Annual “Top Ten’ lists seem arbitrary to me and, when it comes to theater, I couldn’t render a fully informed comprehensive order anyway because I don’t see everything but wherever I travel I see something. Still, here are my theater experiences in 2016, hither and yon, that impressed me for one reason or another the most.
Some will find it strange that I would consider Stephan Wolfert’s one man autobiographical play CRY HAVOC in the same context as The Almeida’s RICHARD III, with Ralph Fiennes. Shakespeare – and war – binds the two. The title of Wolfert’s play refers directly to a line from Julius Caesar. Wolfert, an army vet tells how theater, specifically Shakespeare, saved his life from the trauma of military service, weaving lines from Shakespearian warriors into his personal journey. The catharsis in CRY HAVOC (Off-Broadway at Bedlam in February 2017) is as sublime as the catharsis in Fienne’s RICHARD III is epic. The Almeida cast, including Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret and Susan Engel as the Duchess of New York, was nonpareil but Aislin McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth was so fiercely intelligent it stung.
Elsewhere in London, The Donmar Warehouse demonstrated the timelessness of Brian Friel’s FAITH HEALER, revealing layers I missed in the original years ago. HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS I & II, under the signature direction of JohnTiffany, brought theatrical spectacle of magic to new technological heights. (At The Lyric on Broadway in 2018)
As traditional British drama goes, the National Theater’s revival of Terrence Rattigan’s A DEEP BLUE SEA showcased the extraordinary performance of Helen McCrory as a suicidal woman. Most poignantly, this splendid production reminded how the bonds of survival spring from the most unlikely human connections. As for American drama, I was most impressed with Hartford Stage’s production of August Wilson’s THE PIANO LESSON, which reminds powerfully that the bondage of the past can be broken.
For a fresh, innovative adaptation of a famous story, Mary Zimmerman scored with her take on TREASURE ISLAND at Berkeley Rep. The knockout set of a swaying ship thrust into the amphitheatre and a series of seafaring and tavern ballads, ribald and entertaining that it was, did not obscure Zimmerman’s hard-core view that morality comes in shades of gray.
For musicals, Glimmerglass’ American premiere of the Italian language version of Rossinni’s seldom seen opera THE THIEVING MAGPIE was a perfectly charming, whimsical delight. ANASTASIA, combing the score from the animated feature with new songs, opened Broadway- ready at Hartford Stage in a ravishing production directed by the versatile Darko Tresjnak. (Opens on Broadway Spring 2017). Broadway-ready, too, was Barrington Stage’s THE PIRATES OF PENCANZE kinitecially directed and chroegrapohed by the team of John Rando and Joshua Bergasse. For new musicals, composer Joe Iconis made his mark on 2016 at Barrington Stage with BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, a rollicking spoof on the Black-ploitation and King Fu movies of the 1970s. Last but not least is DEAR EVAN HANSEN, an intensely personal journey of an extraordinary young man played out in a public whirl of social media, with the breakout performance of an extraordinary Ben Platt.
For new dramatists, I’m keeping my eye on three I was introduced to this year. John Kolvenbach, in a beautifully composed SISTER PLAY at Chester Theatre Company instructed that personal change happens in private, subtle ways. The Roundabout’s Underground birthed UGLY LIES THE BONE, in which Lindsey Ferrentino, through the tale of a female vet of the Afghani War undergoing treatment for trauma with virtual reality therapy, combined most effectively legitimate social issue with personal conflict. (London premiere at The National, February 2017) At New York Theatre Workshop, RED SPEEDO playwright Lucas Hnath applied a snap-crackle-pop economy of exposition and in-your-face dialogue to a contemporary morality play
Finally, of singular, outstanding impression was Yale Rep’s superb production of Samuel Becket’s HAPPY DAYS. An astonishing Dianne Wiest plays everyperson Winnie. who plumbs better than any stage character how life’s inevitability obviates the why. At the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn in May 2017. Don’t miss it. .
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