2017 Year in Review – Theater

2017 was another all-encompassing year in the world of New York theater. If you’re like myself and have more than just dabbled in exploring the city’s various samplings of the artform, you’ll know that theatergoing can be a frustrating, often elusive pursuit, filled with more than its fair share of mediocre, if well-meaning, offerings. However, at its best, this year’s crop also displayed a plethora of unique, thoughtfully-written, and innovative productions that reflected the world and our place in it as we currently understand and perceive it. Here are the highlights.


Immersive theater takes bold steps forward

Third Rail Project's "Ghost Light" at the Claire Tow Theater.

Third Rail Project’s “Ghost Light” at the Claire Tow Theater.

This year, immersive theater took a couple of bold steps forward. It’s nice to see that New York audiences have appetites beyond just sustaining now-mainstream hits like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No Moore and Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell. Visionary downtown theater artist Geoff Sobelle’s Home at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the return engagement of his The Object Lesson at New York Theatre Workshop continued to push the envelope with brilliantly executed immersive experiences that were less narrative-driven and more conceptual in nature. Just as important was that they were also imminently accessible and compelling entertainment. Established institutions like Lincoln Center Theater teamed up with the likes of Brooklyn-based Third Rail Projects to refine the increasingly popular genre with Ghost Light, a gorgeous, dreamlike meditation on the nature of theater itself. Even if Ars Nova’s ambitious and uneven (those pesky book problems!) musical KPOP didn’t quite turn out to be the next Great Comet, it was still a step in the right direction with respect to creating a truly immersive – and not simply “environmental” (i.e., Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd, and even The Great Comet) – original musical. One of the hallmarks of immersive theater and the artists who make it are their obsessive tendencies. In that respect, Alison S. M. Kobayashi’s singularly quirky experiment in immersive storytelling and theatrical excavation, Say Something Bunny!, which is currently enjoying an extended run at UNDO Project Space in Chelsea, certainly fit the bill; the show is pure genius.


Peeking into a bleak future, as befits our current bleak times

Ends Walsh's "Arlington" at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Charlie Murphy in Enda Walsh’s “Arlington” at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Last November’s events have have clearly shaken and affected the agendas of many of our top theater-makers. Since then, they’ve responded to these bleak times by creating or programming a number of productions that have afforded audiences glimpses of an apocalyptic, dystopian future. Although these visions were often times terrifying, they were also the source of some memorable, provocative theater. Now seems to be the right moment for Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone (but really, this applies to much of the plays in the great Ms. Churchill’s canon), which received a stealthily fanged staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featuring the complete original Royal Court cast. The New Group’s slow-burning production of Wallace Shawn’s chilling, pitch-black Evening at the Talk House was deeply unsettling in its cynical, rotting depiction of human nature, as well as theater itself. Signature Theatre Company’s searing revivals of Suzi Lori-Parks’ “Red Letter Plays”, Fucking A and In the Blood, both loose adaptations of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, presented audiences with glimmers of humanity in the face of unspeakable circumstances, and then snuffed them out. Additionally, both Enda Walsh’s brashly theatrical Arlington at St. Ann’s Warehouse and the intense Broadway transfer of Headlong/Almeida’s stage adaptation 1984 by Duncan MacMillan exposed audiences to a harrowing Orwellian future in which freedom as we know it is only myth. Uplifting stuff, all this.


Eugene O’Neill revisited, rebooted

Transport Group's production of "Strange Interlude" by Eugene O'Neill at the Irondale Center.

David Greenspan in Transport Group’s production of “Strange Interlude” by Eugene O’Neill at the Irondale Center.

Effectively staging Eugene O’Neill these days can be a tall order. Indeed, it can be tough for directors and actors to break free from the melodrama and self-indulgent grandiosity of many of his plays. However, those able to penetrate his works, particularly in ways that are fresh and revealing, can bring out an elemental, brutal view of humanity sans artifice that can leave audiences stunned. This year, an impressive four productions were able to creatively get to the core of some of O’Neill’s more difficult works for the theater. Irish Rep’s hallucinatory, pulse-pounding remounting of their acclaimed 2009 production of Emperor Jones was pure adrenalin, perfectly capturing the frightened rage of a hunted, cornered man. Target Margin Theater’s wild, multi-perspective revival of Mourning Becomes Electra used every corner of the Abrons Arts Center to fully embrace both the epic and intimate qualities of O’Neill’s sweeping family saga. Transport Group’s audacious one-man staging, via David Greenspan’s jaw-dropping performance, of the unwieldy Strange Interlude focused on the thrill of storytelling to bypass some of the play’s more wonky, dated worldviews. Finally, the Park Avenue Armory’s mammoth production of The Hairy Ape, a co-production with London’s Old Vic directed by Richard Jones and starring Bobby Cannavale, powerfully accentuated the enormity and scale, in sheer visual terms, of Yank’s struggle against capitalist society.


Considering the quality of existence and mortality

Max Posner's "The Treasurer" at Playwrights Horizons.

Peter Friedman and Deanna Dunagan in Max Posner’s “The Treasurer” at Playwrights Horizons.

2017 was also a year in which a number of shows thought deeply about the quality of existence, and by extension, mortality. Signature Theatre Company’s uncompromising but refreshingly frank Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno, starring a riveting Michael Emerson, left me reconsidering how to approach our brief, mystifying time here. Similarly, Max Posner’s unsettling The Treasurer at Playwrights Horizon, which featured a pair of unforgettable performances by Peter Friedman and Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan, explored the intrinsic relationship between love, hate, and guilt – vis-à-vis the notion of hell (on earth, and beyond). This year also finally saw the New York premiere of Tracy Letts’ quietly earth-shattering middle-age crisis play Man from Nebraska at Second Stage– I had previously seen it nearly 15 years ago at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre – under David Cromer’s deliberately slow-burning direction. Ivo van Hove and his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam returned to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a swaggering, savagely balanced four-hour stage adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that ultimately registered anti-all philosophies. Brooklyn also hosted a richly humorous and touching portrait of aging both defiantly and gracefully in Theatre for a New Audience and Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s co-production of Marcel.


Shakespeare as cutting-edge theater

Oscar Isaac in Sam Gold's production of "Hamlet" at the Public Theater.

Oscar Isaac in Sam Gold’s production of “Hamlet” at the Public Theater.

One normally doesn’t equate plays by the Bard to sophisticated, genuinely exciting productions that capture contemporary theatergoers’ imaginations. This year, I counted five productions that illustrated that Shakespeare can also be cutting-edge theater. As proof, each were immediate sell-outs. The Brooklyn Academy of Music was the brief home of Thomas Ostermeier’s ferocious and wickedly funny Richard III; the revelation here was that an insubordinate, delinquent production, such as this one, is the ideal vessel for Shakespeare’s seductive villainous king (gleefully played by Lars Eidinger). This summer’s I-thought-unrightfully-notorious modern dress Shakespeare in the Park staging of Julius Caesar made the news for its Trumpian depiction of the title character and inadvertently became one of the most talked about shows – and hottest tickets – in 2017 this year. New York Theatre Workshop’s claustrophobic, no-hold-barred Othello, stunningly directed by Sam Gold, featured thrillingly in-your-face performances by Hollywood A-listers Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. Equally high profile was Oscar Isaac’s magnetic turn as the titular Dane in the lovingly irreverent, genuinely emotive production of Hamlet, also directed by Mr. Gold, at the Public Theatre. Lastly, director Phyllida Lloyd completed her magnificent trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions at St. Ann’s Warehouse (the Donmar Warehouse co-productions commenced a number of years back with Julius Ceasar and continued with Henry IV) with this year’s superb rendition of The Tempest, once again led by the astonishing Harriet Walter as Prospero, convincingly making a case for gender-blind casting. A female Hamilton, anyone?


Empathizing with the gamut of experiences afforded by the human condition

Denise Gough in Duncan MacMillan's "People, Places & Things" at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Denise Gough in Duncan MacMillan’s “People, Places & Things” at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

One of the great benefits of theater is its ability to foster empathy – through healthy debate, even rage – as it pertains to various points of view. Navigating the tough economics of life on the fringes of a “bottom line” society was the subject of Abe Koogler’s unflinching Fulfillment Center, which ran briefly this summer in Daniel Aukin’s production for Manhattan Theatre Club. At La Mama, Belarus Free Theatre continued its series of productions which treat theater as blatant revolutionary acts with Burning Doors, a bruising physical display of protest that left me dumbfounded. Uptown at Second Stage, I marveled at the vitality and relevance of Harvey Fierstein’s trailblazing Torch Song, a piece I had long dismissed as merely a museum piece, especially in the hands of Michael Urie and his vibrant central performance. Headlong and the National Theatre’s production of People, Places & Things, Duncan MacMillan’s sensory-driven fantasia on the subject of substance abuse and addiction, made the journey across the pond with Denise Gogh’s sensational Olivier Award-winning performance intact, playing an in-demand run at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Tectonic Theatre Project’s sentimental yet affecting Uncommon Sense at the Sheen Center shed light on the spectrum of experiences of those with autism. Lucas Hnath’s marriage-challenging A Doll’s House, Part 2 opened straight on Broadway and turned out to be a smart triumph for both the playwright, as well leading lady Laurie Metcalf, who snagged a well-deserved Tony for her performance. Both Jocelyn Bioh’s vivacious School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, courtesy of MCC Theater, as well as New York Theatre Workshop’s soulful Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia illuminated the African feminist experience through both lighthearted and tragic lenses. Also at New York Theatre Workshop was Amy Herzog’s diminutive but gut-wrenching Mary Jane, which featured a devastatingly clear-eyed performance by Carrie Coon as an everyday saint – a single mom raising a severely handicapped child.


On Broadway, musical theater performances for the ages

Andy Karl in "Groundhog Day" at the August Wilson Theatre.

Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day” at the August Wilson Theatre.

This year, there were a number of musical theater performances that knocked my socks off with their unstinting commitment to character, as well as their ability to command a large Broadway house. I found five of these performances to be ones for the ages. One of my very favorite musicals of the year was Tim Minchin’s sublime, supremely entertaining, albeit vastly underrated, musical adaptation of Groundhog Day, in which charismatic star Andy Karl delivered an endearingly snarky performance that I found simply irresistible. I returned time and time again to Punxsutawney mainly because of his Mr. Karl’s tirelessly inventive work. I thought one of the most energetic, high-octane performances I’d ever seen was Ethan Slater’s star-making performance (his Broadway debut!) in Spongebob Squarepants in the title role; seeing him light up the storied boards of the Palace Theatre with his megawatt performance gave me a natural high that lasted long after the curtain came down. Now on to the women. The sweet-voiced Nikki M. James gave a benchmark performance with her layered, effervescent portrayal leading Kirsten Childs’ The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin during the brief Encores! Off Center revival of the cult musical. Ms. James had me in tears with her combination of vulnerability, resilience, and transparency. I had missed Glenn Close’s legendary performance as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in its original Broadway incarnation. I was therefore thankful and excited to see what all the fuss was about, and Ms. Close did not disappoint – her performance was as voracious, larger-than-life performance as I was expecting. One of the most seductive performances of the year belonged to Katrina Lenk. Her feral, instinctive, and yes, star-making, performance in David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ exquisite The Band’s Visit, which opened on Broadway this fall, is one of the most distinctive things you’ll currently see on the Great White Way; it’s unmissable.


Staying true to themselves, these musicals blazed brightly

David Yazbek and Itamar Moses' "The Band's Visit" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

The company of David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ “The Band’s Visit” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Of the new musicals that opened this year, the handful that I applaud the most are the ones that stayed true to the spirit of the characters that populated their respective worlds. I’ve already mentioned three of these works, all of which opened on Broadway in 2017 – one, an exquisitely nuanced study of loneliness and almost connecting (The Band’s Visit); the second, a wickedly entertaining parable about living in the moment which was unafraid to explore life’s darker, more tragic realities (Groundhog Day); and lastly, an ultra-peppy, exuberant stage adaptation of (ahem) an animated aquatic sponge (Spongebob Squarepants). The other two musicals were products of New York’s Off-Broadway theater scene. Last winter, Vineyard Theatre staged a dark, uncompromising musical by Greg Pierce and the legendary John Kander entitled Kid Victory. The piece delved into and daringly questioned our societal notions of such unsavory topics as abuse, sexuality, and pedophilia; one would expect nothing less from the co-creator of such challenging musical classics as Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman. At New York Theatre Workshop, the Bengsons are currently wrapping up performances of their small but mighty autobiographical musical Hundred Days, an incredibly heartwarming and affirmative ode to the power of love.


Exceptional musical revivals

The company of the Broadway revival of Ahrens and Flaherty's "Once on this Island" at Circle in the Square Theatre.

The company of the Broadway revival of Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Once on this Island” at Circle in the Square Theatre.

The most successful musical revivals are the ones that are able to justify their being mounted in the world we live in today. Hands down, my favorite revival of the year was Michael Arden’s revelatory Broadway re-imagining of Ahrens and Faherty’s Once on this Island, which managed to both honor the fairytale enchantment of the original while injecting a sobering measure of gritty reality into the mix. A close second would have to be the glorious revival of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in fine, fine form; the revival inaugurated the newest house on Broadway, the classy Hudson Theatre. New York City Center’s gala production of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon also moved me tremendously. Directed and choreographed with style and confidence by Christopher Wheeldon, the revival won me over with its unalloyed romantic sensibility and heartfelt performances from its mouth-watering all-star cast (Kelli O’Hara! Patrick Wilson! Robbie Fairchild! Stephanie J. Block!); it was a production to swoon over. The jubilant revival of Hello, Dolly! could have been simply average and still have broken box office records at the Shubert Theatre. That’s because the highly-anticipated revival’s raison d’être was the Broadway return of Bette Midler. Happily, both the ebullient production and Ms. Midler’s irrepressible performance did not disappoint; this combustible combination was, in many ways, the theatrical equivalent of the second coming. Totally unexpected but just as ecstatic of an experience was Encores! revival of Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers, directed by James Rando with wit and panache and featured an absolutely delicious turn by Scarlett Strallen. Apart from Glenn Close’s iconic performance, I thoroughly enjoyed Lonny Price’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, especially for its bold decision to put the show’s luscious score front and center (featuring a luxurious onstage 40-piece orchestra), while creatively maintaining an air of opulence with limited resources.


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