Best Of live music

Best of 2020 – Live Music, Sometimes Virtual

In this fucked-up year, I was lucky enough to see 35 things before it shut down in early March, in four cities. So I was trying to make good on my promise of excitement! And I still tried, even when it felt like just sitting around my house.

Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons, Sultan Room


  • Brett Burleson Quartet (01/04/2020, Dick’s Den) – It’s not always the first show of the year but Burleson’s annual birthday show is a burst of heat early in January that feels like a starting pistol and an invocation to call forth the spirit of a good damn year. This one in particular, at the end of a marathon also celebrating my friend Crystal’s birthday in the little suburb I grew up, and saying goodbye to college standby The Library with some of Anne’s best friends (including the owner Cricket who was selling it), the two sets I caught here were exactly what I needed. Seeing Burleson with a second guitar player is always a rare treat, and his duets with Josh Hindmarsh over a sizzling rhythm section were some of the most beautiful Jim Hall-style melodic guitar fireworks I could have hoped for.
  • Ryan Truesdell’s Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer (01/08/2020, Jazz Standard, NYC) – I wrote about this at some length earlier but this tribute/memorial birthday party to one of the great arrangers (and teachers, my friend Mike still talks about Brookmeyer with massive fondness) summed up the kind of warm feeling of being at an honest-to-god hang. A feeling I’ve gotten more at NYC jazz clubs than anywhere else in the world, and especially at the (RIP) Jazz Standard, a club that always tried harder than it had to and delivered in spades.
  • Winter Jazzfest (01/10/2020 and 01/11/2020, Various Venues, NYC) – For over a decade, WJF has lived up to its promise of giving out of town bookers (here for APAP) and adventurous locals a concentrated look at one of the greatest, most vibrant scenes in the world. It’s expanded to bring in Chicago and London and Brussels and hit all the major genres without feeling like it’s pandering or diluting. Catherine Russell raising her eyebrow at Steven Bernstein on the Le Poisson Rouge stage. Philip Cohran’s sons in Hypnotic Brass Ensemble tearing SOBs apart. Two old friends hugging each other in front of me during Makaya McCraven’s set and the musicians on stage in awe of their bandmates. A marathon for poet Steve Dalachinsky (one of my inspirations, reminding me how often I’d see him around shows). Every time I go, about every other year, I want to go every year.
  • Secret Planet Showcase (01/11/2020, Drom, NYC) – A punky, world music party in one of my favorite clubs (co-thrown by another of my favorite bars, Barbes). I always leave this sore and sweaty. This year was exceptional, with Daptone horn meister Cochemea leading a frenzied band of almost all percussionists, Sunny Jain from Red Baraat’s rippling spaghetti western tuba funk, the lilting melodies and beguiling rhythm of Alba and The Lions. Magic front to back.
Rock Potluck, Ace of Cups
  • Sarah Hennies and Mara Baldwin (01/12/2020, National Sawdust, NYC) – Sarah Hennies, long one of my favorite percussionists and composers, had a hell of a year with a couple of her finest records and what felt like new performances every time I turned around. This collaboration with Mara Baldwin, a violin quartet led by Anna Roberts-Gevalt, with sculptures inspired by Shaker furniture transported me and made a deep impression in a long day of magic that just kept getting better (I’d already seen the Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith dance piece, the Rachel Harrison retro at the Whitney, and Simon Stone’s Medea with only a break for dinner at St Anselm, and that was all Sunday). 
  • Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons (01/12/2020, Sultan Room, NYC) – Pianist Kris Davis is a recurring presence on these lists. She gets better and better. This live production of one of my favorite records of last year was a kaleidoscopic explosion with one of the tightest, most surprising bands I’ve ever seen – including Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Tony Malaby on tenor – in my first trip to the tight, sweaty back room of this Middle Eastern restaurant. I got to end this trip on the highest of high notes, with grooves and crackling melody dancing around my head all the way through a nightcap and a fitful sleep before the next morning’s flight.
  • Final Rock Potluck (01/18/2020, Ace of Cups) – Bobby Miller’s given me a lot of my favorite moments in Columbus music – 4th and 4th Fest, Megacity Music Marathon, the last few years of Ace of Cups booking – but maybe his most enduring impact on this town we both love is (with Shane Sweeney in the first couple years) the importing and localizing of the great Dallas tradition as the Rock Potluck. One night only conglomerations of musicians making sparks fly unlike what we’d expect from their own bands. I was still fighting fatigue- and the kind of wet, shitty day January specializes in –  but Anne and I dragged ourselves down for the last few sets of this…and Oh My God. There was so much burbling joy in this room. Bob Starker took a sax solo behind Marcy Mays on a take on the Fleetwood Mac-via-Judas Priest chestnut “The Green Manalishi,” one of the women from Snarls launching into Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” and watching new songs come out of almost thin air. We all left with some of the best memories of this tradition that will be sorely missed.
Raphael Saadiq, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall
  • Chuck Prophet (01/28/2020, Natalie’s Grandview) – Any of us who love touring music have at least a couple of stories of artists who got pushed back more than once. Alec Wightman booked Prophet’s full band, The Mission Express, in the hopes we’d get our shit together and had to cancel twice as COVID raged. But we were lucky to get the rare solo acoustic version. Classics like “You Could Make a Doubter Out of Jesus” and “Would You Love Me”, newer songs like “High as Johnny Thunders” and “Bad Year For Rock and Roll” co-existed in a set that felt like a journey. And the memory that stuck most with me is the first time I heard the song that most deeply imprinted this year for me, off Prophet’s new record, still a few months out, “Willie and Nill.” A perfect example of the kind of empathic, hard luck stories Prophet writes better than anyone, “Nilli said, ‘I had a body once, Willie you have no idea. I could make a grown man bark all night – anytime, anywhere.’ Willie said, ‘I had a lion’s mane. Now I sing at the top of my lungs till the neighbors get their broomsticks out and the cops all sing along.’”
  • Physical Boys (02/15/2020, Kaiju, Louisville) – The centerpiece of this Valentine’s Day weekend trip to Louisville – that had me miss the Theatre roundtable awards back home – didn’t disappoint but there’s a special joy getting to see something completely new. One of my favorite music rooms, Kaiju, hosted a newish Louisville band Physical Boys who played a beautiful, intoxicating mix of Stiff Records’ sharp jangle and Afghan Whigs operatic sleaze.
  • Raphael Saadiq with Jamila Woods (02/17/2020, Old Forester’s Parishtown Hall, Louisville) – Raphael Saadiq followed his darkest, most personal album with a stripped-down, muscular tour that was unlike any other time I’d ever seen him. Great venue, killer sightlines, fantastic sound. My only regret was missing most of the excellent (from what I caught) Jamila Woods set.
Bria Skonberg and Byron Stripling with Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Southern Theater
  • Bearthoven (02/18/2020, Short North Stage) – The Johnstone Fund has brought more new music (contemporary classical, whatever you want to call it) in the last few years than any earlier time I remember, filling a gap I sorely missed in our musical scene. This return visit from NYC trio – piano, bass, drums – Bearthoven paired a phenomenal new Sarah Hennies (see above) composition with the bright propulsion of a Michael Gordon premiere.
  • Radioactivity with Vacation and Good Shade (02/19/2020, Ace of Cups) – It had been too long since I caught Radioactivity’s spiky brand of angular Texas punk and this three-band bill reaffirmed my faith in catchy, sweaty rock and roll.
  • Columbus Jazz Orchestra featuring Bria Skonberg (02/23/2020, Southern Theater) – I don’t keep up with the CJO as much as I should but this unseasonably sunny Sunday matinee was a shot of pure light in my veins with the group having a ball alongside guest singer and trumpeter Skonberg on great rep including Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.”
  • Reigning Sound with Venus Flytraps, Bloodshot Bill, and Alarm Clocks (03/06/2020, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland) – The last trip out of town for some culture before this all went south (well, “as,” the weekend we were up there the first confirmed Ohio cases of COVID were diagnosed in Cleveland. A reunion tour of the original Reigning Sound lineup celebrating both my favorite rock club in the country and one of my favorite record labels, Norton, was everything I want in rock and roll.
  • Amy Lavere and Will Sexton (03/10/2020, Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza) – The last local show before everything went to hell  – one of my favorite songwriters, Lavere, backed by her longtime partner (whose songs are coming into their own on his terrific new record this year). Their tour was shortly canceled, but I was thankful for this last glimpse before locking down.


It was never like being in a room with sweaty strangers, but the proliferation of livestreams and creative pivoting made me feel a little more connected and a little less alone. Favorites of the couple hundred shows I checked in with.

For the first few months of lockdown, Living Music With Nadia Sirota was a balm. One of my favorite violists and a key locus in the new music scene hosted a delightful show once or twice a week, bringing three or more of her pals together – from Claire Chase to Missy Mazzoli, Shilpa Ray to Nathalie Joachim, Judd Greenstein to Ted Hearne – for a taste of what they were doing and a taste of camaraderie I needed even from a remove.

Goner Records simultaneously made me miss Memphis more than ever but gave me a dose of their freewheeling spirit and impeccable taste. Their online translation of Gonerfest was the best streaming version of a festival this year, simultaneously recognizing the international spirit that makes the festival so successful and making us feel like we’re surrounded by our best friends.

Another dose of Memphis came from a weekly shot of John Paul Keith, turning the same skills he uses to keep audiences spellbound as a fine singer, a great guitarist and songwriter, and a charming raconteur toward the camera instead of a barroom. Keith’s jukebox-like memory for songs and artists leads him through delightful anecdotes and a real friendship with people logging in week after week. There was more than one exhausting Monday where hearing JPK say “Hey, Lydia,” brightened me right up – and I don’t even know Lydia.

The north flip-side of those great JPK shows came with Jesse Malin’s Fine Art of Self Distancing, alternately playing solo and his band, from his bars Berlin and Bowery Electric. Malin also ran – with Diane Gentile and others – translations of his fun tribute shows (to Johnny Thunders and The Cramps). Beyond his solid songs, just like Sirota and Keith, he understood and demonstrated what we needed most was fellowship.

Locally, Natalie’s led the way in outdoor shows and now streams, keeping up with their high standards for sound and sight. One of my favorite rooms in town that I dearly hope makes it through this. Ace of Cups got a late start, but I felt very safe on their patio with the precautions they’ve taken and the first of their streams I caught sounded great. 

Jazz clubs in New York have already noted one fallen (Jazz Standard) and are pivoting with great alacrity. Small’s Live and Jazz Gallery are both crushing it with regular, killing performances and Jazz Gallery adds conversations, happy hours, and dance parties. The legendary Village Vanguard is also putting out great sounding, great looking shows by the kind of giants who’d normally be playing to packed houses.

There are still more great performances than I can fit in and more to love than I have time for. I just hope most of these rooms I love make it to the other side and some assistance is forthcoming.

Best Of theatre

Best of 2020 – Theatre/Opera/Dance

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

-Sarah Gancher, Russian Troll Farm

Salt given me at Under The Radar’s Salt


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

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


We Need Your Listening, screenshot from stream and edited

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

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

Things that moved and inspired me with virtual theatre:

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

Established companies pivoted with aplomb and grace: 

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

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

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

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

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

Antigone in Ferguson, screenshot taken from stream and edited

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

books live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – July 7, 2020

Three months into this quarantine with no end in sight, I think I’ve found kind of a sustainable routine. At least for a while. So I’m going to try to resurrect this brief category in the blog set up for when I had a week with no paid writing. In general, trying to post on Monday or Tuesday and it’s three things I was wowed by in the last week. Also in general, looking for a book/article/art exhibit, a record, and some kind of livestreamed performance.

If you’re reading this – I’m looking for what’s keeping you going too.

Book: Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener (buy at Gramercy Books).

Holds I requested from the library system before everything closed down showed up with the frisson of happy surprise over the last week or two. My favorite of this first batch is a riveting tech memoir from the New Yorker writer Anna Wiener. Wiener does an excellent job analyzing the tech startup world from the inside out. She incisively flays open the culture of catch phrases and co-opted psychology talk with a fine blade, casting a harsh light on that world’s funhouse mirror take on intersectionality.

The techniques I had a hard time with at first – avoiding proper nouns and the easy connotations of naming restaurants, films, companies – worked their magic on me, making this memoir feel less indebted to a time and place while the use of sensory details put me in the feeling of that place. Uncanny Valley left me with a lot to chew on about my own relationship to work, my coworkers, my friends, and empathy.

Music: Joe Lovano’s Trio Fascination livestreamed from the Village Vanguard

It’ll never replace being in a room but the creative responses to the current situation, the ways music steadfastly refuses to say “No, you can’t do that” while mitigating risk as much as possible, warms my heart.

In particular, jazz venues have been strategizing and come out of the gate with some of the most potent offerings. Spike Willner’s Small’s is leading the charge – I’ve been watching at least three of their nightly offerings a week, look for a highlight here soon – but other venerable institutions like SFJAZZ, The Jazz Gallery, and the Vanguard are also coming out strong.

Every one of the three Vanguard broadcasts I’ve seen features remarkably good camera work and makes me misty about the fantastic sets I’ve seen there. This past weekend was my favorite, by a group of legends: Joe Lovano’s Trio Fascination with Ben Street on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums.

Growing up when I did, Joe Lovano was my favorite all-around living saxophone player. His Blue Note records in the late ’90s and early ’00s were gateway drugs to high school and college me, firmly in the tradition and perfectly in his voice, turning me onto great players like Paul Motian, George Mraz, John Scofield. I’ve never heard a bad Lovano record and he’s always blown me away live.

I discovered drummer Andrew Cyrille around the same time when my first Cecil Taylor purchase was his ’60s Blue Note big band firestorm Unit Structures. As I pieced together – I’m still working on it – that beguiling music unlike anything I’d heard before, the drumming hit me first and kept me grounded. I couldn’t begin to count the number of records I bought specifically because Cyrille was listed as drummer, or killer players I checked out on my periodic trips to New York knowing nothing other than he was in the group. If someone asked me what I want jazz drumming to be – the wild surprise, the propulsion, the use of color – I have a list but it always starts or ends or both with Andrew Cyrille.

Ben Street’s work I didn’t know quite as well but he’s always impressive and he’s the perfect melodic, grounding foil for this set of fascinating excursions, bone-deep ballads, and cooking, sultry scorchers.

This glorious set made the wound of this empty club throb with life, the pain of not being there made more acute and salved at the same time. This was a perfect jazz set, a conversation writ large.

Next up in this excellent series: pianist Eric Reed leads a quartet with Stacy Dillard on saxophone, Dezron Douglas on bass, and McClenty Hunter on drums this weekend. Tickets are available at

John & Jen, from left: Hunter Minor, Dionysia Williams. Photo by Edward Carignan

Theatre: John & Jen, Short North Stage

Alongside jazz, I miss theatre most of all. I’m incredibly grateful for the companies that have been able to work with licensing groups to release archival copies (favorites include Lydia Diamond’s Toni Stone from ACT and Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play at The Goodman) and I’m heartened by companies who aren’t taking “we can’t do this” for an answer, led locally by Krista Lively Stauffer and Tim Browning’s Virtual Theater project (which let me catch Douglas Whaley’s transfixing Turkey Men which was my biggest regret in missing last year).

Short North Stage raised the bar on production values (which I described in my preview for Columbus Underground) with their Edward Carignan-directed adaptation of the Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald Off-Broadway classic John & Jen.

First and foremost, the production sounds great, with Lori Kay Harvey’s musical direction and piano rich and full but never overpowering and the dynamite voices of Dionysia Williams and Hunter Minor are a joy. The actors get the playful nature of the characters’ relationship and smoothly shift gears between joy and heartbreak in exactly the tone the play demands.

Carignan’s direction and videography make excellent use of the production’s homespun qualities, creating a show bursting with charm. John & Jen‘s gorgeous, sticky melodies shine here, any fans of Lippa’s later work or Short North Stage’s smaller chamber shows will do well to catch this during its week of streaming.

John & Jen streams on vimeo through July 12. Tickets are available at

Best Of theatre

Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle Citations

I was out of town in Louisville so unable to present but my fellow critics – Paul Batterson from Broadwayworld, Margaret Quamme and Michael Grossberg from the Columbus Dispatch, and Jay Weitz from Columbus Jewish News – and I agreed on two citations for 2019 work and a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award. Press release below:

The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, representing critics who write in print and online for area publications, presented its 26th annual citations Sunday Feb. 16 at the Northland Performing Arts Center, as part of the Central Ohio Theatre Roundtable’s 20th annual Theater Awards Night.

Rather than focusing on competitive annual “best” categories, the circle annually honors local individuals or groups whose work “promotes the higher values of theater” or “expands the possibilities of theater.” Reflecting excellence in 2019, the critics circle approved three citations unanimously:

Short North Stage and Columbus Children’s Theatre – West Side Story

To Short North Stage and Columbus Children’s Theatre, for their fruitful first collaboration in 2019 on “West Side Story,” which intensified the heartbreaking tragedy with a greater focus on the reckless impulses and idealistic hopes of youth, reinforced by the youth-oriented casting of the rival street gangs.

Red Herring Theatre Company – Waiting to Be Invited

To Red Herring Theatre Company, which has moved in 2020 to a new performing space, for taking risks and offering provocative works in its third and final year at the Franklinton Playhouse with an ambitious 10 productions of Broadway, off-Broadway and locally written works, including the impressive area premiere of the Tony-winning play “The Humans.” 

A Roy Bowen Award for Lifetime Achievement to T.J. Gerckens, chair and Producing Artistic Director of Otterbein University’s theater and dance department, whose burnished lighting helped energize Otterbein’s fall revival of “Chicago,” for decades of outstanding work as an acclaimed lighting designer and local theater leader, including 17 years in production and executive management at CATCO; 26 years on the design team of the Tony-winning theater/opera director Mary Zimmerman; and for acclaimed and/or award-winning work on Broadway, at the Metropolitan  Opera, in Australia, China and Europe.

Best Of dance theatre

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 theatre

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.