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Wednesday, December 28, 2005


ModFabulous: Best Theater of 2005

Okay, let's get the big kerfuffle out in the open: there are eleven theatre productions listed below, and none of them are Doubt. Yes, Shanley's guilt-stained play won the Pulitzer and the Tony, but having seen it twice, I'm convinced that it is primarily a performers' showcase...and with my Best Performances of 2005 list coming later in the week, I can't in good conscience put it here where it doesn't belong.

And while we're at it, let me take the slings and arrows for Broadway's new musicals -- I loved Spelling Bee and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and liked Spamalot, but none of them were spectacular enough for this list. So what DID make it, you ask? Some old, some new, and all of it mind-blowing. And with no further ado:

Honorable Mention: Boozy
Les Freres Corbusier at 45 Bleecker
A wacky musical look at the highs, lows and in-betweens of New York's legendary urban planner Robert Moses, Boozy floated on a fragile raft of adolescent gags and social pretension that worked...snarky and savvy all at once. Les Freres Corbusier are one of the hottest companies in town, winning an Obie before most of them turned 25...here's to hoping that there's a long, gimmick-free career ahead for them.

9. House/Lights
The Wooster Group at St. Ann's Warehouse
The venerable experimental troupe has regained its 70's/80's heights in the last few seasons, and this spectacularly weird mashup of Gertrude Stein's play Dr. Faustus Lights The Lights and Joseph Mawra's 1960's bondage flick Olga's House of Shame, was among their all-time best. (Their other piece in 2005, Poor Theater, was pretty damn fantastic, too.

8. Le Dernier Caravansérail, Pts. 1 and 2
Theatre du Soleil at the Lincoln Center Festival
Probably the world's most renowned female director, Ariane Mnouchkine showed the world (on an international tour) how political theater could also be breathtakingly imaginative, emotionally transformative, and powerfully entertaining. After interviewing hundreds of refugees from around the world - Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, Chechens, Russians, and Kosovars -- she built a physical world that tore the viewer's soul apart with sadness. Thoughtful, at times ponderous, and consistently mesmerizing, it was what Americans needed to see here in the middle of Bush's imperialistic mess.

8. See What I Wanna See
The New York Shakespeare Festival/The Public Theater
Michael John LaChiusa's rumination on faith, love, sex, and fame was fascinating in its first act and downright thrilling in its second. The first musical made expressly for new century audiences, this chamber piece (with great performances by Idina Menzel, Mary Testa, and Henry Stram that stayed with you for days afterward) was audacious in its reach and accomplished in its execution.

7. Gatz
Elevator Repair Service at Performing Garage
Think you'd be bored at a show where the cast reads The Great Gatsby out loud? Think again. The city's most essential downtown company gave 2005 its literary-theatrical hybrid of the year...a masterpiece within a masterpiece.

6. Ghetto Superstar
Joe's Pub at The Public Theater
Far from one of those hard-luck stories, Billy Porter's dazzling musical autobiography spun gold out of heartache and electrified the intimate audiences at Joe's Pub night after night after night. Why isn't this man a legend already?

5. The Top Ten People of the Millennium Sings Songs of Schubert Lieder
Promesse de Bonheur at Bank Street Theater
That title isn't fallacious...Einstein, Marx, and Galileo get together in a ponderous netherworldly drawing room, in order to sing around the piano and ponder the nascent civilization springing up around them. But director/writer Alec Duffy's witty and perceptive vision accomplished much more than merely being odd. It found the truth in creation, and the measure of a society through the oddball theatrics of its heroes.

4. The Light in the Piazza
Lincoln Center Theatre
In a year that boasted a number of very good musicals, Adam Guettel's cinematic luxury was the only truly great one. A class act from start to finish, the gorgeous score was complemented perfectly by Bartlett Sher's impeccable direction and Michael Yeargan's dazzling Italianesque sets. Tony winner Victoria Clark stole her own show...and gave a heartbreakingly simple rendering of an overprotective mother finally learning to let go.

3. The Pillowman
Booth Theatre
As I said earlier, Doubt is a good play; its Tony competitor this season, Martin McDonagh's potboiling thriller, The Pillowman, was a great play. Part mystery, part horror show, part black comedy, the entire production was magically and passionately in love with the power of storytelling. It also displayed, not coincidentally, a brash theatricality that brought the play's grisly tale to breathtaking life.

2. Score
SITI Company at New York Theatre Workshop
Anne Bogart's meditative, metaphor-infused take on the legend of Leonard Bernstein benefited immensely from the presence of performer Tom Nelis, who gave New York its best solo tour de force in years. But more than merely a one-man-band, Nelis and Bogart together captured not only the composer's love of music and his frenetic mannerisms, but made even the most tone-deaf audience member understand the spirit-shaking glory of Mahler's Ninth. Stunning, powerful, life-changing work.

1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
Everything about John Doyle's production of Sondheim's blackhearted musical is exquisite: the career-best performances from Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone, the actors-play-the-instruments conceit, the upended set design, and the power of the composer's scabrous lyricism. But the real accomplishment of this particular demon from Fleet Street will be his legacy, obliterating memories of Hal Prince's original, socially weighty production...and in the process, finding electricity in the story's acidic bitter edge and charred romance. I didn't know this show could be this good. But thank the demons above, it can. If only I could go see it every night.


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