A recap of the performing arts in a tumultuous year.
It’s hard to believe that almost 10 months have gone by since we all congregated in the dark and experienced live theater together. It’s been so long, in fact, that I had to remind myself that as we get ready to push 2020 out to sea, for a few beautiful months early in the year, there was some extraordinary theater.
As unconventional and abridged as the theatrical year was, there was plenty to admire and celebrate. But an unconventional year calls for an unconventional recap: this year’s Top Ten list combines both performances and productions, each of them a glimmering revelation that has left me missing our theater community more than ever.
It is with extreme fondness—and profound longing—that I share this sixth annual list celebrating the cream of the crop, ten revelations in the year of Boston theater.
I’ll see you at the theater again.
Kadahj Bennett in Pass Over, SpeakEasy Stage Company and The Front Porch Arts Collective
One thing I love about being a theater critic in Boston is that I get to watch young, local artists grow into their own. And when I think about young actors who continually top themselves, I think of Bennett, whose career-best performance in Pass Over won him an Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actor. To each role, Bennett brings an unmistakable swag that is always grounded in something more fragile, and never has he used that potent cocktail to such devastating effect as he did with Pass Over, a performance that firmly places him in the top echelon of Boston’s best actors.
The Cake, Lyric Stage Company of Boston
While Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake is not without its flaws, Courtney O’Connor’s production was one of those beautiful, all-too-rare nights at the theater that felt like perfection. I don’t think I’ve ever actually uttered the phrase “I laughed, I cried” before, but that’s exactly what I did during The Cake. Karen MacDonald and Chelsea Diehl each deserve a crown for their remarkably layered, powerhouse performances as two family friends at odds, and on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The Children, SpeakEasy Stage Company
Last March, the prescience of watching a play about an apocalyptic global catastrophe while we, ourselves, were on a similar precipice was obviously unknown to us. But looking back, it’s positively chilling. Bryn Boice’s astounding production of Lucy Kirkwood’s thrilling drama was as good as it gets. Karen MacDonald (on the heels of The Cake, no less) and Paula Plum—two grand dames of the Boston stage—gave the kind of performances that reminded us of why they’re geniuses at their craft. What’s more, Plum won her third Elliot Norton Award for her performance.
Bobby Cius in Pipeline, The Nora and WAM Theatre at Central Square Theatre
Every once in a while, I’ll see a performance so astonishing that—mid-performance—I’ll dig my program out of my bag and squint my eyes in the dark to find out who the actor is, and that’s what I did when I saw Bobby Cius playing opposite Kadahj Bennett in Pass Over; when I saw that he would be starring in Pipeline the following month, I knew that it was going to be something special. And it was. His revelatory performance as Omari, a teenager struggling to understand his place in the world as both a son and a black man, earned him an Elliot Norton Award nomination for Outstanding Actor.
Lyndsay Allyn Cox in Bright Half Life, Actors’ Shakespeare Project
As I wrote in my review of Bright Half Life last January, I have never quite been able to take my eyes off of Lyndsay Allyn Cox when she’s onstage, and this performance was a thing of mesmerizing beauty. In Megan Sandeberg-Zakian’s production, Cox played one half of a queer, interracial couple whose 40-year relationship sizzles (and then fizzles) right before our eyes. From giddy girl to hardened divorcee, Cox’s performance ran the emotional gamut while we looked on, breathless.
Lily Kaufman in Cry it Out, Apollinaire Theatre Company
This was another one of those squint-my-eyes-in-the-dark-to-see-who-this-actor-is moments, and a year later, it remains one the most impressive performances of the year. Kaufman played Lina, a rough around the edges community college dropout who bonds with her Ivy League-educated neighbor over their shared experiences with new motherhood. It was a complete tour de force, one that earned her an Elliot Norton Award nomination for Outstanding Actress. It’s likely that I’ll be squinting in the dark looking for Kaufman’s name for years to come.
Alexander Pobutsky in Hir, Apollinaire Theatre Company
Despite being a regular cast member of Boston’s Blue Man Group, Pobutsky was unknown to me before catching him in Taylor Mac’s Hir last winter. And just like some of the others I’ve already mentioned, it isn’t a name—or a performance—that I’ll soon forget. Pobutsky played Isaac, a Marine on leave who exits one war zone and enters another when he returns home to find that this father has had a stroke, his mother is unraveling, and his sibling is transgender. Pobutsky navigated these zany, explosive, and tender waters with jaw dropping and commanding allure, and he picked up an Elliot Norton Award nomination for Outstanding Actor in the process.
State vs Natasha Banina, Arlekin Players Theatre
Two months into the shutdown that brought about the end to live theater as we know it, Igor Golyak—the visionary, genius artistic director of Needham’s Arlekin Players—opened a new production from his living room. Part play and part multimedia art experiment, audience members watched the performance live on Zoom and served as jurors who decided the fate of Natasha, played by a bewitching, jaw droppingly good Darya Denisova, who just a week earlier took home her first Elliot Norton Award for her performance in The Stone. So captivating was the experience that the show attracted international attention and ended up running for two months. At this point, I’d follow Golyak and Denisova to the ends of the earth.
Sweat, Huntington Theatre Company
Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner received a searing, pitch-perfect revival at the Huntington Theatre Company that was every bit as riveting and well-acted as anything I’ve ever seen. Directed by Kimberly Senior, Sweat afforded us the opportunity to observe the kinds of anxieties and racial tensions that helped land Donald Trump in the White House. The cast, which included local stalwarts Marianna Bassham, Brandon G. Green, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent, received the 2020 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Ensemble.
Vanity Fair, Underground Railway at Central Square Theater
While Kate Hamill’s chaotic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel was not my cup of tea, David R. Gammons’ whirlwind production was one of the most flagrantly creative productions I’ve ever seen. Best of all, the delicious ensemble cast elevated the proceedings to something approaching theatrical nirvana.
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.