Best of 2019: Theatre/Dance/Opera

“Setting my palms into the mud
at the base of a gnarled vine,
I pressed them together
and whispered “speak.”
But the vine’s silence just grew
into the silence of the dead
who once tended it.

Then I saw exactly how
it was beautiful—
how it held its world whole
beneath its fog-slick bark,
while the things we ask
to hold us leave us
-From “Where the Zinfandel Pass Their Seasons in Mute Rows” by Jane Mead

The pleasure of being in a room with performers, sitting with someone else’s voice, the feedback loop between audience and the stage, all resonated more strongly and felt more vital than ever this year. I saw a little less theatre – only one New York trip instead of the usual two and the Italian trip coincided with the opera houses being dark – about 55 performances between three cities – but still had a hard time carving out these fifteen performances.

Each one of these showed me something I didn’t know before, sent me spinning out into the night, made me desperate to talk to someone about them, and usually made me pound my fist into the heavy desk at the impossibility of coming close to doing it justice the next morning. These are in chronological order, instead of ranking, and are in Columbus unless otherwise specified. All art was provided by the companies for promotional use, either sent to me directly or on their site.

Available Light’s Appropriate

Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by David Glover (Available Light) – Available Light crushed this year by bringing the best writing for the American stage to Columbus and executing on it with jaw-dropping alacrity. The two David Glover-directed plays were standouts and Appropriate started my year of theatre-going with the thunderclap of a warning-shot pistol. I called it “An acidic, invigorating evening that will make you laugh, make you hate yourself for laughing, make you hate yourself for giving someone the benefit of the doubt, but acknowledge the horrible, beautiful nature of being human.” Standout performances – in a cast full of winners – included Kim Garrison Hopcraft’s righteous fireball of desperation, Philip Hickman and Beth Josephsen’s metal-grinder of a struggling marriage, and Jordan Fehr’s devastating look at the difficulty of atonement. My review for Columbus Underground.

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), directed by Brandon Boring (Imagine) It’s rare for a production of a play I love as much as Into the Woods to shock me back into myself. Director Brandon Boring’s risky choices to go off-mic – with all credit to the strong, sympathetic singing of the cast and the nuanced work of musical director Jonathan Collura and his chamber orchestra – and work up an immersive set in a tiny room known for sound problems paid off big in this jaw-dropping, real, funny take. As I said for Columbus Underground, it “took me back to the same place of childlike delight as my first encounter. I found tears coming to my eyes at exactly the places they should have been.”

The Flood by Korine Fujiwara (score) and Stephen Wadsworth (libretto), directed by Stephen Wadsworth (Opera Columbus and ProMusica Chamber Orchestra) – The Flood pointed to a rich, challenging future for two of our best institutions. An original work grappling with a painful chunk of Columbus history, the Franklinton flood, moved me in more senses than just my coming from a family who settled in The Bottoms and ended up on the Hilltop. Fujiwara’s sparkling, layered, complicated score was executed brilliantly with astonishing performances from Lacey Jo Benter, Meröe Khalia Adeeb, and Daniel Stein, among others. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities

Paramodernities by Netta Yerushalmy with texts by Thomas F. DeFrantz, Julia Foulkes, Georgina Kleege, David Kishik, Carol Ockman, Mara Mills, Claudia La Rocco (presented by the Wexner Center) – It’s rare I see something that makes me say “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” It’s even rarer I’m in the theatre for over four hours still hungry for more when the lights come up. Yerushalmy’s wild grappling with the history of modernism, scoring dances to lectures set my brain and every part of my body on fire. I walked out wanting to grab everyone I knew by the shoulders and shake, “Why weren’t you there? You missed something special.”

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, directed by Elizabeth Wellman (OSU Department of Theatre) – I was bummed to miss DeLappe’s play twice at Lincoln Center (once sold out by the time I got word, the revival opened the day I was flying home) so I was overjoyed OSU took it on this season and it did not disappoint. Elizabeth Wellman’s bone-deep understanding of patterns, their necessity for us to grow up but also their ability to weigh us down, sparkles here, with ferocious performances from Vayda Good and Mehek Sheikh anchoring a top-notch cast. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

Red Herring’s Waiting to be Invited

Waiting to Be Invited by S. M. Shepard-Massatt, directed by Patricia Winbush-Wallace (Red Herring Productions) – Red Herring’s ambitious play-a-month schedule this year yielded far more hits than misses. One of my favorites was Shepard-Massatt’s look at the early civil rights movement, directed brilliantly by Patricia Winbush-Wallace, with a stellar, perfectly balanced cast of Winbush-Wallace, Julie Whitney Scott, Demia Kandi, Harold Yarborough, and Josie Merkle. I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.

King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Gold (Cort Theatre, NYC) – My favorite Shakespeare in an uneven – the reports were not wrong – at times gaudy and overwrought version, still had pleasures enough to make this list. Foremost among them, Glenda Jackson – I feel like I’ve seen the defining Lear of my generation, terrifying, imperious, wounded; I can count on one hand the performances I’ve seen on a stage that matched hers. Similarly, casting Russell Harvard, a deaf actor, as Cornwall paid off massively especially in the moments before the assault on the Earl of Gloucester (a brilliant James Houdyshell) with a frenzied argument between Corwnwall and his aide/interpreter, Michael Arden, in sign language.

Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath, directed by Joe Mantello (John Golden Theatre, NYC) – A slice of life/secret history about the back rooms of the primaries for the 2008 election. Hnath’s uncanny ability to understand the rhythms of the way we speak to each other in different rooms and with different intentions sang through the amazing performances of Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow, Peter Francis James, and Zak Orth.

Evolution’s The View Upstairs

The View Upstairs by Max Vernon, directed by Beth Kattelman (Evolution Theatre Company) – My favorite thing in a particularly strong season from Evolution this year. An original musical about the moments before the Upstairs Lounge arson, amplifying that tragedy by being about what brings people together for solace, especially people who are denied it elsewhere. Incredibly moving, warmly directed by Beth Kattelman and with a stellar leading role by Jonathan Collura who I did not know was a late addition until a friend told me that at a party weeks later. I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.

Fine Not Fine written and directed by Andy Batt (MadLab) – Andy Batt’s return to his former home as artistic director delighted me as it brought me to tears. I said at the time it “grapples with the most basic question of humanity: why do we keep living? What makes us want to keep living? It finds a magical strength in the lack of easy answers and in the absence of a magic bullet; in the very difficulty of the road ahead of us all. And it reminds us we don’t have to be alone in that struggle.” I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.

Available Light’s Dance Nation

Dance Nation by Clare Barron, directed by Whitney Thomas Eads (Available Light) – With every play Clare Barron stakes her claim on the title of best American playwright. This look at a teenage dance team boasted crackling direction and choreography from Whitney Thomas Eads and fantastic performances all around. I said at the time, “I’ve seen nothing that felt as much like adolescence – raging, wildfire emotions; the fracturing of friendships that used to feel like home; not everyone is special at the thing you most want to be seen for – as Dance Nation.” I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.

Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Ekundayo Bandele (Hattiloo Theatre, Memphis) – I’ve long admired Hattiloo Theatre’s mission. While plays have never been the primary factor in getting me to Memphis regularly, I’ve always been impressed they seem to sell out by the time I start planning. I finally rectified that error with a fiery, intense production of this rich Guirgis drama.

The Humans by Stephen Karam, directed by McKenzie Swinehart – Red Herring ended their run at the Franklinton Playhouse with this nigh-perfect take on Karam’s Tony-winning family drama. Orbiting around the devastating father-daughter dynamic of Christopher Moore Griffin and Becca Kravitz, I said at the time, “Swinehart treats what could be heavy, ponderous material with a light touch, letting her characters breathe and taking full advantage of Edith D. Wadkins’ jaw-dropping set. Love for these characters, even at their most broken, animates this The Humans, searing it into the audience’s brain.” I reviewed it for Columbus Underground.

Short North Stage’s West Side Story

West Side Story by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lryics), directed by Edward Carignan (Short North Stage) – Carignan took this American classic and stripped it down to its raw emotion and primal darkness in this brilliant collaboration with Columbus Children’s Theatre. A shocking, wild take that preserved everything I love about this show I know so well and made me see it anew.

7 by Radouan Mriziga (presented by the Wexner Center) – Mriziga’s take on the Mershon Auditorium brought overload from every corner with voices and symbols, history being rebuilt and seen from various angles. I’d also like to take this moment to shout out the Wex’s recent commitment to accessibility, I saw people enjoying this who would have felt uncomfortable or made to specifically ask for basic accommodation at these kind of immersive performances in the past. It was fantastic to see the beginnings of that change.

Best Of 2018 – Theatre and Dance

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Joan Didion, “The White Album”

“The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.”

-Audre Lorde, “Power”

Mia Barrow in The White Album, provided by Lars Jan via the Wexner Center

The two soul-enriching elements best delivered by performance, empathy for others and the feeling of community, have never been more needed by me personally and by the world. In a year of extreme highs and fucked up lows, a year where I often didn’t know whether I was coming or going, theatre and dance were the balm they’ve always been – and more.

Having an outlet and hearing from people who were reading and listening and interested in digging deep meant more to me than I can say and I hope I did justice by what I saw. This year was the hardest in memory to whittle down a top 15 from the 60 shows I saw. There was more good work in a wider range of styles than I could take in. Mostly spread between New York and Columbus, I didn’t make it to Chicago and I couldn’t work plays into the handful of Cleveland trips.  As always, everything is in Columbus unless stated otherwise. All art is provided by the artists/companies for promotional purposes, either sent to me directly or from their site.

  1. Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and Other Works by John Bernd, conceived by Ishmael Houston-Jones and co-directed by Miguel Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones, adapting choreography and text by John Bernd. (Danspace, NYC) – This highlight of a particularly stuffed-with-joy APAP could have justified the cost of a winter NYC trip all on its own. Dance is one of the most alive, immediate artforms – we all know the body – and one of the most dazzling for its presentation of what the body can do. This work of memory, combining texts and choreography and compositions from the artists’ friend John Bernd (a tragically early AIDS casualty) reasserted how alive this work is and raged at the loss of its creator simultaneously. I wrote about it at more length here.

2. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by Alice Birch (Available Light) – In a year where Available Light hit it out of the park repeatedly with work no one else does better, this raw, mesmerizing Alice Birch play was first among equals. Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction balanced thoughtful abstraction with intense physicality and every performance showed me something new or painfully reminded me of something I already knew. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

3. Andrew Schneider, Youarenowhere (Wexner Center)  – There’s a certain joy in seeing something that uses tropes you know in such a fresh way it feels completely new. This Schneider piece was a heartbreaking magic show: a virtuosic solo performance, the best science fiction grappling with alcoholism since The Man Who Fell to Earth and a chaotic jumble of the glitching, out of sync nature of the modern world glued to a beating heart. More images that haven’t left me since January than anything else I saw all year.

4. The Realistic Jones by Will Eno (CATCO) – This deceptively simple Will Eno fable about two couples named Jones was a perfect example of the beautiful, human storytelling CATCO brings to the table at its best. Bishara’s direction unwrapped this for the audience like a gift without pandering or trying to sand down the weirdness. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

5. The White Album by Lars Jan and Early Morning Opera, adapted from Joan Didion (Wexner Center) – A righteous performance by Mia Barrow at its core charged and illuminated this powerful adaptation of one of the finest American essays. A look at all the ways telling shapes the life and the stories grow into themselves. The accusations this wasn’t dramatized enough had some merit, but it’s probably not surprising hearing those words was as much of a shot in the arm as I needed.

6. Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman (Short North Stage) – My favorite Sondheim on a visceral level, Assassins, received a gorgeous technicolor-nightmare production at Short North Stage featuring razor-sharp direction by Gina Hardy Minyard and a cast that’s hard to imagine being bettered. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

7. Pursuit of Happiness by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper (Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Under the Radar, NYC) – Nature Theatre of Oklahoma have a knack for taking things we think we know and making sure we really see them. This look at America through the lens of the Western in collaboration with En Knap, blows up our treasured (or sneered-at) myths about America into a hilarious, grim Grand Guignol cartoon.

8. Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth (SRO Theatre); Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine (Gallery Players) – These two shows are high water marks for the ability of the musical to shine a light on our worst, most craven tendencies and point to the hope of self-realization. Great direction – Kristoffer Green for Company and Ross Shirley for Falsettos – casts, and musical direction gave a new coat of paint on these fabulous scores and sent me out into the night thankful for my town and mulling a lot of things over. Reviewed for Columbus Underground: Company and Falsettos.

9. An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Available Light) – This Jacobs-Jenkins play was one of the most acclaimed and controversial Off-Broadway hits in recent years and the Available Light production was a marvel, directed by Matt Slaybaugh and with a for-the-ages performance by David Glover at its heart. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

10. [PORTO] by Kate Benson (Available Light) – Benson’s [PORTO] was a sharp and funny look at the complications and dangers of trying to live in the world, to stake out a place for yourself without treating others badly. Note-perfect direction by Eleni Papaleonardos and a phenomenal cast including standout performances by Elena Perantoni and Michelle Weiser, made this terrific play an experience that was impossible to forget. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

11. Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore (CATCO and Evolution Theatre Company) – These CATCO and Evolution collaborations always bear fruit and this gripping take on Whitemore’s classic dissection of Alan Turing, directed by Joe Bishara, was especially soul-enriching. A riveting performance by Ian Short as Turing and Dave Morgan as Dilwyn Knox, particularly Morgan’s horrifying soliloquy about compromise, knocked this over the fences. I reviewed this for Columbus Underground.

Etrois sont les Vaisseaux, Wexner Center

12. Étroits sont les Vaisseaux by Kimberly Bartosik/daela (Wexner Center for the Arts) – This dance piece, named for a mammoth Anselm Kiefer sculpture, took a look at a couple on a shifting, melting landscape of intimacy (danced by Joanna Kotze and Lance Gries). When I interviewed Bartosik for a preview she said her goal was to find that emotional, dramatic space without being dramatic or emotional and this succeeded in spades. Every subtle gesture, every undulation, felt charged and fraught without being obvious or over the top. This ripped my heart out and used it for a shadow play.

13. White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleilmanpour (Available Light) – This piece travels the world, speaking for its author Soleilmanpour, forbidden a passport because he wouldn’t serve in the military. It takes what could be a parlor trick, a play the actor hasn’t seen before the curtain comes up, and (with the careful facilitation of Eleni Papaleonardos) turns it into a fable about complicity and compromise. In the middle of a very long day – that started with a phone call from the day job at 4:15am – this shook me to the core. I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the talk-back but I stopped twice on the mile walk home to text friends about this; I just couldn’t not talk about it.

14. Our Country: The Antigone Project, Conceived and Devised by Annie Saunders and B. Wolff (Under the Radar, NYC) – This was a beguiling, complicated intermingling of memory and myth, childhood and America. Created based on taped conversations between Annie Saunders and her brother, and starring Saunders and Max Hersey, and with direction by Wolff that merged a deep empathy with not letting its characters off the hook, it was as immediate and accessible as a house on fire but so hard to nail down it would have required many, many viewings to exhaust.

15. Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell (Roundabout Theatre, NYC) – This British import featured a volcanic Stockard Channing at its center as an art historian who just published a summing-up memoir that’s roiled her family. With a supporting cast led by a terrific Hugh Dancy and Megalyn Echikunwoke and strong direction by Daniel Aukin, despite an ending that pulled its punch too early, this was a haunting look at the costs for women in pursuing success.