Best Plays of 2008
As a bias alert, I direct you to the breakdown of the 251 shows seen in 2008. Not surprisingly, this list reflects my off-off-Broadway habits, as well as my attraction to magical realism, aesthetic direction, and refreshingly new directions. Don't be fooled by the presence of two revivals, two musicals, and a monologue: each play on this list had a unique voice, a striking presentation, and a hypodermic of adrenaline-laced honesty.
10. Women Beware Women - Red Bull doesn't just revive plays, it resurrects them, mounting top-notch productions that highlight the language and showcase the style, not just reminding us that it's cool to kick it old-school, but that it's where we learned to kick it in the first place.
9. Bride - Lone Wolf Tribe embraced their otherworldly vision so fully that they were able to embed social commentary in a comic nightmare, get away with straightfaced puppetry, and keep the audience perpetually surprised and delighted.
8. crooked - Catherine Treishmann captured the excited magic of storytelling in this original exploration of teen angst; by refusing to conform to stereotypes, her work fleshed out characters in the most heartwrenching ways, for the deeper they are, they harder they fall.
7. Rainbow Kiss - Simon Farquhar's debut play was shockingly realistic, from the visceral axe-through-a-door staging to the desperate, craving dialogue, and the unflinching tragedy of depression, shown here without tricks or metaphors: just a raw and bloody mess of a life.
6. Aliens With Extraordinary Skills - Saviana Stanescu uses a light-hearted fantasy as a means of creating empathy for the awfully dark reality illegal immigrants work in--but never comes across as preachy; the ability to be charming and convincing is no easy feat.
5. How Theater Failed America - Mike Daisey is a wonderfully talented monologist, one of those richly voiced and charismatic people who fill the nuance of each syllable with a passion so palpable that what they say hardly matters--except that in this case, the words were every bit as important as the performance, and Daisey's usual collection of anecdotal humor was flooded with a hard-earned honesty well worth listening to.
4. Passing Strange - Though there are some gimmicky moments and a few flat pieces in the second act, those things are all part of "The Real" that Stew found so hard to communicate--breaking the standard conventions of theater, particularly Broadway, as he did so; what stands out is the way the hairs on my arm stood up as his music crackled through the theater, and the way he reclaimed "Art" as something well-worth striving for.
3. Blasted - Sarah Kane's play has never been about the eye-gouging, baby-cannibalism, anal rape, and other horrifying shocks of this Beckett-busting work; by realistically, unflinchingly directing this work, Sarah Benson has succeeded in jarring the text far enough off the page that it can be seen as the painfully alive, utterly human, and angrily demanding work that it is, shocking, ultimately, only in that it is no longer as shocking on the surface as in 1995 (although it is just as emotionally scarring as ever).
2. Fabrik - All of the characters in Wakka Wakka's production are puppets, but like Maus and Cabaret, this only allows the ensemble to shed the pretense and melodrama that often accompanies plays about the Holocaust; puppetry, when it is as specific and deliberate as used here, can show us facets of our own humanity that we are too blind (or stubborn) to notice--we get so caught up in the magic of these miniatures that their deaths are somehow more affecting: we were no longer prepared for or protected from it.
1. Hostage Song - This aptly-described "downtown supergroup" (Clay MacLeod Chapman, Kyle Jarrow, and Oliver Butler) earned that name with this transcendental indie rock musical about a pair of two doomed hostages, their loved ones, and the beautiful dreams they once had--and still cling to, Everymen for the current human condition. In an intimate black-box theater, blindfolds freed them (and us) to think outside the box, reminding us of life's horrors while at the same time meshing them with the simplest, most fragile pleasures. Not only did I go back to see this show, but if they should ever need an investor for an encore, I'm there.
Sahr Ngaujah in Fela! - Because the mark of a talented actor is in catching the audience's attention--and holding it--even when the play around you sags. Because he had to be pitch perfect not only in his imitation of the Afrobeat inventor, but in his singing, dancing, and instrumentals. Beyond all that, because he sold a song about shit.
Clay MacLeod Chapman - Because he writes because he has to: The Pumpkin Pie Show has been going on for ten years, with new, twisted material jumping in all the time (not to mention his collaborative spirit with The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays). Because his sense of language is so keen that the images of Hostage Song are still with me, as are the tears. Because he is a performer, too, and understands the value of words and the rhythm of dialogue, but moreover, because he understands what it takes to make even the weirdest stuff seem real.
Best "New" Theater
As Ratatouille puts it, the role of a critic is to defend and promote that which is new: that's why this is the most important category for 2008. These were not the best shows, but they were the most promising, with their efforts to transform theater.
1. Suspicious Package - Because this took the ideas in Rotozaza's Etiquette and the long-running theatrical walking tour of Accomplice one step further, turning the audience into actors, the city into a stage, and the music/video player into a historical device.
2. Small Metal Objects - Because this site-specific work transformed our perception of "anonymity" and allowed us, for a moment, to tune into a carefully choreographed conversation taking place amidst the everyday hustle and bustle of the city.
3. Democracy in America - Because someone paid $15 dollars to insert a conversation about a toy dinosaur and $5 to add a rim job and because Annie Dorsen had the craft and technique to not just combine these two, but to craft the gimmick of a show democratically "bought" by the audience into an entertaining whole.
Best Off-Broadway Theater
Women's Project: Because seasons with shows as different as Sand, crooked, and Aliens with Extraordinary Skills are rarely any good, and this one is. Because they're committed to the community (now that they've bought their space), their company (they run labs for playwrights, directors, and producers), and the theater (they produced their second annual site-specific work at the World Financial Center, for free). Because they were good last season, too.
Honorable Mention - Vineyard Theater has an eclectic, quirky edge to their productions, and everything there is always a professionally mounted surprise.
Best Off-Off-Broadway Theater
Electric Pear - Because their name only captures half their weirdness--what's most exciting about this company, now in residence at the hip new Wild Project, is that you never know what's coming next. Because in this last year, they've done site-specific works like The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays, edgy theater like The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, engaging experiments like Synthesia 2008 and their upcoming radio play, and even revivals (like 2.5 Minute Ride) that shouldn't work but somehow do.
Honorable Mention - The Flea can be hit or miss, but its dedication to the unpaid Bats ensemble of young actors (new plays, written for them by A. R. Gurney, Itamar Moses, and Adam Rapp) and to the neighborhood scene is without question. Did I mention their cheap tickets?
Best Use of Theater Space
3LD Arts and Technology Space - Because although their shows are often below average, the technological possibilities and expensive derring-do on display are a bold sandbox for other companies to take note of: Fire Island changed our perception of theater space, operating in three-dimensions (amongst the actors) and using holographic and digital screens to continue the story, and even more traditional staging, like The Only Tribe, pushed boundaries by projecting a slew of images against the live actors.
Honorable Mention - Ohio Theater, which is sadly shuttering sometime soon, had a tall, wide, flexible space that encouraged unconventional uses, and festivals that welcomed artists of all sorts--the best use of space is also the constant use of space, something that PS122 and the newly renovated HERE will now need to deliver on.
By breaking down the normal walls between playwright, director, and actor, the ensemble shows the most promise of creating new theater, emboldened by a collective spirit that aggressively looks for "the Real."
1. Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Poetics (a ballet brut) - Because this highly energetic group has taken the craziest part of last year's No Dice and stretched it (without losing the fullness) into a sustained dance/meditation on human nature, the wordless underbelly that unites us all.
2. Radiohole: ANGER/NATION - Because they gave me beer and then blew my mind. Because they juxtaposed puritanical anarchy with hedonistic order. Because the coda to their show uncomfortably refused to conform to our expectations. Because it is still possible to have an edgy experience at the theater, even if you spend most of your time seeing downtown theater.
3. Jollyship the Whiz-Bang: Jollyship the Whiz-Bang - Because there's a moment in which lecherous, drunken puppets performing rock music on a pirate adventure transcends mere comedy and, like an energetic ad-libbing force of nature, restores our faith in the sort of community that can dream this up . . . and produce it.
Honorable Mention: The Debate Society is still doing great work with their melancholy magic and Cape Disappointment was no disappointment; The TEAM left a mark with their inventively giddy Particularly in the Heartland. Both groups benefit from a cinematic styles that lavishes attention on the minute, thanks to well-oiled casts and their visionary directors.
Revivals are a dime a dozen, but adaptations are curious beasts, for the original must first be wrestled to the floor, then, with a sculptor's skill and precision, chiseled into something at least as revealing and beautiful.
1. Gregory Wolfe: Bound in a Nutshell - Because turning Shakespeare's longest play, Hamlet, into a modernized 90-minute version requires real focus--and in this case, in which scenes and characters are conflated and jumbled far more than anything Baz Luhrmann (or last year's Macbeth: A Walking Shadow) did, real imagination, too.
2. Elevator Repair Service: The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) - Because this company embraces what could otherwise be flaws, adapting non-traditional forms of storytelling and going balls-out to create emotions where words fail.
3. Jon Levin: There Will Come Soft Rains - Because presentation matters, and the aesthetics that Levin found for each of the three sci-fi stories in this Fringe production managed to draw something heartbreaking out of the works: the mad scientist seems human in puppet form, the robotic house is cleverly described through modern dance, and the trouble with time travel is highlighted by holographic replay.
Honorable Mention: Aquila Theater's Catch-22, which pared down the plot into a minimalist production that emphasized the irony of insanity rather than the melodrama of the plot.
Best "Non" Theater
Of All The People in the World (USA) - Because expressing statistics in three-dimensional form--particularly grains of rice--is gut-punchingly effective. What is easy to ignore on paper is far harder to ignore when meticulously assembled in front of your eyes, and even the most colorful bar graphs stand to learn a lot from the activeness of "performance" art.
Most Anticipated Play
Water (or the secret life of objects) - There's no telling when Sheila Callaghan will finish her six-hour opus, a series of vignettes that share the symbolic life-giving water of its title. Callaghan's having a busy year, with two top-notch productions of her work in NYC alone, but one can only hope that all the workshops (excerpts are at HERE's Culturemart again in '09) are helping her find her "flow."
- To see Sarah Benson do a Howard Barker play at SoHo Rep--Potomac Theater Company does great work, but Benson can get him the attention he deserves.
- To see the auteur Jay Schieb take his berserk blend of technology and passion to 3LD, where he is most likely to be able to fully express himself.
- To see Red Bull's 2003 production of Pericles (with Daniel Breaker), or to revisit their 2005 run of The Revenger's Tragedy (with Matthew Rauch and Michael Urie). When a company is consistently good, you don't want to wait a year between productions, and if Richard Foreman is putting out DVDs, why not Red Bull?