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Best Of theatre

Best Of 2021 – Theater/Opera/Dance

God, it felt good to be back in a room with people sharing the vibration of other humans on a stage, the feedback loop of energy and – dangerous as it sometimes felt – sharing breath. Starting literally two weeks after my second shot, I was lucky to see 30 shows and miracle of miracles, none of them were bad.

Every company that’s returned, making work, is bringing it right now – playing to their core strengths and stretching their muscles. Beyond what made this list? I saw crisp, vibrant shows from Evolution and Gallery. Otterbein and Short North Stage’s sister/adjunct company Columbus Immersive crafted productions that fully turned me around on shows I actively didn’t like previously. All four of the Actors’ shows and all four Red Herring productions left me talking about them into the night if not for weeks. MadLab and CATCO revealed the fruits of the energy and enthusiasm of new artistic directors (in the latter case after a year’s preview of fascinating streaming work). Imagine returned with a brand new, original musical with 19 cast members.

This town rang with the echoes of gauntlets dropping and examples of exactly what keeps me going out night after night. I enjoyed every minute of that energy and enthusiasm being back, even when the finished piece didn’t work for me. But the 10 here would have blown me away in any circumstances and it was a hard call whittling down to them.

Back to NYC for Under the Radar and sundry in January, great stuff on the books for the Wexner Center in Spring, fingers crossed we get closer to “back” with every month.

That NYC trip in January includes the reopened revival of Company we originally had tickets to for my 40th birthday in 2020 – there will be more in my year end music playlists, but I can’t imagine my cultural life without the shining influence of Stephen Sondheim who passed away the day before I started assembling this. I grew up steeped in musicals – the heavy influence of my mom and my grandmother – including some of his, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, West Side Story and Gypsy. But when I discovered his mature work – starting with my massive love of Sweeney Todd and Assassins, it felt like I found musical theater pitched directly at me – this also gives me a chance to acknowledge and publicly express gratitude for the friends who opened that door: Doug Smith, Sean Klein (who we also lost this year, barely a week after we texted about getting the old gang together), Matt Porreca, and Robin Seabaugh; nothing would have fallen into place without each of you.

That said, I want to acknowledge the stellar online work that helped get me through the months beforehand, that gave me a taste, a little hint of the electricity that kept me going. Everything here is in chronological order and everything in person is in Columbus (except otherwise noted doesn’t apply this time, but I’m thirsty for when it does).

Online

Alicia Hall Moran, from her website

Online 

  • Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor (The Javaad Alipoor Company, presented by Public Theatre’s Under the Radar) 
  • The Motown Project by Alicia Hall Moran (Presented by Public Theatre’s Under the Radar) 
  • Fragments, Lists, and Lacunae by Alexandra Chasin and Zishan Ugurlu (Presented by New York Live Arts) 
  • Blue Ridge by Abby Rosebrock (Presented by Play Per View) 
  • Revenge Porn by Carla Ching (Presented by Play Per View) 
  • Hymn by Lolita Chakrabati (Presented by Almeida Theatre) 
  • A Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terrence Blanchard, libretto by Kasi Lemmons (Met LiveinHD) 

In Person 

Don Giovanni, photo by Terry Gilliam
  • Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (Opera Columbus), directed by Eve Summer – I’m not sure I could have picked a better return to live theater than this super-charged, intense reading of one of the very first operas I loved by a revitalized Opera Columbus. The safety measures had a fascinating thematic thrust and the performances, especially Jorell Williams in the title role and Amber Monroe’s Donna Elvira, singed my eyebrows off. I said “They amplify the deep loneliness of the libertine and his victims and the teeth-gnashing frustration of attempts at revenge and forgiveness… Having been 14 months since I’d been inside a theater, the longest stretch since I was 16, it was probably not unlikely I’d cry anyway. But it’s hard for me to imagine a better return to live performance than this dazzling Don Giovanni,” in my review for Columbus Underground
  • Carrie, book by Lawrence D. Cohen, music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, after the novel by Stephen King, directed by Edward Carignan (Columbus Immersive Theater/Short North Stage) – Growing up in awe of Stephen King’s debut novel, setting the tone for his character-focused horror novels to come, and simultaneously steeped in the lore of this musical adaptation, this came with the deck stacked against it. But Carignan and company not only hit every mark, they crushed those expectations. I took my mom as my plus-one, the reason I read Stephen King in the first place, and she was as dazzled as I was. In my Columbus Underground review, I said, “Carignan, Williams, and the cast never lose sight of the deep sadness at the heart of Carrie and the lesson that we can all be monsters with less of a nudge than we want to admit. And they make that uncomfortable identification into a riotous, quick-witted, wild carnival ride of an entertainment. It’s an alternately sticky-hot and brilliantly cold look at humanity perfect for the depths of summer.” 
  • Various Artists, Columbus Black Theater Festival (Mine4God Productions, presented by Abbey Theatre of Dublin) – One of my favorite events of the Columbus calendar returned in a slightly streamlined version, and resulted in one of my favorite conversations, with artistic director Julie Whitney Scott (I didn’t capture it as well as I would have liked in the article, a reminder to keep trying harder). After writing a preview, I paid to see this on my own dime. And while I didn’t see it all – I didn’t quite allow myself enough time for the rich marathon – the two hours I was in the Abbey sent me back into the night reeling and bending the ear of Anne and whoever else would listen. 
  • Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Beth Josephsen (Actors Theatre of Columbus) – The classic Orpheus and Eurydice story was heavy in the zeitgeist this year and Sarah Ruhl has long been one of my favorite playwrights (her memoir Smile is on the bedstand as I write this). In the strongest Actors’ Theatre season in recent memory – I was also blown away by a Much Ado About Nothing, The African Company Presents Richard III, and a childhood favorite of mine The Secret Garden – this lovely, incisive meditation on memory kept rippling in my mind for weeks.  For Columbus Underground, I commented, “The modifications to the climax land with the thud of inevitability and surprised the audience enough at the performance I attended I heard gasps spring up around me. Josephsen and her cast balance the abstract and accessible elements of this modern take on one of the western world’s classic tragic love stories in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and powerful.” 
The Children, photo by Jerri Shafer
  • The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Michael Herring (Red Herring) – This locked-room drama, balancing intimate, personal apocalypses with a shadow growing over the world, featured blistering performances by Harold Yarborough, Nancy Skaggs, and Josie Merkel, and stood out in a season where I didn’t see anything weak from Red Herring. I said, “At every level, the characters face snowballing consequences of thoughtless choices, wounds never disinfected, from the contaminated water flowing in the power plant to old slights among each other, and have to deal with what they owe the next generation up to and including their use as sacrificial lambs,” for Columbus Underground
  • Let’s Hope You Feel Better by Samantha Oty (MadLab), directed by Sarah Vargo – MadLab came out on fire this year, taking some interesting chances. And this bitterly funny, whiplash-inducing sex farce was one of the best things I saw all year. Boasting killer – *rimshot* – performances by McLane Nagy and Tom Murdock at the center of a stellar cast, this crackled with reminders of the crucial energy MadLab brings to our theater scene. I commented in Columbus Underground: “The serious themes here – does a person have a right to die with dignity, what are the limits on the Hippocratic Oath’s “do no harm,” what do we owe the people in our lives – get a strong, thoughtful workout in Let’s Hope You Feel Better but nothing gets in the way of the play as a sharp, molten-hot, and sub-zero cold, often at the same time, entertainment.” 
  • Life Alert by Chris Sherman, directed by Michelle Batt (eMBer Womens Theater) – eMBer Womens Theater returned with a lovely series of shorts, Muses, and then this dazzling, delayed world premiere boasting a stellar cast with particularly strong performances by Melissa Bair and Josie Merkel. I said in Columbus Underground, “Sherman’s play is deeply concerned with who society considers disposable, whose work matters and whose doesn’t, and how demoralizing that gets. How deeply baked into so many of our consciouses those biases are, how they feel like pollution in the air we breathe and how a woman saying ‘Am I expected to sacrifice my life’ for others’ needs, putting it in the world out loud, is still a radical and necessary act. The ending gets a little more obvious and underlined than anything else but it’s a minor blip after two hours – with one intermission – that rang so true.” 
Mr. Burns, photo by Terry Gilliam
  • Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn with music by Michael Friedman, directed by Leda Hoffmann (CATCO) – More than anything else this year, this was the experience I missed so badly.  A play I’ve wanted to see since the Off-Broadway run but never made happen, and the first in-person taste of new CATCO artistic director Hoffmann’s work, this slapped me around in all the best ways. Crystallizing thoughts I’d had about storytelling, the strange era of the 20th century where we build art upon allusion on top of allusion, exploding the metaphor at the heart of all history and language. A tribute to the community of our actors, with standout performances by Scott Douglas Wilson, Jonathan Putnam, Acacia Duncan, and Shauna Davis leading a terrific cast. The production’s also – using the three spaces effectively – a reminder of the symbiosis of audience and performers. Anne and I spent the next two hours, right up until an excellent Chuck Prophet show you’ll be hearing about on my live music list, going over this in delighted detail. For Columbus Underground, I commented: “Like the best Simpsons episodes, Mr. Burns bulges with references and easter eggs but in the best sense: I felt a frisson of delight whenever I caught one – as I write this, the example jumping to my mind is Wilson delivering the play’s Sweeney Todd nod “Life has been kind to you” – but it didn’t bog me down looking for them. More, nothing felt tacked on or inessential. Everything adds to a piece I wish I could find the time to see again.” 
  • The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse, directed by Mark Mann (Red Herring) – Red Herring closed 2021 with a wild, ribald farce that reminded my how good their ear is for plays that have achieved some acclaim but might never have made it to Columbus otherwise. Fasthorse’s play made me laugh until my sides hurt, with a cast full of wild energy, especially Todd Covert and Elizabeth Harelik Falter. As I said in Columbus Underground, “Fasthorse’s play finds the perfect tenor for it, without getting too meta or cerebral, grounding the comedy in the ambitions and insecurities of a classic group of misfits, and it’s hard to imagine this getting a better production than Mann and Red Herring provide.” 
  • Hadestown by Anais Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin (Broadway in Columbus) – I’ve been a fan of Anais Mitchell for many years, her song “Cosmic American” lighting the fire, and I loved the original Hadestown concept album when it came out. I hadn’t managed to catch this expansion on Broadway but my return to Broadway in Columbus with the touring production – featuring Audrey Ochoa who you’ll see on my playlists – reminded me how great, and how specific, that kind of big stage theater can be. How marvelous it is to see something in a packed house. So beautiful Anne and I had conversations about it with different people in different bars for the next two weeks, the only other play I kept wanting to dig into to that extent was Mr. Burns. For Columbus Underground: “Chavkin’s expansion of Mitchell’s song cycle takes one of the quintessential stories of both the transformative power of art and its limitations, its ability to change – and not change – the world and the hearts of both audience and creator, and imbues what could be a heavy slog, with all the fun of a carnival ride or a night at a wild party. As Marable sings while leading the cast in the curtain call, ‘We raise our cups to them.’” 
Hadestown, photo by T Charles Erickson

As always, thank you – to everyone who helped make these shows happen, who joined me for them, who talked with me about them after, and who reads this. Thank you so much.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/22/2021

Amina Claudine Myers, taken from livestream and edited

Amina Claudine Myers Solo

Keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers is the beating heart of the soulful Chicago avant-garde that enraptured me as a teenager and shaped so much of my tastes then and since. Arts For Art, the organization that helps present Vision Festival, has done more to keep the flame of this music strain alive when we can’t gather than anyone else. They outdid themselves with a birthday set by the great one herself on solo piano.

In the same room they’ve used for other streams, Arts for Art deployed their typically excellent sound design and production values. Every vibrant note rang out of the piano and washed over me, almost making me forget I was so many miles away, watching it on Youtube.

A long ballad with sparse, affecting lyrics floated on chords that seemed to play in the dappled Sunday sunlight when I watched this. A speedier, percussive, swinging piece used clusters of notes to make me feel the pounding in my chest a little more deeply. 

For this hour of her birthday, Myers treated us to gorgeous conversations with the universe, her intense history of the piano, and with the core goal of turning personal expression into a deeply felt sense of connection with her chosen community. I was lucky to even be in the room, virtually, for this reminder of everything I love about music.

L-R: Ashton Lambert and William Porter in the Otterbein Departments of Theatre & Dance and Music production of “Into a Lamplit Room: the Songs of Kurt Weill.”
Photo By: Mark Mineart; provided by Otterbein

Into a Lamplit Room: The Songs and Life of Kurt Weill produced by Otterbein University

I hadn’t checked in with Otterbein University’s virtual offerings this season until now, and I regret I wasn’t able to make my schedule such to write a full preview of their delightful Kurt Weill tribute, which aired last week.

I’ve long been a fan of Weill, in my case going back to a Grandmother who loved standards (and placed “September Song” so high it was practically the star on the Christmas tree) and the Hal Willner compilation Lost in the Stars I found on a campus record store run during High School. 

And I love what Otterbein does. Their focus on very traditional, entertaining storytelling with rock-solid standards for singing and dancing occasionally lines up with my more idiosyncratic tastes for some of my favorite experiences in town – in recent years they gave us a Top Girls and a Fiddler on the Roof I still talk about. 

Into a Lamplit Room, a 2013 revue devised by CCM Musical Theatre chair Aubrey Berg with arrangements by Julie Spangler, soars. I hadn’t realized how much I missed what they do until watching this a stellar young cast of Emily Baggarly, Lucy Breedlove, Nijah Dent, Ashton Lambert, Kate Maniuszko, Victoria Mesa, William Porter, Max Pinson, Hannah Schmidt, Tru Stites, and Dean Yurecka splash a new coat of paint on these time-worn chestnuts. I apologize I didn’t capture who sings what – my press data just says there are no named characters. If someone wants to fill me in with the comments or in an email, I’d appreciate it.

Under the expert hands of director Thom Christopher Warren and musical director Lori Kay Harvey, Into a Lamplit Room balances the rat-a-tat-tat percussiveness and wordplay of these songs with a necessary acid irony befitting the times they were written and just as useful a tonic today.

 The former glows like a knife on finger-snapping romps through “Schicklgruber” (with expert use of split-screen), “Economics,” and a riotous “The Trouble With Women” sung by the women in the cast. 

Not every experiment works. There’s an off-kilter “Mack The Knife” that tries too hard to put the sociopathic narrator in a social context and falls flat – though the gorgeous black and white footage of the cast at Westerville hotspot Asterix made me miss that bar with a visceral pang.

At its best, Into a Lamplit Room summed up what I love about these songs and gave me fresh ears. The cast’s women harmonizing and trading off on a brittle, wrenching “The Soldier’s Wife” stunned me. A breathtaking “Pirate Jenny” made the line “And you yell, ‘Why the hell do they spare that one?’” hit like an acid-tipped dagger. A duet on “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed” was ribald perfection and a crackling showcase for Stella Hiatt Kane’s always dazzling choreography. A bravura “Cry. The Beloved Country” excellently used footage around the Short North without detracting from the jaw-dropping singing.

I want to take a moment to highlight the stellar production values. Otterbein takes deserved pride in the technical side of their theatrical education department and Warren, Harvey, Kane, scenic designer Rob Johnson, and costume designer Rebecca White, with special attention to Avery Barrett’s stage managing, T. J. Gerckens’ lighting and the sound design team of Doc Davis and Kailey Miller, made something that sounds and looks every bit as good as it does in their big concert hall. It’s a tremendous achievement and a hell of a lot of fun.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre visual art

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/01/2021

Clockwise from top left: Sarah Hollis, Chris Gardner, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo; taken from stream and edited

Iseult et Tristan by Pia Wilson

One of the great landmarks of New York underground experimental theater, La MaMa ETC, continues bringing exciting, vibrant work as it transitions to a digital space. Monday’s entry in the Experiments series was a brilliant example of how classic, almost archetypal stories can be repurposed and still resonate in our shared here and now.

Writer Pia Wilson resurrected the centuries-old love triangle of Iseult (Naïma Hebrail Kidjo), Margot (Sarah Hollis), and Tristan (Chris Gardner). She placed these old-as-time feelings in the milieu of contemporary New York with Iseult as a boxer, fresh out of rehab, under the tutelage of her retired boxer sister and her sister’s man struggling with some issues of his own.

Sympathetically directed by Susan Dalian in this zoom reading, the specifics of the setting hit with the concentrated fury of targeted punches as the characters danced around each other and their own pain. Lines drew blood like Iseult’s devastating “How do you do your life sentence in a cage of skin and blood? I don’t know how to do this life sentence.”

This is still viewable at http://lamama.org/iseult-et-tristan/ for I don’t know how long.

November at CCAD’s Beeler Gallery

My first art exhibit of the year and it felt like the first air in my lungs after being submerged in dark water. All the art institutions here are doing a great job with capacity limits, timed ticketing, contact tracing. Those steps make me feel mostly comfortable doing an activity that gave me the most joy before the pandemic even while I’m not as at ease doing it, always watching to see who is in the room and how close we are to one another. 

For the last several years, the Columbus College of Art and Design’s main exhibition space, Beeler Gallery, has carved out its own vital, unique space in our crowded art world. This multi-artist exhibition, November, was curated by alum Heather Taylor for the uncertainty and challenge of the 2020 election and pushed back due to a record-high wave of cases. 

These works stand up to the different but still present anxiety and tension of the moment because they were built already dealing with the layers of historical rage, sadness, and mistreatment. The unifying thread among these pieces is the sad certainty that what we all went through wasn’t a blip but a coalescence, a locus, a culmination; a clear-eyed desire to understand and respond to move forward.

Each of the artists brought something personal and sharp to this call and Taylor’s curation – and whichever preparators she worked with – shines in the way they speak to one another. Benjamin Willis’ gripping self-portraits in a warm, textured light played with Dawn Kim’s punching layers of The Apprentice soundtrack over a C-Span litany of contenders walking into Trump Tower in early 2017. 

Some of the highlights were full-room installations. Bobby T. Luck’s Drapetomania, or The Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away presented a breathtaking collage knocking the breath out of my lungs. Luck plays with our inability to connect and the sea of media buffeting us at every step and forcing a hard look at who chooses the prevailing images of a group – in this case, specifically black Americans – and why. 

Calista Lyon used old-school overhead projectors to dive into colonialism’s impact on the Crimson Spider Orchid, stitching together history and an almost apocalyptic warning in deep duende, amplified by the nostalgia of that humming light and the pink cast of the walls. 

There’s so much to unpack in this triumphant exhibition and it runs for one more week (through March 6, 2021). For details and to reserve timed tickets, visit https://www.ccad.edu/events/november 

Farewell, Ace of Cups: Muswell Villebillies on 02/27/2021

Anne rightly points out that one key to not losing your mind in this time when we can’t see each other up close is finding ways to mark the things we’d usually get together to celebrate or mourn. The value of that approach was affirmed and its limits tested this Saturday as Marcy Mays said goodbye to her time owning Ace of Cups.

For the last decade, Ace made itself indispensable to the Columbus rock and roll scene, filling a specific gap. We had great clubs since Little Brothers closed but we missed that size of room with a rock-centered booking approach but casting a wide tent (and using the best existing bookers in town) while also being open for bar hours and serving as a central clubhouse for many of us.

Ace of Cups’ greatest successes came from its unshakable faith in and deep love for our shared community – Columbus’s and the larger rock and roll scene. I lost count of the number of birthdays (including Anne’s and her Mom’s) we celebrated, the people we mourned, the out-of-town friends who wanted to come back, and the great times we shared. I also lost count of the number of musicians who wanted to play Ace – sometimes hadn’t been to Columbus in many years – because of their longstanding friendship with Marcy going back to her days in Scrawl.

That sense of community was all over this final show as Ace transitions to a new owner – Conor Stratton who comes highly recommended by every friend of mine involved and with a proven track record including the exciting Yellow Springs Springfest. First, by continuing a long partnership with neighbors Lost Weekend Records, owned by scene stalwart (and the gold standard for stage managers) Kyle Siegrist, for Lost Weekend’s 18th-anniversary celebration.

That community pumped through the veins of this show in the people playing too. The core of two of this town’s favorite cover-bands-for-people-who-hate-cover-bands, The Randys (Dave Vaubel and Jon Beard) and Popgun (Joey Hebdo and Tony McClung) teamed up with guitarist and producer of too many bands to count Andy Harrison in a gloriously fun Kinks tribute act, the Muswell Villebillies, aided by key members of New Basics Brass Band, Tim Perdue on trumpet and Tony Zilinick on trombone and sousaphone, on key tunes.

The players had a great time leaning into some of the great pop songs of the middle of the 20th century and the Kinks’ wide-ranging appetite for fusing disparate, sometimes discarded styles and making something new out of them along with the almost ravenous taste for melancholy in these songs made for an appropriate sendoff to a place we love so much.

That hunger for connection in tunes like “All of My Friends Were There” with its lines about “I’m thinking of the days – I won’t forget a single day, believe me;” “Picture Book;” “Party Line” with its warm paranoia, “I wish I had a more direct connection,” cut deeper than I expected, watching from my couch. 

The set drove home that longing – not being in the room to hug people and give it a proper goodbye as I did with other rooms I loved so much in their last days, Little Brothers and Larry’s here, Lakeside Lounge in New York immediately come to mind – on tunes tailor-made for it, Ray Davies’ wincing look at childhood on “Come Dancing” and a wrenching turn through one of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century, “Waterloo Sunset,” with guest vocals by Mays.

Part of what made this band work so beautifully is the best work of most of these players comes in reconfiguring and enlivening structures. There weren’t a lot of deconstructionist impulses on display and you don’t want it for this kind of repertory band. The key to breathing life into these classic songs is trusting them and loving them on their own terms and the distinct players’ skillsets and ability to find space within both the song and the unit of the band shone brightly.

McClung’s heavy post-Elvin Jones drumming – I’ve compared him to Columbus’ “Tain” Watts a few times – snaps everything into place here, with the supple rhythm section rounded out by Vaubel’s crisp, melodic bass and Beard’s blood-pumping surges on barrelhouse piano, silent-cinema organ, and beer-garden accordion. 

Within that framework, Hebdo leaned into the aggressive affectation of Davies’ phrasing, not making the mistake of trying to make things more natural to our ears, turning over the words and their rhythm as they were set in stone. Harrison’s crackling guitar and gets space to play as the horns lift everything up with punctuation and announcement.

I’ll miss you, Ace. I look forward to seeing what you bring us in the future. And I look forward to catching this band when I can dance with my friends and sing along in the open air.

This is still viewable for an indeterminate length of time: https://youtu.be/-6oNhPm-Yj8 

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 02/22/2021

Seth Soulstein from Hotel Good Luck, image taken from official website of the production

Hotel Good Luck by Alejandro Ricaño, presented by Cherry and New Ohio Theater

I’ve liked New Ohio’s work for a long time – they’re always on the short list of companies I check for whenever I’m in New York – and they have taken their ethos of brand new work that simultaneously vibrates with the pulse of the avant-garde and packs a deep emotional punch and found a path to present that vital work in our distanced environment and sacrificing very little in translation.

The newest, striking example of this crucial work came in partnership with the Cherry Artists Collective. Hotel Good Luck, from acclaimed Mexican playwright Alejandro Ricaño, hit hard in a stream from an empty theater in Ithaca, with an empathetic translation by Jacqueline Bixler and directed by Samuel Buggeln.

Hotel Good Luck uses the vibration of that empty theater to braid the metaphors of parallel universes and the solitary DJ for maximum loneliness. Bobby (Seth Soulstein) hunches over his turntables, spraying patter into the void and spinning records like a French version of “My Generation” when he discovers a gateway into other universes.

The irrevocability of death is baked into the Minotaur’s maze Bobby runs, backed by haunting cello lines and the confounding guidance of his psychologist and quantum physicist Larry (Desmond Bratton, also composer of the original music he plays). 

The work also teases the frustration of figuring out where in the world – which world – any of us belongs. As Bratton declaims, right as answers start to appear in front of our hero but without solidity, “You be a disc jockey without listeners and I’ll be a therapist without patients! There is no original universe, Bobby. There is a universe you belong to but I don’t know how you get back there.” 

The two performances and Buggeln’s beguiling direction, creating enough space to drift through but always knowing when to focus, made this dazzling play sing.

From left: Adrian Lester, Danny Sapani, from Hymn. Image taken from official website of the production

Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarti, presented by Almeida Theater

My first – alas, so far only – trip to London made me fall in love with so much I expected to (The Tate Modern, The V&A, Southbank) and things that weren’t even on my radar before. Almeida is top of that latter list, a contemporary theater doing everything right, from the cafe to sightlines to starting on time to their selection of work.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti hit my radar through one of my favorite institutions, St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. In 2013, St Ann’s presented the American premiere of Red Velvet, based on the true story of Ira Eldridge, the first black American to play Othello on the West End, starring Chakrabarti’s husband Adrian Lester, fresh off a smoking-hot London run.

Rolling the dice on an actor I was a fan of and a presenter who’d never let me down, I was enraptured. Later, I saw and reviewed a very good production at Ohio State’s theater department, proving the play wasn’t reliant on just that symbiotic relationship between star and writer.

Almeida’s transitioned to virtual shows that pack almost the same punch as being in their theater and I was overjoyed to wake up in time to catch the new Chakrabarti play, Hymn, streamed at 10 am my time (3 pm in London), starring Adrian Lester as Gilbert, the only known son of a local dry cleaner and upstanding member of the community, and Danny Sapani as the half-brother he didn’t know he had until a notice of their father’s funeral brings their orbits into collision.

In a taut 90 minutes, Hymn delves into what family and friendship mean, and the tracks left by the enormous shadow of a charismatic and loved father. Those impressions hit the two men in different ways but confirm presence and absence can both be suffocating and everything we live through has to be navigated.

The piece is bookended – after a whiplash prologue of Benny (Sapani) at the end of his rope, roaring at a bartender – by two eulogies, each delivered by one brother. The struggle to sum up a life in a few well-chosen words reverberates through the acid-burned snapshots that string the rest of the play together.

Music strings together this sudden, late-life friendship, staring from Sapani’s righteous takes on an evocative “Lean On Me,” and a furious read of the ominous Temptations classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” through ‘80s classics like Full Force’s “Alice, I Want You Just For Me,” “Rapper’s Delight,” and a big UK hit I had to look up, “Street Tuff” by Rebel MC and Double Trouble, even into an ironic twisting of “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.”

The script brilliantly lets the physicality of these two men imply whole lives we only see glimpses of and highlights how little we – especially men – know each other, how hard we have to dig. McIntyre (who also directed The Writer which I saw at Almeida) uses the sparse set to evoke space and time, melting the scenes together organically with almost imperceptible transitions until suddenly the transition is a crash.

Grappling with self-awareness sparks heartbreaking moments at the end of the play. A haunted Lester saying “It’s the silence that breaks your heart,” looking at a suit in plastic. Sapani, summoning all his strength, sums up his brother with “The pieces of your life you think are missing are not necessarily the right ones…Gil tried so hard to play his notes in the right order but there is no right order, is there?”

We all have to reckon with that lack of a right order to find any semblance of peace. Hymn knows the joy in trying to live, if we let ourselves, but never forgets how much work it requires.

Frank Lacy’s Trombonivers at Smalls, image taken from stream and edited

Frank Lacy’s Trombonivers at Smalls

One of the great things about Smalls in its public incarnation was – through their late-night jam sessions – they provided more public showing-your-ass stage time for young players than anywhere else in the current state of moneyed Manhattan, while still having the core house band be professional enough that if things went south it didn’t go on so long it drove the post-midnight crowd back up to 10th Street.

Great trombone player and bandleader Frank Lacy also has a reputation as a great teacher and encourager of young talent. For a vibrant Smalls set that brought tears to my eyes and made me dance around the room, he convened 8 fellow trombone players across the spectrum of experience – Corey Wilcox, Rashaan Salaam, Corey Wallace, Colman Hughes, Alevtina Wilcox, James Rodgers, Jacob Melsha, Maxine Troglauer – along with a sizzling rhythm section of Felix Moseholm on bass, Evan Sherman on drums, and Jon Elbaz on piano.

Appropriate for Fat Tuesday, that instrumentation soared through strutting New Orleans material with teeth like Ellis Marsalis’s “Nostalgic Expressions.” They also played with dynamics, harmonies like slow molasses seeping into a holy river then evaporating into colored smoke on a ballad original of Lacy’s. That ballad, with an insinuating, punchy bassline from Moseholm melted into one of the great ballads, Monk’s “Crepuscule for Nellie, with the horns capturing all that kaleidoscopic color, bouncing back and forth between dramatic punctuation and a silken waltz.

Probably my favorite – or at least most surprising – tune from the set was a funky dance take on Wayne Shorter’s “Palladium,” a highlight from the first Weather Report record I bought as a kid. Explosions of dive-bomb harmony with a thick, sultry bottom and a particularly smoking drum solo from Sherman which hinted at the Latin elements of the original without falling into cliches.

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"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 02/15/2021

Livelabs: On Love by Mfoniso Udofia presented by MCC Theater 

I saw a reading of Mfoniso Udofia’s In Old Age in a Chelsea rehearsal space as part of a Page 73 reading series. I’ve never been so glad I made one choice over the carnival ride multiplicity of delights on a New York City afternoon; within five minutes, I knew this is one of the great voices of my time.

For all its troubles and difficulty, this enforced streaming age – at its best – makes these voices available to a wide range of people all at once. MCC’s Livelabs series does a great job bringing new work at affordable prices through its youtube channel. I got reacquainted with Udofia’s crackling writing with its layered depth of feeling via On Love, expertly directed by Awoye Timbo.

These vignettes turned the prism of love around and played with different refracted light, between Eros and Agape, from Ludus to Mania, exposing the very different impressions these loves leave and how thin the barriers between them are. With a crackling cast spanning superstars like Keith David to Broadway heroes like Anastacia McClesky and rising Off-Broadway mavens Antwayn Hopper, everyone delivered.

Using perfectly carved moments. On Love opened us to these characters hinted at whole worlds and lives. There wasn’t a person I met for these few minutes I didn’t want to know for a full-length play. I want to see every person in this – especially those new to me – in something else. And more than anything else, this made me hungry for more of Udofia’s writing.

Tim Easton, taken from stream and edited

Tim Easton – The Truth About Us 20th Anniversary

In early 2001, Columbus’s treasured son Tim Easton made his entrance onto a wider national stage with his second solo album, The Truth About Us. For this debut with ascendent alt.country label New West Records, Tim Easton recruited an all-star lineup, including producer Joe Chiccarelli (Lone Justice, Steve Wynn, Oingo Boingo) and the core of Wilco at the time (multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, bassist John Stirratt, and drummer Ken Coomer as the backing band. 

Easton and Chiccarelli augmented that sturdy core with guests of the highest order – Mark Olson and Victoria Williams singing on one track, Petra Haden’s haunting violin, Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel, Kat Maslich on vocals, and local confederates like Chris Burney (who’d been playing bass for him on the road and would soon lead underrated Warner Brothers rock act The Sun).

Like many songwriters, Easton uses this pandemic to webcast from his home – including trying out new songs and dialoguing with old friends like JP Olsen. Last week, in honor of its 20th anniversary, he revisited The Truth About Us from front to back. He peppered the set with reminisces about its making – including fond recollections of everyone who worked with him on it.

That hour and a half was a powerful nostalgia trip, remembering trudging through the snow to Little Brothers for the release show – great Cleveland band Rosavelt backing and opening for Easton – with my roommate at the time. It also reminded me how well the songs hold up two decades later.

At its best, The Truth About Us grapples with the very concept of truth and its value. Trying to understand people’s motivations, and his own, to get out of the writer’s own way, while also trying to find their place inside an “us.”

Around the time of this record, I saw many shows – frequently local – and listened to a lot of records with my friend Heather, now based solidly in LA. Easton’s deceptively easy-going manner and charm put her off, feeling like its truths weren’t as hard-fought as her favorite writers: “It’s all good, but it comes too easily to him.” 

The one song she made an exception for was the second song on The Truth About Us: “Carry Me,” a plea for forgiveness and an accounting. The tune hides a knife in its gentleness: a catchy, fingerpicked lilt that drifts from “People love you like a diamond in their hand, but they don’t know that diamond like I do” through “It was selfish to think you’d be better off just ‘cause I wanted to be further along,” into “Here comes that old devil midnight and I have not slept in days.” Hearing him do this one again, with just that acoustic guitar, chilled my blood.

“Happy Now,” always one of my favorite hooks Easton wrote – in a period he wrote more jangling, haunt-your-sleep choruses than anyone else in town – reasserted a psychological weight I didn’t give it credit for at the time. I’d never seen a Rauschenberg combine when I heard that song, and I’d barely graced the surface of cut-ups as a form, so the accretion of collaged emotional details took me a while. Stripped from the Byrds chime of the guitar and the grooving Kinksish organ on the record, the depth of feeling hit harder. 

Verses paint people in crisis, a tattoo parlor owner’s wife screaming at him, “You’re ruining me somehow”; a man jumping a roof to find the same callous disregard in death – “He wanted them to miss him, that was part of the plan, but nobody ever even gave a damn. Are you happy now? They were laughing as you went down;” a woman in her front yard praying with the prayers answered by, “Nobody knew what to do or what to say; the traffic light changed, and we just drove away.” s the chorus taunting “Are you happy now” with the sinking suspicion the narrator’s turning on himself.

The obsessive ramble that always recalled Elizabeth Bishop to me, “I Would Have Married You,” retained its keening, searching power in this format. Easton rightly called out the magnificence of Petra Haden’s violin – this was the first I’d heard of her, and her playing drove me to pick up my first That Dog record – Maslich’s harmonies and Kaphan’s moaning steel.

Easton’s affection for people and memory for detail is the not-so-secret engine that’s powered his career and created the longevity he enjoys. This evening was a reminder of that joy, as much as the record is. Nowhere does that manifest more than in his long-running friendship with JP Olsen. The two songs on The Truth About Us not penned by Easton come from Olsen: “Bad Florida,” a standout on my sleeper pick for best Columbus album, Burn Barrel’s Reviled!, and last-call promise from Olsen’s band The Beetkeepers, “Don’t Walk Alone.” The latter closes the record and imbues Olsen’s razor-sharp words and sly melody with a greater earnestness as he  bolsters the anthemic qualities of the chorus with surging backing vocals and my favorite Haden string parts here. That anthem recast clings to his arrangement, even with the elements stripped away.

This is still viewable on Tim Easton’s official Facebook page.

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"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/25/2021

Blue Ridge from the Atlantic Theater Company website

Blue Ridge by Abby Rosebrock, directed by Taibi Magar, presented by Play Per View

Play Per View made their name earlier in the pandemic with some of the best Off-Broadway plays of the last few years, often reuniting their original casts. They scored another winner with Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge, assembling the stellar actors of the Obie-winning Atlantic Theater’s 2018 production for a Zoom reading.

Blue Ridge singed my damn eyebrows off. Marin Ireland’s Abby is a heartbreakingly relatable character – a portrait of someone getting in her way, so good at some things it lets her not acknowledge her toxicity radiating into the people around her. Whip-change moves underpinned by simultaneously a steely reserve and tragic desperation.

Under Magar’s direction, the rest of the cast crackles, with Kyle Beltran’s Wade, a fellow resident of the sober living house to which Abby was court-appointed, and Kristolyn Lloyd’s Cherie, Abby’s close friend and further along in her path to sobriety. Those two characters’ take the program’s lessons seriously, and their struggle is easier to relate to without the main character’s causticity. But Rosebrock is too canny a writer to let the audience rest in the easy moralistic dichotomy; everyone here is a person, and we’re all broken with varying degrees of self-awareness.

This pitch-black comedy set in the tip of Appalachia grapples with the difficulty of getting help and the often Sisyphean task of getting better, of treating your fellow humans with the love it’s hard to even see ourselves as deserving. 

Questlove 50th Promo Picture from Youtube

Questlove’s 50th Birthday Stream

I was delighted to take a breath on January 20th for the Biden and Harris inauguration, and both Garth Brooks’ a capella “Amazing Grace” and Amanda Gorman’s stirring poem moved me. But when work ended and the night rolled around, the celebration I wanted to partake in from my couch – the closest representation of America I want, I have to choose, to believe in – was a celebratory birthday takeover of a scheduled Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson broadcast on The Roots’ YouTube channel.

Questlove’s been the heart and engine of some of my favorite music of all time. Without question, he was among the driving forces of most of my favorite music of college and immediately after. I’m in the middle of my third re-read of Creative Quest, trying to kickstart my brain out of a winter slump. His DJing is also rightly legendary – anyone watching him rock a massive crowd at Brooklyn Bowl knows we’re in the presence of someone hitting an apex of that form.

In the five or so hours of #Questo50 Anne and I were lucky to see a tribute to Questlove’s wide-ranging network of friends and influences on both sides. And each DJ – without trying too hard, they frequently overlapped a song or two – took up a distinct space. They treated that evening as a great party, even if we were all in our own houses. The latter also presented a heavier version of the usual Wednesday night problem: no waiting for champagne and whiskey that have already been paid for.

DJ Rashida’s infectious set played a greatest hits of Questlove’s work – classic The Roots, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Common – and his compatriots Q-Tip and Dilla. She served a burst of the best parts of memory, dancing to those songs in clubs and basements, probably not surprising since she’s within a month of my age.

DJ Sasara from Tokyo spoke to his international presence and the flow of ideas. She worked local floor-fillers like DJ Kawasaki into smooth ‘70s soul and hard-driving Colombian and Brazillian tunes. Stones Throw general Peanut Butter Wolf worked with the record nerd side. Having picked a crate of 45s he thought Questlove would enjoy, he chose them at random, delighting in the sensual, sometimes incongruity of the way they sparked against each other.

DJ Tara was that modern East Coast party, smoothly and seamlessly beat-matched and the perfect mix of stuff I already knew and loved and great surprises that all made me want to move. And the headliner, as only seems right, was Philly giant DJ Jazzy Jeff.

Like a real club night or warehouse party, I wanted to check in and still have a full night’s sleep for work. I couldn’t turn away – I was happily hooked on this until 1:00 am.

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"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/17/2021

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, from left Kris Davis, Daryl Johns, Immanuel Wilkins, Kewku Sumbry; taken from stream and edited

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet at Smalls

I mentioned APAP in last week’s writeup. Generally, in one of these years when I’d be in New York for mid-January, soaking up the remnants of arts presenters’ bounties, I’d be catching between 6 and 20 sets over a few days of Winter Jazz Fest. WJF’s excellent pivot of panels and performances is going on through March, but I caught a few streams that gave me some of that feeling.

The set that gave me the heftiest dose of that energy came from a stalwart of the classic NYC clubs and at the vanguard of this new digital era, Smalls. Immanuel Wilkins (also a standout on Joel Ross’ astonishing record last year) and one of our finest alto players, lead a striking quartet with Kris Davis (who closed out my previous New York trip with an explosion) on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums. 

The group wove together songs into unbroken suites, building landscapes and shifting them. Simmering, glistening ballads jostled with ecstatic classic fire music. Long, screeching cries curled like smoke into gorgeous melodies. Textures played out and expanded, then splintered and came together. 

This set was everything I want from a band coming out of the jazz tradition. It made me miss New York, it made me miss walking down to Dick’s Den on a good night, and it made me miss being in the room; at the same time, it reminded me how lucky I am to have this option.

From left: Vijay Iyer, Arooj Aftab, Shazad Ismaily; taken from stream and edited

Love in Exile at Jazz Gallery

Jazz Gallery continues to present a wealth of fascinating programming in its streaming iteration and I was enthralled by their trio this week of pianist Vijay Iyer, multi-instrumentalist Shazad Ismaily (both of whom I’ve seen many times) and vocalist Arooj Aftab whose name pricked my consciousness when she played a Big Ears but I’d never seen.

This was an astonishing, glowing hour of music. Mostly working in these slow, unfolding oceanic tempos, the trio displayed an uncanny telepathy. On one piece, Iyer’s exploded flurries of his classic diamond hard-and-glistening attack into spaces left by Aftab’s silky melodies and Ismaily’s circular, hypnotic bass. Another used that tempo to expand into a rich, cinematic, baroque ballad, riding accumulations into a majestic cascade. 

Other pieces had Ismaily bringing in a droning keyboard tone to underpin a dual longing between Aftab and Iyer. Beautiful and beguiling.

Espíritu; shot taken from stream and edited

Espíritu at Under the Radar

Caught up on the rest of the previous week’s Under the Radar and my favorite piece, Espíritu, came from the Chilean company Teatro Anónimo and the pen of Trinidad González. 

It focuses on – mostly young – people grappling with the deep sickness of ennui and hopelessness. As one character says early on, “We are just a group of useless people with a great plan to stop the destruction of the world.”

That plan staggers and stumbles, people are wracked by cruelty and driven into impoverished fantasies that pass that cruelty on through jagged vignettes. Lines like “People yell at me and that makes them happy…Sometimes they think they’re making love but it’s something different from love. Do they dream?” and “If I were your father I’d burn that notebook and send you off to fight a war,” haunted me for days after seeing this.

If I were managing a company, I’d program a double bill of this with Matt Slaybaugh’s The Absurdity of Writing Poetry but there are probably dozens of plays about fighting despair with art, even, especially, when it feels hopeless, this would productively spark against. It made me miss UTR, made me miss NYC, and made me miss the theaters where I first loved work like this in the Wexner Center and at Available Light.

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"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/11/2021

My TimeHop reminded me that last year, and three years ago, I was in NYC for festivals around APAP, which is always one of the most invigorating parts of any year I work it in. 

From left: Kirk Knuffke, Gerald Cleaver, James Brandon Lewis, taken from stream and edited

James Brandon Lewis, Kirk Knuffke, and Gerald Cleaver at Arts for Art Inc, 01/06/2021

Of the overlapping black music traditions, relatively few hands dig into the fertile intersection between R&B and free jazz. Arts for Art – a storied non-profit that hosts the annual Vision Festival among other services to the culture – kicked off their 2021 with one of the finest examples of the sparks that fly when those two forms hit one another: a trio of sax player James Brandon Lewis, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

As Lewis said in the post-set discussion, “Charles Gayle and Grover Washington, Jr. both came from the same place I did, Buffalo.” This trio wove excerpts of the Bill Withers classics “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Just the Two Of Us,” the latter a collaboration with Washington and a massive hit, along with Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll Be Free” into an unbroken 45-minute meditation and exultation.

Lewis’s liquid tone and Knuffke’s sharp, jabbing punctuation aligned on deep hooks like the revolving “I know” section of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” building up the tension and exploding that feeling into a bonfire of abstraction. That jousting coiled into a mournful funeral march before clicking into a more urgent, insistent gear.

Through all of these changes, Cleaver’s drums commented and steered the ship. The one section where he slid into head knocking funk beats felt like an unexpected blast of sun cracking velvet clouds, then as soon as I grasped it, he and the trio were onto something else. 

Everyone in this trio intimately understood both musical forms and used the tropes for their cathartic power as well as misdirection. They didn’t shuffle free playing and dance music; they burned them into something fresh and personal.

Under the Radar, presented by The Public Theater

One of the brightest lights in my personal APAP – and the conduit for many of my favorite things at the Wexner Center every year – is the Public’s Under The Radar fest. This international sampling of moving, riveting performance art and theater pivoted brilliantly to online this year. I’ve checked about half of it so far and there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch. 

Best of all, these are available on demand through the 14th, at https://publictheater.org/programs/under-the-radar/under-the-radar-2021/

Highlights for me so far:

From the innovative Instagram component of Rich Kids

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor

This two hander – which won a prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – featured Alipoor and Kirsty Housley narrating – with dazzling imagery the self-destructive microcosm of the idle rich in Tehran. In doing so, they draw out heartbreaking truths about the decline of civilizations, the scars of colonialism, and the blur between long-term consequences and immediate decisions. 

Full of poison-dagger lines I was still chewing over days later like “There isn’t an anthropocene that connects us, there’s a scar that divides;” vaporwave summed up as “A ghost made of bits and pieces of a past that never quite was;” and a description of Dubai as “It’s like long generations of the past returning eternally to party with them.”

From left: Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran. Taken from stream and edited

the motown project by Alicia Hall Moran. 

One of our finest American singers, plumbing the rich terrain between Opera and popular music, Alicia Hall Moran assembled a ferocious band for this, including her husband Jason Moran on piano, Reggie Washington on bass, LaFrae Sci on drums, and Thomas Flippin on guitar, alongside fellow powerhouse singers Barrington Lee and Steven Herring.

Moran drew connections between the Motown songbook and classical “art music,” giving both sides equal weight without sanding down either’s essence, and wove them into a crushing portrait of desire. An aria from The Magic of Figaro sparked off the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Sugarpie, Honeybunch.” A torturously slow “Heat Wave” was a languid blast from better seasons. A “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” drew every nuance out of that Stevie Wonder classic without bogging it down. If I see something better this year – even after theatres open – it’s been a good damn year.

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Best Of theatre

Best of 2020 – Theatre/Opera/Dance

“Are you even here? You’re a relic of a dying empire. The ghost of a glorious future that never came.” 

-Sarah Gancher, Russian Troll Farm

Salt given me at Under The Radar’s Salt

Live:

I was lucky to see about 15 shows – almost all outstanding – before doors started slamming shut. These 8 grabbed me hard and wouldn’t let go. Their memories are still burned into my brain this many months later. Photos are taken from press either given directly to me or on the company/creator’s official website.

  • Salt by Selina Thompson, directed by Dawn Walton (01/11/2020 – Public Theatre, Under the Radar, NYC) – Sometimes – and this might be my favorite part of seeing theatre and especially my favorite part of Under the Radar, I see work by a playwright who’s new to me and the voice alone burns a layer of skin off me and makes me feel both more and differently. Selina Thompson’s personal-historical-poetic dive into the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Salt, masterfully acted by Rochelle Rose, did that to me this year. I walked out babbling and as hungry for more of her work as any writing of the last decade.
  • Body Comes Apart by Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith (01/12/2020 – New York Live Arts, NYC) – This vivisection of expectations, trauma, and freedom balanced an unsparing dedication to truth with a supernova love for the world. Body Comes Apart was a physical hour of dance, and acting was a whirlwind from which I couldn’t look away. It avoided platitudes and simplification but burned with a clarity that made its unanswered questions cut even deeper. I could have seen this three times and still tried to grasp it. 
  • Medea by Simon Stone after Euripides, directed by Simon Stone (01/12/2020 – BAM, NYC) – I’m a sucker for the Greeks and I’d never seen Bobby Cannavale on stage. Something felt very fitting about seeing Stone’s ferocious, knives-out take on Euripides here in the same theatre I saw my favorite Hedda Gabler. The adaptations to the play were interesting, aided by vibrant video. My brain pinballed between the remarkable acting – Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Dylan Baker – and the wrenching image of ash falling on that pristine white stage, both stuck with me well after the next day’s flight home.
The Motherfucker With the Hat, photo by Nick Lingnofski
  • Or by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Rowan Winterwood (01/17/2020 – Actors Theatre) – Actors Theatre’s relationship with MadLab for smaller-scale indoor plays continued to bear fruit this year, even as they had to cancel what looked like an exciting outdoor season. Or was a delightful drawing room sex romp around the fascinating historical character Aphra Behn (played brilliantly by Michelle Weiser) with crackling support from Andy Woodmansee and McLane Nagy as the other legs of the triangle. Winterwood’s sizzling direction made this a hot, funny winter diversion when I needed it most.
  • The Motherfucker With the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Chari Arespacochaga (01/23/2020 – Short North Stage) – Short North Stage doesn’t always get enough credit for their dark, low-to-the-ground plays in the Green Room. Their Motherfucker With the Hat was another triumph in that lane. Arespacochaga directed it with the right mix of Greek tragedy and cage match, a stellar cast orbited around a volcanic Raphael Ellenberg.
  • The Bridge Called My Ass by Miguel Gutierrez (01/25/2020 – presented by the Wexner Center) – Gutierrez’s bilingual piece mixed puns, everyday action, and flights of fancy into something I’d never seen before. I didn’t always understand it but I was always enraptured.
The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes, photo by Jeff Busby
  • A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, directed by Michael Garrett Herring (01/30/2020 – Red Herring Theater) – There have been a few times I’ve seen a Columbus production I felt improved on New York, and this was the most recent example. Herring stripped away the ba-dum-bum sitcom rhythm that sank the Broadway version of this for me the night I saw it and made Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen glow like a bruise. All stellar performances, especially Sonda Staley’s for-the-ages take on Nora.
  • The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes by Back to Back Theater (02/13/2020 – presented by the Wexner Center) – One of my favorite previews I’ve ever written. I was so glad I held off, skipping this at Under The Radar so I could go into it cold when it played my town. A more complicated bit of metatheatre than the first work of theirs I loved, Ganesh Vs The Third Reich, but brillant and arresting. A look at how much “acting” we all do in making our voices heard and how much marginalized people have to work past just to get their voices heard, to not be seen as a monolithic interest. If this was the last live performance I saw, I went out high.

Online:

We Need Your Listening, screenshot from stream and edited

Theatre feels like a circuit between the stage and the audience, even more than music, to me. But for me, this immediate, physical art reaped the greatest rewards as companies tried to find ways to make work that still felt like theater while wholly embracing the new media. I deeply hope many of us can find ways to continue to make things accessible after we can all gather in a room again. 

It would be a true shame for these opportunities for people with disabilities or other reasons not to be part of the physical exchange of energy, to finally get a wider range of options and then have them taken away.

Things that moved and inspired me with virtual theatre:

Zoom readings run by local stalwarts Krista Lively Stauffer and Tim Browning with their Virtual Theatre Project gave me the chance to catch Douglas Whaley’s phenomenal The Turkey Men (I missed its premiere run when I was in Italy last year), revisit the terrific Red Herring two-hander Thicker Than Water, and dip into remarkable work from our astounding pool of talent.

Established companies pivoted with aplomb and grace: 

Abbey Theatre’s The Sissy Chronicles, photo provided by Joe Bishara
  • Short North Stage revisited shows they’d loved and couldn’t find space for in their schedule previously like the moving early Andrew Lippa John & Jen and the delightfully raunchy Off-Broadway hit by Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop When Pigs Fly. They also used their connections to get new material for these revivals while also building new work like Quarantine With the Clauses. 
  • New CATCO Artistic Director Leda Hoffmann met the challenge of her first season in town coinciding with the pandemic and excelled with marvelous Idris Goodwin shorts, Plays For an Antiracist Tomorrow, bringing in legacy CATCO artists as well as fresh blood, then acclaimed Julienna Gonzalez adapted her Detroit Christmas Carol into a Columbus version under Hoffmann’s direction.
  • Joe Bishara came into his own with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre giving life to exciting pieces from artists like Mark Schwamberger and Nikki Davis.
  • Red Herring provided astounding social dramas and made steps toward a hybrid experience.

The plethora of archival work was an embarrassment of riches, from American Conservatory Theatre’s take on Lydia Diamond’s Toni Stone to the Goodman’s hilarious and heartbreaking Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play.

The Elaborate Entry of Chad Deity, screenshot taken from stream and edited

The New Group, Play-Per-View, and more presented riveting reunion readings, giving new life to great plays from past seasons. I especially loved Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian, Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entry of Chad Deity, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.

I was in awe of groups that created new work from tools not intended for this purpose. Magic came from relatively straightforward narrative work like Mona Mansour’s The Beginning Days of True Jubilation, Theatre of War’s Antigone in Ferguson, and Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm. to more ephemeral work like We Need Your Listening by Velani Dibba, Ilana Khanin, Elizagrace Madrone, Stephen Charles Smith, Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane’s Come Together Revisited, and Theatre Mitu’s </remnant>.

Antigone in Ferguson, screenshot taken from stream and edited

Even in the dark times, there was still joy if you looked, and I am as grateful as ever people took on these burdens to bring it to us.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 11/23/2020

From left: Alan Broadbent, Sheila Jordan, Harvie S. Taken from stream and edited

Music: Sheila Jordan Trio at Smalls Live

I’ve waxed rhapsodic here about Smalls constant creativity and persistence to bring musicians together to play. In the last few weeks, they’ve carefully and strategically brought in small audiences and I almost wept hearing – from my kitchen, many miles away, missing New York in a week where Timehop reminds me I was at least three of the last six years – the great Sheila Jordan celebrate her 92nd birthday in this storied club.

A direct line to Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, and Charles Mingus – one of few left – Jordan took us to school with this survey of the great American songbook and this reminder of the glory of following one’s interests, wherever they land. 

Backed by her longtime bassist Harvie S and New Zealand native Alan Broadbent, two of the most sympathetic vocal-accompanists alive, she reminded us how ineffable, fleeting, and indelible beauty can be in song. Definitive, forged in years of experience, versions of “Autumn in New York” and “I Concentrate on You” were highlights in this delightful rain of gems.

Theater: </remnant> by Theatre Mitu, directed by Rubén Polendo.

What’s memory mean to us? How do we piece these fragments together? Where does religion fit? How do we survive war? How do we stay connected with ourselves and a collective humanity? Cacophonies of voices and images fracture and coalesce in Theatre Mitu’s </remnant>, presented with New York Theatre Workshop, burning fragments into my brain.

This riveting exploration of memory – including memory as a feeding trough for trauma and the evolution of PTSD over the last century-plus set a high bar for these new digital hybrids that still felt like theater, that I was in the dark with other people even if I couldn’t see them, and with the fiery immediacy of something happening now even with the degree of editing and post-production visible.

Seth Parker-Woods (foreground) with members of Seattle Symphony. Taken from livestream and edited

Music: For Roscoe Mitchell by Tyshawn Sorey, performed by Seth Parker-Woods and Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Anyone with evening a passing glimpse of my taste over the years knows I’m an unabashed admirer of Tyshawn Sorey’s work as a drummer and composer. He continues a streak of astonishing large-format pieces with an astonishing cello concerto, For Roscoe Mitchell, performed by the Seattle Symphony.

The dazzling piece conjured Mitchell’s luminescent compositions without using any of his moves directly. Played beautifully by the orchestra and soloist Parker-Woods under the baton of David Robertson, I don’t even have words for how grateful I am for this remarkable series from Seattle Symphony in these trying times.