Theater Feature: Best Stage Productions of 2017
Our theater critics pick some of the outstanding productions of the year.
By The Arts Fuse Staff
Arts Fuse stage critics have come up with some standout productions, and it is a pleasingly expansive list that singles out productions from small, medium, and large companies. Feel free to write in and tell us about your favorites — and why they were so good.
The Arts Fuse
By Robert Israel
The most rewarding stage productions in 2017 conjoined set designs, lighting, acting, direction, and scripts to transform and entertain us. Here are my top three choices:
Sweet Bird of Youth, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Fred Abrahamse. Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, at the Wharf House, Provincetown, MA.
This superb South African staging of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, a tale of reckless ambition and love gone astray, featured Marcel Meyer as gigolo Chance Wayne and Fiona Ramsay as the tawdry Princess Kosmonopolis. The set and lighting by Abrahamse – a stage surrounded by a gurgling moat – cast a hallucinatory spell. The cast’s delivery of Williams’s poetic dialogue was achingly delicate. This troupe travels from Cape Town to Cape Cod each year. It should be booked at a larger Boston-area venue in 2018.
Grand Concourse, by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. SpeakEasy Stage Co., at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA.
Playwright Schreck introduced us to men and women struggling to maintain dignity and faith in a church’s soup kitchen in the Bronx. The set by Jenna McFarland Lord accentuated the location’s shabbiness, heightening the desperation of the characters’ plights. The cast — Melinda Lopez, Alejandro Simones, and the late Thomas Derrah – were, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking.
Ripcord, by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA.
Lindsay-Abaire skillfully avoids the maudlin (exploited by other playwrights taking on senior citizen material) in this drama, which takes us beyond the lime-green walls of a dreary nursing home by crafting a play-within-a-play that includes haunted house and a skydiving expedition. He displays a canny ear for barbed geriatric banter, delivered by two expert foils at the HTC — veteran actresses Nancy E. Carroll and Annie Golden.
R.I.P. – Sam Shepard, who died this year at age 73, once said: “I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. I started writing to keep from going off the deep end.” This author of over 55 plays and three short story collections peered over the edge of that “deep end” with rip-roaring artistry, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, a harrowing, uniquely American play. His final book, Spy of the First Person, was completed while he was suffering with ALS.
By David Greenham
In some respects, 2017 might signal the dawn of a new chapter in theater. Stage companies throughout New England, the US, and the world grappled with the presidency of Donald Trump, a petulant caricature of a leader who somehow, by way of his “American First” rhetoric, got his hands on the instruments of power.
A few theaters had the wherewithal and flexibility to respond to these fearsome times with the pointed gusto of a Bertolt Brecht or Dario Fo. I applaud them. Many others took a more nuanced approach and decided to tackle relevant themes in interesting and creative ways. Our stages are becoming bolder and more determined all the time.
Of course, some theaters chose to go on without acknowledging that anything had changed; instead, they served up an escape from what was happening in the news. I sympathize with both approaches: I wanted the comfort of knowing I wasn’t alone in my alarm, yet I also needed the comfort of well-executed art that lifts us above the political mess we are in.
I saw some sterling examples of theater from outside the United States. Galway’s Druid Theatre brought its wrenching staging of Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane to Arts Emerson, and the production lived up to The Guardian’s claim that it is “one of the world’s great acting ensembles.” Ontario’s Stratford Festival dusted off Thomas Middleton’s 400-year-old black comedy The Changeling with stellar results. The standout international production I took in this year was a powerful version of George Bernard Shaw’s epic St. Joan at Canada’s Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Our country is holding its own, however. The finest theater production I saw in 2017 (or in recent memory, for that matter) is Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility, which is still playing at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center (through January 14). Thanks to the ART for bringing this whiz bang staging to Boston. Bedlam’s only a few years old; gloriously, their best days are most likely ahead of them.
Another company filled with creative energy, the Underground Railway Theater, scored with its production of Laura Maria Censabella’s insightful Paradise, a reassuring drama for these fractious cultural times. The luminous energy generated by Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, as protagonist Yasmeen al-Hamadi, made hers one of the most memorable performances I saw this year.
Plucky Hub Theater Company hit all the right notes with their production of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence, a study of contrasting death row inmates. Under the deft hand of director Daniel Bourque, and some resolute writing and acting, the production undercut nefarious stereotypes.
Another highlight was Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s all-female Julius Caesar. I struggled somewhat with the concept, but the performances, especially from Marya Lowry (Brutus), Bobbie Steinbach (Cassius), and MaConnia Chesser (Casca) were unforgettably strong.
Further afield, well-known writer, director, and actor Jim Frangione’s Flight of the Monarch had its world premiere at Gloucester Stage Company (which has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons). The production featured another fine performance from Nancy E. Carroll, with agile support from J. Tucker Smith. The script provided a glimpse into the lives of yet another under-represented (on stage) part of society: people who haven’t yet fallen through the safety net, but are damn near close. They’re hard-working, underpaid, and mostly discounted by the middle class; the kind of people who are hiding in plain sight in America.
In Portland, Maine, Mad Horse Theater dramatized an alternate reality with a compelling and frightening production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, which explores the future of role playing in a land taken over by virtual reality. The play is an attempt to grapple with “that thing we called the internet.” Given the end of net neutrality, we might be closer the Haley’s epistemological chaos than we think.
Further north, in Bangor, The Penobscot Theater mounted a moving production of Maine author Monica Wood’s Papermaker. The elegiac script explores how the halcyon days of the state’s once hyper-active paper mills, which employed thousands, have now given way to extinction and despair
The year of 2017 might be seen, decades hence, as a turning point. Just a day or two after the new tax revisions were approved by Congress and signed into law I received several emails from frightened development directors at arts non-profits. They were asking donors to consider their tax profiles because of the pending rise in the automatic deduction levels. We all, it seems, will be more likely to accept the standard deduction rather than itemize. The unspoken message: people tend to give in order to take advantage of the tax benefit, rather than because of their die hard belief in the mission of the non-profit.
Theaters and other arts non-profits will be forced next year to cultivate the loyalty of their traditional audiences. They will also have to consider their place in a society where Capital is king. Is there a sense of the common good? Or has that always been a bit of fig leaf? It promises to be a terrifying yet a potentially an exciting year. Theater companies will have to grapple with Dario Fo’s warning: “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”
By Ian Thal
With all the usual caveats: there is no way for any theater critic to see everything and my taste is my taste. Here are my picks without ranking, but with some reasoning.
[or, the whale] by Juli Crockett. Directed by Matthew Woods. Presented by imaginary beasts and the Charlestown Working Theater at the Charlestown Working Theater, Charlestown, MA.
Matthew Woods considers himself a director of “impossible scripts” – Juli Crockett’s [or, the whale] may not quite be impossible – after all, many have witnessed it being staged – it is unique. Crockett draws upon characters and plot points from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but she makes use of archaic modes of thinking, writing, and recitation.
Woods and his capable ensemble of actors generated an enormous amount of visceral energy in this production. The company drew on a number of performance styles and techniques (mime, weight bearing, and puppetry) and a variety of design elements – including a set by Lillian P.H. Oology that was equal parts skeletal, nautical, and bibliographic. Songs performed by Kangaroo Rat Music demonstrated that the theatrical experience is often at its most powerful when it revels in the spontaneous.
Note: Imaginary Beasts previewed another impossible script when it staged Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poem “The Coach Rider” this past May as part of Theater on Fire and Charlestown Working Theater’s Cabinet of Curiosities festival. The staging was part of an envisioned anthology project that Woods calls Pages From The Books of Repulsive Women, which this critic hopes to see. Review
A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner. Directed by Dori A. Robinson. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA
A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner. Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry. Presented by the Longwood Players at Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea, MA
With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, there has been a revival of interest in this early play by Tony Kushner. The script is set in Berlin over the two years it took for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party to consolidate power. Events are commented on in the living room of Agnes Eggling, an actress whose cohort of friends, mostly artists (their political leanings range from the apolitical to the communist) look on with confusion, disbelief and, increasingly, despair.
In my review, I stated my admiration for the production that Dori A. Robinson directed for Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, both for its design sensibility and the stylized performances of the ensemble, who had clearly spent long hours in the rehearsal room working together. While I was entranced by the play, I also thought that the characters of Zillah Klausner, Die Alte, and Herr Gottfried Swetts were superfluous, youthful indulgences that were evidence of Kushner’s dramaturgical inexperience.
In contrast, the Longwood Players production at Chelsea Theatre Works, directed by Kaitlyn Chantry, took a more naturalistic tack. (I did not have time to file a review. It ran soon after the Flat Earth production and it was impossible not to draw explicit comparisons.) I missed many of the stylistic choices Robinson and her collaborators made, but what I had perceived as ill-fitting indulgences in the other production seemed well-integrated into this presentation. Zillah (Nicole Frattelli) had more of a character arc in her appearances, the relationship between Die Alte (Holly Newman) and Agnes (Brooke Casanova) were more clearly established and it told us more about both figures, and Swetts (Anthony Mullin) was a more demonic harbinger of what even the most casual student of history saw is coming on the horizon.
Also, the Longwood production was immersive. I was seated in an armchair upholstered with pink velvet in Agnes’ living room, while other audience members were seated on her sofa or at her dining room table. It is reassuring that Trump has emboldened some of our theaters to revive a play often dismissed as a superb dramatist’s juvenilia. It is perhaps even more relevant now than when it premiered – perhaps there are more plays that fit the bill.
Homebody by Tony Kushner. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Staged by by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA.
Homebody was originally composed as a stand alone piece, though it also serves as the first act of Kushner’s play about Afghanistan under the Taliban, Homebody/Kabul. An eccentric unnamed middle-aged housewife and autodidact, who has never ventured beyond the city limits of London, waxes on about everything she has read about the history of Afghanistan, the anti-depressants taken by members of her family, and the entertainment she has arranged to celebrate her husband’s career milestones. All of this as a prelude to her informing us, as guests in her reading nook, that she is about to journey to a land (Afghanistan) that she has only read about, perhaps never to return.
Kushner’s words recreate a vast world in miniature and Debra Wise bought to vivid life the complex and truly odd Homebody, who chafes at the conventional life she has lived for so many years. Lee Mikeska Gardner directed, deftly assembling elements that supported Wise’s virtuoso performance. Review
Everyman by Carol Ann Duffy. Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques. Presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company at the Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea MA.
Ev, taking a break from his birthday revels to take a piss off the roof of a discotheque, is confronted by the personification of Death who tells him his soul is in danger. What follows is a spiritual journey modeled on the anonymously attributed fifteenth-century Catholic morality play Everyman. British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy takes an ecumenical, monotheistic take on the allegory as she addresses what she sees as the sins of our era: how the crass pursuits of consumer culture and careerist advancement is destroying the environment and dangerously altering the climate, weakened the bonds of family and friendship, and even flattened out intimacy, sexual and otherwise..
Duffy’s poetry has a buoyant wit and playful humor that prevents the script from descending into the sort of heavy-handed didacticism the term “morality play” implies. The juxtaposition of sacred and profane gave director Danielle Fauteux Jacques and her collaborators ample space for their own imaginations to explore the possibilities in his genre-expanding journey through the dramatic, satirical, and fanciful. Apollinaire Theatre Company had a particularly impressive 2017 — Everyman was its crowning achievement. Review
Sinners (The English Teacher) by Joshua Sobol. Directed by Brian Cox. Presented by Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency/The Mirror Theater, in collaboration with New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance at TheatreLab@855, Boston University, Boston, MA.
Somewhere in the Middle East, a professor of English literature is buried in the ground up to her breasts — schedule to be stoned for adultery. Her lover, Nur, one of her students, has been assigned the cruel duty of having to collect the rocks that the guardians of morality will use to smash her skull.
In this powerful text, Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol dramatizes the situation in societies where the suppression, exploitation, and abuse of female sexuality is openly enforced, whether by familial, political, or religious authorities. Director Brian Cox drew inspired performances in this two-hander, and Nicole Ansari’s performance as Layla – an extraordinary dramatic creation – was extraordinary.
On the evening I attended, I brought a friend of mine, a Pakistani expatriate, who commended Sinners and its courage at truthfully depicting the fates of people she knows. The production got at the fear she herself would feel should she return to her homeland. This is the kind of theater that matters in an era when even some progressives are blinded by identity politics and “intersectionality” to crimes against humanity around the world.
While Sobol, Cox, and Ansari were in town, they also presented a staged reading of Love in Dark Times, another Sobol two-hander that revolves around a late night drinking session between an Israeli choreographer and Holocaust survivor and a German war correspondent who was born after the war. Like Sinners, the scripts rips into the plight of women in a violent patriarchy. If Boston audiences are lucky, Greensboro Arts Alliance and the Mirror Theatre will be back here again, performing that play. Review
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Charlestown Working Theater, Charlestown, MA.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project strongest show this past year, wasn’t by William Shakespeare, but penned by his friend, rival, and sometime collaborator Christopher Marlowe. David R. Gammons is a director with a proven track record: he has a sophisticated design sensibility and can elicit brave performances from his actors. It’s not surprising that an early example of a history play proved fertile ground for Gammons and his collaborators in this punk-rock inspired production. But the terrific production also poses the question — why do we not know this play better? Why, given the last quarter century of struggle for the basic civil rights for LGBTQ people, has this play been produced so infrequently? Review
By Erik Nikander
Company One’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Really was the first show I reviewed this year, and it stood the test of time — it was among the best of the productions season. The play itself is moving and emotionally incisive, and Company One’s staging heightened the script’s best qualities. The acting that drove this show was terrific, with Kippy Goldfarb in particular giving an intense, masterful performance. Performed in an art gallery, the unconventional set meshed perfectly with the evocative lighting work and sound design to create a fully engrossing emotional experience. Review
While it wasn’t free from narrative problems, the Arlekin Players staging of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Dead Man’s Diary earned serious points for sheer inventiveness. The most delightfully weird show I took in this year, it blended biting, caustic satire with visual and auditory loopiness in a way I haven’t seen before or since. In Dead Man’s Diary, Arlekin reveled in the unconventional, and the result was profoundly gripping. Yes, the script could use some polish, but taken as a whole this production was endlessly creative and memorable; it was, bar none, the gutsiest thing I saw on stage in 2017. Review
Though it’s not quite as out-there as my other two selections, I’m grateful that 2017 made me aware of Lauren Gunderson’s remarkable play Silent Sky. Both productions of the script I saw this year were fine, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the life of Henrietta Leavitt was the most successful, thanks to grounded, mature performances, clever direction, and one of the most striking sets the year had to offer. MRT’s capable artists devised a theatrical world I was more than happy to lose myself in for two hours. I wish I could have stayed longer. Review
By Bill Marx
I agree with David Greenham’s suggestion that the changes in the tax laws will put a squeeze on arts non-profits. With more people taking the standard deduction rather than itemizing donations to charity, it will be interesting to see how it all falls out. How many supporters of the arts were galvanized by the mission of the institution — or were just looking for a break on their taxes? There are predictions that the drop-off in support will be substantial.
And that drop in funding will, most likely, only encourage further conservatism in stage programing, as marketing and branding efforts geared to reassure step up make up for the loss. I disagree with David that we are seeing “our stages becoming bolder and more determined all the time.” The guiding principle for too many of our stages, particularly those with resources, is a fear of dissent, a calculated refusal to challenge mainstream pieties. (For example, there’s the failure of America’s theater companies to take up the issue of Climate Change. It is a major abdication of theater’s duty to “speak for its own time.”)
Below are a list of my favorite productions of the past year. (Keep in mind that teaching full-time at Boston University and editing The Arts Fuse cuts down on my time for attending theater.) The shows below took an alternative view: despite the tub-thumping of the news media, there is much more to resist than Trump.
American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb. Directed by Kim Weild. Staged by the O.W. I. (Bureau of Theatre) & Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, Boston, MA.
I very much admired Keith Hamilton Cobb’s rousing one-man meditation on Othello, race, and the hypocrisy of American stages. His attack on liberal and theatrical bromides was humorous and passionate, political and philosophical. Review
Plank by John Greiner-Ferris. Directed by Megan Schy Gleeson. Staged by the Alley Cat Theater at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA.
John Greiner-Ferris’s gently humane counterculture fable celebrated the bliss of dreaming — rather than the cheap thrills of consuming. Review
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh. Directed by James Bundy. Staged by the Yale Repertory Theatre at the University Theatre, 222 York Street, New Haven, CT.
Ibsen is one of my favorites, right up there with Ben Jonson. Both specialized in examining the underside of conventional society, savaging its profitable image of complacent well-being. Who loses when it comes to keeping up business as usual? This was an invigorating staging of a still pertinent play about spinelessness up and down the political spectrum. And it delivered an environment kick as well. Review
3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show, conceived and written by James Scruggs. Directed by Mark Rayment. Staged by Sleeping Weazel at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA.
Sleeping Weazel staged a gutsy production of an angry, ugly, and essential history lesson. Review
Honorable Mention: Fort Point Theatre Channel’s Dhalgren Sunrise came up with an amazing collection of homemade musical instruments; How To Be A Rock Critic felt it had to neaten up the nihilism of rock reviewer Lester Bangs, but it was good to see a show in which the critic is cast as hero; and Actors’ Shakespeare Project did right by Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King, a playful satire of aged authority gone ga-ga.
Additional Notes: Robert Israel mentioned the death this year (at 73) of writer Sam Shepard. The last production I saw of one of his plays reinforced my appreciation of his artistry: it was Trinity Repertory Company’s marvelous staging of A Lie of the Mind in 2014. Shepard courageously wrote his final book, Spy of the First Person, while he was dying from ALS: the brusque lyricism of its minimalism makes for an aptly ironic coda to his unruly American vision. The author interweaves bits of fictional narrative and detailed descriptions of objects and landscapes with reflections on the degenerating state of his body. Here is a sample:
One year ago he could hear the walnuts drop. He could hear the walnuts crunch. He could scratch the belly of his Catahoula who had too many puppies. Who his youngest son, the skinny boy, insisted on keeping.
One year ago exactly he could drive across the great divide. He could drive down the coastline. The rugged coast. He could yawn at the desert.
One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up. He could see through the air. He could wipe his own ass.
Finally, each year I receive volumes of plays that I would love to see produced in Boston but won’t be because of their daunting theatrical ambition and depth of imagination. These scripts are not sufficiently audience friendly, not suitably docile. I salute one example to stand for the dozens. Last year it was poet Geoffrey Hill’s translations of Ibsen’s epic verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt for Penguin Classics. Will someone, sometime stage the magnificently astringent Brand?
This year it is Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by the major 20th century Russian writer Andrei Platonov. (Edited by Robert Chandler. Translated by Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen. Published by Columbia University Press). These pieces dissect the reality of Stalin’s Russia, unmasking utopia as dystopia, their quirky black comic visions miraculously blending Brecht and Beckett. As one critic writes, Platonov’s approach in these scripts is “part horror story, part ideological stand-up comedy … they depict an absurd, nightmarish world in which hope and cynicism are interchangeable.” In 1930’s The Hurdy-Gurdy, for instance, we have slapstick AI, a character who is “a metal, wind-up construction in the shape of someone short and stocky, self-importantly stepping forward and clanking his mouth all the while, as if taking breaths.” Will anyone produce this or another Platonov play?