THE DUBLIN TRILOGY. Probably the highlight of the (or damn near any) year. On the cozy Irish Repertory Theatre main stage — we’ve been thrilled there so repeatedly that we decided to start supporting them — we were treated to Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK as well as the lesser-performed THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS and THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN. O’Casey’s rare ability to weave warmth and humor into the direst of circumstances opens up these plays and makes us better able to face horror because we are among recognizable fellow human beings. The Irish Rep acting company is uniformly superb, always has been, even alongside visitors like Matthew Broderick and here, in PLOUGH, the wonderful Maryanne Plunkett of the O’Casey-cousin Richard Nelson plays down at the Public.
FERAL. Another norm-bending piece from Scotland, not as arresting as last year’s FLIGHT but swimming in a nearby loch. Three puppeteers, a sound effects artist and a video director concoct a story before your eyes: first using line drawings, then with three-D paper, cardboard cutouts and oddly poignant human figures with eyes but no mouths. You watch a live minicam feed on a video screen above their heads as they create an idyllic little town in charming detail and then destroy it as commercialization (in the form of a megastore called “Supercade”) comes in and infects the culture. The moral and physical rot is palpable and heartbreaking. All the fascinating, tightly coordinated “backstage” work takes place in plain view. The audience was stunned into awed silence at the close.
HADESTOWN. Musical retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice story by Anais Mitchell. Rachel Chavkin’s inventive staging is dazzling: three independent concentric turntables are just a few of the surprises she has for you. Everybody is great, but two old pros really own the stage: Andre De Shields as Hermes and that human subwoofer Patrick Page as Hades. Most of the songs are really good too, and since there’s a cast album dating back to 2010, plenty of people came prepared. You don’t need a Greek mythology textbook to follow along (the first musical number hands all the relationships to you on a platter), but as a bonus you get a sensational seven-piece band that features two of the hottest trombone solos I’ve heard in quite a while. Although it’s only coincidental, the Act I closer, “Why We Build The Wall,” could have been written yesterday: it’s as if Trump met Hades and said, “Daddy like!”
THE MOTHER. Isabelle Huppert is as mesmerizing on stage as she is on film. You can’t take your eyes off her, not even in a show that’s deliberately staged in widescreen. It’s a tense, packed, tightly wound ninety minutes, but the best part was being about twenty feet from her the whole time. Chris Noth also did yeoman work, but the show is Ms. Huppert’s possession. It’s the kind of performance critics tend to call “brave,” as in, “I can’t believe what I just saw Isabelle Huppert do!”
OKLAHOMA! I appeared in a production of this show in college; after about six weeks of memorization, rehearsal and performance, you can’t help getting to know a piece pretty well. So it was such a treat to see the thought that went into Daniel Fish’s brilliant restaging, using only twelve cast members and seven musicians. In the famous three-quarter-round room at Circle In The Square, the house lights were full nearly the whole time, drawing the audience into the setting (they’re invited onstage for chili and cornbread at intermish). But “Pore Jud Is Daid” was performed in pitch black dark, so dark that nobody dared to laugh at the song’s dryly comic lyrics (“He looks like he’s asleep / It’s a shame that he won’t keep / But it’s summer and we’re runnin out of ice”) because the “hero” is in fact cruelly urging a suicide. This production is stripped down but somehow even more authentic: we hear pedal steel, mandolin, banjo and accordion along with the bass, cello and violin. Yet they make enough noise that the audience head-bangers on the title song continue their devotion at its end-of-show reprise. Damon Daunno as Curly contests the stage with Ali Stroker, a wheelchair-bound actress who destroys as Ado Annie, but I particularly loved Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry. The staging requires actors to sit out others’ scenes, but Vaill’s spot was just opposite my seat and I never saw him break character unless he was joining a song’s male chorus (e.g., “Kansas City”), in which case he acted to the song instead. He looks like Caleb Landry Jones but sings like Hugh Jackman. Keep your eye on him.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. With such wattage — book by Lynn Nottage (SWEAT), music by Duncan Shiek (SPRING AWAKENING), lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (JELLY’S LAST JAM), and directed by Sam Gold (KING LEAR, FUN HOME, HAMLET) — one can’t possibly stay away. Fortunately, this show delivers. A kinetic thirteen-member ensemble makes great noise in a variety of styles: lots of gospel, show-tune belters, I even heard a samba beat in there. The musical numbers work for the story yet most of them can stand alone as independent songs. This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of personal-level race relations in 1964 South Carolina works the illusion of being effortless, as if it had really been a musical all along. Gold’s bare-bones representational staging (the various appearances of the “bees” are beautiful) reminded me of the crepe-paper ocean waves of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. The nine-piece orchestra includes a bitchin horn section. The entire production is just wonderful and should conjure plenty of fans, especially those who loved the non-musical film adaptation.
SOFT POWER. The best new musical I’ve seen since HAMILTON (whose DNA shows up a couple of times, if I’m not mistaken). Play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang, which alone is reason enough to be interested. It’s a meta-drama whose crucial subjects are China-America relations, Chinese American (like the author) relations, the 2016 elections and the real-life 2015 stabbing which nearly ended Hwang’s life and appeared to be a random hate crime. One of the characters is “Hillary Clinton,” and another is “DHH” — in other words, the playwright. It’s provocative and funny and serious and playful: the show-within-the-show is THE KING AND I from the Chinese perspective. Oh, yeah: the songs are great and they run the musical gamut, complete with a standing-still eleven-o-clock number. The ditty explaining the nutty U.S. elections system is funny because it’s true. The fourteen-member company can sing, dance and act — they’re all triple-threaters. China may not be getting more like us, this show posits: we may be getting more like China. You get something to think about while you’re simultaneously having a great time.
TOOTSIE. Tons of fun, featuring an exceptionally sharp book by Robert Horn. They’ve traded the movie’s tv soap opera milieu for a Broadway show, an intentionally bad musical sequel to ROMEO AND JULIET. Santino Fontana is sensational in the Dustin Hoffman role: not only does he have to act two parts, he also has to sing two parts, and you really do buy him as a female alto. It’s an old-fashioned razzle-dazzler (complete with overture and entr’acte), only lots funnier than most others. It’s been a long time since there was a big hit at the Marquis, but I guarantee you: one has arrived.
WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. We saw the last preview before the Broadway transfer officially opened. At first it seems to be a memory monologue, but it transmutes into a fantasia on feminism (there will eventually be two other performers besides the main one). Powerfully planned and performed (Heidi Schreck is a seasoned playwright and you can tell from the careful construction of the piece), one of the most moving things I saw on a stage all year. It has a lot to do with our current times but approaches from an oblique angle. A theatrical treasure.
WHITE NOISE. The brilliant Suzan-Lori Parks’s new one is jam-packed with intelligence and outrage. It’s a four-hander (featuring Daveed Diggs and Thomas Sadoski and two excellent ladies who were new to me, Sheria Irving and Zoe Winters) with an outre premise — I’d rather leave it for you to discover — which peels away the layers that cover our posturing and privilege, even when we’re most sanctimoniously proud of ourselves. Plus each actor gets an absolutely stunning monologue. Oskar Eustis’s direction in the Public’s snug Anspacher space is clear as a bell.
HONORABLE MENTION: ALL MY SONS, COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE, THE ENIGMATIST, INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN, THE MICHAELS, SEA WALL/A LIFE
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