It’s December 31, 2013—New Year’s Eve—and time to look back on a year of theater-going (my fifty-fourth!) and identify those shows and performances that made me sit up and take notice.
With 92 shows under my belt—22 more than I saw in 2012—I was much happier with the overall picture, both on Broadway and off, than I was as I sat squirming and peeking at my watch through so many of the previous year’s lackluster offerings.
As I reviewed the entries in my pocket calendar, what I uncovered is an array of engaging productions, strong ensemble and individual performances, and original writing—all of which made 2013 a fine year for this veteran member of the audience.
The list below, offered in no particular order, represents my most idiosyncratic selection of the very best. I should mention here that I have not considered any of the big hit shows that already garnered accolades during 2013's award season; they already had their turn in the spotlight. With that in mind, I bring you THE LIST:
Not surprisingly, some of the most creative work is being done by small Off Off Broadway theater groups—short on cash and long on talent, where every production is born of ingenuity and love.
Let’s start with a very recent example that made it onto my “Best Of” list—Blessed Unrest’s retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, adapted by the company’s managing director Matt Opatrny and directed with a cinematic eye by Jessica Burr. This version of the timeless tale of redemption provided Ebenezer Scrooge with a psychologically sound backstory that was able to speak to a modern audience while thoroughly honoring the original. God bless us, everyone, for a job well done!
Another play that saw a first-rate production was one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known dramas, The Mutilated. It boasted spot-on performances by two perfectly cast iconic bohemians, Mink Stole and Penny Arcade, accompanied by toe-tapping New Orleans-style music by Jesse Selengut and lovingly directed by Cosmin Chivu. This was an all-around winner that made me wish the entire company would dig up another underserved Williams play to work its magic on.
When attempting absurdist theater, it is very difficult to capture just the right tone (usually tragicomedy). Too often it veers in the direction of silliness rather than surrealism. But when a production gets it right, the impact can be tremendous—like being inside of an Escher print. Two of the shows on my Top Ten list achieved just the right balance: rogerandtom and More. The former, penned by Julien Schwab, was a smart, funny, and surprisingly touching dreamlike play that mixed to great effect elements of The Twilight Zone with The Matrix. The latter, by Maria Tryti Vennerød and presented as part of a double bill under the title Norway Plays: Drama Beyond Ibsen, offered up a Kafkaesque tale of murder and media hype. Ioan Ardelean and Alexandra Cohen Spiegler hit just the right notes as a pair of off-the-wall celebrity TV news personalities.
2013 was a banner year for Shakespeare, with several productions of the bard’s works on display on and off Broadway. The one that soared the highest was Twelfth Night, with a stellar cast strong enough to match the always-over-the-top acting style of Mark Rylance. It was the ensemble work, along with Tim Carroll’s sharp-eyed directing, the splendid period musicians, the set and costume design, and the choreography that made this a clear winner. Also making the Top Ten list is Julie Taymor’s family-friendly production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which boasted Kathryn Hunter’s exceptionally fine performance as Puck, along with lots of Taymor’s reliable theater magic.
Two additional revivals also made my Top Ten list. One was The Laramie Project (presented in rep with its follow-up The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later), featuring a cast made up of many of the original members of the Tectonic Theater Project’s docudrama. The Laramie Project still resonates with audiences as it relates the events surrounding the murder of a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming back in 1998. The second outstanding revival was the eye-opening production of Tennessee Williams’s The Two Character Play, with breathtaking performances by Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif.
Finally, rounding out the list are two musicals: the Gilbert and Sullivan-like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and the imaginative take on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Both of these offered up outstanding creativity in the writing, the directing, and the acting.
And so my list of favorites.
As we bid farewell to 2013, Happy New Year to all, and to all a good year of theater!
Feel free to tell you friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.