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When I compiled the list of my favorite productions of 2009, a commenter on a local discussion board argued that seeing only 50 plays was not enough to justify a "top ten" list. I wrote a blog entry reflecting on that fact, and concluded that "a top-ten list [is] a list of my favorite shows among the 50 shows I was most interested in seeing. [...] Even if I had seen all the hundreds of shows that were out there to see, the list would still reflect my personal preferences and aesthetic biases. If nothing else, I hope it sheds some much-deserved light on shows both big and small that I thought were truly exceptional."
Still, one of my new year's resolutions for 2010 was to see more than 50 shows, and I succeeded: I wrote about 86 plays this year, and caught a couple more that I didn't write about. (That number, and the list below, also exclude the 12 dance performances and three operas I covered.) Below I've listed my ten favorite shows from among those 86.
Don't worry, though—I won't let this year's top ten list go by without a little soul-searching! It's important for me to disclose that I've become friends with a number of people in the theater community. All critics get to know, in some measure, the people they cover, but I've gone further and developed active friendships with many people in the theater community: I've gone to parties with them, met them in bars, bought drinks for them and had drinks bought for me. That's one of the aspects of my job that makes it so rewarding: I'm not just sitting in a cubicle writing detached analyses of productions, I'm actually getting to know the artists and engaging in dialogue with a community.
You may find that inappropriate for someone who writes critical reviews, but while it's not necessarily the ideal way for everyone to work, I believe that it it informs my writing in a positive way. I'm putting my own name and reputation on the line every time I write something, and if I felt that my personal relationship with an artist put me in a position where I could not write an honest and informative critical piece about their work, I would not write it. In all cases, I strive for transparency. For example, this August I saw my friend Teresa Mock's Fringe production Batmama and then brought Teresa with me to see Wicked. I wrote a piece jointly covering Batmama and Wicked, using my friendship with Teresa and the fact that we'd seen Wicked together to consider both productions in a different light than I might have otherwise.
That's enough said for now, except to hereby disclose that among the artists who had significant creative roles in the shows listed below, I've hung out with the following people in social contexts beyond just shaking hands in a lobby: Sheila Regan (actor, #8), Jeremey Catterton (director, #8), Isabel Nelson (writer/director, #7), Carl Atiya Swanson (actor, #2), and just about everyone involved with #1. If you'd prefer a more detached critical perspective, stop reading now. Otherwise, read on—these were ten incredible shows.
Taking as their source material a story that's seminal as an American legend but rather slight in the plot department, director Jon Ferguson and playwright John Heimbuch emphasized mood, character, and stagecraft in a production that blazed with creative energy. This show did many different things and worked in many different ways, yet the overall effect was cohesively creepy. It was well worth the road trip to Plainview to experience this production in an aptly rural setting.
Performed by Brooklyn troupe Radiohole at the Walker Art Center, in 2010 this was the show I most loved to hate. The performers used their considerable talents to cruelly deconstruct Douglas Sirk's melodrama All That Heaven Allows, drawing us in with their sheer talent and then stomping on our faces with brutal cynicism. Watching this show was like watching theater eat itself, which was very unpleasant but also completely unforgettable.
For their final original production in Minneapolis—artistic director Jeremey Catterton is moving to New York City—Lamb Lays With Lion staged a typically dark post-modern take on Chekhov's Seagull simultaneously onstage with a recreation of director Katie Mitchell's acclaimed conventional production. The result was exciting, enlightening, and moving: the yin and the yang of contemporary theater curling around one another before our eyes.
In my review of this Fringe production, I called it "a little miracle of a show, telling an odd but simple story with impressive suppleness and remarkable economy." In a happily hectic Fringe week, this felt like the eye of the storm, a show that captivated with the pure power of a story well told. Lead actress Anna Reichert, who was also a standout in Troilus and Cressida and Undiscovered Country, is one to watch in 2011.
This production was the Molotov cocktail of the Fringe, yielding one gasp after another. Silverstein's short plays are bracing, disturbing, and tightly constructed; they were performed with fearless aplomb by Lacey Piotter and John T. Zeiler, propelling their already-impressive acting careers to the next level. Piotter and Zeiler, who are now engaged to be married, were MVPs on the local scene this year—they also appeared together in show #2 below, as well as in Troilus and Cressida. Piotter also acted in show #4 below and reprised her role as Blanche in Theatre Arlo's very fun Golden Girls Remix of A Christmas Carol. Not to mention, Piotter and Zeiler remounted Shel Silverstein this fall at the Theatre Garage. Whew!
London's Kneehigh Theatre swept into the Guthrie this February like a blast of warm summer sun with this rich production that wrapped a moving melodrama in gorgeous sights, sweet sounds, and winningly charismatic supporting performances. This was the show everyone loved this year.
One mark of a really great production is that it sets a bar you find yourself referring back to when talking about other, less successful shows. I have the feeling that I'm going to be mentioning the acting work of Andrew Sass and Rachel Finch—specifically, their chemistry together—many times in 2011. This show got romantic chemistry scintillatingly right, and it also demonstrated that the way to make a really strong show about a big issue is to show, with clear-headed and subtle empathy, how that issue plays out in the lives of characters who feel genuine.
Locally this was the most talked-about production of the year, and the show became talked about nationally when it later played, without great success, on Broadway. Some people loved it, some people (including the Daily Planet's Sheila Regan) hated it, but I saw it differently than most reviewers on either side of the debate. To me, the genius (or, if you prefer, the offensive misstep) of this show lies not in the decision to tell its important story in the hugely uncomfortable form of a minstrel show, but in the decision to make it a story about the telling of stories. The question of what it means to stage a minstrel show is only a nudging toward the bigger, harder question of what it means to turn a historic horror into a stage production in any style. For several days, The Scottsboro Boys was being staged simultaneously with The Master Butchers Singing Club, a play that tackled the massacre at Wounded Knee in a much more traditional manner. I'm sure a lot of people walked out of Master Butchers feeling enlightened, but did that show actually change anything in the world, or was it simply genocide revisited for our entertainment as a stage musical? In that way, was it any better than a minstrel show? That's the kind of difficult, and important, question raised by The Scottsboro Boys.
When this performance ended to a mere smattering of applause—I'm pretty sure that on the day I saw it, the cast and crew outnumbered the audience—I was shocked back into remembering that this was a small production staged at Gremlin Theatre, not a grand Cinescope epic. Uniformly strong performances and an innovative, brilliantly executed staging by writer/director Laura Leffler-McCabe swept me up so completely that at one climactic moment, I almost leaped out of my seat and cheered. This production was a labor of love that was many months in the making, and the (metaphorical) perspiration and (actual) inspiration paid off in every single scene of this long, wonderfully absorbing show.
I loved all the shows on this list, but there was only one show this year that I saw and then immediately made plans to see again. This completely original production was successful at things that other shows didn't even think to attempt. An eerie and beautiful set in the basement of a run-down building; a talented ensemble cast whose complex relationships were put freely on display; the amusing and moving use of recorded music; a thrillingly tense performer-audience dynamic; a kaleidoscopic, constantly changing vocabulary of words and gestures; and heartbreaking scenes of visual beauty and the kind of honesty you just can't achieve with a conventional script. All this, plus John Bueche in combat boots making fresh marshmallow-pancake sandwiches. If it's awkward that this is the second year in a row I'm naming a show by my friend Samantha Johns the best show of the year, it's appropriate that the show in question is one that burned awkwardness like it was jet fuel. Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.
Looking back over the shows I reviewed this year, there were many very good productions that didn't quite make this top-ten list, but that I wanted to mention as being among the year's most exceptional productions.
For sheer entertainment value:
• Rent, The Lab Theater
• The Transdimensional Couriers Union, Walking Shadow Productions
For being consistently funny:
• August, Osage County, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
• Circle Mirror Transformation, Guthrie Theater
• The First Five Minutes Are Slow, Kathryn Jorgenson, Brant Miller, and Mark Rehani
For achieving an effective tone—whether warm, edgy, or delicate—and sticking with it:
• A Christmas Story, Children's Theatre Company
• Fanciness vs. the Void, Cat Fish
• The Glass Menagerie, Jungle Theater
For trying something new and pulling it off:
• A Dozen Things I Want to Do On Stage, Rebecca Nagle
• The Great War, Hotel Modern
• Nature, TigerLion Arts
• The Polish Pugilist, Jeremey Catterton
• The Woyzeck Project, BLM/Seifert/Flink CREATE