Last year I started this article with a celebration of surviving the madness that is the holiday season. Well, this year I start this with a big:
WE SURVIVED 2016!
What a year, folks! There are many reasons we will remember 2016, some great, some not so great. Mostly we will remember this year as the potential moment that changed the course of American history… but one thing I have to say is, I look forward to the theater that will be coming from it! I say that, because if 2016 is any indication of the creative power in this industry, then we are in for a treat. In a year of such uncertainty, theater managed to dazzle us with its story of love, both lost and found, its deep connections to history and social issues; and the musical numbers that made us forget for a second what was happening outside, and some reminded us too well that we can’t look away. In a sense, theater reminded us that it is no safe space for anyone.
To honor those plays that went beyond what’s expected and produced not only a great evening of culture, but innovated and asked the hard questions, here’s my list of the Top Ten Off and Off-Off Broadway plays of the year!
Let’s start with the theater productions or events that made an impact and should be recognized, but that fell slightly short of cracking the top ten:
- Alligator: Provocative and raw, this play may not be perfect, but the good sum of its parts will stay with me for a long time.
- Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth: An annual trip to the bizarre world of the dark bard himself, Dandy Darkly proved this year to be one of the best. I can’t wait for the 2017 iteration!
- Rock and Roll Refugee: This one almost broke the top 10, but barely missed it. Great music, awesome script and even better subject, at the end it was bogged down because we all wanted to see more.
- Things I Don’t Want to Talk About: While I didn’t review this show, I would love to put a spotlight on it. Gina Femia writes and performs a one-woman show that felt poignant. My reaction after watching this show was that more people need to see it. Look for it in 2017!
- Twisted Operettas: A great concert based on the work of one of the best up and coming creators, Christian De Gré. Stay tuned for what he has in store for us in 2017.
Now, could you please start playing the drum rolls as I roll out the top ten production of 2016!
- The Blessed Unrest “Body: Anatomies of Being”
“The show demands a lot more than it gives. I’m not saying that as a bad thing. At a running time of a 100 minutes, they really are pushing it with no intermission. Almost every person is naked for a good amount of the show, which creates an uncomfortable atmosphere. Yet I loved it all. The choreography, the dialogue, the boldness of the whole production. Bravo to this team for going all the way and succeeding.”
- The Bridge Group Productions “Richard III”
“A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse!” an actor utters in front of an audience. This is possibly the fifth time I’ve seen this line being said to an audience that I was part of. I’ve seen around that many iterations of the Duke of Gloucester’s rise into kinghood, catch him being both devilish in some and boorish in others. As somebody that studied good old Shakes for years, I’ve also seen my fair share of scenes containing that line or other scenes from this play. Yet, I will always remember Sunday afternoon as the first time I saw an actor say that with the emotions it needed. I knew way before the line was expressed that I was watching a unique and exhilarating take on the seminal work, but this is what confirmed it. The Bridge Group’s production of “Richard III” was one of the best off-Broadway Shakespeare productions I’ve seen of this play. At the very least, it’s the one that will be remembered the most for getting the tone right and matching it with incredible technical prowess.”
- 59E59 Theaters’ “Maestro“
“Maestro,” directed by Joel Zwick, is just like his title presumes, is a masterclass in theatrical production. The director, like a conductor, manages to make all the right choices to create a painting in which we can just sit and be in awe. While Felder may have done the bulk of the work with his performance and the book, it is in Zwick’s hands that the one-man show was shaped. With the help of his wonderful designers, we were put in a room with a legend and we believed it through sheer theater magic.”
- The Anthropologists “No Man’s Land”
“I do not want to say much about the plot, it would be a disservice to you and to them. It is a disservice because this play is everything I love about going to the theater. The danger, the conversations, the fact that art can make you think beyond the laughter and cheap entertainment. A day before this one I saw a show that encapsulated everything I dislike about the theater scene nowadays, the over reliance on old work and the lack of care about what you can say. “No Man’s Land” is the opposite. We are asked to sit down and see a show, but what we are given is something more precious.”
- Elsinore County Productions “yeah, I met this girl…”
“I want to point out how impressed I was at the daring nature of this project. Weaving from genre trope to genre trope without being cliche, the same way they went from relationship to relationship. Using references to strengthen the emotional impact of the fleeting liaisons they go through, like the jaw dropping use of James Joyce ULYSSES (which completely blew me away and won’t spoil it here) or the conversation where they only use the banalities we tell each other to better the mood. It is through these moments we realize the real frailties of men’s psyche. It’s through these scenes we see how the wall of masculinity we put up through years of indoctrination just ends up leaving us with the possibility of loneliness. A possibility that gets closer and closer every time we put a new layer to our walls. Standing ovations for the ensemble in this piece (Eric Doviak, Chris Heard, Dan McVey, Amanda Kristin Nichols, Stacey Roca, Zina Wilde), they all went into this with no fears, leaving their heart and soul on every painful realization or joyous conquest.”
- La Mama’s “Hyena”
“This show will make a lot of people uncomfortable, I could see it in the audience. It’s not easy to see yourself in a dirty light and accept it, but that’s what this play does to you. And I love that. I love that she confronts the audience head-on with no constraints, and if that makes you feel odd, then good. You are the right audience, you are the person that needs to accept the beast and unleash it. If that scares you, then know that the technical aspects of this production are top notch. The work that Joey Mendoza and Gareth Hobbs did is of equal importance to Soutus’ performance. But what you should know the most, is that you will miss out on something truly remarkable if you don’t see this show.”
- Wombat Productions “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play“
“Period pieces off-off Broadway get a bad rep. It has to do with preconceived ideas of what you are about to see. Because somethings gotta give, right? Most of these companies do not have a third of what a Broadway (and many Off-Broadway) production companies have, yet they dare to go into a genre that demands a lot to be able to do with a little. In a review earlier this year, I talked how doing operas in a black box were hard to do, and don’t really work because of the scope. The show looked like a college version of itself and not a bare production like they wanted us to think. In the period piece case, it’s not the scope, it’s the designs. And I’m not talking about a two to three character, one setting piece. I’m talking big production/large ensemble plays here. They demand elaborate stages, intricate sound work, legitimate costumes and sharp sounds. “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play“ by Sarah Ruhl is one of those plays and I’m here to say I’m wrong. Director Steve Hart Has shown me what a clever artist can do with the obvious limitations and put forth a better production than those with the money to pull it off.”
- BeeBar LLC “Missed Connections: A Craiglist Musical”
“Director Phillip George and Casting Director Jason Styres have assembled one of the most talented ensembles I’ve seen in awhile. Their energy is infectious, their love for the subject is apparent, and their abilities are constantly reminding us we are watching a special cast. Each one plays multiple instruments as they take us on a journey through the unusual nature of people’s desires and those that may share it. One moment in particular resonated with the audience, and it is the piece called “Cat Hats;” in here, an old woman talks about her cat and how she is giving away a box of cat hats that range from funny to formal. She does not want to sell it, it doesn’t feel right, but she wants to give it away. This story sets off the song, which basically has her singing about the cat she misses. In here we see the desperation of loss, and the eventual healing in a performance that get us to the verge of tears just to take that sadness away in one of the most ridiculous ways. And it was perfection!”
- San Francisco Playhouse “Ideation”
“This play was a success in San Francisco and should be now in New York, that is good news. That means people are watching it, which also means people are interested in this kind of play. This smart play which entertains and educates, makes you question yourself and then analyze those around you. At the end, it will force you to meditate on your everyday decisions while trying to figure out how you would react. That’s the power of theater. That’s what lies beyond the glamour, and Loeb is giving it to us. He is gifting this, and for us not to take advantage of such talent would speak ill of us as an audience.”
- Life Jacket’s “Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey”
“What Russ and company have given us is a love letter to a man that shied away from love. A light inside the darkness of an artist. And it let us see how much he starved for those, and how little he ended up actually wanting them. In the process, he made everyone come to terms with the fact that artists are just human, that they are not different, that they go through the same questions as others. The difference is the way they see life. Russ did this with a team of technicians and designers that must have been in his brain, because if this is not what his vision was, then they both made each other better. I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of theater I like paying to see.”
Twisted Talk: Were you able to see any of these productions this past year? What’s your favorite type of theater to see? Discuss below!