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Tuesday, December 30, 2008


ModFabulous 2008: The Best In Theatre

Well, they can't all be winners, can they? I'm not talking about plays...I'm talking about economies. The bleak global financial picture seemed to carry portents and omens everywhere it went, and no one felt it more severely than the arts community. Theatres and shows closed, unions freaked out, and audiences decided Billy Elliot was the only (and I mean only) show for them. Every crisis needs art to blunt its effects; in times of trial, theatre is a place we, as a community, can look for answers, and solace, and if we're lucky, a little laughter. Here's hoping that 2009 blows our socks off...because we could really use it about now!

10. Rock Of Ages (New World Stages)
To put this shlocky jukebox musical on a best-of-anything list seems ludicrous in some way. But as pure, undiluted, unsophisticated entertainment, it's the best dollar-for-dollar value in New York City at the moment. Transferring to Broadway next March, it's worth trying to catch it before it closes its in smaller confines at New World Stages; it's cheaper, for one thing, and its rock-and-roll cheesiness seems to fill up the space in a way it probably won't at the Brooks Atkinson. (Standout Performance: Will Swenson, doing a killer David Lee Roth impersonation.)

http://www.dramaleague.org/images/showgraphics/topgirls.jpg9. Top Girls (Manhattan Theatre Club)
Caryl Churchill on Broadway? It had never been done. Too political, the cry had been for decades. Too complex, too gender-specific. But Manhattan Theatre Club, in a rare display of moxie and guts, revived Churchill's phenomenal dissection of Thatcher-era economics and feminist politics in grand style...and the payoff for audiences was palpable. Among its pleasures were Martha Plimpton (Pal Joey) and Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler), each filling multiple roles like lifelong Shakespearean ensemblists, and a gorgeously panoramic scenic design by Tom Pye. But Top Girls' greatest achievement, by far, was giving New York City's best stage performer, Elizabeth Marvel (Burn After Reading), a front-and-center showcase worthy of her blazing, iconoclastic talent.

8. How Theatre Failed America (Barrow Street Theatre)
If 2008 had a Performer of the Year, it was certainly monologuist Mike Daisey, who leaped from regional acclaim to national recognition with not one but TWO solo tour de forces. In October, Daisey took apart America's addiction to fear and war at the Public Theater (If You See Something, Say Something). But it was his spring piece, How Theatre Failed America, that ignited controversy across the entire theatrical industry. Part history, part indictment, Daisey's lucid, critical analysis of the regional theatre movement was much more than agitprop or self-reflexive navel gazing. By discussing art, it created art; in the act of discussing theatre's failure to challenge and engage the citizenry, it offered a special magnetism that can only be discovered in performance. A major new talent has arrived.

7. Terminus (Under The Radar Festival/Public Theater)
With only a few performances last January and almost no publicity, Terminus, an interlocking trio of monologues by Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe (Howie The Rookie, Boy A), remains the most dazzling wordplay seen on any New York stage this year. In rhymed couplets, O'Rowe slowly weaves together a woman, her guilt-ridden mother, and a serial killer...but that's only the start of it. A supernatural undertone slowly reveals itself, vividly and imaginatively, until you're trying to wrap your mind around a Faustian pact with the Devil himself and a child that might (I say, might) be the AntiChrist. Minimal staging put the focus squarely on the words and actors, and neither disappointed; Andrea Irvine, Aidan Kelly and Eileen Walsh, all from Ireland's Abbey Theatre, will be imprinted on my mind for many years to come. As will that thing about the tail.

6. Sunday in the Park with George (Studio 54) and Gypsy (St. James Theatre)
In 2008, my taste in musicals ran counter to prevailing winds. While show queens and Tony voters flocked to crowd-pleasers like In The Heights and Billy Elliot, I was drawn instead to "difficult" works like Passing Strange and A Catered Affair. And although audiences swooned for South Pacific (which I found distressingly manicured and a disappointingly shallow read on its political subject matter), I vastly prefered its Tony-nominated competition, Sunday and Gypsy. The former used groundbreaking new technology to enhance Sondheim's plaintive meditation on creativity, while the latter hewed fiercely to its roots and found glory in its classicism (and its leading lady, Patti LuPone, who is the only Mama Rose ever to erase the ghost of Merman entirely). I don't cry easily at the theatre, but there's no shame in admitting that I sobbed in both of these shows...and for completely different reasons. Sunday is the story of my artistic life, writ large. And Gypsy makes me proud to be a part of a magical artistic tradition.

5. The Grand Inquisitor (New York Theatre Workshop)
It doesn't get any more minimal than this: a bare stage, two actors (one of whom never speaks), with no extraneous movement or shifts in volume. Not for everybody? Certainly not. But if you're a fan of director Peter Brook, you were probably entranced, as I was, by the sere setting of this adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. You were probably also picking your jaw up off the floor, because Bruce Myers, in a searing turn as the title character, made you question your faith, truth, and belief...all by reciting a book we'd read back in high school. Theatre is word fashioned into flesh, and The Grand Inquisitor proved it majestically once again.

4. A Catered Affair (Walter Kerr Theatre)
I can't be the only person who found themselves profoundly, and perhaps unexpectedly, moved by John Bucchino and Harvey Fierstein's chamber musical, adapted from the 1956 movie. A simply story -- a girl gets married, and her poor parents try to pay for it -- was crafted like a small porcelain figurine: exquisite, fragile, and melancholy. Much of this Affair's success is due to its excellent cast, especially Faith Prince and Tom Wopat, who filled the stale air of economic struggle with enough pathos to swamp musicals twice their size. (I also think it's got at least two songs -- "One White Dress" and "Coney Island" -- that will be standards, twenty years from now, when the musical is rediscovered as an ahead-of-its-time classic.)

3. The Garden of Earthly Delights (Vineyard Theatre)
Visionary choreographer Martha Clarke has revived her signature opus, a vibrant interpretation of Hieronymus Bosch's namesake painting, for the first time in almost 25 years...and yet the piece, which presages Cirque du Soleil's aerialists and modern dance's rhythmic suppositions, has lost none of its power to astound and enchant. It's just been extended until March 1st, 2009...and if you haven't seen it, I'll only say: wait for the moment with the cello. Wow.

2. Wig Out! (Vineyard Theatre)
It's not just that Tarell Alvin McCraney's follow-up to The Brothers Size was a light-year jump in sophistication. And it's not just that the piece, which followed the black and latino drag queens and butch boys of The House of Light, explored new communities previously unseen in the American theatre. It's also that the piece was so damned much fun! Wielding its Greek tragedy roots like a dramatic trident, Wig Out! commanded your attention visually, audibly, and theatrically, exposing the hypocrisies of gender identification and internalized homophobia with sassy wordplay and striking modern rituals. 2008 saw a lot of good plays, and a few great ones. There's only one, however, that I expect to be taught in university classes a decade from now...and that's Wig Out.

1. Black Watch (St. Ann's Warehouse)
Yes, I know this National Theatre of Scotland production first played St. Ann's in 2007. But that was a limited three-week run which few saw (I didn't). This year, it settled in for months and became the theatrical event of the year, engendering pilgrimages by arts lovers out to Brooklyn every single day of its sold-out run. To this day, I'm not sure what was more impressive -- its handling of the centuries-long history of the Black Watch Regiment and their role in the recent Iraq War, or its mind-blowing imaginative staging. Snipers burst out of a pool table. The history of Scotland is told through a seven-minute costume change, with one actor tossed in the air as the others dress and undress him. I'll never forget the beautiful hand gestures that took the place of words, as each soldier read their letters from home. Black Watch was the best artistic evaluation, to date, of our current global schism...and a classic destined to be remembered by all of those lucky enough to have seen it.

Best Transfers From 2007: Passing Strange (Public Theater/Belasco Theatre), In The Heights (37 Arts/Richard Rodgers Theatre), [title of show] (Vineyard Theatre/Lyceum Theatre)

Wish I'd Seen: Fela! (37 Arts), Blasted (Soho Rep)

Not Quite Theatre, But Certainly Dramatic: New York Waterfalls, The Damnation of Faust at the Metropolitan Opera, the 2008 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony

Not Bad, But Definitely Overrated: Liza's at the Palace.... (Palace Theatre), Billy Elliot: The Musical (Imperial Theatre), South Pacific (Lincoln Center Theatre)

Better Than The Reviews: Shrek The Musical (Broadway Theatre), Road Show (Public Theater)

Worse Than The Reviews: The Seagull (Walter Kerr Theatre), Adding Machine (Minetta Lane Theatre), Farragut North (Atlantic Theatre Company)

Why Do You Punish Us, God?: Pal Joey, To Be Or Not To Be, The Country Girl, Paris Commune, The Strangerer, Three Changes, The Tempest, God's Ear

The Saddest Story Of The Year: Brokeback Mountain Canceled

Reasons To Fear In 2009: Lloyd-Webber in 3D, These Photos of West Side Story, Jeremy Piven Is On The Loose

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Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

ModFab, Excellent roundup!

On A Catered Affair, you are most definitely not the only one who was profoundly moved.

And I agree with you on so many other choices, including the overrated, Road Show, The Seagull, in particular.

Happy New Year!

12/30/08, 1:48 PM  
Blogger Esther said...

Yep, I agree about A Catered Affair and "Coney Island" in particular. It's a beautiful little song and a sweet, heartfelt little musical. This was my first time hearing any of John Bucchino's music and I loved it.

I made my first visit to the Metropolitan Opera this year, for "Madama Butterfly," (my first-ever opera) and it was thrilling!

Honestly though, I don't think "Shrek" is better than the reviews. Even though I saw it at an early preview I was kind of bored. I think I'd put it in the "Why do you punish us, God?" category in place of "Pal Joey," which I liked.

I also loved "Black Watch" for the inventive way it told its story and the brilliance of the cast.

One of my highlights this year, besides seeing "The Lion King" for the first time, was seeing "Hairspray" on Broadway with Harvey Fierstein. I'd only seen it on tour and it was pretty exciting.

And yes, Jeremy Piven, be very afraid!

12/30/08, 7:25 PM  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

A great read, with lots of great recommendations. I'll have to give Wig Out! a try when/if it's published, even though I hated his play In the Red and Brown Water, which got a very bad production at the New Vic in London this fall.

1/4/09, 12:25 AM  

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