I unfortunately don’t get around to blogging about all the great theatre I see in New York. As we have found ourselves in December, here are some highlights from 2011 that have been replaying in my mind:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor bring as much to a role as Mark Rylance did for Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. The stubbornly doomed vagrant who runs a sort of druggy Neverland out of his trailer in the English countryside was vivid from the first vigorous head-dunk into a trough of water to the brutal end. Rylance was incredibly deserving of the Best Actor Tony, and, while we’re at it, why not revisit his acceptance speech on walking through walls.
THE NORMAL HEART
It would be wrong to say that Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart has aged well. It would be more accurate to say it has aged viciously. The autobiographical tirade of a play set at the beginning of the HIV-AIDS crisis, before the devastating disease even had a name, is still razor sharp 26 years after it was first staged. It wasn’t an easy thing to watch (people were audibly sobbing in the audience and I was left with an emotional heaviness that took a while to lift), but it was breathtaking in the most literal way.
Here’s one I actually did get around to blogging about. The play about a boy searching for his horse in WWI was rather clunky and awkward, but my god, the puppets! From the minute the horse Joey stumbled on stage as a colt I was totally invested in the horse. Even if the puppets looked strange and sinewy, with their human controllers not at all hidden, they moved so believably that I completely bought into their breathing as real.
The staging of King Lear at BAM was sparse, but Derek Jacobi’s performance as the title character/gradually mad king was sprawling. Shakespeare can too often feel like a solemn recitation, yet this production was like cutting into an old stone and finding a geode: crystal and jagged. Jacobi fully embraced Lear’s fall from sanity and the supporting cast was right there along with him for the plunge.
LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST
And while I’m talking about Shakespeare, why not mention another wonderful production that brought some new fun to an old play? Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Public was great, taking the early, largely forgotten work by the Bard and performing it with lively joy. The actors never stopped moving, rushing into the audience and all around the stadium-style theatre, and you could look across to the other side of the audience and see the enjoyment on their faces.
Rent is back! Maybe you didn’t know it was gone? The musical by the late Jonathan Larson that left Broadway in 2008 has returned, bringing a new cast of angry youth with it. As I spent a bit of time obsessing over it in high school, I of course had to go. While the New York of “bohemia” seems far removed from the city of today (if it was ever anything more than a theatrical dream), Larson’s music is still invigorating.
Human woe was so strangely, yet convincingly, depicted in 69°S. at BAM. Strange because all of the main characters were marionettes who shivered through an eerie production based on Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to Antarctica. While the story is really one of survival, with all the explorers being rescued after their ship is crushed by the ice and they are stranded by the heroism of Shackleton, the play (if that’s the right term for the dance/puppet/music hybrid) brought out all the creepiness of that desolate tip of the world. And yeah, that skeleton dance is still disturbing me. (PS, you can read my review for Hyperallergic here.)
RADIO THEATRE NYC’S LOVECRAFT FESTIVAL
Do you know what else is creepy? Being read H.P. Lovecraft horror stories in the cramped, basement-like Under St. Mark’s theatre while a smoke machine churns in the corner. Thank you, Radio Theatre NYC, for the reminder that sometimes it’s the skilled delivery and dedicated performers that can make a performance truly unsettling.
ANGELS IN AMERICA
Another revival that I enjoyed was Angels in America at Signature Theatre. The two-part play by Tony Kushner is, like The Normal Heart, set in the 1980s and concentrates its drama on the HIV-AIDS crisis. The dense network of characters is linked by unlikely circumstances and tragedy, and for the most part each actor was up to the energy that the formidable work requires, even if it was more like a prolonged contemplation than a bombastic epic.
SLEEP NO MORE
Okay, so this is hardly overlooked on this blog, but how could I not include Sleep No More? I’ve been to the immersive, Macbeth-inspired performance six times and will be returning for a seventh in January, so I’m either as crazy as King Lear or this is one of the best works of theatre in New York. Every time I go is a new experience, and the sets are just gorgeous (so are the actors, by the way) and everything, from the brisk choreography to the lighting to the score of Hitchcock themes and jazz music is so meticulous. You really do feel like you’ve been transported into another world.