From revivals and reconstructions to lots of messing with Shakespeare to surreal dance and immersive experiences, this was a great year to go out and see theatre and dance, which I did, forgoing sleep in 2012 for coffee. I’ve listed some of my favorites below and am probably leaving some things out. My goal for 2013 is to get out and see more emerging performances and continue to explore the NYC theatre scene. If you want to join me, that would be wonderful. I’m sure it will be an adventure.
Einstein on the Beach | Brooklyn Academy of Music
I’m disappointed in myself that I never really found the time to write down my thoughts on Einstein on the Beach (although I did do an article for ARTINFO on Philip Glass’ talk about the production). Nothing I saw this year stunned me as much as seeing this sprawling, mesmerizing meditation on genius from 1976 revived under the oversight of its creators: Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs. At four and a half hours with no intermission, it’s quite a monolithic piece of theatre (it’s called an opera, yet impossible to classify), but I completely lost track of time in Glass’ famously cycling score (it was hard not to count my steps in rhythm in the following days… 123…456), and seeing Wilson’s wild spaceship with its swirling lights at the end (and a performer clad in black recreating his frenetic flashlight dance) was something I truly thought I would never see in person (this was its first time in NYC in 20 years). I can’t get the music out of my head, and you can be assured that although I haven’t written directly about the beauty of those violin solos rising above the swell of numbers or the sight of a train strangely gliding at glacial speeds onto the stage, it’s haunting everything that I write.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Booth Theatre
Martha and George, sad, sad, sad. Edward Albee’s ferocious Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is back via Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and if you are reading this now and are in NYC and have not see it, go. But be warned, it’s not a tame “woolf,” and I definitely lost some sleep after seeing this total wreck of a couple played by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton pull their guests into their brutal games of sadism, landing all their punches. Letts is especially brilliant as George, and knowing that the actor and writer (who penned August Osage County) is from Oklahoma does give me a lot of statehood pride.
Death of a Salesman | Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Remember when you read Death of a Salesman in high school and wondered why those loser characters would ever get themselves into situations with miserable jobs and lousy prospects? Ugh, well, seeing it as an “adult” makes it a lot more depressing, the disappointments of life more personal (this isn’t a cry for help, just that you start to understand how jobs and houses and insurance and all that can fill up idealism when you get out there in the world). This year’s Broadway revival with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman was in fact stupendously depressing, with the actor completely embodying the pathetic character that you desperately want to succeed somehow, but you know is doomed to the real, unremarkable, death of a salesman. Between this and Woolf, Broadway this year was breaking my heart, although seeing all this amazing acting made it worthwhile.
Gatz | Public Theater
This was definitely the year for intrepidly long theatre, and to go along with Einstein on the Beach‘s over four hour run was the Elevator Repair Service’s Gatzat nearly eight hours. Of course, there were intermissions and a break for dinner, but it was still a lot of time watching each and every word of The Great Gatsby being read on a stage that was decorated to look like the most boring office you’ve ever seen. (Think old computers, towers of files no one will read, dreary gray color scheme.) A large part of the credit for making this compelling theatre was Scott Shepherd, who served as narrator, and thus Nick Carraway, while his coworkers gradually morphed into the rest of the devastating characters, and making me hear Fitzgerald’s words with a freshness that I didn’t think possible.
Roman Tragedies | Brooklyn Academy of Music
Yet another epic! This at five and a half hours long and coming from the Netherlands. Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies combined Shakespeare’s Corolianus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra into one exploration of politics and news media. The audience was able to walk on stage and get a drink, and then huddle around televisions while the action played out around them, all in Dutch. It made for a great visual from the theatre, seeing all these people watching the play on video while the actors yelled around them. Brutus’ eulogy of Caesar became the press conference it was always meant to be, just as Antony’s eulogy perfectly became televangelist-tinged preaching. This deserves some in depth writing sometime, but for now here’s an interview I did with van Hove for ARTINFO that you can read here.
Orpheus & Eurydice | Lincoln Center
The Paris Opera Ballet’s first visit to NYC in 15 years included this gorgeous and haunting performance of Orpheus & Eurydice, the Greek story of a man who goes to the underworld to retrieve his lost lover, only to lose her again. As I wrote on my blog back in July, this was the first time I’d ever seen people cry at the ballet, but it was well-earned through the Pina Bausch choreography with its touches of the unsettling surreal and the pounding music of Christoph Willibald Gluck.
Richard III | Brooklyn Academy of Music
Kevin Spacey was completely and gleefully insane as the title misshapen king in this Shakespeare tragedy produced by Sam Mendes (who also directed Spacey in American Beauty). He tumbled (literally) across the stage as a sort of disturbing vaudeville-style villain, hunched over with his braced leg and murdering his way to power. The staging was unapologetically bleak, and it will be hard to forget the final scene when Richard III ends up losing his kingdom and life on the battlefield (all for the want of a horse), and Space was suspended by his feet to dangle above the stage.
Les Misérables | Queens Theatre London
When I went to London in April, I had to work some theatre into my schedule, and there was no question I was going to at least see Les Misérables, my not-so-secret young obsession (which I first saw in London back in… what, 1997 or so? Ages!). I ended up seeing it twice, because why not, and somehow even knowing every single note of the musical doesn’t stop its emotional resonance. Plus, Hadley Fraser as Javert certainly didn’t hurt… PS, you may know there’s a movie out, unless you’re in a media blackout. Can a Broadway revival be too far off?
Sweeney Todd | Adelphi Theatre London
Also while in London I saw one of the most disturbing productions of Sweeney Todd that I’ve witnessed (this is including the John Doyle version, also in London, with a bucket of blood and coffin as practically the sole props). This was all thanks to Michael Ball, of all people. I had no idea the usually bubbly London stage fixture had such darkness inside of him, and it made for an absolutely wonderful and terrifying Sweeney Todd, the barber who drips rubies from the necks of his customers, who are then put into meat pies by his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett (who was played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton). Will Sondheim’s grim music ever again sound so delightfully devious?
Sans Objet | Brooklyn Academy of Music
Sans Objet was one of the coolest things I saw all year. Two acrobatic men clad in suits interacted with a giant robot arm and it was at times ominous and beautiful, and unlike anything I’d seen before. I wrote about it for Hyperallergic in the context of robotics art, and while that was an essential part of it, it also was just a great theatre experience, with a central character that was riveting, even if it was a machine.
The Shining | New York Live Arts
This reconstruction of Yvonne Meier’s early 90s dance experience, in which you are thrown, pulled, and pushed through a cardboard box maze teeming with dancers who are equally physical with their movement, was intense. And I haven’t even mentioned the ride there from New York Live Arts in a van with the “naked lady” who served shots of Jameson. I was rather nervous going into this, but it ended up being a total thrill and I would even go again for the first five minutes alone of suddenly being in total darkness with only the sudden flashlights of the dancers to pull you into the labyrinth. (Read my more thorough ARTINFO review here.)
Then She Fell | Greenpoint Hospital
A couple of years ago I went to something called the Steampunk Haunted House, and while it definitely was more steampunky than scary, I was impressed with what Third Rail Projects was able to pull off with a limited space and budget in terms of creating a totally immersive experience. So I was curious this year when they were staging an Alice in Wonderland-inspired experience called Then She Fell in an old hospital. It turned out to be an artfully done production, with dancers and actors leading you through mirrors and strange rooms (Lewis Carroll’s room with the floor broken and filled with water that he waded through, floating with messages in bottles that you helped dictate, is one of the most beautiful things I saw this year) where you encountered the White Rabbit, Red Queen, and a couple Alices (all set in a mental hospital). Sure, the pacing wasn’t perfect and there were awkward moments where you were sort of paired up with an audience member in what could have been a more intimate experience with the space, but I was highly impressed. I believe it will be sticking around, so keep an eye out and go if you can!
Annie | Palace Theatre
Here’s something I never thought I would write: the current Broadway production of Annie is actually really enjoyable. I went for the sole reason of seeing Anthony Warlow, who I have adored, but have never had the chance to see as the Australian rarely ventures to the States. He was playing Warbucks, and while my heart fluttered to hear him sing, I found myself surprisingly having a good time as this staging of the orphan classic. Lilla Crawford is great as Annie without being annoying, as are her hard knock friends, and Kate Finneran was hilarious as a bedraggled Miss Hannigan. Who knows, maybe I’ll go again… shock!
Peter and the Starcatcher | Brooks Atkinson Theatre
With its DIY aesthetic and dozen cast members becoming everything from a ship tossed in the waves to a hungry crocodile, Peter and the Starcatcher was an endearing tale of how Peter Pan became Peter Pan. Yes, the humor could be kind of one-off and pop culture heavy (ex: “this is as elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera”), but there will never, ever be a hand severing scene quite like that performed by Christian Borle who played Black Stache (and ultimately became Captain Hook). Borle really owned the show (and earned that Tony) with his swaggering and silly pirate leader, with the rest of the cast equally committed to this magical piece of group theatre.
Once | Bernard B Jacobs Theater
I was skeptical about Once. How could the stage version of this film be as good without its talented creators Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová? But Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti proved to be just as touching as the musicians who meet on the streets of Dublin and fall into a sort of love story, one that’s fated to fragment before it forms. All of the cast played some sort of instrument, which made the stage in a constant flow of music and movement. I hope there can be more musicals like this, that make each song more than just bombastic emotion and instill intensity in the music that is necessary to the story. This is another one I recommend go seeing if you haven’t yet.
Macbeth | Lincoln Center
I will see Alan Cumming in anything, he’s so damn charming. Here in his one-man performance of Macbeth (well, helped by a couple of wandering doctors), he embodied all the characters in a manic ramble held inside a bleak mental asylum. While it might actually have been better if he had a few more people to play off of, I loved watching his quick and chaotic fall through Shakespeare that at the end looped back to the beginning with the reappearance of the two doctors: “When shall we three met again?”
Believe it or not, this is only a fragment of what I saw this year. Here are some others that stood out: Tribes (wonderful exploration of language and communication and sound design), Carrie (yes, that Stephen King Carrie, with catchy songs and a too-short run), Goodbar (another musical about murder, this with band Bambi bringing lots of glam rock), Book of Mormon (which I need to give another chance, as I felt deathly ill when seeing this, but I could tell through the fever that it has probably earned its hype), The Caretaker (not perfect, as it is with Pinter, but Jonathan Pryce was fantastic), Much Ado About Nothing (staged on Roosevelt Island in the outdoors, highly fun), Into the Woods (in Central Park where the stars behind the stage’s forest made it seem like the production had actually wandered from the woods), Faust (circus-meets-the-devil), Como el musguito (Pina Bausch’s last piece, with the dancers dancing their solos in beautiful cyclones making up for a less engaging ramble of a production)….