“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.