Best of 2016: Theatre/Dance/Opera

“Soon it’ll stop raining and everything outside will be clean and refreshed. But not me. There’s this one thought that I can’t get out of my head. It haunts me. It’s always quietly suffocating me. The thought that my life has been…irretrievably…lost. The past is gone, it was wasted on trivialities, and the present…God, the present is too ridiculous for words. Look: here is my life. Here is my love for you. Where do you want me to put it? What do you want me to do with it? These are my deepest, truest feelings, and they’re perishing, like a ray of sunshine that’s fallen on a ditch.”
-Anton Chekhov translated by Annie Baker, Uncle Vanya

As in the other roundups, unless otherwise stated, everything on this list occurred in Columbus, Ohio. If I reviewed it elsewhere, there’s a link to the full review.

  1. Thank You for Coming: Attendance by Faye Driscoll (Wexner Center for the Arts) – What live performance does better than anything is connecting us all to the moment, right here in our bodies.  And in doing that, it connects us to other people. Dance goes to another level of that as it shows us the sheer amount of emotion and abstraction the human body can hold, how marvelous an instrument it is. And maybe, just maybe, even those of us who stumble more than fly can tap into buried way down beneath crusted-over routine and shame and guilt. Attendance which I called “180-proof sensual wonderment burned over a bright flame” made my heart sing and made me want to try harder. Gratitude and the joy of being together are the core of why all of us come to the theatre and this let the benefits of that gratitude flower out and wrap around us all. My heart sang and pounded at the bars of my chest watching this.  Review at Columbus Underground.
  2. Escuela by Guillermo Calderón (Public Theatre, Under the Radar Fest, NYC) – A group of disaffected young people under the regime of (never named) Pinochet gather for a New Year’s Eve discussion of strategy and general letting-the-air-out of a balloon of despair. The conceit of the characters all wearing ski masks and sunglasses so they can’t identify each other out of the lineup makes narrative sense and makes the astonishing acting even more impressive without the use of facial expressions. This takes the claustrophobic space and amplifies it while also showing the world – like the best political art, it reminds us that every action and every reaction is performed by people. Chilling and funny and breathtaking; the best thing I saw at the various festivals around APAP this year.
  3. Employee of the Year by Abigail Browde, Michael Silverstone and David Cale (600 Highwaymen presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) – Browde and Silverstone’s 600 Highwaymen troupe brought something to the Wexner Center that distilled what makes theatre so compelling but from a perspective, I’d never quite seen before. Taking on an entire life in fragments split among preteen/early teen girls as both narrator and the Greek chorus was indescribably moving to me with great songs by David Cale. This was that “putting your finger in the light socket” thing I talk about, over and over again, but in a way that brings a blanket of peace. Review at Columbus Underground.
  4. Two Trains Running by August Wilson (Past Productions) – All six of the 8 productions and readings I saw in the August Wilson Festival could have easily been on this list. Every at-bat was a solid hit for the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. But the one that hit me most was Patricia Wallace-Winbush and PAST Productions’ breathtaking look at a diner in 1969, Two Trains Running. The past and the future uncomfortably rub up against each other and hard truths about how we treat each other come with machine-gun speed and a deceptive ease. A pivotal point in the history of the black experience gets sharply-defined characters in great performances by Tony Roseboro, Vincent Mason, and David Johnson among others.  Review in Columbus Underground.
  5. Angels in America: Millenium Approaches by Tony Kushner (Warehouse Theatre) – Anyone my age with the slightest interest in the theatre got hit by Angels in America like a thunderbolt. A portrait of an America on the brink of rebirth or desolation that focused the entire sweep of history as a laser beam of white-hot emotion. That honored the dead but wrestled and fucked with ghosts and didn’t let anyone off easy. Warehouse’s production of the first part cut through even my bone-weariness after the funeral of a dear friend’s father and a very long night out with other great friends the night before. Brent Burington’s Roy Cohn and Camille Bullock’s Harper Pitt are definitive takes on two of the great characters in American theatre, but there wasn’t a weak link in this sprawling production. Review at Columbus Underground.
  6. A Life by Adam Bock (Playwrights Horizons, NYC) – A Life featured a cracking performance by David Hyde Pierce at its heart. A ruthless dissection of loneliness and how we as humans put meaning together in chance and in the banal. An ending of hope that was exactly what I needed seeing this the weekend after the election. Remarkable direction by Anne Kauffman keeps in the weirdness that someone else might have shaved off, riveting us during Hyde Pierce’s extended monolog and letting the world get turned upside down.
  7. Another Year, Another Christmas by Marie Nimier, trans. By Peter Schulman (Haberdasher Theatre) – Hollie Klem’s Haberdasher Theatre brought a US premiere of this Nimier play which shoved its hands into the chest of the dynamic of an unhappy family and showed us its blackened but still beating heart from all angles. There was some clunkiness in the translation and a few missed swings but in the month since I saw it, those have melted away and what stuck with me is its tense energy and its fire. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve wished for in Columbus theatre the last few years, and I hope this is an opening salvo to getting hit again and again. Review in Columbus Underground.
  8. King Charles III by Mike Bartlett (Playhouse on the Square, Memphis) – I didn’t get to see Bartlett’s speculative succession play on Broadway, so I was overjoyed when its first production by a regional company overlapped with my semi-annual Memphis trips. Bartlett’s project to strip the veneer of civility off everyday human interactions – so funny and righteously nasty in Cock – still has juice on the wider canvas of this work. He, and this production directed by Dave Landis prove nastiness punches differently when you bring in all of history instead of leaving it out but it still has a roll of rusty chain in its fist. Watching Charles’ sons allying against him as he struggles on how to rule was a gripping afternoon of theatre in a terrific space, I’d never gotten the chance to previously attend. Performances by Christina Wellford Scott as Camilla, Ian Lah as Prince William, and Michael Gravois as a beautifully greasy prime minister make that iambic pentameter sing, snarl, and shout.
  9. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks (Signature Theatre, NYC) – What Signature does is invaluable: seasons of brand new work and retrospectives on classic writers running parallel. This early Parks was like bathing in electricity. Her themes in hard, bright colors, not as refined as her later work but with energy to spare and drenched in deep, justified rage and heartbreak.
  10. Ada/Ava by Drew Dir (Manual Cinema, presented by Wexner Center for the Arts) – This story, told in projections, of two sisters and one’s effort to reunite with the one who dies first, was a pure macabre wonder. It understands the sadness at the heart of any classic horror story or fable and shows it to us in images we haven’t seen, and from angles, we hadn’t looked at. The thing that made me feel the most like a kid, just in awe, all year. Review at Columbus Underground.
  11. Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno (Available Light) – What you might call “Available Light Classic” was firing on all cylinders in this knives-out production of Eno’s one-man show about the cascading disappointments that make up a life and the desperate need to keep trying. Jordan Fehr gave a performance for the ages pushing and pulling against some of Matt Slaybaugh’s best direction in the confines of Franklinton art gallery The Vanderelli Room. Review at Columbus Underground.
  12. Kiss of the Spider Woman, book by Terence McNally, score by Kander and Ebb (Short North Stage) – Short North Stage continues to astonish and astound. Beyond the August Wilson Festival, they put on terrific productions of The Fantasticks and The Last Five Years but, for me, the clearest example of their stated mission was a dazzling production of one of my favorite Kander and Ebbs, Kiss of the Spider Woman. That gorgeous score finds the right vehicle in Michael Licata’s production. Licata and the cast understand the desperation of melancholy and the way oppression permeates everything it touches through like radiation. Great performances by Scott Hunt and Joe Joseph with Eli Brickey slipping down the stage on silks as the Spider Woman dropping jaws left and right. Review at Columbus Underground.
  13. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson (Short North Stage) – This early Wilson directed by his greatest working interpreter, Mark Clayton Southers, set my hair on fire. Orbiting around a supernova performance by Wilma Hatton as the eponymous blues belter, this was hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Particular shout-outs to the superb R. Lawrence Jenkins and Bryant Bentley in her band but there wasn’t a bad performance here. Truths about how humanity gets ground up in the cultural machine as much as it does in every machine are sadly as relevant today as they were in the early ’80s when this premiered and in the 1920s when it was set. Review at Columbus Underground.
  14. Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett (Roundabout Theatre, NYC) – The second Mike Bartlett play on this list, and it’s a punch in the gut. A look into the deep human capacity for selfishness – how much we owe the rest of the world and our children but also how far we go to convince ourselves we don’t. Zoe Kazan was riveting, watching her inheriting the traits of her bumbling father (a hilarious Richard Armitage) and her firecracker bull-in-a-china-shop mother (an Amy Ryan I couldn’t take my eyes off) and her struggle to overcome them.
  15. Clap Hands by Jen Rosenblitt (New York Live Arts, NYC) – I was lucky enough to see an unfinished version of this in conjunction with APAP and Rosenblitt’s language struck me immediately. Solos, by Rosenblitt and two other dancers, that intersected with other people and turned into these expressions of desire like clinging to a life preserver that might be another brick at any moment. Long sections of disjointed talk with no musical backing fractured by gnarled, glitchy techno. The Neubauten song that said “Beauty remains in the impossibilities of the body,” kept running through my head as I walked down 8th Avenue talking about this with my friend Sarah as she headed to the Whitney and I ducked into the Corner Bistro for a burger and a beer. And those images kept ringing in my head all night.

My second year as a critic for Columbus Underground. I remain humbled they publish my opinions, and people read them. And stay humbled companies want me to look at their work and talk about it. Anyone reading this who I haven’t seen yet, please drop me a line – I’m always interested in covering new work, and not everything hits my radar through regular channels. I was interviewed by local podcast 6pod4 which I’d encourage everyone to check out (at least the episodes I’m not on), and I said the most important thing I do in reviews is descriptive. If I can give someone an accurate picture of what I experienced that’s going to help someone deciding if they want to take a chance on a production or look at what a director or actor’s previous track record is. My opinion’s a part of all the criticism I do but what I most want to do is understand.

My early trip to NYC was for Under the Radar/Coil/etc so I didn’t see as many fully formed plays, but what I saw was exciting and a reminder of how rich the international theatrical community is, and I didn’t make it to Chicago, so this is a little more Columbus-centric than usual. This year I’m going to try to make Humana so I’m still balancing the outside world with what’s growing in my own backyard.

Big chunks of this year were spent trying to break out of a persistent, nagging, grayness. Wracked with fear and insecurity and boring myself. One of the best ways I broke out of that, again and again, was by seeing theatre. Watching people interact with one another, that interaction filtering through symbiosis with a live audience and bouncing back to them, and the feeling of all of us at its basest element choosing to sit in the dark together. Helped take me out of my own head and just listen to someone else’s voice. It feels like we need that now more than ever.

On the local scene, the biggest thing was the August Wilson Festival. Short North Stage, working with Pittsburgh-based Mark Clayton Southers, other companies like Past Productions and Columbus institutions like drummer-composer Mark Lomax II, the Johnstone Fund for New Music, and the Columbus Museum of Art, paid appropriate tribute to one of the greatest playwrights in American history. It was a spectacular effort that paid off every time I saw one of the productions. The rest of the Short North Stage schedule was up to its usual standards with excellent Fantasticks and Last Five Years and a delightful original Christmas show.

In a lot of ways, it’s a time of transition in Columbus. John Stefano who ran Otterbein’s theatre department retired on a high note including playing a fantastic, nuanced Tevye in Fiddler. Joy Reilly, the guiding light to many of us as critics, academics, and artists, is also off to a well-earned retirement from OSU. Geoffrey Nelson moved on to another town, leaving memories of terrific performances including in this year’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and ending a long run for A Portable Theatre which he served valiantly as Artistic Director. CAPA head Bill C0nner – a Tony-awards voter who was instrumental in saving and preserving many of the organizations that make Columbus the place it is to live – died after a long battle with cancer.

In less dramatic parts of this transitional phase, the usual suspect companies keep finding ways to navigate the new climate, engage their audiences, and fulfill their missions.

CATCO continues its ascent back to the classy work with an edge they’re known for with an excellent production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons that very nearly made this list and other rock-solid productions. Available Light, normally a home run for me as anyone who’s followed these lists for a while knows, only had one thing I loved without reservation this year. But devoting a chunk of time to community, as they did with their Columbus Voices Workshop, is never a wrong decision and they’ve got a really strong slate in the latter half of the season with You Got Older, a Clare Barron play I saw Off-Broadway that I’m really looking forward to revisiting, another edition of Next Stage Initiative that’s always my favorite theatre event of the season, and Savannah Reich’s Kilroys nominee Paradise Park Zoo I’m very intrigued by. MadLab’s commitment to developing new talent is a wonder. The actors I see again and again at their shows get better every time. And their commitment to new playwrights is always a reason to rejoice. While I didn’t love much of the work I saw, with maybe one exception I was glad to have seen it and in every case I’d watch the writer’s next play. Hopes are high as Artistic Director Jim Azelvandre goes into his second year.

The one thing I’m missing in Columbus theatre is the new. OSU’s Lab Series is marvelous as is AVLT’s Next Stage Initiative but I’m missing the intermediate stage between that incubatory level and living on its own in the world. I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last couple years about the trend of college students or expats who’d done theatre elsewhere starting a company that might only last a season or two but was a shot of adrenaline into this town. Even when they didn’t last there was new talent on all of our radars and once in a while one turned into an Available Light (nee Blueforms) or a MadLab. Haberdasher’s the only example of that kind of exciting, new voice I can think of in the last few years. Is there micro theatre someplace that I’m just not hearing about?

Thank you for putting up with me. Let’s see what comes next.

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