Big Ears 2018 Day 2: Joyous Cacophony, Cries de Coeur, and Gratitude

Bang on a Can All-Stars, extra blurry from the last row of the balcony

Early afternoon in a 15 hour day of dedicated absorption, I was lucky to see one of my all-time hall-of-fame music writers, Ben Ratliff, in conversation with Damon Krukowski. Krukowski I, of course, knew from Damon and Naomi and Galaxie 500. And his book, The New Analog, is part of the current wave of big-picture music books along with books like Ratliff’s Every Song Ever and Jace Clayton’s Uproot.

But my most personal connection with Krukowski came from his publishing company Exact Change. I was in Boston visiting Mike Gamble – as I seemed to be every few months during college – and in the Twisted Village record store I found Exact Change’s edition of Morton Feldman’s writing: Give My Regards to Eighth Street. One of those books that set my hair on fire. I still have that copy almost 20 years later, beat to hell and still providing a light socket to stick my finger in when I’m stuck.

During their ranging, fascinating talk, two particular statements stuck with me. The first was Krukowski, “The thing I hear all the time is ‘overwhelmed,’ and I’ve come to question it. It’s a good, immediate thing to say. But maybe you do have time but the coordinates have changed and you can be grateful.”

In a lot of ways, this festival, full-to-bursting, is about gratitude for that abundance. I ran into a local friend and composer Brian Harnetty who called it the kid-in-a-candy-store effect. Ratliff answered a related question from the audience with, “Whatever choice you make is the right one. Wherever you are, if you commit, you’re in the right place.”

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem

The overwhelming impression I walked away from Friday with was the power and joy of communication in that space and that time. Specificity.

There was a strong thread within that joy – and I use joy to encompass catharsis – about using music to actively and directly engage the outside world. A resistance to the impulse to withdraw to some easy and lonely hermetic bubble.

That began with my first set, Bang on a Can All-Stars’ selection of their Field Recordings project using commissioned compositions built around found or archival sound. Mark Stewart, the guitarist, introduced every piece by talking about where the writer found its “truth and beauty.” Calculated cacophony broke into sublime warmth. Shimmering textures from Ken Thomson’s clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello shattered and turned on Vicky Chow’s perfectly placed piano depth charges and were borne aloft on David Cossin’s chunky, driving drums. The juxtaposition of the pieces shone new light on them all – Caroline Shaw’s piece, about a quilter reflecting on her craft, placed between David Lang’s ominous abstraction of sharpening knives and Steve Reich’s bitter fable “The Cave of Machpelah,” changed the texture and expanded the resonance of all three.

Dancing to Kristin Andreassen

That sense of playful engagement was neon-bright when I stopped at Boyd’s Jig and Reel. A terrific bar but I learned the first year that “best scotch list in town and rowdy locals” is a touch counterproductive to in-depth grappling with sound. My taste of this year’s “traditional” track came through Becky Hill and Kristen Andreassen’s Old-Time House Party. All I really knew of either artist was Andreassen’s fantastic album The Gondolier and my old pal Dave’s relentless enthusiasm for her band Uncle Earl. To say I was charmed and delighted feels like damning with faint praise – it was a magical supernova of love.

Variety show style, there was clogging (I might have misidentified it, an Appalachian analog to hoofing-style tap), dancing (including an advanced-beginner level square dance), and a flood of guests. My favorite tunes were the Andreassen showcases. “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color For Your Eyes” featured Scott Miller’s – THE Knoxville ambassador if you grew up where and when I did – bassist Bryn Davies and rhythmic patty cake. “Meet Me Out on the Dancefloor” reassembled the earlier guests for a two-step woven with sweetness: bass, banjo, Celtic cello, ragtime clarinet, rhythm guitar, and harmonies. It was a palate cleanser, a refresh, and something I could see again and again.

Algiers

Algiers painted that engagement with colors of resistance and witness in the foreground at The Standard. I say this with no exaggeration, they put on one of the finest rock shows I’ve ever seen. Setting the tone as they came out to drones, bathed in red light, frontman Franklin James Fisher dedicated their set to bassist Ryan Mahan “In exile in the UK.” Substitute bass player “Gary Indiana” acquitted himself brilliantly, sculpting bass lines out of molten volume, sometimes turning up so loud he just had to shake or strike the bass and layering shiny, sticky tar with synth bass. James Tong’s sensual earthquake drumming conjured Depeche Mode and the Cro-Mags as it wove in and out of loops. Lee Tesche had a similar approach to the guitar: bowing, switching to saxophone Billy Zoom-style, leavening fat riffs with acid dissonance.

Fisher’s voice and presence summed up the eternal righteous fucking of the sacred and profane that serves as the DNA of rock and roll since time immemorial. An implacable swagger and roof-shattering scream with the mix of intense masculinity and abject vulnerability as well as anyone’s executed it since Smokey Robinson and Sinatra. The kind of frontman who draws you into his fire.

The band aren’t precious about style or signifier. They play like the world is ending and there’s no time for your weak-ass conception of authenticity. A transmission sent straight from a doomed planet to the dental filings of an outcast on another doomed planet. Algiers is throwing an apocalypse party worthy of The Stooges and Funkadelic and Public Enemy but drilled and tooled for the here and now.

The Thing

Less directly programmatic music was also in abundance and there was no shortage of the pleasures of “pure” abstraction.

Rocket Science affirmed that Evan Parker still plays like he’s leaning off a cliff, unafraid. Craig Taborn is one of the great improvisers of his, or any generation – shifting his entire body language and attack to echo Parker’s fluttering high-register work; muting the piano strings directly; changing the flow of the group, the eye of the storm and its electricity. Petet Evans’ virtuosic trickster and Sam Pluto’s live electronics and real-time delays and looping set up and distorted frameworks and contexts.

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem band was wall-to-wall fun and excitement. Her violin jousted with the guitar of her partner in deconstruction Nels Cline over thick, roiling grooves courtesy of Todd Sickafoose and Scott Amendola – a rhythm section born to play together. Great, sticky tunes, especially “A Ride With Polly Jean” and a new untitled number.

Mats Gustafsson was one of my gateway drugs to free jazz, by way of John Corbett’s writing and a first credit card I charged too much to Dusty Groove on. His power trio, The Thing, is the kind of physical force of nature even people who don’t like improvised music can’t deny. But even as much of a fan as I am, I was unprepared for the simultaneous widening of scope for inspiration and laser focus of approach they deployed here. Soulful, even sweet, without sacrificing any intensity or ferocity. This last set wrung me out and sent me into the shining night reeling.

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Big Ears 2018 Day 1: Ley Lines, Throughlines, and Blurry Borders

I’m far from the first person to say it but Big Ears Festival is special. After a year off – but je ne regrette Sick Weekend – I returned to this booming, bustling college town to reconnect with deeper listening and jump off the merry-go-round for a minute.

Started slow on Thursday but I needed that easing in. Wandered the downtown, filling my lungs and feeling the vibrations of this place. A couple great meals – Chivo Taqueria and Myrtle’s Chicken and Beer – and reacquainting myself with Old City Java.

Stopped at Public House for an apertif to the sensory feast: Postmodern Spirits release party for their (damn good) first single malt Tennessee Whiskey at a party at Public House. I overheard one of my favorite refrains: a stylish regular who works at another bar (I gathered) said about Big Ears: “I dig the crowd, I get it. It brings people from everywhere. I just want them to know culture happens here too.” I’ve said it; I’ve heard it at Gonerfest and Anime Weekend Atlanta. It’s people like her who make that happen: loving your town so much it’s infectious.

Went straight from there to my first set of the festival: ICE (the International Contemporary Ensemble) playing Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s majestic, luminous “In The Light of The Air.”

In the round, most of the audience seated on the floor, the ensemble lit Thorvaldsdottir’s piece from within, shaping and shifting. Motifs rise and repeat, changing their DNA while remaining recognizable. Percussion plays an omnipresent, mercurial role here: clattering and clicking like ash in the air around the bubbling lava of piano; slashing transition color from a bowed marimba; growling propulsion not only moving the piece forward but in every direction.

Glacial accumulation of detail and material dances with the light installation, effectively underlining as when the bulbs surge bright with deep bass throbs. As delicate and dramatic as life. The music is so engaged with the world it absorbed and played with the setting sun, the howl of passing trains, and omnipresent redevelopment.

The pedal steel guitar is one of the most evocative, purely American sounds I’ve run across. No one fuses that unmistakable sound to as pure and personal a language as Susan Alcorn. Alcorn’s vocabulary isn’t the result of eschewing history – she knows her Speedy West, her Leon McAuliffe, her Don Helms, and her Aubrey Ghent. That sound comes from a burning desire to see what else she can say with that vocabulary and unerring taste across the spectrum of music.

The first time I came across Susan Alcorn was her 2006 album And I Await The Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar. In the sleek dance club environs of The Standard, Alcorn dazzled a rapt crowd with that title track and a story about its genesis: trying to arrange Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (a World War Ii elegy for wind orchestra) for steel. In those limitations, she found something that vibrates with history but is no one else’s.

Throughout her rapturous set, Alcorn made that guitar snarl and cry, turned it into a barrelhouse piano, a seductive dancer, nature painting, and a chorus of bells. She nodded to Giacinto Scelsi and tango. A profoundly American artist with the simultaneous thirst for the new and love of everything that got us here, Susan Alcorn exemplified Big Ears.

The icing on this delicious Thursday was two guitarists I’ve loved for as long as I’ve loved music. The minute you hear Marc Ribot’s Chuck-Berry-wrapped-in-barbed-wire guitar you never forget it. You hear it everywhere. David Hidalgo’s guitar, accordion, deceptively easy mastery of what seems like every other instrument, plus his spicy honey voice, make every record he guests on that much better – before we even get into his work as the cornerstone of one of the premier American rock bands, Los Lobos, co-writing most of their best songs. So as word trickled out these two titans were playing together it shot to the top of my list to check out. Thursday night at the Tennessee Theater was my chance.

The two men in chairs turned that cavernous stage and massive theater into a living room or a back porch. With the easy charm of old friends who don’t have a goddam thing to prove except to themselves, they lit up the history of American music. Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors” was gifted a gorgeous high-lonesome voice and finger picking from Hidalgo punctuated with hot knives from Ribot. “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” got a dry vocal wringing all the hurt out of irony from Ribot as the two painted an expansive, devastated landscape with their guitars, deconstructing and rebuilding. Wilson Pickett and Paquita Del La Barrio and Los Cuatreros were the framework for hard-won and deeply personal voices forged from experience and love. Looks at permeable borders and the way we let each other down.

My favorite moment came with their revitalized take on “A Matter of Time,” the Los Lobos classic from their breakthrough Will The Wolf Survive record written by Hidalgo with Louie Perez. Stripped of horns and thirty plus years since it’s first appearance, the story and Hidalgo’s Sam Cooke-recalling vocal shine just as brightly as ever. The way we want to be better and keep reaching even when we know that “better world” might never be ib in our reach. They dedicated a note-perfect Ventures tune to Nokie Edwards with Hidalgo saying, “When we were kids, that Ventures stuff turned us all on. It was the shit.” Chuckling, he caught himself, “I guess it still is.”

May it always be. Day 2 awaits.

Bounteous Beauty This Week in Columbus

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Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – photo courtesy of Wexner Center

I hope the handful of you reading this got the three-day weekend to rest up because there’s enough unmissable stuff this week to kill the weaker of constitution.

Starting off on Wednesday we see one of the early blendings of new Performing Arts Curator Lane Czaplinski and outgoing curator Chuck Helm. Helm booked, in collaboration with CCAD, NYC artist Neil Goldberg for his one-man show Inhibited Bites fresh off two performances around APAP. Czaplinski makes good on his commitment to connecting the Wex beyond its four walls by bringing the show to Franklinton’s Idea Foundry. There have been happy hours related to Wex events before, but this at Land Grant is one of very few we’ve had steps away from the show. I wrote a preview for Columbus Underground.

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Neil Goldberg’s Inhibited Bites – photo courtesy of the Wexner Center

Thursday, the Ogún Meji Duo kicks off a six-month residency at Art of Republic. One of our finest composers, Mark Lomax II, and my favorite saxophone player in town, Eddie Bayard, bring their fiery, flexible. Each of these residencies features a special guest and this week’s is very special: visual artist Bryan Christopher Moss. Friend and editor Andrew Patton previewed this for JazzColumbus.

Friday, one of our finest record labels, Heel Turn, celebrate their third anniversary with two showcases of our best rock and roll on the Old North High Street corridor. The appetizer at Dirty Dungarees features Bloody Show – never have better Stooges-style songs graced our town – with Mr. Clit and the Pink Cigarettes and the new Outer Spacist/Terrestrials offshoot Psychotropic. Facebook event. And the main event is headlined by my (and pretty much everybody else’s) favorite Columbus band right now, DANA, with Burning Itch from Knoxville, and Messrs and Raw Pony also from Columbus. Get there early, you don’t want to miss Raw Pony if you know what’s good for you. Facebook event.

Saturday, one of the finest young trumpet players from NYC, Adam O’Farrill brings his quartet Stranger Days to the Wex. I had the privilege of interviewing O’Farrill in advance of this show, and this is the kind of pure jazz that can move people who aren’t necessarily interested in jazz and leave those of us who already drank the Kool-Aid high for days. I previewed this show for JazzColumbus.

Later Saturday, Spacebar brings an unhinged rock extravaganza from near and far. I’ve barely been able to stop listening to London band Shame since they hit my radar before an NYC trip last year. Their first full-length Songs of Praise delivers on all the snotty, gleeful promise of their early singles with ingratiating post-punk grooves and snarled hooks that draw you in at the same time they’re pushing you away. Pittsburgh Sub Pop signees The Gotobeds have a slightly poppier shine to their stiletto sharpness but anyone who saw their Big Room show a year or two ago knows how hard they can rock. Local up-and-comers Kizzy Hall and Roof Dogs open, both of whom I’m looking forward to checking out again. Facebook event.

CU: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. By Available Light

I reviewed the most exciting thing on a stage in Columbus right now, Available Light’s production of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., for Columbus Underground.

I wrote, “Theatre with a message doesn’t get much better than this. This production of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is an act of communion between audience and cast. The play works as something both purely entertaining and a reminder that entertainment is never “pure” when it’s worth its salt. Eleni Papaleonardos and Available Light throw the gauntlet down for the rest of their season and the year in Columbus art and I expect the echo of that throwing to ring out from the darkness.

Three more shows starting tomorrow.

01.11.18 – Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd

How much of remembering is an act of love? That question suffuses every molecule of Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, the unequivocal highlight of my first day in New York this trip.

The first time I saw Ishmael Houston-Jones it was like the first time I heard Monk or Joni Mitchell; the first time I heard Amiri Baraka; the first time I saw a Rauschenberg combine. So I went into this revival presented by American Realness barely knowing anything about John Bernd, to whom tribute is being paid, and only a little more about Houston-Jones’ co-director Miguel Gutierrez. That instinct didn’t disappoint.

The cast of dancers is perfect, Toni Carlson, Talya Epstein, Alvaro Gonzalez, Charles Gowin, Madison Krekel, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, and Alex Rodabaugh. They feel like they like each other. Physical chemistry is paramount and abundant but there’s a warmth that’s much harder to capture. For a show about communion and tending to one another that sense means everything.

Sweet moments of singing syllables that boil down to “Oh, hi, heya” stretching out and sparkling like stardust (Nick Haslett beautifully reworks Bernd’s original compositions) master the supple stillness of being together many of us only strive for. There’s a gorgeous, subtle glow in the way these bodies slide through the original music; themes build, go through a chrysalis, then spark between the dancers.

Toni Carlson’s warm intensity, especially in concert with Charles Gowin, is a highlight; they ground the more abstract sequences in a heightened, best-selves version of the world we know too well.

Photo from American Realness website, by Ian Douglas

There’s a delightful slapstick edge here, most prominent in a sequence about fighting illness by “Taking control of [your] diet” making a parody of a smoothie. This shifts into a thesis statement as everyone puts their hands on the blender like a sorcerer’s talisman and chant in tones equal parts defiance and desperation words of hope like “I will not die before I do justice to my gifts.”

The use of pre-existing songs here is remarkable, with nary a cop-out crutch or easy wink for miles.

Copland’s “Hoe Down” section from Rodeo gets jubilant irreverence. This only piece from a traditional ballet gets razor-sharp use of that post-Balanchine narrative dance language but also the childlike play at Cowboys and Indians and some frankly erotic “playing at cowboys.”

Prince’s Dirty Mind grows out of the kind of hard triplet stomping Houston-Jones says is a signature of Bernd, a thudding, sensual shudder that’s a call to attention that could turn into “Walk this Way” at any moment. With this Prince song, the dance vocabulary that served as a quicksilver carrier for many moods, flowers into an electric bacchanal. Pairing off, tossing each other around, finding space for one another’s body. The highlight for me was Epstein, split off from the others, dancing in shadow back by the audience, twitching like a power-line violently ripped from its moorings; the kind of intense, erotic defiance of gravity and death it takes this much craft to look natural. I blushed and wanted to look away but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. New Order’s Age of Consent captured the bursting joy and melancholy of that song in a way I’ve never seen any movie or TV use pull off.

The coup de grace (double-entendre sting on “grace”) came with Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. Circumventing what most people gravitate toward in this song, the hustler narrative, Variations drops us right into Part C. We get strings already growing lush and Springsteen’s cameo before the sweet, keening melancholy of “I need you, baby. Oh please, baby… Please don’t slip away.”

I know how reductive this is for such an intense and complex work. But what I left with was: no energy is wasted. Bernd was an unlikely candidate for the canon but his friends made a zine 10 years after his death in tribute. 20 years after that an oversold crowd had the privilege to sit in a church built in 1799 and marvel at all the work in this recreation.

I don’t want to get all “Can I get an Amen” on you, but… May we all be so lucky to have someone love us that much. To love even one thing we made that much. To be some small part of reflecting or amplifying that love in some small way.

Huntertones – Live Reviewed in JazzColumbus

“The fat riff is the primary building block of Huntertones’ best pieces. The opening notes of Dan White’s “Anvil” kick off this collection of ear-worms like a fanfare. It sets the tone for the record’s road-tested arrangements…From that horn trill that opens “Anvil” to the country-tinged funk jubilation of Ott’s “Looking Back,” Live is a party record to be reckoned with. A snapshot of a band out of its chrysalis stage and spreading wings as it ascends to another level.”

Read the full review at JazzColumbus

 

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.