Once again we find ourselves at the end of the calendar year, and while most sane humans are taking this time to surround themselves with family and friends in preparation for the new year, the folks who have completely lost their minds—theatre people, as we might term them—use the end of the year to qualify and quantify the theatre performances that they were lucky enough to see throughout the preceding year.
I was slightly overwhelmed by looking at the eighty-three shows I saw in 2017 (definitely my busiest year, almost doubling my 2016 record of forty-three evenings of theatre), particularly when so much of it was of such high quality. You know it’s a great year when great new plays like Sweat and Mary Jane aren’t even in the running for your top 10 of the year. I was also surprised that, although I saw a considerable amount of New York theatre (having moved to the City in September), the San Francisco Bay Area once again rallied with several shows of the quality that is often misrepresented as only existing in New York. Productions like Nora at the Shotgun Players or The Baltimore Waltz at The Magic Theatre could find their way off-Broadway without anyone blinking an eye. New York remains the place with the most theatre, but the idea that it is the home for the best theatre is absolutely up for debate. In fact, six shows out of my top ten were seen somewhere other than New York City and I have no doubt that number would be even higher if I had the resources to see theatre all around the country instead of just San Francisco, New York, and a few shows in Oregon every year.
But enough preamble; let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is my Top 10 Things in Theatre for 2017:
#10: ‘Henry IV Parts I & II’ at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Though the classical theatre I saw this year wasn’t quite up to the standard of past theatergoing years, performances like Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience or Hamlet at the Public Theatre proved that New York still had more to say on the Bard, and these dual productions in Ashland of Shakespeare’s astonishing history play beautifully mixed a playful sense of anarchy with a deep reverence for Shakespeare’s gift of the spoken word to create a uniquely powerful day of theatre. Tyrone Wilson, actually the understudy for the performances I saw, gave a Falstaff for the ages. I’m willing to bet it will be a while before these plays are performed better anywhere in the country.
#9: ‘The Band’s Visit’ at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
By some miracle, an actually great new musical managed to worm its way onto Broadway amongst the capitalistic monstrosities that plague the Great White Way in the 21st century. David Cromer, David Yazbek, and Itamar Moses have created a gorgeous new musical that will doubtless be looked on in the history books as one of the all-time greats. It will be on Broadway for years to come, but the original cast, including Katrina Lenk and Tony Shaloub, make it an absolute must-see as quickly as possible for anyone with any interest at all in the theatre.
#8: ‘The Christians’ at the San Francisco Playhouse
Lucas Hnath has become quite the rising star this year, with his A Doll’s House, Part 2 making waves on Broadway. And deservedly so, I might add, as his theatre is exactly the kind of emotionally sophisticated and intellectually engaged writing so sorely needed in the modern playwriting form. Bill English’s staging of Hnath’s best play yet was focused, perfectly performed, and had the gall to be exactly as unpleasant as necessary to create something exceptional.
#7: The Wooster Group’s ‘The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons”‘ at the Performing Garage
The Wooster Group had a banner year, with the remarkable Town Hall Affair making its way to San Francisco, the triumphant return of Early Shaker Spirituals and The B-Side, a pseudo side-project by the group that burned with the kind of passion and intelligence that refuses to leave the memory and proved that the theatre of the aesthetic still very much has a place in the modern landscape.
#6: ‘An Octoroon’ at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is one of the great political pieces of the 21st century, every bit as disturbed and disturbing as our era deserves, and Eric Ting’s production at the Berkeley Rep was as ferocious as the play itself. Its engagement with the current era while still understanding that political theatre must first and foremost be theatre made An Octoroon an unforgettable experience.
#5: ‘Hand to God’ at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Everything that can be said for An Octoroon goes double for Hand to God. Bravo to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for their phenomenal 2016-2017 season and I expect great things to come from Robert Askins.
#4: ‘Noises Off’ at the San Francisco Playhouse
Laughter is the best medicine, and judging by how often and hard I laughed at Noises Off at the San Francisco Playhouse, I could have been cured of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Attending Noises Off was to learn just how much laughter the human body can sustain before total annihilation. I saw Noises Off twice and somehow managed to laugh harder the second time—something I didn’t think possible after being nearly wiped out by the first performance I attended.
#3: Condola Rashad in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ at the John Golden Theatre
I was massively impressed by A Doll’s House, Part 2 when I first saw it in April with the original Broadway cast, finding it to be an exceptionally funny and remarkably intelligent new Broadway play, only to be slightly disappointed when I saw it again in September with the replacement Broadway cast. There may be many reasons for this, but my money is on the lack of Condola Rashad, who gave a performance of jaw-dropping sophistication and focus as Emma. The whole play came apart at the seams with her absence, talented though her replacement-who-shall-not-be-named was. I will have to wait to gain access to the script to truly judge the strength of the play, but performances like Rashad’s certainly don’t come around every day.
#2: ‘John’ at the American Conservatory Theatre
The second after I got out of John at the A.C.T, I was fully convinced it would be the best production of 2017 without even a slight amount of competition, even though it was only February. Ten months later and by some miracle John has been bested, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was an absurdly beautiful theatrical experience that proved just how unlimited the powers of live performance are, especially with the life-giving performance of Georgia Engel upon which the production was centered. It was three hours of sheer magnificence.
#1: ‘The Antipodes’ at the Signature Theatre
Of course, the only thing that could ever best an Annie Baker play is…another Annie Baker play. With The Antipodes, her third masterpiece in a row by my count, she has once and for all proven that all other living authors are practicing an exercise in futility by producing theatre at the same time as her. Her literary powers are so great that I’m half considering the idea she may not be human. Baker and director Lila Neugebauer concocted a masterpiece of immeasurable quality with The Antipodes and they have my eternal gratitude for allowing me to experience something so extraordinary. And will someone tell me where those damn lunch containers came from?
And with that, we come to a close on the calendar year and the live performance contained within it. Here’s hoping that 2018 has as much to offer as its predecessor. Personally, I think there’s much coming up to look forward to, with the Royal Court Theatre’s premiere production of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen at the Atlantic Theatre and the Roundabout Theatre’s Broadway transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the top of my list for excitement. Thank you all so much for following and keeping up to date on my writing; it truly means to world to me.