Best of 2015: Theatre/Opera/Dance

“Sometimes
they grip each other with a cry
expand into lamentations
become mist on the windows of dead houses
crystallize into chips of grief on dead lips
attach themselves to a fallen star
dig their hole in nothingness
breathe our strayed souls

Words are rocky tears
the keys to first doors
they grumble in caverns
lend their ruckus to storms
their silence to bread that’s ovened alive.”

-Venus Khoury-Ghata, Les Mots (trans. Marilyn Hacker)

 

Notes on the overall scene are after the list. Where I reviewed something for another outlet, I’ve attached a link. Unless otherwise specified, everything is in Columbus.

  1. Glory of the World by Charles L. Mee (Humana Festival, Louisville, KY) – Had a glorious day and night in Louisville with some dear friends on the way to Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival and the detour was mostly for the premier of this new Mee play, a riotous tribute to the naturalist Thomas Merton on his centennial. Glory of the World, gorgeously directed by Les Waters, uses the raw-flesh ambiguity of perception, the way we see what we’re looking for, and the way a person at the top of their game can embody all these things to different people. It’s a paean to male friendship, and the messy, beautiful complications of living in the world, full of joy and memory and mourning. The best thing I saw with a food fight and a fist fight on stage. NYC pals, BAM is presenting this staging in January right after APAP, if you can make it don’t miss it.
  2. the theatre is a blank page by Ann Hamilton and Anne Bogart (SITI Company presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) – This was the first adaptation of Virginia Woolf (To The Lighthouse) I’ve ever seen that captured everything I love about Woolf and gave me the same finger-in-a-light-socket sensation as reading her work. Threaded through by Rena Cherlouche Fogel’s narration, this guided tour through the guts of Mershon Auditorium was also a guided tour through the bones of theatre, a look at why making art matters and what makes it stick its nails in your heart. Both the most sensual, erotic evening I spent in a theater all year and something that reduced me to mouth-breathing, stumbling, childlike joy. Review at Columbus Underground.
  3. Don Quixote: A Pilgrimage by Jen Schlueter adapted from Miguel de Cervantes (Available Light) – As I chewed over the year, Jen Schlueter’s brilliant adaptation of Quixote with perfect direction by Matt Slaybaugh summed up everything I love about Available Light. An adaptation that recreates the pleasure of a text without being intimidated by it or trying to just retell the events in a way that elevates instead of diminishing the classic. It vibrates with the kind of whimsical seriousness that needed a cast this uniformly strong. Elena Perantoni dazzled doing double duty as a backpacker and as Rocinante, Sancho Panza’s donkey [the first draft of this misnamed Sancho’s companion], a very funny foil to Drew Eberly’s Panza. Her interplay with the very strong David Glover mirrored and echoed Eberly and Kim Garrison Hopcraft’s retired couple. But the core and the spine of this was Acacia Duncan’s heartbreaking character trying to reconnect with her father; without ever stating it, she gives us a look at the power of art to provide a roadmap and a toolbox to healing and the way stories change with the road you stumble down.
  4. Sweat Baby Sweat by Jan Martens (Wexner Center for the Arts) – In a more literal way than the Hamilton/Bogart, this was one of the most erotic things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Two dancers, a man and a woman, grapple with the arc of a relationship, almost never leaving contact with one another’s skin. As a physical act, the torturous, delicate, drenched slowness was astonishing, the lack of momentum as positions shift seemed to defy gravity. As bodies, seeing the occasional strain,the clenching of an ass, the tightening of a back, that sweat glistening over these two perfect people was heart-stopping. Got a little tense in my seat – in the good way – just writing this paragraph. His Dog Days Are Over was also stunning and encompassed more of the world but this played in my dreams over and over.
  5. A Little Night Music by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim (Short North Stage) – Maybe my favorite Sondheim done better than I’ve ever seen it, this production directed by Michael Licata opened a very promising main-stage season at Short North Stage. It understands the way confined motions of a waltz echo the desperate search for love and the way that search tries to navigate our own neuroses, hangups, fuck-ups, lies and shame, with even a Pyrrhic victory being better than nothing. The cast is marvelous with standouts being Mark Harmon as Frederik, Marya Spring as Desiree and Kate Lingnofski, who damn near walks away with the whole show, as the Countess.  Review at Columbus Underground.
  6. The Grown-Up by Jordan Harrison (Available Light) – Available Light cemented their keen ear to the vibrations of the larger world of theatre this year with two productions (the other appears later). Jordan Harrison was the toast of NYC theatre with his new play Marjorie Prime almost simultaneously with AVLT bringing his recent work, The Grown-Up to open the 2015-2016 season in an exquisite production directed by Eleni Papaleonardos suffused with glowing wonder. Fragmented time-slippage follows Rudy Frias (as Actor A) through his life with family, lovers, co-workers played by the same handful of brilliant actors (standouts include Jordan Fehr and Michelle Schroeder) in a lean, cohesive look at how quickly life goes, how similar the people and circumstances we surround ourselves with are, and how easily lessons are learned and forgotten. Review at Columbus Underground.
  7. Henry IV by William Shakespeare (Donmar Warehouse presented by St Ann’s Warehouse, NYC) – I missed Donmar’s previous all-female Julius Caesar so there was no chance I was going to miss this, much less miss my first chance to go to the new St Ann’s Warehouse (which is a marvelous improvement in every way, maybe the best theatre space in New York). Phylida Lloyd’s direction of this look at female prisoners staging, and finding echoes for their own lives, in an edit of the two Henry IV parts, had some issues – largely in the edit that cut a little too close to the bone getting down to two hours – but left my jaw on the floor again and again. Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is the best rendition of the character I’ve ever seen, someone who can freeze your blood with her eyes even in the back row. Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff is a fascinating, hilarious, deeply sad take on possibly my favorite character in all of Shakespeare. And Claire Dunne’s Prince Hal is a beacon of intense charisma and menace you can’t take your eyes off.
  8. Lost Girls by John Pollono (MCC, NYC) – Pollono’s play, masterfully directed by Jo Bonney, plays with a surface-simple thriller premise where a missing girl brings up the uneasy détente between a divorced couple (a terrific Piper Perabo and Ebon Moss-Bachrach). As it flips back and forth to a hotel room off the interstate with a high school couple running away (a crackling Lizzy DeClement and Josh Green) the tension draws tighter and tighter, leavened with the kind of sharp one-liners that only characters who know each other that well could land. This is a textbook case in a play that transported me out of myself and literally had tears springing to my eyes after an hour and a half with a twist that’s perfectly set up but still made me gasp. A masterclass in how to love your characters and let that love come through to an audience.
  9. Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginoff (Short North Stage) – As good as the wide-canvas musicals were at Short North Stage, I was most heartened at how they turned the Green Room side-space into a showcase for the kind of smaller, edgier musicals that, with a couple of exceptions (like Red Herring’s sumptuous take on Romance/Romance) don’t get any play in Columbus. My favorite of the lot was Dolginoff’s sexy and vicious Thrill Me. Edward Carignan (maybe SNS’s MVP of the year) directed this with an eye on paranoia and claustrophobia. Evan Hoffman’s Richard Loeb was a performance as sharp as a stiletto you should see coming but don’t and Luke Stewart’s heartbroken, desperate Nathan Leopold is a defining study in the corrosive quality of bad love. Review at Columbus Underground.
  10. Standing on Ceremony by Various (OSU Theatre Department) – In a fascinating touch, OSU Theatre decided to perform this anthology of short plays by some of our finest writers (including Neil Labute, Jordan Harrison, Wendy MacLeod, and Jose Rivera) about gay marriage on a lower budget meant to mimic storefront theatre and using the entirety of Drake Union instead of proscenium stages. A beautiful, sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, look at love and language directed by Jen Schlueter and Karie Miller, it was full of performances that belied their youth with standouts including Amanda Loch, Chorsie Calbert IV, and especially Bryan Arnold who broke me in the Moises Kaufman section. Review at Columbus Underground.
  11. The Christians by Lucas Hnath (Available Light) –  This is the other play I alluded to earlier about AVLT’s unerring sense in other people’s work of what’s new and what’s coming next. Lucas Hnath’s submersion into the murky depths of faith had an acclaimed run at Playwrights Horizons this fall after premiering at Humana last year, including feature articles in the New York Times, and it was given a perfect production here directed by Acacia Duncan. Underneath gorgeous semi-abstract projections standing in for the megachurch, The Christians featured heartbreaking performances from Matt Hermes as Pastor Paul and Jordan Fehr as Associate Pastor Joshua, at the heart of the schism of this church and with excellent supporting work from Ian Short, Michelle Schroeder, and especially Whitney Thomas Eads as the people caught in the middle, the real-world casualties of an idea being made real. Review at Columbus Underground.
  12. [title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen (CATCO) – In a similar move to Short North Stage, CATCO experimented this year with the smaller Studio Three for cabaret style performances that, to my mind, were largely successful. My favorite was the Bell/Bowen meta-theatrical [title of show] about why we make art and the roadblocks we run afoul of as we go on. Joe Bishara’s direction used the smaller space beautifully well and the combination of the four actors – Elisabeth Zimmerman, Bradley Johnson, Annie Huckaba and Jonathan Collura (who also dazzled in Peter and the Starcatcher) – meshed perfectly. Even with a too-long second act there was joy on that stage to spare that hung over me all day. Review at Columbus Underground.
  13. The Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Sobelle’s one-man show was a look at memory, the way we let objects stand in for feelings and the way they conjure those feelings, set in a a huge room bedecked with boxes and boxes he hilariously and conspicuously unpacked. Scenes loop around on one another in hilarious and moving ways with the best use of audience participation I saw all year. Review at Columbus Underground.
  14. In Old Age by Mfonsio Udofia (Page 73, NYC) – Page 73 is one of my favorite sources for brand new plays in NYC and I was lucky my November trip overlapped with a reading of my favorite new (to me) voice all year in a little rehearsal studio in Chelsea. In Old Age is about the purging of old demons and not letting them hang over us, as much as anyone ever can, brilliantly played out by one woman and one man. I’m sorry to say I misplaced the program sometime between then and now but this is a play and two actors you’ll be hearing about in the future.
  15. Clowntime is Over by Joseph E Green (MadLab) – A cracked-mirror Christ analogue in the persona of a sad, drunk clown Max (a fantastic Andy Batt), Clowntime follows his adventure with his two funny animal sidekicks, Susie the Bunny (Shana Kramer) and Tidy the Llama (Chad Hewitt) on the day when Max realizes the audience – God? – is no longer watching. Slapstick and one-liners and pathos on a twisted mobius strip of daily routine, this was my favorite piece MadLab staged all year and the “guest appearance” of Stephen Woosley’s Paco the Mouse might have been the hardest I laughed. Review at Columbus Underground.

I could have easily gone with a shorter epigram, Leonard Cohen’s “God bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh,” and almost gotten what I wanted to say. But the Khoury-Ghata came way closer to what I felt and what I went looking for this year. Theatre has a different grip on me than other art forms and, in a dark year like I alluded to in the visual art best of, its command of the physical and its dominion over time was a balm.

This was my first year as a freelance contributor for Columbus Underground. I’m grateful for the opportunity and hope, in some small way, I added to the conversation in town. What I’d ask of you as readers: if you see blind spots, let me know. I’m not going to like everything and I can’t see everything – I saw over 60 shows across four cities this year – but I want to shine light on corners I, and maybe local media as a whole, haven’t done a good job with yet. If you have a show I should know about, please email me at the contact information above.

The theatre scene in town feels like it’s at an interesting juncture, one of stability and flux. The new breed companies evolved into something akin to the establishment. Available Light celebrated its 10th year by changing their structure, bringing in Eleni Papaleonardos as fellow Artistic Director alongside founder Matt Slaybaugh, a decision which is already bearing fruit and I’m very excited to see the results of across the season. At MadLab, once the city’s enfant terrible, celebrating their 20th anniversary, longtime artistic director Andy Batt (whose podcast is already shaping up as essential listening for anyone taking the temperature of Columbus theatre) handed the reins to writer/director/actor Jim Azelvandre at a time they’re making some of riskiest, most exciting work I can remember. Shadowbox took some big risks this year with their massive Japanese collaboration The Tenshu (adapted from Kyoka Izumi) and while the play wasn’t a home-run it’s the kind of experiment I hope we see more of, along with their conceptual Pink Floyd history, Which One’s Pink? which I didn’t see but heard raves about. Warehouse Theatre made their return with a mix of edgy classics (including a great take on Lonergan’s This is Our Youth) and more contemporary work like Rajiv Joseph. Imagine had to relocate mid-season to the Northland Performing Arts Center and, while the Wall Street situation is depressing for several reasons, I’m excited to see what they do there and very excited to not sit on a barstool for a two-plus hour show.

In the recognized establishment there’s also some tectonic shifting. CATCO has a season loaded with new, interesting work, recently off the New York stage – accusations about playing it safe might still be apt but their higher production values are staging terrific plays no one else is doing and they look a lot more like the CATCO I knew and loved when I got introduced to theatre by old friend Doug Smith. Actors Theatre lost their Artistic Director and guiding light John Kuhn and found their season beseiged by some of the worst summer weather in a while but they came back swinging and made us all proud (and put on a great Richard III in the middle of a strong season).

I’ve had a few conversations lately about the lack of young, exciting companies making the last generation irrelevant – or at least making them work harder. I see a lot of promise in the college work in this town; Otterbein always stuns me and OSU (with their main stage productions and their fascinating Lab Series) is the strongest I ever remember it being, if a few of those folks stuck around town and made work it’d be a huge boon to this town. There are a few glimmers in that direction, most promising so far is Hollie Klem’s Haberdasher Theatre whose first production didn’t wow me but was one of the freshest voices I’ve seen in town in a while. To mangle Morton Feldman, show me that blank book, youngsters – astonish us and force us to astonish you.

I’m choosing excitement over worry, though don’t be surprised if the latter still creeps in. And I’m putting my money where my mouth is with tickets I’ve already purchased to Under the Radar and Prototype in NYC. I hope you do the same.

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