I can’t actually claim to be able to list the best plays of the year, as I didn’t see nearly all of them. I did, however, see nearly 40 of them, which, I would wager, is more than most. So, I thought I would simply list the 5 best that I saw, which still seems to have some merit, right? Well, anyway, here are my top five with one honorable mention:
Honorable Mention: The Momentum. CollaborationTown.
Part of the Emerging America Festival in May, this short three-person piece was hilarious and then, suddenly, extremely moving. It begins as a parody of a confidence seminar with the three leads (Boo Killebrew, Geoffrey Decas O’Donnell and Jordan Seavey) telling the audience how “The Momentum” changed their lives. Then, as it moves, these caricatures slowly become characters and reveal, in three beautifully moving monologues, the sadness of their lives and the difficulties of getting over them.
5) Three Pianos @ A.R.T
I found this play to be one of the more enjoyable and inspiring experiences of the year. Three Pianos is Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy hanging out together, playing Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise” and talking about art and love and life. It’s simple, it’s effective, and demonstrates (like The Momentum) that sometimes all you need to produce a great piece of art is just three people, three pianos and a whole lot of talent.
4) Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth @ Whistler in the Dark
A daring comedy by Tom Stoppard, this production of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth worked on as many levels as it aimed to. It was by turns silly and slapstick-y, serious and heartbreaking. Full of Stoppard’s one-of-a-kind wordplay and director Meg Taintor’s assured minimalism, the play mixed high- and low-brow all the while meditating on art, expression and the nature of communication. A fierce, charging performance by Nate Gundy, of course, always helps.
3) Neighbors@ Company One.
Neighbors is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ impassioned play about the topic of race in America. It doesn’t take any side of the debate, but instead focuses on the refusal of many people to even have the debate. A man (Johnny Lee Davenport) can’t stand his new neighbors, a family who dress and act like minstrel show performers (see above photo). They embody every cliche about black people that Davenport’s character wants nothing to do with. He refers to the neighbors as “those kinds of people.” As the play progresses, the anger – both from the protagonist and the playwright – become palpable and the complexity of the topic is explored challengingly and perceptively.
2) The Drowsy Chaperone @ SpeakEasy
Hands down the most fun I had at the theater this year. The Drowsy Chaperone pulls off a wonderful feat: it manages to poke fun and comment upon old-fashioned musicals while still unabashedly being one. Will McGarrahan takes us through the fictional musical The Drowsy Chaperone and provides the audience with historical context. This all-out celebration of old Broadway musicals (and winner of 5 Tony Awards) also ends up showing the ways grand entertainment like that can be an escape from life, which sometimes is far too complicated to understand, digest and deal with. Entertainment will never leave us, which ultimately means we’ll always have a place to go when things get rough. On one particular night in May, I had The Drowsy Chaperone.
1) Ruined @ Huntington Theatre Company
No other play took me through as many emotions as Lynn Nottage’s Ruined did, nor as drastically. The highs were celebratory and swinging (the live band helped with that); and the lows were harrowing and disturbing. Set in the Congo, the plays focuses on Mama Nadi’s place, a brothel for soldiers and miners. When Mama’s friend brings for her service Sophie, a girl who turns out to be “ruined” (a euphemism for being raped by soldiers’ weapons), Mama is forced to confront the many harsh realities of life in war-torn, male-dominated Africa. Nottage’s play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Drama. It deserved it, and director Liesl Tommy and her incredible cast do the play – and the women of the Congo – as much justice as anybody possibly could. Bravo.
Other notable plays: 1001 (Company One), Aunt Dan and Lemon (Whistler in the Dark), Living in Exile (Actors’ Shakespeare Project), The Merry Wives of Winter (Actors’ Shakespeare Project), Prometheus Bound (A.R.T.) Sons of the Prophet (Huntington).