Features Published 26 December 2019

Most Memorable Theater of 2019

The Exeunt critics look back on 2019 and recall their most memorable theater moments.

Exeunt Staff

We like to sum up our year with the performances, shows, trends, and artists who impacted our year most. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, these were the theatrical happenings that were most memorable to us in 2019.


A Raisin in the Sun - Mandi Masden, Owen Tabaka, and S. Epatha Merkerson - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

A Raisin in the Sun (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Robert O’Hara: Director Robert O’Hara provided me with my two most memorable experiences of the year. First, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, he blew the dust off Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, delivering a vibrant and unsettling new take on this American classic. It was a strong reminder that theater is a living art form and plays of the past can still speak to where society is at the present. I’m still reeling from that production’s galvanic coup-de-théâtre conclusion.

A few months later, O’Hara restaged his NYTW production of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play on Broadway, which restored my faith in the possibility that smart, complicated, and confrontational work still has a place in the commercial theater landscape. Harris’ play itself is a major achievement, but I’d argue that O’Hara’s direction — which subverts the audience’s expectations at every turn, and isn’t afraid to linger in uncomfortable grey areas — is just as revolutionary. I hope O’Hara’s Raisin will eventually reach New York, and that he’ll be around to burn up Broadway for years to come. (Cameron Kelsall)


Becca Blackwell and Michelle Beck (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Becca Blackwell and Michelle Beck in Hurricane Diane (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Masculinity Reframed: Becca Blackwell’s non-stop, horny tomcat energy in Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane made this modern Dionysus a force to be reckoned with. Adam Driver, who had never totally won me over on stage before, tore up the playbook in Burn This. He re-defined our idea of masculinity and how an actor plays unbridled anger and the potential for violence while bearing his soul at the same time.  He pushed away from stereotype at every turn.  He became, in one scene, just a man trying to show a woman he loved her by gingerly and  making a pot of tea. His ferocity lived in unexpected proximity to his gentleness but both felt honest and real. Benjamin Walker keeps offering himself up to Broadway and Broadway keeps minimizing what he does. His breakdown in All My Sons elevated the production from a creaky melodrama to the deconstruction of American manhood. (Nicole Serratore)

There Are No Small Parts: Every time the prop foam iceberg that no one was supposed to sit on broke in Bess Wohl’s Continuity, the actor playing the PA, Garcia, had to come out and replace it—Sisyphus of the film set. Their nearly silent performance demonstrated their infinite frustration at the carelessness and destruction of humanity writ small (mirroring a theme in this climate change play writ large). They were quietly delightful. (Nicole Serratore)

Dynamic Women: Danielle Brooks made such a stunning impression in The Color Purple that it’s no surprise her Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare in the Park this summer would captivate. Her modern take on Beatrice, with swagger and bravado, was not just about a battle of the wits with Benedick, but physical seduction as well. She held his gaze with strength and defiance. She did the same to us. PBS filmed and aired this production so it’s worth tracking down if you missed it. While I found the play Toni Stone slipping away from me, April Matthis as Toni Stone just beckoned me in.  The secrets she was keeping made me want to know to more. (Nicole Serratore)


Ronete Levenson (Sue), Lindsay Rico (Paula), Helen Cespedes (Emma), Jennifer Lim (Cindy), and Brittany Bradford (Julia) in Fefu and Her Friends. Photo: Henry Grossman

Fefu and Her Friends (Photo: Henry Grossman)

Fefu and Her Friends: Coming in blind, I knew from brief Twitter-skims that this María Irene Fornés play was rarely ever produced. Then I bore witness to its scope at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction. How could a venue provide for a show like this? Part 1 plays as straightforward theater, but once Part 2 starts, the twisty experimental wildness begins as segments of the audience are escorted to witness other dimensions of the set, watching women in their own spaces monologue and confide. As you witness the performers play scenes, and listen to the echoes of other concurrent scenes being performed and witnessed elsewhere, your brain is forced to reel over the mechanics, the timing, the impeccability of cues and continuity, as some characters cross into other scenes or stay stagnant. Plot-wise, the story is a chilling kaleidoscope about women confiding or suffering in confidentiality–and even among company, they suffer. (Caroline Cao)

Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise: When I saw this advertised as a “Kung-Fu Futuristic Musical by the Writers of Kung Fu Panda and Songs by Sia,” I had to see this show at the Shed. I envisioned a creative stew or a train wreck and I wasn’t going to chance on missing both the negative and positive possibilities. Gazing at the spacey $650,000 arena stage, what ensued was a puzzling jumble of kung-fu visuals, music, and cliche dialogue by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.  How did this ludicrous concept by creator Chen Shi-Zheng  become so half-hearted in execution? But the half-heartedness is also the hilarity. Consider that the three (yes, only three) song numbers never really register it as a full-fledged musical, the vacuous scenic design never registers as a Queens, New York location, a white actor masquerading as the orientalist stereotype of the white-bearded sensei, the Star Wars rip-off plot point of twins getting separated at birth and briefly making out, and its own unconvincing attempts to humor its own tropes (“I can’t believe I kissed my sister!”). It’s the utter confusion that has to be seen to be believed.  (Caroline Cao)

Grief is the Thing with Feathers: Enda Walsh’s adaptation of Max Porter’s novel is a truly a multidimensional experience about grief.  (Ran Xia)

Keep: I’ve always been a big fan of Daniel Kitson’s (sneaky) ways. This show made me want to pick up every single thing I own and think about the stories it contains. It’s also not what he says it is.  (Ran Xia)

Is This a Room (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Is This a Room: Tina Satter’s show is perhaps the purest piece of documentary/verbatim theater ever made: a literal word-for-word enactment of a document available with a FOIA request–tense, thought-provoking, scary, and thrilling. (Loren Noveck)

The Nature of Forgetting: By Theatre Re at the New Victory. Never have I seen a piece capture the beauty of memories as they fade so brilliantly.  (Ran Xia)

Oklahoma! (Photo: Paula Court)

Oklahoma!The only things I knew about Oklahoma! were that it essentially defined what we currently think of as ‘musical theater’ and that its original 1943 run had WWII servicemen lining up for Broadway tickets (the Village People-ness of it all!). It sounded dusty. In sweeps Daniel Fish’s iconoclastic production and, suddenly, bright, golden hazes on meadows are all I can think about. There were fewer pleasures this year than hearing (and, uh, seeing) Damon Daunno turn “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” into a veritable panty-dropper, or seeing a charming Ali Stroker turn “I Cain’t Say No”––easily the most insufferable song in the American canon––into a foot-stompin’ hoe anthem. Or being made to rethink the entire concept of patriotism as the title song became a hellish hymn to nationalism. May we be in for a decade filled with more of this kind of ground-up reinvestigation of what we thought we knew, and of serving chili and cornbread at intermission. (Juan A. Ramirez)

Passage:  The conflict between two cultures, colonialism, and everything that comes from that, defined in utter clarity in this play by Christopher Chen.  (Ran Xia)

runboyrun & In Old Age at New York Theatre Workshop (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Runboyrun & In Old Age: From Mfoniso Udofia’s Ufot Cycle in which ghosts of the past haunt in a very real way.  (Ran Xia)

We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time:  This new musical memoir offered a vulnerable, complex journey through David Cale’s childhood memories.  (Ran Xia)

Kenneth Lee, Daniel K. Isaac, Jennifer Lim, Julyana Soelistyo, Holly Chou, dog, and goose (Photo: Elke Young)

You Never Touched the Dirt (Photo: Elke Young)

You Never Touched the Dirt: You Never Touched the Dirt by Zhu Yi was part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks. Director Ken Rus Schmoll, set designer Andrew Moerdyk, and prop designer Raphael Mishler created a production that snapped, crackled, and popped visually. I still smile when I remember its handbag chickens. (Loren Noveck)

Thematic Trends

Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Darkness As Character: The disorienting darkness which starts off Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning forces the audience to lean in, listen closer, pay attention. When it usually takes the audience 10 minutes to settle into a show or turn off their damn phones while a show has already begun, this aggressive act of oppressive night forced the audience into a new, uncomfortable environment. This would reflect the discomfort we would eventually feel with the characters–arch conservatives arguing some extreme views. Dayna Taymor’s direction and Isabella Byrd’s lighting design clicked so perfectly with Arbery’s disturbing universe.

Similarly, David Cromer’s beautiful direction in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside used thick, impenetrable stage darkness  (lighting design by Heather Gilbert) to isolate action.  Scenes and people emerged from black nothingness reflecting the story’s subject—a writer creating people and places out of thin air.  (Nicole Serratore)


New York Theatre Workshop production of SLAVE-PLAY (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Black-White Racial Axis in America: The plays I keep thinking about from this year form a thematic trifecta: Suzan-Lori Parks’s White NoiseJackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, and Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play (yes, I know, two of these technically premiered last year, but I saw them in this year’s versions, at TFANA for Fairview and on Broadway for Slave Play). All three, of course, are about race and specifically the black-white racial axis in America–but all three are also specifically about the way race and blackness are culturally coded by and for white Americans; they’re about not just race but its representations in popular culture and narrative history and our collective psyche. They’re plays that, in the presumption (likely accurate) that they will be performed before a largely white audience, address white people and ask them to do the critical labor of thinking about race. They’re wildly different–White Noise the closest Parks has come to a realist drama; Fairview built like a nesting doll, with level after level hiding beneath the shiny surface of a cookie-cutter comedy; and Slave Play an over-the-top mashup of tones and styles. None of them is comfortable to watch, despite their many pleasures on the levels of writing, performances (Daveed Diggs in White Noise and Annie McNamara in Slave Play are the two that stick with me), and stagecraft. But they’re all creating a public space in which to think about and discuss incredibly difficult, vital issues without a drop of preachiness or medicinal virtue: they’re exciting, vibrant works of art. (And if you’re not following the Talkback Tammy Slave Play saga on Twitter, you ought to be.) (Loren Noveck)

Heidi Schreck (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Bold New Broadway: My most memorable shows of 2019 are really the most memorable shows of 2018 before they moved to a consequently more daring, more diverse, and more exciting Broadway in 2019. Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me moved this non-American to tears as well as laughter, bringing vigorous and clear-sighted humanity to the old document, revealing its poetry along with its devastating inadequacies. Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! also contemplated the dark histories embedded in an iconic text. The production drew out the shadowy ambiguities that have always been there, while the new pared-back orchestrations made me hear for the first time how genuinely good the music is. The performers too were largely irresistible. A whole other study in Black and white, past and present, and the dirty secrets of the U.S. psyche was the profoundly challenging yet wildly entertaining Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara in an ideal artistic collaboration. The transition of these shows to Broadway hopefully heralds the arrival of an audacious style of U.S. theater that has been building over the past decade and marries the confrontational and the comedic to compelling effect, providing human as well as cultural/political insight. (Alison Walls)

"Plano" at the Connelly Theater (Photo: Elke Young)

“Plano” at the Connelly Theater (Photo: Elke Young)

Six Sisters And Their Ghosts: Two plays about three sisters went in very different directions but both have stayed with me in 2019.

Will Arbery’s Plano united sisterly tensions, Catholic faith, apparitions, and painful hauntings all in a package that was brisk, funny, and spritely. Twisting time and space, he created a world that was Texas-Not Texas, here-not here, now-not now. It was substantial world-building for a not-long show. There was a faceless ghost that crept about on stage and I started to wonder if I was hallucinating it in Taylor Reynolds’s taut, mysterious production. Centered on complex women not easily dismissed, the play generated wistful happiness mixed with longing sadness, that aches in your belly long after it is over. Arbery and Reynolds with a cast of impeccable players to boot made it all look easy.

“What if they went to Moscow?” at BAM Fisher (Photo: Richard Termine)

Director Christiane Jatahy’s Brazilian adaption of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, What if they went to Moscow?, negotiates the complexity of sisterhood, women’s wants and needs, and family expressed through theater and cinema simultaneously. An audience watched a live performance, while a second audience viewed the live performance in a broadcast in a cinema.  Then the audiences switched spaces and the actors played it all over again. Suddenly we saw the same show anew—theatrical intimacy got traded for close-ups and we see the characters we knew with new eyes. Cinematic angles, camera lenses, and a strong directorial hand made the movie experience an edited, controlled exploration of “gaze.” While the stories differed slightly depending on the media, it is how we read them differently that had the biggest impact.

The duality of both of these shows–expressed in wholly different ways–pushed me to consider the possibility of the form and how few artists truly press up against those boundaries and reshape theater. (Nicole Serratore)

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine


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