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.

Best Of 2017: Live Music

“The bandleader is indicative
of nothing or everything

Depending on the day.”
-Gabrielle Calvocoressi, “In the Darkness of the House of Pleasure”

I’m pretty sure live music was the first of these lists I started 15+ years ago (any friends going back to the email list days or early LiveJournal, feel free to correct). It’s been a guiding light. It’s how I’ve met most of my dearest friends and made many of my fondest memories. Even as I grow old and share the frustration with some trappings, I’m still invigorated by a great show. Nothing else gives me that instantaneous body-and-soul charge.

I saw around 130 shows this year. After a hard, hard deliberation – getting it down from 35 was more difficult than previous years – here are twenty still gnawing at me. Rather than ranking, they’re presented in chronological order. In Columbus, unless otherwise specified.

  • Dirtbombs and Soledad Brothers (The Magic Stick, Detroit, 12/31/16) – Rock-and-roll motherfucking church. Maybe the greatest rock band of my adult life – and still my favorite outlet for the prodigious craft and imagination of Mick Collins – came back to their hometown to prove they can take the crown any time they want it. From the first crunch of their take on Mitch Ryder’s “Motor City Baby” this only let off the throttle long enough so we could feel the sweat on our skin and catch the fire in each other’s eyes. Soledad Brothers reminded me how much I dug them too with raunchy, swinging sweetness.
  • Sinkane (The Basement, 02/22/17) – Columbus expat Ahmed Gallab, Sinkane, just gets better. This six-piece version plus horns was an ecstatic trip through his beguiling new record Life and Livin’ It with a couple rearranged classics. Chants like “We all gonna be all right!” (from “U’Huh”) and wry observations like “Telephone”, welded to ornate and liquid melodies and deep grooves. Glad-you’re-alive music.
  • Still Dreaming (Wexner Center, 03/29/17) – Chuck Helm’s valedictory season at the Wex didn’t miss a single step in his jazz game. All 6 shows could have justifiably hit my top 20. This new quartet from Joshua Redman played and wrestled with the rock-solid melodies and mystery of his father Dewey Redman’s group Old and New Dreams and new work using that as a jumping off point. Four mammoth players in the service of the kind of pure dialogue jazz does better than any kind of music. Sparks flew between Redman’s sax and Ron Miles’ brass as they shot screams through with sweetness and shadowed bravura with a wishful baleful edge. All in the deep pocket of one of the best rhythm sections alive, Scott Colley and Brian Blade.
  • 75 Dollar Bill and Sue Garner (Ace of Cups, 04/04/17) – 75 Dollar Bill is a perennial favorite. It’s heartening to see this Che Chen and Rick Brown project breaking through to broader appeal. Their set dissected the irreducible DNA of music, leaning into the gorgeous impossibility of separating melody from rhythm. The opening set from Sue Garner was a reminder of the malleable nature of song. Her artful miniatures like ice stabbing into the listener’s heart and melting into a glowing, shifting, enriching light.
  • Wadada Leo Smith Great Lakes Quartet (The Stone, NYC, 04/23/17) – One of the absolute masters reminding us how great he is. Brand new compositions that felt like the quaking, painful renewal of a mighty earth. The quaking, flame-kissed rhythm section of Mark Helias and Marcus Gilmore, Jonathon Haffner’s lustrous alto sax, and Smith’s singular trumpet tone ripped into this material. An artist just getting better and better.
  • LA Witch (Berlin, NYC, 04/25/17) – There’s something magical about seeing a band come to the next level right in front of your eyes and Berlin is an intimate venue that lends itself to those moments. LA Witch destroyed me on a weeknight with sticky, growling songs that felt like Wanda Jackson’s vocals over heavy shoegaze with just enough girl-group swing and garage punch to keep the floor bouncing.
  • Kris Kristofferson (Southern Theater, 05/17/17) – Watching this lovely victory lap of one of the great American writers revisit songs I never thought I’d hear live, I found myself thinking of John Berger’s writing about the poet Nazim Hikmet and Juan Muñoz. That sense that the greatest dream we can carry in this age is fraternity, of carrying hope in our teeth. It’s all there. And I might have cried like a moron.
  • Vijay Iyer Sextet (Wexner Center, 05/20/17) – This was a tribute to Chuck Helm’s cultivation of relationships. Columbus had the pleasure of watching Iyer evolve into one of the strongest conceptions in American music This sextet, underpinned by longtime collaborator Stephan Crump on bass and Justin Brown on drums, added heavier flavors of New Orleans funk and second-line into these sparkling compositions. The front line flanked steady foil Steve Lehman with Mark Shim and god-almighty Graham Haynes with Iyer at its beating heart. A flood of images and ideas that rewarded constant, dedicated attention while still being some of the most accessible music I heard all year.
  • Sarah Shook and the Disarmers (Ace of Cups, 07/20/17) – Sarah Shook and her cracking band sum up everything good about raw Americana right now. Shit-kicking dance beats underscore Shook’s characters grappling with connection and try to find a place in the world on songs like “Nothin’ Feels Right Like Doin’ Wrong”. All delivered in Shook’s intense twang, stylized but not doing an impression of any specific model. What Sekou Sundiata used to call “dance and stand still” music.
  • Priests (Ace of Cups, 07/21/17) –  Priests’ new material on 2017’s Nothing Feels Natural they were touring here was several steps beyond and this show was every single thing I want in a rock band. They kept the energy and ferocity of their early hardcore days but opened it up to other textures. One of my favorite rhythm sections working today, Taylor Mulitz on bass and Daniele Daniele on drums, danced through slinky rhythms that reminded me of the Cure, blended the Clash with krautrock and go-go, and ripped into classicist, raging punk rock, all with giddy ease. They presented a perfect backdrop for GL Jaguar’s immediately recognizable guitar and Katie Alice Greer’s sharp lyrics and intense, riveting presence.
  • Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus (Ace of Cups, 07/25/17) – This show on Anne’s birthday was a better victory lap than I could have ever dared hope from an artist who meant more to me than almost any other. Lunch, in remarkable voice and wielding her volcanic presence, led us through a retrospective set of all highlights. Backed by a crack band with Child Abuse-frontman Tim Dahl on bass and Bob Bert on drums and perfect guitar foil Weasel Walter. This wasn’t nostalgia, and it wasn’t pandering to who we used to be, it was a reckoning. It was a reminder of what still lives in those songs.
  • Greg Cartwright (Cafe Bourbon Street, 07/31/17) – One of my favorite songwriters working today, revisiting a tiny room with an old friend, Andy Robertson, and even sticking around to spin records? An evening I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to be with my friends for. A fascinating look at continuity and evolution in someone’s writing, the way work done 10 years ago takes on new textures, reflected in the light of more recent songs. A new song with lyrics “I think the devil works in a pharmacy…” that might have set a new bar for the brand of heartbreak his work owns. His set at GonerFest was also exquisite, but this was a perfect Monday night.
  • Coathangers (Ace of Cups, 08/02/17) – They were also great in a larger venue in Brooklyn in the Spring; I have a hard time believing the Coathangers ever have a bad set these days. Fist-pumping rock-and-roll with shout-along lyrics and pure, glowing adrenaline.
  • Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express (Natalie’s, 08/03/17) – Chuck Prophet is a true historian of the music who distills everything he’s learned into songs that sound like no one other than Chuck Prophet. Preoccupied with death and fighting stagnation, as on “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” and “It’s Been a Bad Year for Rock and Roll,” and my favorite, the tribute to Suicide’s Alan Vega, “In the Mausoleum.” This show made me think about rock-and-roll and its ritualistic ability to move beyond the adolescent, the creation myth also talking to us about burying our dead.
  • Sheer Mag and Flesh World (Ace of Cups, 09/12/17) – Over the last couple years, the world’s come around to realizing the self-evident fact that Sheer Mag are the best live rock-and-roll band touring. This trip, supporting their phenomenal new record, Need to Feel Your Love, felt like a victory lap and an open road. Their blend of Thin Lizzy twinned guitar riffing; crisp, stomping rhythms and post-hardcore singing from one of the greatest lead singers working, Tina Halladay, is an irresistible combination. Anyone who claims to like rock-and-roll and doesn’t love this band? I’ve got nothing for you. Up and comers Flesh World also blew me away here, extra impressive when the headliner took my head off.
  • Khruangbin and Chicano Batman (A&R Bar, 10/03/17) – Chicano Batman’s sweetly fuzzy psych-Delfonics blending with Khruangbin’s majestic low-rider R&B reconfigured as Thai lounge music. I wish there’d been more room to dance, but I was gobsmacked to see this many young people – and people I didn’t know – loving this kind of music.
  • The Bad Plus Bill Frisell (Lincoln Theater, 10/08/17) – This astonishing set brought together a group that helped define the Wexner Center’s jazz aesthetic under the great Chuck Helm and a titan who he helped give that shine to in his days at the Walker. It was everything good about both of their approaches. This paid tribute to The Bad Plus’ first iteration’s dogged determination to delve into whatever they were investigating – Ornette Coleman or Stravinsky or Milton Babbit or Sabbath – and come out feeling like themselves. And it was a fresh pair of eyes on Frisell’s fertile ’85-95 quartet as his writing came into its own but with the tools of everything he’s learned since in its execution. You could come in off the street not knowing anything about either artist or this oevure or you could come in having gorged yourself on it in High School/college and this was a knockout punch either way. Thank you, Chuck Helm. (For a little bonus, check out Helm’s writing about this pairing for co-commissioning body The Walker Art Museum, one of the best pieces ever written about TBP.)
  • Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls (Hogan House, 10/13/17) – Jon Langford’s voice gets sharper and clearer with every passing year. This new project designed for two other voices with his, Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas, with lead guitarist and harmony vocalist John Szmanski, was another take on the dark and joyous heart of America. It was a balm to be in a great-sounding and well-appointed basement (seriously, try to hit a Hogan House show, they’re fantastic hosts) with other listeners, basking in the flame of these songs on an unseasonable warm fall afternoon. Feeling like we’re all receiving “A message from the heart of the world.”
  • Man Forever (Double Happiness, 10/14/17) – This is the kind of show too big for our fantastic gallery/diy spaces but many rock clubs – with the aid of Jen Powers and Fred Pfening here, who should not be ignored – wouldn’t have booked. Kid Millions’ Man Forever was avant-garde technique and forms – played gorgeously by a band that included members of Tigue – comingled with samba and go-go and heavy, swinging rock. An electric dance-party baptism.
  • Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds (Double Happiness, 10/23/17) – If you asked me what’s good about rock? What’s good about live music? It’s all right in this show. A co-bill with NYC DJ Jonathan Toubin for Halloween had Congo’s quicksilver band in full costume going through a series of songs that touched on the holiday and songs that just reminded us all how good it felt to dance with like-minded people. Boundless joy and magic and love.
  • Mountain Goats (Newport, 11/09/17) –The Mountain Goats have grown into their show as a show, they were one of the most comfortable bands I’ve ever seen on the Newport stage. Their new record, Goths, about growing older and the way structures that once empowered us and showed us a bigger world close in around us, was a perfect spine for this subtle, intimate-in-surprising- ways show that felt like it drew us all in. My favorite icepick-in-the-heart line of all year, from “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds”, got extra juice from singer John Darnielle leaning over his fender rhodes and twisting the corkscrew just a little with “There will be goodbyes by dozens. You get to practice being brave.” Like that pain is a gift. Because, somehow, it kind of is.

And, because festivals are not going away, we should celebrate what’s still good about them. My favorite 20 sets, mixed up, from my favorite festivals throughout the year. Again, all are in Columbus unless otherwise specified.

  1. Antibalas (Black Swamp Music Festival, Bowling Green, 09/09/17)
  2. ESG (West Fest, Chicago, 07/07/17)
  3. Golden Pelicans (Cheap Heat, 04/14/17 and GonerFest, Memphis, 09/30/17)
  4. Los Nastys (RuidoFest Afterparty, Chicago, 07/07/17)
  5. Screaming Females (Sick Weekend, 03/23/17)
  6. Magic Factory (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/29/17)
  7. Sweet Knives (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/28/17)
  8. Molly Burch (Sick Weekend, 03/24/17)
  9. Watu Utongo (Villagefest, 06/10/17)
  10. 1-800-Band (Sick Weekend, 03/25/17)
  11. Dana (Sick Weekend, 03/25/17 and Cheap Heat 04/15/17)
  12. The Echo Ohs (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/30/17)
  13. Bloodbags (GonerFest, Memphis, 09/28/17)
  14. Danny and the Darleans (Cheap Heat, 04/15/17)
  15. Bobby Selvaggio’s Red Rhinoceros (Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival, 08/26/17)



Best Of 2017 – Visual Art

“That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don’t need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
Exist? ”
-John Ashbery, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Visual art is a key part of my cultural diet. One I’ve come to a little later. Even when I’m with someone at a gallery and discussing what we’re seeing, there’s a particular being-alone with a piece that lends itself to introspection and takes me to the same places as poetry.

That said, there are exhibits I gleaned the most pleasure from sitting around talking about after the fact – this year’s Whitney Biennial, for instance. I wouldn’t trade the hour dissecting it with Anne at the Corner Bistro or the hour talking about it with Tutti Jackson and Jeff Regensburger at Ace of Cups for anything, but those conversations and negotiations stuck with me long after any aesthetic charge.

These are the opposite, these 15 shows nagged at me and wouldn’t let me go.Trying to add in some photographs – what has a picture doesn’t correlate to liking it more than other work, but I’m far more likely to experiment with snapping a picture in an empty gallery than a full museum where I might be in somebody’s way. Unless noted, everything here is in Columbus.

  1. Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Unknown Notebooks (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland) – Basquiat is an artist perpetually extending the limits of what we know and how we understand. Just when I believe I’ve gone to that well more than enough times, I’m lucky enough to see a show or some scholarship that explodes those parameters. This was the best example in recent memory. His young notebooks as a nascent flowering of his work’s complicated relationship to text and typography, every few steps my hair stood on end.
  2. Various Artists, Gray Matters (Wexner Center for the Arts) – This shot across the bow from the Wex’s new Senior Curator Michael Goodson beguiled and staggered me. The varieties of gray gave the galleries an uncanny calm, drawing the audience into the kaleidoscopic approaches and perspectives. I made it to this almost 10 times and still didn’t get my fill. Suzanne McClelland’s Rank (Billionaires) resonated the Mike Ladd lyric “We are the size of constellations in the path of wrathful idiots” in my head whenever I wandered through it. Mickalene Thomas’ “Hair Portrait (20)” used her signature rhinestones to look at black glamor and black women in the world. Roni Horn’s “Opposites of White” like two looking pools but with concrete and glass. So much to see and breathe in and grapple with.
  3. Various Artists, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-1985 (Brooklyn Museum, NYC) – The Brooklyn Museum has one of the most engaging, challenging programs of any of the New York institutions. This exposed me to artists I should have known, and I didn’t, along with favorites of mine like Carrie Mae Weems. The strain of revolutionary work in this fraught period in American history was intoxicating, from Dingda McCammon’s totemic mixed-media myth-making to Emma Amos’ work on paper which put the interrogation of the image in the foreground… every medium represented and not in the way you’d necessarily expect. Ephemera from collectives like the Weusi provided context and connective tissue between the diverse artists.
  4. Alice Neel, Alice Neel, Uptown (David Zwirner, NYC) – I knew Alice Neel’s work pretty well but this collection of her time living uptown in New York burned cataracts off my eyes. An equanimity marks Neel’s work here. We feel her real desire to understand everyone she’s painting, from a “random” person down the street to more famous subjects like Alice Childress. My high off the clear-eyed and razor-edged empathy here lasted the rest of this (terrific) New York trip.
  5. Carmen Herrera, Line of Sight (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Columbus is lucky to have gotten this first exhibition of Herrera’s in 20 years right after the Whitney. This is the perfect example of someone drilling ever deeper into a language and, by the same token, language itself. Precarious and impossibly strong, how much can you say with two colors and how much can you hide? Exquisite.
  6. Hope Gangloff, S/T (Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC) – My favorite new painter. This exhibition caught my eye from the street and grabbed me by the collar. An intense desire to know her subjects that resonated with the Alice Neel mentioned above but with a perpetual-motion jangle in tune with today. Colors at play reminded me of Seurat but also the Hernandez Brothers. I loved the use of blurring. In the painting shown here, there’s a tattoo not indistinct because it doesn’t matter but drawn in the blur redolent of memory.IMG_20170421_140444.jpg
  7. Various Artists, Making Space: Women Artists and Post-War Abstraction (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – This was the big-ticket, bursting at the seams show MoMA does better than any museum I’ve ever visited. A glimpse into the depth and breadth of that amazing collection, featuring work not hung often enough. Big, bold work by Joan Mitchell and Lee Bontecou, more austere abstractions from Agnes Martin. This was an embarrassment of riches there would never be enough time for.
  8. Honore Sharrer, A Dangerous Woman (Columbus Museum of Art) – My favorite show at the revitalized Columbus Museum of Art since the new wing opened a couple years ago, and there have been doozies. This was a remarkable look at one of the great American surrealist painters who was not on my radar at all. If this touring show comes anywhere near you, please check it out.
  9. Nina Chanel Abney, Seized the Imagination (Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC) –  This show was a tightly clenched fist and an explosion. Pop art and street art iconography in riveting compositions. I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. The fuck-you our time needs, not blunted or weakened, but with a formal rigor that lent itself to diving deep and fighting to unpack it.IMG_20171109_132750.jpg
  10. Josephine Halvorson, As I Went Walking (Sikkema Jenkins, NYC) – Josephine Halvorson’s paintings remind me of Annie Baker’s plays in her attention to perfect details and dedication to turning up the realism until its surreal nature won’t be ignored. This walk her new work guided us on was full of the dread, strangeness, and wonder we should all stay in touch with. This magical, horrifying world.IMG_20171109_142249.jpg
  11. Jane Hammond, Search Light (Galerie Lelong, NYC) – Jane Hammond’s work was new to me and this gallery show blew me away. These mystical, terrifying encaustics highlighted the magic and the secret languages laid over seemingly mundane, everyday events.IMG_20170421_134508.jpg
  12. Suzanne Silver, Codes and Contingences (Beeler Gallery) – I wish I could have shown this gallery exhibit to every genre writer of my acquaintance. It summed up the fevered mind, the paranoid state, that might be the only sane approach to the current moment. The intense, desperation to control in the meticulously cataloged pieces removed from the ever sparser gallery? So much to unpack but everything suffused with sensation.IMG_20171208_144057.jpg
  13. Richard Serra, Sculpture and Drawings (David Zwirner, NYC) – Any time I get to see new Richard Serra, it’s a good month/year for me. His work is like a sauna for the soul; I feel myself sweating out toxins and anxieties buried down deep. A holy, purifying thing.IMG_20171109_132011.jpg
  14. Various Artists, Visions of India (Pizzuti Collection) – The Pizzuti Collection grows into itself and finds its niche in the Columbus market. This look at contemporary Indian art featured well-known-in-the-US blue-chip artists like Anish Kapoor and Vibha Galhorta alongside stunning work from people unknown to me like Sheila Makhijani and Jitish Kallat. I could have gone to this three more times and not absorbed it all.IMG_20170923_122438.jpg
  15. Roxy Paine, Seronin Reuptake Inhibitor (Beeler Gallery) – Back on the feelings of dread, these empty, perfect-until-you-notice-the-perspective dioramas behind glass pounded the breath right out of my lungs.

Best Of 2017 – Theatre/Dance/Opera

“…the river that goes
nowhere, that has survived the
astonishments and will never
venture close to that heat again, is
cool here, looking up at what,
looking back down, how is it
possible the world still exists, as it
begins to take form there, in the not
being, there is once then there is the
big vocabulary, loosed, like
a jay’s song thrown down when the
bird goes away”
-Jorie Graham, “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me”

This was a rough year for me personally and those choppy waters were dwarfed by the world on fire outside my window. The big positive was finally getting sick of years of attrition and making my world smaller through meanness and casual cruelty and disregard for other people’s feelings and numbing myself instead of feeling.

With some stumbles, I aggressively committed to therapy and tried other tools to try to get back in touch with the me who genuinely likes things. I won’t know until retrospect if I was successful. I hope being open about it – here and elsewhere – helps me stick with it. These exercises in looking-back are key to that: it’s an astonishing reminder of how much great stuff I’m lucky enough to experience every year. I talk about theatre as being the form of art most closely aligned with empathy for me: it’s impossible to ignore other living, breathing people on stage creating this feedback loop between artist and audience.

In the actual (ostensible) topic of this blog, Columbus theatre seemed to rebound after last year’s lull (with the huge exception last year of the August Wilson Festival that was the tide lifting all boats). Available Light, MadLab, Red Herring and CATCO mounted seasons that rank with their best work, The Wexner Center in Chuck Helm’s valedictory season imported the finest work from NYC and elsewhere, OSU and Otterbein continue to be fountains that refresh and replenish our cultural lives as well as the overall theatrical world. I still bemoan no new companies, no wildly new intensity, but in a year that included maybe my strongest theatrical trip to New York, Columbus brought work on our stages that went toe to toe with everything I saw in the Apple.

Everything in Columbus unless stated otherwise. If I reviewed it elsewhere, there’s a link to the original review.

  1. Sunday in the Park With George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine (St. James Theater, NYC) – There wasn’t much chance the best performance I’ve ever seen of my favorite musical of all time wouldn’t top this list. Director Sarna Lapine refined her approach to this play since her fine mounting at our own Short North Stage. The questions about why we make art and how we damage people around are sharper this time out and everything hums with a fresh intensity. Part of that feeling springs from the marvelous performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and especially Annaleigh Ashford. Much comes from the fact that this is the first production I’ve seen to make the contemporary act as strong as the Seurat act; even the chromolume doesn’t come off jokey. This was everything Broadway can and should be.
  2. Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu (Steppenwolf, Chicago) – This was every single thing I want out of theatre: a searing new voice; brilliant acting by Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, and Ryan Hallahan; and direction, from Dayna Taymor that gripped me by the throat and held tight. A riff on Waiting for Godot with liberal sprinklings of the Book of Exodus that didn’t require knowledge of either of those primary sources. A textbook case for using genre tools and historical references to make something undeniably about now. The cri de coeur we need that knows the value of a scalpel and a machete in ripping the skin off the oppression and dehumanization of our age. I don’t think I heard muffled sobs or riotous applause as fervent as I did at this matinee.
  3. Hand to God by Robert Askins (Short North Stage) – One of the funniest comedies to hit Broadway in years came to the Short North Stage and destroyed. Edward Carignan’s razor-sharp direction and effective use of the chimerical Green Room space created a backdrop to bring to life one of the Columbus performances for the ages: Danny Turek as meek, troubled Sunday School student Jason and his possessed puppet Tyrone. Turek’s dazzling, scabrous virtuosity meets its match in energy and intent by phenomenal performances from Kate Lingnofski, Jonathan Putnam, Barbara Weetman, and Chad Goodwin. All my Top 5 made me cry at least once, this one made me cry because I was laughing so hard. Review at Columbus Underground.
  4. Sweat by Lynn Nottage (Studio 54, NYC) – The criticisms that Sweat was a little too pat and a little too clean, too constructed are valid. But I didn’t care one whit while engrossed in this new-classic social drama. Nottage understands how people talk and she understands how that kind of little bar works. Heartbreaking performances from Michelle Wilson, Johanna Day, Will Pullen, and Khris Davis echoed behind my eyes for months after seeing this.
  5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner (Short North Stage) – My favorite play of the last thirty years, maybe my favorite play full-stop got an amazing production of both its parts from Short North Stage to close their 16-17 season. Directed by Edward Carignan and JJ Parkey with collaborative help from Dayton’s Zoot Puppet Theater. The heartbreak at the heart of the world is sometimes best expressed with fabulism and this raw, dirty, kaleidoscopic ride left me staggering down High Street and babbling at the stars. Reviews at Columbus Underground: Part 1 and Part 2.
  6. You Got Older by Claire Barron (Available Light) – Available Light presented an Off-Broadway play I liked when I saw it a few years ago in New York and improved on that production in subtle but key ways. Elena Perantoni gave one of the strongest performances I saw all year as Mae and her rapport with Verne Hendrick as her father glowed with all the weirdness and warmth of life, distilled. Icing on the cake comes from excellent performances from Eleni Papaleonardos, Kasey Meininger, and David Glover as Mae’s siblings, Danny Turek as her would-be love interest, and especially John Connor as the phantasmic cowboy in her fevered dreams. As I said at the time, Acacia Duncan’s direction “doesn’t let anyone off any easier than the material does, but everything is treated with a generosity and deference we should all envy.” Review at Columbus Underground.
  7. The Antipodes by Annie Baker (Signature Theatre, NYC) – If you want to see someone who just gets better every time out of the gate? Annie fucking Baker. This takes her hyperrealism-with-the-color-knob-turned-up-to-bleed-weirdness to another level. A workplace comedy rife with creepiness and dread – what do these people do again? – and intimations of the end of the world outside the walls. Lila Neugenbauer has the perfect sensibility for this work I could have seen 100 times and still be unpacking. Intense heart and humor without for one second slipping into sap or cliché. Astonishing performances from Josh Hamilton, Josh Charles, and especially Will Patton as the manager and Nicole Rodenburg as the one actually running this circus.
  8. In a Rhythm by Bebe Miller (Bebe Miller Group presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts– Every single thing I love about contemporary dance done in a way so accessible that anyone would “get it.” By the end of this delicious 75-minute roller coaster, connections between Nelly, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, and Leonard Cohen and Steve Reich, were not only reasonable but impossible to ignore. The wonder and the danger in trusting our bodies. Hail, hail Bebe Miller and her ensemble. Review at Columbus Underground.
  9. Samara by Richard Maxwell (Soho Rep, NYC) – Similar to the Miller, this was Maxwell at the height of his powers and a director, Sarah Benson, who pushes him and the cast out to the edge. A buddy comedy-tragedy on the fringes of the end of the world, wryly narrated by Steve Earle (who also provided spooky, dissonant music). People talk in epigrams about smaller and larger apocalypses and the crushing weight of the world but it all ends with dancing. If we can find it, there’s always redemptive dancing.
  10. Fun Home, music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, adapted from Alison Bechdel. Bechedel’s autobiographical masterpiece got a perfect adaptation from Kron and Tesori and CATCO’s masterful production. Steven Anderson’s perfect direction brought the best out of this ideal cast, led by Meg Odell, Cari Meixner, and Sydney MacGilvray as the Alisons in varying ages, all grappling with her troubled father played by Peter Matthew Smith. I blubbered like an idiot here. Along with Hand to God, this is the thing I recommended to the widest range of people. Review at Columbus Underground.
  11. Bootleg Radio by Jennifer Schlueter and Matt Slaybaugh (Available Light). This new work, written and directed by Schlueter and Slaybaugh from a magpie’s nest of allusions, found notes and other work. Forged in the fire of this magnificent ensemble with especially good work from Elena Perantoni, Amanda Loch, David Glover, and Todd Eckert (who also provided choreography) this was a complicated paean to hope and connection. Available Light at their best when we need a reminder that “Maybe hope is other people.” Review at Columbus Underground.
  12. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill (Otterbein University). Otterbein gave us a new production, directed by Lenny Leibowitz of this acerbic British modern masterpiece that proved how much biting truth Churchill’s play still musters. Kara Jobe, Daria Reedus, and Isabel Billinghurst gave performances that made me see characters I thought I knew well in a brand new light. Review at Columbus Underground.
  13. Six by Idris Goodwin (Actors Theatre’s Professional Training Company, Louisville). Goodwin’s new play luckily overlapped with a work trip to Louisville and this short, site-specific performance was pure magic.
  14. Corpus Christi by Terence McNally (Evolution Theatre Company with CATCO). Evolution produced a lot of strong work this year but this magical co-production with CATCO of McNally’s transplanting of the Christ myth to the Texas coast he grew up along took the cake. Every performance here was nuanced and lovely, with special attention to James Harper’s Simon Peter, Davion Brown’s John the Baptist, David Vargo’s Matthew, and JT Walker’s Judas. In my review I said “[Director Joe] Bishara takes thirteen of the strongest actors in town and turns them loose on material that could, in lesser hands, feel coarse, too easy or cheap. The symbiosis between actors and director of tight control and letting a moment breathe makes this charming play soar.” Review at Columbus Underground.
  15. Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking by Gus Edwards (PAST Productions). The best example I saw all year of the way theatre can imply a whole life, or two, in just a few scenes and the way it gives us a look at an entire world, came in PAST Productions’ majestic slow-burn take, directed beautifully by Patricia Wallace-Winbush, on Gus Edwards’ Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking. As the eponymous guys, Tony Roseboro and Truman Winbush, Jr., find every once of nuance, getting big laughs without having to reach for them and a deep understanding of how people can still find the good in one another even as we do terrible things. Review at Columbus Underground.