Arts Feature: Favorite Stage Productions of 2021
Compiled by Bill Marx
Our theater critics pick some of the outstanding productions in a year mangled by COVID.
By Robert Israel
The pandemic kept most of the stages along the Rialto dark in 2021; theatergoers and critics alike could only assuage their appetite for productions via Zoom or Cable TV. Slowly, as shows are staged before live audiences again, a shadow will undoubtedly remain: the return of the virus in some variant or another. In the future, theatergoers will need to remember not just their tickets — they will need their vax cards, face masks, and hand sanitizer.
That said, two outstanding productions I streamed:
You Will Not Play Wagner, by Victor Gordon. Directed by Lilia Levitina. Produced by JArts Theatreworks Group. Streaming on YouTube.
Actress Annette Miller, on whom my fellow judges and I at the (now-disbanded) Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) bestowed a Best Actress award a few years back, shined in this production. She played Esther, a Holocaust survivor who, as a benefactor of a musical competition, is forced to struggle with a moral and ethical dilemma: whether or not a young Israeli should be chosen to conduct the music of the outspoken anti-Semite Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. This was a deeply felt, stirring production. South African playwright Victor Gordon adapted his stage play for Zoom. Sadly, he succumbed to Covid-19 this year, just after he reshaped his text.
tick, tick … Boom!, by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Streaming on Netflix.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, in his first feature directorial debut, returns to his roots in lower Manhattan to capture the early creative struggles of composer/playwright/lyricist Jonathan Larson, who penned Rent. The film stars Andrew Garfield as Larson, who is barely surviving: he is working at a downtown hash house, roosting in a cold-water flat, and avoiding his girlfriend. His primary goal: to find the time to write and compose. The musical’s score is vibrant, filled with broad splashes of color and pathos. Larson’s is a familiar story — an artist undergoes trials and tribulations in order to remain true to his art. But this is a powerful reminder of what besieges the creative spirit.
Robert Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
We somehow muddled through a full year of Covid. The entry of Omicron means we’re not quite done yet with the pandemic, but 2021 might be best remembered as the year that the arts fought back.
Despite all the challenges and uncertainties (and a disheartening number of show cancellations in the last month or so), theater companies in 2021 found ways to make their art anyway – Covid (and Actor’s Equity) be damned!
Social Issues were are the forefront of the majority of the dozen or so productions that I saw.
Speakeasy’s spiky and outrageous 2017 comic drama BLKS presented a world that is simultaneously hopeless and hopeful. (Arts Fuse review)
James Sheldon’s Reparations closed out Gloucester Stage’s wonderful residency at Rockport’s Windhover Center for the Performing Arts. Sheldon’s drama confronts the ticking time bombs of past misogyny and abuse that are exploding all around us. (Arts Fuse review)
Mark Binder’s The Race, staged virtually by The Wilbury Group, skewers the “workers are just tools” attitude of big business. Since this show ran last January, the tables have turned. Workers have left unsatisfactory jobs in droves — it has been called The Great Resignation. For the moment, businesses are desperate for workers. Arts Fuse review
Actors’ Shakespeare Project commenced their “Holding the Mirror Up: Classics Through a BIPOC Lens” project with Mfoniso Udofia’s revisionist linguistic take on Othello. The Zoom-based production suffered from the limitations of online presenting, but Udofia found a way to both skillfully update the language and maintain the verse’s musical quality. This new version of Othello was of the ripped-from-the-headlines variety, to a point that is both painful and invigorating. Arts Fuse review
LGBTQ issues emerged twice in my reviewing year. SpeakEasy’s The Pink Unicorn was one of probably thousands of single-actor offerings in the theater world this past year. Stacey Fischer’s performance exuded plenty of “live” energy, which is what we’ve been missing so much in our Covid cocoon. M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction and Ari Herzig’s production design contributed mightily to bringing the script’s dour world to life. Arts Fuse review
It isn’t often that I am offered a film to review, but the documentary Truman & Tennessee effectively presented the triumphs and challenges of the unique relationship between two literary gay icons, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. As the latter proclaims at one point in the film, “if you can’t be yourself, what’s the point of being anything at all?” Arts Fuse review
The best production I saw this year, by far, hit Covid square in the face. Central Square Theatre presented the Trinity Repertory, Marin Theatre Company, and Round House Theatre co-production of The Catastrophist by Lauren M. Gunderson. At one point, the protagonist, scientist Wolfe (William DeMeritt), articulates the depths of the disaster: “Yes, loss of life is harrowing and sorrowful, but it’s only half the tragedy. Loss of livelihood of jobs, and trade and shipping and farming and schools and industry and tourism. Loss of how people support themselves and their families is profound and long-lasting and crippling.” Arts Fuse review
You’ve probably seen the depressing meme — the coming year isn’t 2022, but rather 2020-too. For our sanity’s sake, I hope it’s not true. Despite the rise of theater production activity in 2021, I really miss the engagement of live performance.
And finally, I want to note two transitions that occurred in the past year.
First, a goodbye and thanks to Robert Walsh, the departed artistic director at Gloucester Stage for the past few years. Bob breathed new life into the company, which desperately needed it. I’m sure we’ll see him at other stops in the Boston-area theater universe.
Also, it should have been a disappointment to see Michael Bobbitt step away from the artistic helm of The New Repertory Theatre after only two years. He brought a new energy to the room. However, Bobbitt jumped into the role of executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, and his appointment is great for theaters throughout Massachusetts. In my role as executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, we get to work together a lot. Keep an eye on Michael — he’s a powerful advocate for all of the arts.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.
It’s difficult for me to select the best shows of the year, because I was only able to see three in-person productions over the course of 2021. Instead of trying to rank three shows that were all quite exceptional, I thought it might be best to recognize each of them here.
The Lyric Stage’s production of The Last Five Years may have been stripped-down in scale, but its cast of two soared, with the help of Leigh Barrett’s thoughtful direction and Jason Robert Brown’s expansive musical storytelling. The other two plays I saw this year were clever, engaging interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. Commonwealth Shakespeare Company brought an exciting, visually stylish take on The Tempest to the Boston Common, and director Igor Golyak dug deep into the legacy and cultural impact of The Merchant of Venice in a hilarious and heartbreaking production for Actors’ Shakespeare Project. All three shows served as a powerful reminder of all that theater can offer us, even in difficult and uncertain times.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.
Despite changing Eugene Ionesco’s ending, and suggesting that the playwright would have agreed (?), Shakespeare and Company’s production of The Chairs offered compensation through a pair of terrific performances from Barbara Sims and Malcolm Ingram as the superannuated couple hosting an inane talk fest at the end of the world in a room stuffed with invisible muck-a-mucks. Almost 70 years after its premiere, this tragicomic masterpiece about “creatures lost in incoherence, imprisoned in a meaningless universe, wrenched from any kind of essential reality” (in the words of the playwright), holds up powerfully. And that, in its ironic way, is heartening. Arts Fuse review
And then there was the unusual staging of local playwright Patrick Gabridge’s Moonlight Abolitionists. It was performed, at night and under a full moon, in Cambridge’s venerable Mount Auburn Cemetery via a Plays in Place concert reading directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. I am not a fan of stage “ghost stories,” but when the spirits tell us their tales of fighting against slavery in a graveyard at night, well, there is no choice but to pay rapt attention. Especially because these passionate and flawed ghosts were not of the Our Town variety, drifting into indifference to earthly matters. Arts Fuse feature
As for the past year, I have written a series of commentaries expressing my disappointment regarding where our theaters are headed. I won’t repeat myself here, only to say that I stand by my demand for bolder theater. What would this theater be like? Playwright Dan O’Brien offered a useful suggestion in his recent book A Story That Happens:
So we listen for what is unspoken in our culture, and it won’t be what our culture wants to hear. But we use our art to make them hear it. They will disagree, because they see things differently; because they don’t know yet how they feel; because they don’t want to feel. The truthful play you write will make you allies and, if you are doing it right, enemies. You will hinder your career by offending those who have risen in their ranks by institutional and commercial rather than artistic acumen.
Bold work is “what the culture doesn’t want to hear.” And my wish for 2022 and beyond is that, as New England theater recovers from the pandemic, small performance troupes made up of diverse groups of young people will spring up — and they will dedicate themselves to doing fresh, edgy, and truly adventurous productions that offend “those who have risen in their ranks by institutional and commercial rather than artistic acumen.”
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.