a theatre, film & pop culture review
The New York Times‘s Ben Brantley recently published his top ten plays of the year. Since Brantley and I never see eye-to-eye, I thought I’d offer my “best of 2009” list. It includes a Los Angeles and touring productions, some New York shows that originated internationally and regionally, and even one that didn’t technically open in 2009 — but it’s my list, so I make the rules. And so, in no particular order, here are my Top Ten Productions of 2009(ish).
Fela! (Broadway transfer from 37 Arts): The one piece Brantley and I agree upon is also one of the most energetic and artistically vibrant musicals of the year. In an admittedly
drab year for the musical, the Broadway transfer of director-choreographer-co-bookwriter (whew!) Bill T. Jones’s theatrical biography of Nigerian revolutionary and pop star, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is an astonishing standout. While the overambitious book lacks consistency in tone and topic, no one can deny the infectiously rebellious Afrobeat rhythms, the dazzling rainbow of costumes donned by fiercely regal dancers who whip their hips and thrust their pelvises to the mesmerizing West African movement, or extreme charisma of leading man Sahr Ngaujah. This is a show meant to be experienced — one that will send you off into the streets dancing and eager for more.
Our Town (Off-Bway: Barrow Street Theatre via Chicago’s Chopin Theater and The Hypocrites): Director David Cromer’s refreshingly simple and nostalgia-free spin on this American theatrical staple re-introduced us to those old familiar faces in small town America, also known as Grover’s Corners. We’ve seen them all before, and yet it’s as though we’re meeting for the first time: each weaved in and out of the audience throughout the tiny Barrow Street Theater,
donning contemporary clothing along with homespun values, shelling imaginary peas, singing with a sweet somberness from the balcony. The Chicago transfer’s stark naturalness of direction and design, entirely lacking of sentimentality, pointed to the frank emotional plea to live fully, here and now. You may have thought you knew Our Town before, but you never knew it like this: surely this Town is how Thornton Wilder imagined it to be.
Exit the King (Broadway via Australia’s Malthouse Melbourne and Company B): Absurdly wonderful and wonderfully absurd, this production of Eugene Ionesco’s monologue on mortality was perhaps the most delightful surprise of a very dreary winter. As an all-powerful empire falls, so too does the once-ornate palace walls literally crumble around the most stubborn monarch to ever live (and never die), King Berenger. As played by the superfluously talented Geoffrey Rush, Berenger was white-faced, pajama-clad, and clueless, promenading around the stage with a ridiculous royal flourish one moment, and a hilariously spastic pratfall the next. Surrounding the debilitating monarch- in-denial was a terrifically sardonic royal court including Andrea Martin, William Sadler, and the adorably overly-optimistic Lauren Ambrose (the one exception being the rather stiff Susan Sarandon as Berenger’s Queen). And as the empire fell, so did the fourth wall: a trumpeter perched in a theatre box, a desperately addled King wandered the aisles and forlornly picked a “flower” from the audience. If you believed such political grotesquerie and absurdity to distance audience from actor, you couldn’t have been more wrong here: though dark and acerbic in wit and hilarious in its ridiculous physicality, this production of Ionesco’s lesser-produced play strikes a deep chord within all — the part of us that truly believes we’ll never die, yet fears one day we will.
Ruined (Off-Broadway: MTC, by way of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre): Was there any doubt Lynn Nottage’s modern day Mother Courage would be on this list? Perhaps if you agree with Brantley’s choices, but if you’re just about anyone else who got a chance to see this shockingly moving piece set in the war-torn Congo, you you both felt for and condemned the venerable Mama Nadi (a captivating Saidah Arrika Ekulona) as she both protected and exploited her “children” for financial gain. Nottage skillfully weaves her tale of political upheaval and survival, infusing it with haunting, joyful African music
and dance; interspersing sections of searing, lyrical prose; sprinkling it with warm humor; and lovingly cloaking her broken, ruined, characters in a protective shroud of dark humanity. Brought to life by an exquisite ensemble cast, Ruined may not be risky theatre, but what it offered was extraordinary. A cohesive, riveting, and beautiful production, Ruined was the Slumdog Millionaire of the theatre this year in its measured celebration of a culture and people and thorough exploration of humanity’s darkness and compassion.
Circle Mirror Transformation (Off-Broadway: Playwrights Horizons): Haven’t we seen enough theatre about theatre? No doubt. But as Annie Baker’s
delightfully quirky and absorbingly smart piece begins in medias res during a hilariously wacky acting exercise, your doubts begin to fade. And so, too, eventually do the pretenses of the exercises themselves, revealing each character’s insecurities, secret loves, ambitions, and the unmistakable bonds that gradually form between five strangers (including the remarkable Tracee Chimo as the endearingly awkward and sarcastic teen who wants to be an actress — or a veterinarian — someday). The compelling and startling coup occurs in the eloquent final and sole unrealistic scene when Baker reassures both us, and her lovely characters we’ve grown so attached to, that, in fact, everything will be fine — even if it’s not at all in the way we imagined it would be.
Twelfth Night (Off-Broadway: The Public Theater): Starring that “amazing creature of wonderfulness,” Ms. Anne Hathaway, as the cross-dressing king-wooer, this incarnation of Shakespeare in the Park was divinely pitch-perfect. With a terrific and impressive cast including Audra McDonald, Raul Esparza, David Pittu, Julie White, and the side-splittingly funny Hamish Linklater as the always clueless Andrew Aguecheek, this production was magically augmented by the folksy tunes of the local band, Hem, and directed joyfully by Daniel Sullivan. Not only was the show an absolute delight (and worth every minute of the 12 hour wait for tickets), but all aspects implied that it was a joy to create as well. There wasn’t a finer way to spend a summer day in the park.
Dreamgirls (National Tour: The Apollo): If you’ve only seen the messy 2006 film starring the ubiquitous Beyoncé Knoweles and the over-hyped Jennifer Hudson, you haven’t seen Dreamgirls. The current national tour of this
1981 Tony-winning musical is full of immense joy, powerful performances (most notably Chester Gregory as the over-the-top James Brown-esque James Thunder Early), and dozens upon dozens of fabulous costumes. Admittedly, Tom Eyen’s book and lyrics are misguided and weak in portions (especially notable is the bizarrely awkward and frequent recitative), but Henry Krieger’s Motown-inspired showstoppers will be in your head for days, and director-choreographer Robert Longbottom did well to keep Michael Bennett’s original choreography largely intact. Vastly entertaining and emotionally powerful, these Dreamgirls will indeed make you happy.
The Great Recession (Off-Broadway: The Flea Theater): Artistic Director Jim Simpson commissioned six short plays from some of our “most promising” playwrights, all themed on — you guessed it — our current dismal economic condition. What resulted was an entirely mixed bag — from the trite (Erin Courtney’s naively optimistic Severed) to the contrived (Will Eno’s Unum) to the entirely forgettable (Thomas Bradshaw’s New York Living). And while I always want to love Itamar Moses’s work, his Fucked was predictably and frustratingly disappointing. The apocalyptic and desperately futile future Sheila Callaghan imagines in Recess offered some amount of intrigue, but it was Adam Rapp’s Classic Kitchen Timer that places The Great Recession on this list of the year’s best (I realize that this is cheating, but don’t much care). A joker-faced, topsy-haired, and frighteningly agile Host (the gregarious Nick Maccarone) gamely engaged audience members as he questioned and prodded his “contestant” — a recently unemployed lower class African American woman — to see just how far she’ll go for $25,000 in her desperate financial state (hint: a baby and large butcher knife are involved). Rare today is the agitprop piecethat works so well, creating palpable tension in the room from its sinister concept to the scarily unpredictable direction. The only playwright to fully account for the darkness and the desperation of the Recession, Rapp once again wins big with his cruelly honest prose and sharply detailed direction.
The Cripple of Inishmaan (Off-Broadway: The Atlantic Theater Company by way of the Druid Theater Company): Martin McDonagh tells the — dare I say it? — whimsical tale of Cripple Billy and his fellow citizens-in-boredom as their
west-coast-of-Ireland village is invaded by an American film crew. Known for bloody violence and dark, dark humor, McDonagh steps ever-so-slightly out of his comfort zone, lovingly creating his endearingly optimistic title character who foolishly dreams of becoming Inishmaan’s breakout star. This seamless production, brought across the pond by the Emerald Isle’s Druid Theater Company, offered a cast who clearly loved their characters, bringing to life their eccentricities with biting Irish humor and dark warmth. Though Inishmaan technically opened in 2008, it wouldn’t matter if it opened in 2007: this production deserves a spot in any top ten list.
Parade (LA’s Center Theater Group via London’s Donmar Warehouse): There’s little to be said about this artistically and historically complex musical — and this production in particular — that I haven’t already celebrated to the point of exasperation of my colleagues and readers. But In 1915, an Atlanta jury found factory-supervisor Leo Frank, a Jew, guilty of the murder of thirteen year-old Mary Phagan. In 1998, this true story of intolerance became a Tony Award-winning musical with score by newcomer Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry, and direction by the Hal Prince. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that Parade, helmed by director-choreographer Rob Ashford, received its sublimely definitive production at the Donmar Warehouse. Ashford’s inherent understanding of the unique strengths and power of the musical form transformed the once-distancing Parade into a pulsing, searing social commentary that unflinchingly implicated its audience at every turn, yet never alienated. While the Taper’s production lacked the disarmingly powerful performances of the original London cast, this Parade will continue to be the shining example, in a Broadway world brimming with shallow and pseudo-serious work, of everything the musical can and should be.