Tuesday, January 04, 2011

metaDRAMA: Best Theater of 2010

It's great when critics agree that a show is terrific, as with The Aliens, Clybourne Park, and In the Footprint, but it's perhaps better when critics disagree, as with The Little Foxes, Lear, and Lascivious Something, because then you end up with passionate defenses. It's nice to have some diversity, too; those who fear "off-off-Broadway" missed out on the braveness of The Soup Show and the tenacity of Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War. Doing away with expectations helps, too, because then you can shamelessly include shows like The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer, a bit of incandescent pleasure, and L'Effet De Serge, which has no comparison, i.e., is a delight all on its own. If I had to pull a set of biases out of the crucible called list-making, it'd be that I like cerebral and low-key (i.e., not a "spectacle") work, but above all, honesty.

1. Young Jean Lee's Lear
Paul Lazar, tired of playing at "Edgar," pulls off his facial hair, turns the house lights on, and recommends that those in the theater who feel that they're wasting their time should leave. The play resumes with a recreation of a Very Special Episode of Sesame Street and ends with a raw reverberation on the essence of mortality: "I'll miss you." All those rough spots in the play? We'll call them the facets of a diamond in the rough.

2. The Civilians's In the Footprint
Objects transcend their location not just because they're sung ("The ghetto home depot, Park Slope Co-op, the Target, Cellar's Bar, Marcy Projects, the shootings, the hipsters, Spike Lee, Jay Z, the Time Out article the day the rents doubled..."), but because Steve Cosson has defined and given them significance, quoting verbatim from the residents as a means of rebutting all those (like politicians) who would use them merely as words. How often do lyrics and actors have the opportunity to do that?

3. The New York New Futurists's The Soup Show
Talk about some indelible images. Desiree Burch, Cara Francis, and Erica Livingston reclaim all the "mysteries" of womanhood by refusing to hide any of them; moreover, by upending our expectations (of hygiene, humor, history), they succeed in ensuring that we actually recognize how stupid assumptions are in the first place. And, in handing out so-called "elixirs" to the audience, the ensemble succeeds in making us question what exactly we want, and what we're willing to do to get it.

4. Ivo van Hove's The Little Foxes
How heartless to just lean there, against that dark and purpled wall, watching your husband -- in the throes of a heart attack -- attempt to crawl up the stairs (located the aortal center of the stage)? Watch Ivo van Hove's production of Lillian Hellman's 1939 play and you'll understand: he fills the production with bleak family interactions, violent histrionics, and bloodless forms of assault and battery. In such a world are we reflected (talk about an effective pseudo-modernization); do we want our finances and lives run so calculatingly?

5. Philippe Quesne's Le Effet d'Serge
It takes only the briefest flash of a second, and then the spark is gone. Gaëtan Vourc’h's guests applaud the performance, then leave. Time passes, time passes, new guests arrive, a new show is performed -- a home-made laser-light-show, jury-rigged automobile headlights, whatever -- and all of a sudden, the ordinary has become a wonderland full of transcendent surprises. Putting the play back into play, Quesne's largely silent work is a small but significant wonder. 

6. Sheila Callaghan's Lascivious Something is an aptly named romance, an frisson-filled look at both  positive and negative actions at once, illustrated by a time-reversing device that leads us on with alternatives and crushes us with realities -- or vice-versa. Roads taken, not taken, dreamed about, fantasized about, all with a economic and political subtext just waiting to haunt us beneath the eroticism of the moment. I can still feel the passion of these performers; that's a rare thing.

7. Annie Baker's The Aliens is more specific than her previous Circle Mirror Transformation, so there seem, at first, to be fewer ways to connect to all that space between her sparse text and stoner characters; the trick of her work is realizing -- with the cut of an abrupt loss, or a sudden coming-of-age -- just how little it takes to connect after all, if we just listen.

8. Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park two-part generational structure makes us laugh and think at the same time about what constitutes racism and what constitutes community.

9. Tim Watts's The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik Deep Sea Explorer ditches all that high-concept nonsense in order to get to the essence of life after heartbreak, using nothing more than a few puppets and a Wiimote-controlled series of animations to explore the unfathomable fathoms of the ocean.

10. The Mad Ones's Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War appropriately uses a radio-theater format in order to tap into the nostalgia of its narrators, three Russian broadcasters who, on the verge of alien-driven extinction, venture into the heart of an American love story. Form, content, energy =  recipe for success?

Honorable mentions: Michael Shannon's performance in Craig Lucas's Mistakes Were Made, the quiet introspection of religion in Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, the elegance (even in translation) of Toshiki Okada's Enjoy, the participatory delights of Rotozaza's GuruGuru, the clownishly beautiful imagination of Legs and All, and the return-to-form of Company XIV's scintillating Nutcracker Rouge.

Overrated, but in a good way: Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, because maybe it's time for playwrights to stop being subtle about racism in America.

Underrated, but in a good way: Polly Stenham's That Face, because a young writer should have an unpolished voice, especially when dealing with internal horrors . . . but it's still an unpolished voice.

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