in Sunset Boulevard (2017), before even singing the damn number; Bette Midler whippings withered Broadway crowd into a frenzy with her every move in Hello, Dolly! (2017); and Jessie Mueller proving you can give a ‘battered woman’ an entire inner life, filled with agency and desire, as Julie Jordan in Carousel (2018). (Juan A. Ramirez)

Shows of the Decade

The Aliens: “You’re gonna go far, man.” (Joey Sims)

Bootycandy (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Bootycandy: I have never laughed so hard in a theater, before or since. Then comes a turn into horror, and that devastating finale. Robert O’Hara’s masterwork was before its time. It sounds like a cliche, but audiences just weren’t ready for it yet. Now, Slave Play is on Broadway, so that may be changing. (Joey Sims)

Fortress of Solitude (Photo: Doug Hamilton)

The Fortress of Solitude: Even in the wave of appreciation for Michael Freidman’s work following his unthinkable loss, Fortress has not found its rightful place in the American musical theater canon. Friedman’s joyous, heartbreaking score is a journey through a shifting American landscape, brought to life by Itamar Moses’ tight, careful book and Daniel Aukin’s sparing direction. I saw it four times, and I wish I were sitting down to see it again right now.  (Joey Sims)

Ruthie Ann Miles in Here Lies Love (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Here Lies Love: I can’t remember if this was the first musical I ever saw Off-Broadway, but it certainly shook my perception of theater-going in the way only Downtown shows are able to. This glittery vision of Imelda Marcos’s time as First Lady of the Philippines had audiences dancing in a disco of their own ignorant complicity, shimmying across the dancefloor to David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s thumping beats and cheering along as fascism quietly took hold. Aside from the ingenious concept and fabulous numbers, it introduced us to Ruthie Ann Miles and Conrad Ricamora––two actors whose careers it has been a pleasure to follow. A truly immersive production that doesn’t inspire eye-rolls or require you to remember every plot twist in Macbeth, Here Lies Love is an invaluable addition to the glamorous-First-Lady musical theater canon. (Juan A. Ramirez)

Daniel Kitson

The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church: Without seeing The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, I would not be writing for this website right now. That one-man storytelling show by British stand-up comedian Daniel Kitson changed my life. After a decade of losing touch with theater-going, this show led me to start buying theater tickets by the bushel, blogging, and finally to become a theater critic. The past ten years have been filled with me “discovering” artists who have changed the way I think about theater and art. They’ve helped me untangle my own thoughts about myself and revealed myself to me.  Through their shows, I came to love live art, crave challenging and more adventurous shows, increasingly understand other cultures, identities, and experiences, and see my own whiteness and privilege. I’ve also felt betrayed by artists. I’ve been traumatized by some. I have sometimes wondered if maybe I should not invest so much in this form for my health and sanity. It’s been an important decade to me as a person and as a writer (something I would never have thought I would call myself) and I can trace it all back to this show. It was a monologue about a man who was trying to kill himself but life kept getting in the way. Somehow, it also gave me a new life. As I looked back on my list of shows from the past decade, there are shows that might have more immediately leapt to mind as the “best” but this is the show that pushed my decade completely into another orbit.  For better or worse, a man who hates critics made me one. (Nicole Serratore)

John at Signature Theatre (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

John: I saw Annie Baker’s John at the first Saturday matinee of its run at Signature Theatre. At intermission, I did something I’d never done before: I walked directly from my seat to the box office and purchased a ticket to the following Saturday’s matinee. A week later, I did the exact same thing. That is how I came to spend almost ten hours on three successive Saturdays in Annie Baker’s beguiling, elliptical world. (Well, that and Signature’s startlingly affordable ticket prices — thank you, Signature, for your commitment to making theater financially accessible!) So much about that production was remarkable, from Mimi Lien’s uncanny museum-like set to Sam Gold’s pinpoint-precise direction to Christopher Abbott’s quietly dangerous performance as a young man with barely hidden rage issues. But nothing surpasses my memories of the late Georgia Engel, who infused every line of Baker’s dialogue with about a thousand layers of hidden meaning. I’ve subsequently seen the play with another actor in the role, and while the work itself holds up reasonably well, I feel certain that no one will touch Engel in the part Baker crafted especially for her. Just the other day, I thought of her character’s final speech, and I immediately had to sit down and catch my breath. It’s still that immediate to me. That speech ends with a line that’s staggering in its unadorned simplicity: “If this is possible, anything is possible.” Georgia Engel made me believe that anything is possible. (Cameron Kelsall)

Rebecca Hall in Machinal (Photo: Roundabout)

Machinal: Lyndsey Turner’s staging of Sophie Treadwell’s masterpiece was an epic theatrical accomplishment – not just for its scale, which beggared belief, but for its care in bringing out Treadwell’s text. The world Turner created (with scenic designer Es Devlin) was huge yet lived in, its characters archetypes but richly human. And Rebecca Hall’s grueling work gave it all a tragic, heartfelt center. (Joey Sims)

Hannah Gadsby (Photo: Alan Moyle)

Hannah Gadsby (Photo: Alan Moyle)

Nanette: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette at Soho Playhouse (Alison Walls)

Regular Singing: At the close of Richard Nelson’s final play in his Apple Family cycle, which had never before broken the fourth wall, Barbara Apple (Maryann Plunkett) turns to the audience and addresses us. I will never forget the moment Plunkett turned and, with the slightest shift in gesture and intonation, invited us into the kitchen. After four years of sitting with the Apple family, for a moment we joined them so fully. Adopt me, Maryann. (Joey Sims)

A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A Strange Loop: Michael R. Jackson’s queer Black meta-musical A Strange Loop, which is flawed but compelling and will pop into my mind every time Tyler Perry is mentioned. (Alison Walls)

The Wolves (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

The Wolves:  Sarah DeLappe’s 2016 The Wolves felt like the most truthful depiction of female adolescence I have seen on stage, as well as a justification for the continued relevance of naturalism as a theatrical genre. (Alison Walls)

Trends of the Decade

The cast of KPOP. (Photo: Ben Arons)

Emerging Immersion: There are a lot of individual shows I could talk about here (can I ever say enough about What the Constitution Means to Me?), but I want to focus on a trend that I found particularly exciting in this decade: the rise of site-specific, immersive, and interactive theater that still has the satisfying wholeness of watching a play, rather than the sickening dread of being asked to participate in one of your own nightmares. Shows like Then She Fell, a truly unsettling riff on Alice in Wonderland set in a crumbling former hospital; KPOP, which transformed the ART/NY complex into a high-gloss simulacrum of the Korean music industry; and Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music, which recasts American history through its music, were (or are; Then She Fell is still running) are visually inventive, narratively complex, and executed with such panache and attention to detail that the former producer in me desperately wishes to have been a fly on the wall at a production meeting. Even shows with less elaborate interactive components, like Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12, which uses headsets to loop the audience into the backstage realm of the show they’re watching, are experimenting with new ways to enact the relationship between audience and art. (I have a soft spot for 10 Out of 12, too, because, like nothing else, it captures the dance between magic and pragmatism, between artistic integrity and problem-solving using duct tape and hot glue, that is the greatest joy of making theater.) (Loren Noveck)

Airline Highway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

What A Year: What a year 2015 was. When thinking about the most memorable pieces of theatre from the last ten years, a whopping ten of my favorites come from that year. I took a day trip to Philadelphia to see Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s After the Rehearsal/Persona, a breathtaking mashup of two Ingmar Bergman films that featured the best work I’ve seen from both Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. I saw James Macdonald’s perfect production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 at the Atlantic and became a permanent acolyte of Brooke Bloom and Chris Perfetti. Fun Home transferred to Broadway and director Sam Gold and set designer David Zinn reimagined their proscenium work at the Public for the in-the-round staging at Circle in the Square, making it feel more intimate in its transfer – something that rarely to never happens. Joe Mantello populated the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre with a whole hoard of down-on-their-luck New Orleans urchins in Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway and they all seemed so real in this imagined environment. Annie Baker’s John became the most terrifying piece of theatre I’ll probably ever see and I’ll never forget it. Tina Landau staged Charles Mee’s Big Love in the same space right before John and its bombastic, open-hearted performances were so much fun. I saw Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet at the McKittrick and recommended it to anyone who would listen every time it came back in the following years. The Humans and Significant Other had their off-Broadway runs at the Laura Pels – one of them made me rethink my hatred of holiday family plays and the other shook me to my core and I probably still haven’t recovered (bless you, Gideon Glick). Lastly, John Doyle’s bananas production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last musical, The Visit, was so off-the-charts bizarre that I saw it three times and bought myself a pair of yellow shoes.  (Lane Williamson)

Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle (Photo: Nicole Serratore)

Singular Sensations: It’s almost too much to try to sum up this decade. It is full of shows that are so monumental and important to me (The Flick, Fun Home, We’re Gonna Die, Brand New Ancients, Fleabag, Purge–that was just 2013, SpongeBob SquarePants, Pass Over, What the Constitutions Means, An Octoroon, Yesterday Tomorrow, Oh, Hello, Skeleton Crew, Mr. Burns, Hug, Guards at the Taj, The Whale…I can by no means write a complete list), plus performances that left me stunned (Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman, Cillian Murphy in Misterman, Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, Andrew Scott as Hamlet, Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Uncle Vanya, Daveed Diggs in Hamilton, Amber Gray in Oklahoma!). How can one even whittle down such lists?

So, instead I want to focus on some truly unique theatrical events over the past 10 years I bore witness to.  I booked a ticket to YOUARENOWHERE not realizing it would shatter my understanding of time and space on stage. I found myself riveted by Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow where the band The National played the song “Sorrow” over and over for six hours. I stayed the whole time and came to love durational, installation performance.  Most importantly, I saw Elaine Stritch say goodbye to New York at a concert at the Carlyle. I’m still in denial she has left the planet. (Nicole Serratore)

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine