Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Best Theater of '07

Top Five Shows of '07

#1 - The Misanthrope - Hands down the most engaging interpretation of Moliere I've ever seen, Ivo Van Hove's physical direction lent an air of discomfort that helped to translate how Alceste views (and smells) the world, and while he's not the first person to use the media to modernize a play, his revealing use of mixed media broke down the walls between actors and characters, the boundaries of the stage, and the usage of space. The play managed to demolish the set and the characters without harming the script itself, and from Bill Camp's lead performance to the vanities of his co-stars, the show is perfect theater.

# 2 - Journey's End - David Grindley didn't conform to Broadway norms when he revived R. C. Sherrif's Journey's End: he kept the play shrouded in the dank darkness that befits a trench, he belabored the silent tension of preparing for war, he blocked scenes without having any actors on stage, and he kept the emotional stakes high, even through the curtain call, refusing to release us from the drama. I hope more people remember that rules are meant to be broken, because his force of vision, chained to the masterful performances of his ensemble cast, made this production one of the high points of the theater, all the more so for not ever being overt or pushy, and for escaping the melodrama one expects of an old-fashioned war play.

# 3 - The Eaten Heart's Oliver Butler, Hannah Bos, and Paul Thureen are The Debate Society, and this rich and multidimensional retelling of The Decameron, set in a three-room spread of hotel rooms and chained together by lightning fast costume changes and illusory effects produced a startling tableaux of the eccentric 60s, not to mention life itself. More impressive is the developmental process they used to come up with the final product (all that trial and error for something so utterly seamless and astonishing), a process which proves that an independent theater company can put on the highest caliber of theater if they choose to.

# 4 - Adam Bock's The Receptionist is an unassuming play that seems to just be about everyday life, and that is its great deception: with utterly natural dialogue that's been sharply directed by Joe Mantello, we're laughing so hard at the normalcy that we put ourselves in the receptionist's shoes. When we grow to understand what she does, we have to question our own capacity for the same; likewise, when she is put to the test, we have to admit that the same could happen to us, we who were so brightly laughing only a moment before. This is exactly the sort of parable that works: an unassuming little worm of an idea that, once inside our minds, refuses to go and which, more importantly, targets exactly the sort of audience who need to understand it.

# 5 - No Dice shouldn't work: the thought of listening to three actors recite close to four hours worth of edited transcripts from their friends, families, and themselves, sounds absolutely horrible. To help us accept this epic of the everyday, this throwback to oral storytelling, the actors don the outlandish costumes and horrendous accents of dinner theater, which makes the transition back into their real people all the more striking. The conversations themselves have been expertly edited so as to be true representations of that "cosmic murmur" the cast worked toward, and the play also gets points for daring to work in a freestyle beat-boxer, a wacky dance competition, and a physical underbelly girded on repetition that should be annoying but is actually endearing.

Runners-Up: The Brothers Size, Macbeth: A Walking Shadow, a volume of smoke, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, The Seafarer

Top Five Performances of '07

# 1 - Allison Pill, Blackbird & Mauritius - From being manipulative and coy in Blackbird to being spirited yet broken in Mauritius, Allison Pill (as in last year's Lieutenant of Inishmore) has a way of sneaking up on you, seeming sweet, even as she plays the tough girl (like some combination of Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron, with the personality of Mary Louise Parker). She doesn't even seem to be at the top of her game yet, but already, she's a heartbreakingly simple actor, no frills attached.

# 2 - Bill Camp, The Misanthrope & Beckett Shorts & Coram Boy - A fierce speaker, a gruff personality, and an utterly likable villain, this actor's actor not only performs at the top of his game, but he brings those around him up to his level as well, case in point being the way his scenes in Coram Boy always sparkled, or the way in which he brought Ivo Van Hove's highly physical vision to life. To go from that to Beckett, too, and next year's Dead Man's Cell Phone; that shows pure range and -- most importantly -- good taste.

# 3 - Tied: Conleth Hill & Jim Norton, The Seafarer - These two best mates stuck by each other through thick and thin in Conor McPherson's redemptive masterpiece; I see no reason not to keep them together here, in brilliantly drunken yet utterly human performances. Conleth Hill's little tics and mannerisms make him an absolutely adorable best friend, and Jim Norton's stubbornness in the face of equally persistent fragility is a thing of haunting beauty.

# 4 - Dallas Roberts, Peter and Jerry - Albee is not an easy playwright to perform, and of his roles, Jerry is probably the one most overplayed, but instead, Roberts brings the same sensibility that he brought to A Number to this piece: a subdued rage that only occasionally peeks its head out, coupled with a charming suaveness that is as calming as it is unsettling. The man looks like he's about to jump out of his own skin, but smooth as a snake in the process, and that whip-smart coiling of emotion and intelligence make him the sort of actor who can challenge any role.

# 5 - Ensemble, New York Neo-Futurists: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind - Given the amount of times I've gone out to see this late night treat, I should've put them on my top ten, but being that they don't believe in roles or shows so much in the immediate truths that they bring to blinding light each week (brilliantly funny, too), it makes more sense to single them out as a group. You won't find such naked honesty anywhere else on the stage, nor so directly addressed, and every cast member (on a rotating basis) brings a different sensibility and aesthetic to the table, which keeps things interesting.

Best Theater: New York Theater Workshop
Not only is The Misanthrope my number one show for '07, but this year also brought us The Black Eyed, Horizon, and Beckett Shorts, all of which had far more going for them than the always excellent scenic design. Each production was innovative (especially difficult given Beckett's restrictions and Moliere's age), intelligent, and contemporary -- it's nice to see that there's such development going on at a self-proclaimed workshop, and there's far more to look forward to in '08, such as Elevator Repair Service's The Sound and the Fury.

Runner-Up: Roundabout, for taking a risk with the black box and the innovative Speech and Debate, and for nailing younger audiences with the unfailing combination of cheaper HIPTIX and solid revivals like Pygmalion and important new work like The Overwhelming.

Best Off-Off Theaters: Manhattan Theater Source and The Brick
Two small theaters where you're likely to keep finding innovative festivals and intimate programming, MTS premiered two of the best shows of '07, Universal Robots and Macbeth: A Walking Shadow, and The Brick, in addition to having The Pretentious Festival, crams a remarkable amount of short programming into their little space, making it a great place not to find another brick in the wall, but a unified front of awesomeness, if I dare to be so nondescriptive.

Best Playwright: David Ives
Granted, New Jerusalem will open in '08, but given his outstanding work editing down other playwrights, like Mark Twain's Is He Dead? or his usual contributions to Encores!, I want to give the guy recognition where it's due, for the man is truly all about the timing, a gifted punster, a noted wit, and a remarkably succinct writer. New Jerusalem is far from the perfect play, but it riled me up, energized me, and made me take a book on Spinoza out from the library.

Runners-Up: Adam Bock and Tarell Alvin McCraney
Perhaps the most directly comprehensible (though no less unsettling for the clarity) of his plays, The Receptionist succeeds with slow doses of the most ordinary charm. We see ourselves in these characters, only to feel betrayed when we learn what they do, only to leap to their defense once again when we see what happens to them. Pitch perfect, this was the most sympathetic play I've seen in some time. As for the young Tarell Alvin McCraney, his beautifully written, risk-taking The Brothers Size manages to classicalize a Topdog/Underdog tale by paying close attention to tribal rhythms, blockings, and mythos -- how liberating and, above all, fresh.

Best Director: David Grindley
Not only did he nail Journey's End, but he mastered Pygmalion, too. He's playing with the big boys on Broadway, but he's not bowing to their rules, and that's why we can get such a gripping curtain call and the looming, ill-lit silence in one play, and a petulant, childish Higgins in the other. These may not seem like big risks, but most revivals tend to simply play it safe and rely simply on big name casting, as you'll find with other fare, like The Homecoming.

Runner-Up: Lear deBessonet and Ivo Von Hove
Because originality should be rewarded, it's important to point out two phenomenal talents; deBessonet's work on transFigured was a miracle crafted out of string, body work, and other such fragile representations of God, whereas her revival of St. Joan of the Stockyards successfully took Brecht to the country (courtesy of Kelley McRae) and the city (Justin Townsend's gritty set) at the same time; how's that for an alienating feeling? And Ivo Von Hove dressed Moliere's The Misanthrope up in syrup and hot dogs without actually dressing the beautiful couplets down at all, and his animal passion was the perfect match for the feral savages of his modern, misanthropic world.

Best Company: The Debate Society
Imagine my surprise to find that the group with the most seamless performance of '07 (The Eaten Heart) got there by throwing tons of stuff at the wall, letting that tap water run until it turned to gold. That they're able to edit themselves down through workshops, developmental readings, and rehearsal to such perfection shows a working theatrical model, one that can tour with abstract vignettes in the mode of Danill Kharms just as easily as it can contemporize The Decameron, and I can't wait to see what happens when they lay on the final coats of varnish to their Untitled Auto Play in late '08/early '09.

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