SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical: 2017 was full of nasty shocks, so I’m happy to report that one sweet surprise came in sponge form. Well, not quite (costume designer David Zinn thinks well out of the standard Halloween costume box), but actor Ethan Slater does a remarkable job of capturing the infectious optimism and goofball spirit of his animated counterpart, SpongeBob. Tina Landau directs the athletic, enthusiastic, high-kicking cast of SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical, the heartwarming tribute to inclusivity and imagination which debuted on Broadway this winter. Set to a soundtrack that skips from hip-hop to gospel to country without missing a beat, the all-ages comedy proves that squirrels can be scientists, squids can be superstars, and sponges can, indeed, be heroes.
It’s always a great treat for me to see revivals of plays that I’ve either read or known about but that I figure will never be up and on their feet before my eyes. Two examples of such works that graced New York stages in 2017 were the March production of Tennessee Williams’s 1969 experiment In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (from 292 Theatre, directed by Everett Quinton) and the recent staging of Terrence McNally’s early work, 1971’s Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (performed at The Workshop Theater, directed by Laura Braza). Neither production touched the pinnacle of perfection, but the leading actors in both shows (Charles Schick and Regina Bartkoff in Tokyo Hotel, David Gow in Tommy Flowers) shared with audiences the sort of bold, risk-taking artistry that makes you remember what you love about being a New York playgoer.
When it comes to outstanding acting turns in 2017, though, did anyone in the city outdo Michael Urie? Seeing his stellar performance in Harvey Fierstein’s moving Torch Song (at Second Stage Theater, directed by Moisés Kaufman) this fall, only weeks after witnessing his wild-man antics in Red Bull Theater’s version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector (adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by Jesse Berger) suggested to me that Urie is Off Broadway’s most essential actor. (And the former Ugly Betty star is up for even greater challenges. In 2018 he’ll be off to D.C. to play Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.)
Indecent: One of the most stunning portraits of 2017. This production, having transferred to Broadway from a successful Off-Broadway run at The Vineyard in 2016, is the true story of the behind-the-scenes production of Scholem Asch's seminal play God of Vengeance. Vogel's words resonate as the Tony-winning Rebecca Taichman cobbles together gorgeous stage pictures that truly set the scene to tell a story of hope as we follow a company of artists putting on God of Vengeance along a bumpy path to Broadway. Amid heightening tension, forbidden love, and the bewitching rain we are ushered into a problematic time in our history and learn in the process.
Pride and Prejudice: Through the lens of Kate Hamill's artful adaptation, Primary Stages rendition of the Austen classic is delightful and sinister. Elizabeth Bennett has never seemed more certain of what she has wanted for her life -- i.e., NOT MARRIAGE -- when silly love gets in the way. Through the use of character doubling, physical antics, spontaneous song, and some pretty fun interaction with the audience, Hamill's P&P doesn't miss a beat and is a delightful show you could watch again and again.
Only You Can Prevent Wildfires by Harrison David Rivers: This new work was presented by The Ricochet Collective and directed by Sherri Eden Barber the company's Artistic Director. A quiet and fascinating piece, Only You Can Prevent Wildfires explores the true story of Terry Lynn Barton, a forestry technician, who in 2002 started the largest forest fire in Colorado history. The intricate story lines weave into each other seamlessly creating a coming of age whodunit set against the Colorado wilderness. As the audience enters the space crunching over wood chips they are placed on two long benches looking toward trees and emptiness rendering them immediately transported. The excellent use of space, projections, and memory leaps as well as an airtight ensemble made this one of the best and necessary plays of the year.
As I reflected on theater seen this past year for StageBuddy’s Best of 2017, a definite theme emerged; female driven productions filled with imagination and inventiveness. Most of what I found exciting on stage did not have elaborate production values; instead with bare stages and minimal props these shows asked the audience to be an active participant, like director Phyllida Lloyd’s remarkable all-female The Tempest, the last play of her Shakespeare Trilogy, set in a prison with Jade Anouka as Ariel and the great Harriet Walter as Prospero. Flanked by guards, the actors as their prison characters filed past the audience waiting to enter the theater at St. Ann’s Warehouse, setting the stage for a Tempest that resonated on many levels.
Another show at St. Ann’s was the magical collaborative theater company Kneehigh’s 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a rich theatrical evening including puppets based on a true historical event in Devon, England during World War II. Directed and co-choreographed by Emma Rice, a superb cast of actors sang, danced up a storm and played a multitude of instruments.
Amanda Dehnert, a talented American director I’d certainly compare to Kneehigh’s Ms. Rice, brought Kate Hamill’s production of Pride and Prejudice to delicious life at Primary Stages. A sold out hit, Pride and Prejudice is ridiculously fun, intoxicatingly spirited with a deeply moving and relevant female perspective. This production had singing, dancing and instruments on stage, too.
Imagination and innovation are Fiasco Theater’s middle names and I thoroughly enjoyed their production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company as well as talking to actress (she plays the role of Olivia), director and one third of Fiasco Theater’s co-artistic director triumvirate, Jessie Austrian. Once again, beautiful singing (especially by Ben Steinfeld as Feste), musical instruments and a bit of raucous dancing.
Invention also ruled a trio of new plays by The Pool, a pop-up theater company at The Flea. Playwrights Lynn Rosen (Washed up on the Potomac), Peter Gil-Sheridan (The Rafa Play) and Susan Bernfield (Tania in the Getaway Van) told strong unique stories with fascinating twists and turns. In addition to being creators they produced their plays, and now have handed off the pop up company to a new trio of playwrights. Sustainable inventiveness!
Athough not female driven, Frederick Stroppel’s two-hander Small World: a fantasia, about the relationship between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, explored with charming simplicity the power of some great imaginations and the struggles that ensued, with stunning performances by Mark Shanahan and Stephen D'Ambrose.
Finally, seeing the fierce and magnificent Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater met all my 2017 criteria! Imagination, inventiveness and Ms. Carmello (plus the rest of a breathtaking cast) grab the audience by the heart and throat and don’t let go until the final chords disappear.
False Stars by Nora Sørena Casey is easily one of my favorites of 2017. This brilliantly written piece starred a wonderfully diverse multitalented cast of six, all with an equally weighty storyline directed in a way that never leaves the audience lost or bored. Set in a university town in the South, the play centers around Larry (whom we never see), a neuroscientist stricken by stroke while six young people gather in his home during a hurricane. The six are a motley crew, each embroiled in their own issues. And what issues they have...
The Gallery Players never fail to produce an excellent show and their rendition of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth is no exception. All the tragedy of Williams' work is brought forth by actors showing characters both hopeful and broken at all stages of life, literally asking the audience for "just for some recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.” In fact, it was seeing this production that inspired me to produce Tennessee Williams' works later in 2017 in Hello to Rose: One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams.
One play that stays with me is Uncle Abram: A Reconstructed Uncle Vanya. This Chekov work visits the residents in the Reconstruction period after the end of the Civil War in 1865, including a Native man named Jean "Red Dog" Vieux and a newly-freed Black man named Abram. It is an original piece exploring the questions of what does a person do when an unfree society now declares them "free" after centuries of enslaving and exterminating them in the first place. "Free" is not "equal". It is not even "free".
The Trial of Typhoid Mary 1915 by Carlo D'Amore is immersive theatre at its best. It is a quick lesson in epidemiology, the law and compassion as the audience is called upon to serve as the investigators and jury of Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who was an asymptomatic carrier of typhus in early 1900s New York. The real Mary Mallon was locked up for three decades without a trial. This play gives her back the chance to plead her case and be seen as a human being, not simply "Typhoid Mary".
While many “Best of 2017” lists contain such prestigious plays as the Tony Award-winning Oslo and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Red Letter Plays (In the Blood and Fucking A), all worthy of such a distinction, I want to call attention to the some of the lesser-known productions of 2017.
On The Exhale was a powerhouse one-woman show starring the very talented Marin Ireland about the Sandy Hook school shooting. Playwright Martín Zimmerman explored some very uncomfortable issues about gun violence and Ireland delivered a gut-wrenching monologue that made you feel all the weight of her suffering.
Twelfth Night by The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit injected an electric current through the beloved Shakespeare comedy. The high energy production, augmented by hilarious sight gags involving costume and set pieces and perfectly in-sync performances by the actors, made it one of the do-not-miss Shakespeare plays of the year.
A Ribbon About A Bomb, a site-specific play set in a Colonels Row house on Governors Island, succeeded in finely balancing multiple art forms: theatre, music, and fine art. Exquisite Corpse Company made a compelling narrative out of interweaving the stories of three female artists: Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington. The choose-your-own-adventure style helped immerse audiences in the life/death duality that these artists encompassed.
Describe the Night succeeds in cramming 90 years of Russian history in an epic three-hour, three-act play. Everything -- Communist politics, military cover-ups, subversive literature -- is filtered through the stories of three sets of intersecting characters. It’s all very on the nose in these times of political truth-twisting and propaganda against the media.