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Best Theater of 2020
It's a list.
I will spare you the opening reflection on what an unusual, difficult year it was for theater. Certainly I’ll refrain from any unnecessary disclaimers about the works included below being created “under challenging circumstances,” or anything like that. They all deserve to be on a top ten. I’m grateful for artists who have kept on creating, and helped me work through stuff or, when needed, just escape.
(The Public Theater)
Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s digital piece presented interviews with New York frontline medical responders straightforwardly and without sentiment. Outside of a slightly mawkish closing montage sung over by Aimee Mann, The Line was documentary theater at its best - just the words and stories, letting us in on who these people are and how they survive. A superb cast including Alison Pill and John Ortiz gave tough, grounded performances, honoring the words of real heroes without any distracting theatrics.
The Line is the only show on this list that deals directly with the massive government failure and ensuing social breakdown in the Covid response. Of course there has been no lack of work responding to “this time,” emotionally and thematically - but maybe not enough directly condemning our country’s abject failure to protect its citizens. Digital work did provide an opportunity for political work to respond faster than theater normally allows, and it’s notable - if understandable - that many artists did not take it, preferring an indirect approach.
Karen, I Said
(Bentertainment & New Georges)
A great example of that indirect approach was Eliza Bent’s sly, uncomfortable Zoom piece Karen, I Said. Bent has been a favorite writer/performer of mine ever since the double-whammy of her moving The Hotel Colors (at The Bushwick Starr) and clever, slightly gross Toilet Fire (at Abrons) in 2015. Her work is delightfully weird and off-beat but, once the surface lunacy peels away, always reveals itself as warm and human.
Karen, I Said began as a broad satire of a racist “Karen”, then developed that “Karen” into a sad figure who earns some of our empathy, and finally delved into the unending cycles of condemnation which can tie clueless white allies into knots.
My favorite Zoom pieces have found that careful balance of involving audience members without asking too much of us. Here, Bent cast us as hapless observers in a group meeting about “Consciousness Raising” that goes horribly awry. If some of us looked positively miserable to suddenly be on camera then, well, that worked just fine in context.
(New Phase Collective)
Apologies for including a show even theater nerds probably didn’t hear about - an obnoxious move, I know. But The Underbrush was something extraordinary. A four-stage experience, it began with a short animation; then moved into a Zoom play, itself about tensions with a Zoom play rehearsal; followed that with a video piece; and finally sent its audience outside on a walk, all of us guided by an actor on the phone.
Created by nascent company New Phase Collective (who billed this as only “Phase 1"), Underbrush mashed every new form theatermakers are playing with into one short immersive burst. At a time when many companies are yet to figure out that Eventbrite e-mails can be turned off, New Phase guided the audience seamlessly from one stage into the next. The shared walk in particular forced us, without pretension, to take in our natural surroundings in a new way.
Underbrush also asked us to speak just a single word into the phone all at once, in response to given prompts. Oh so briefly, a chorus of voices overlapped: “trees,” “lonely,” “waiting,” “together.” It is a cliché to say that virtual work has helped us feel connected but, on that shared call, I did feel it.
Old Vic’s “In Camera” series has been an obvious highlight of quarantine theater. I’ve enjoyed every one (excessively white and male as they’ve been) - especially Jack Thorne’s Christmas Carol, which is still playing, and will break any cynic’s heart. The first, though, remains the strongest. Director Matthew Warchus expertly used split-screen to isolate the play’s increasingly adrift, disconnected couple, utilizing the new form to actually enhance the text.
Meanwhile the concerns of Duncan Macmillan’s play - a climate crisis pressing down on a single relationship - were obviously timely. As a writer Macmillan can, on occasion, hit the nail a bit too squarely on the head. But mostly, Lungs captured shared generational fears as it moved towards its devastating conclusion.
(HERE Arts Center)
Much like The Underbrush, Gelsey Bell and Joseph White’s Cairns pushed me to experience my natural surroundings anew. A soundwalk through Green-Wood Cemetery, Cairns gently nudges you to pick out the little oddities or tucked away corners that tickle you alone. To encourage that careful eye, Bell lets us in on what is meaningful for her - a odd pair of rocks here, a weeping tree there.
Bell doesn’t shy away from monuments to horror, sexism and hate which litter the cemetery. She points us to crimes of our country’s past as often as unsung heroes. And, crucially, she allows us a few moments to pause, sit, and relax. It’s a tough balance to strike. Bell and White’s light touch belies just how carefully constructed Cairns actually is.
The Long Goodbye
(BAM & Manchester International Festival)
Many artists claim 2020 forced them to radically rethink their work, but Riz Ahmed was not kidding. A stage version of his March album The Long Goodbye, about breaking up with a racist UK, was meant to play at BAM in the spring. Ahmed’s livestream version broadcast from San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall began in a bathroom stall, and then took us past dressing rooms, through the theater’s nook and crannies and finally to the stage. At first a seemingly casual affair, Long Goodbye gradually revealed its technical complexity, culminating in a gorgeous long-shot of Ahmed alone in the cavernous, empty space.
Ahmed also revised his album to confront the pandemic, drawing a line from years of disinterest in Pakistani contributions to British society to a neglectful Conservative government allowing Covid to devastate communities of color. Long Goodbye is a stirring and enthralling cry of rage, crafted stunningly for a digital format.
(Atlantic Theater Company)
Oh yeah, live theater. Eboni Booth’s Paris at Atlantic Stage 2 was an underrated gem of our abbreviated 2020 theater season, and felt like the exciting announcement of an important new voice. Not really new, of course – we had already seen Booth dazzle as a performer in Clare Barron’s Dance Nation. I had been most awed by her work in Abe Koogler’s Fulfillment Center, where she brought vibrant, empathetic life to a character grappling with horrible depression. She hit a similar balance with Paris, her New York playwright debut, which was a bleak play but still allowed some room for joy.
Knud Adams’ slow, clinical production earned some comparisons with Sam Gold’s staging of The Flick. But in its smart handling of race, Booth’s play actually feels like a necessary corrective to The Flick. Baker gave a surface handling to Avery’s experience with workplace discrimination in her play, mostly using it as a plot point. Booth digs into the silent but persistent degradation Black employees can face, and shows us how it can chip away at a person without ever spelling things out.
Milo Cramer’s bluntly honest, sometimes horribly uncomfortable Boy Factory was the highlight of Playwrights Horizons Soundstage podcast play series. Opening with a 12-year old Cramer experiencing his first erection to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” the work only grew more inadvisably candid from there.
Cramer performed Boy Factory himself in a delightfully strange and halting manner. As he recounts fantascizing about cuniligness at 14, being told he “presents as very gay” by women he’s trying to sleep with, or apologizing for his orgasms, the author delights in making us question: how much of this is actually true?
“I’m not like other men just kidding I’m exactly like them,” sputters Cramer at one pint, wondering on toxic masculinity, his own place in a lineage of rapists and abusers, and wondering if he should kill himself “to set an example for other men to follow.” So, is there any saving men? Cramer reaches a surprising answer, and it’s worth taking the journey there with him.
(New York Theatre Workshop)
Even before playwright Celine Song enters Endlings as a character, it’s evident that more is going on than meets the eye. Once Song fully takes charge of the story, it launches into flight, filled with an angry energy that jolts the audience back upright. Without your even realizing, the play builds - however chaotically - to a moving observation on the “real estate” of stories, and of lives.
Endlings is both a burst of righteous anger and a gentle balm. Song is, rightly, angry that she must second-guess every bit of herself she shares, while white playwrights lumber self-indulgently across New York. But in a moving final scene, the anger turns to comforting release. Certainly it is self-indulgent - Endlings is a self-indulgent play, with “big grad school energy.” It’s also magical, truthful, and a hell of a good time.
(The Bushwick Starr)
We are desperate to be back in a room together. A room where we are told a story. What’s especially nice, of course, is when you wish the story might never end, and you could just live in it forever. I felt that at The Bushwick Starr this January.
James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis’ The Conversationalists was an unusual concept - a narrated film script, with gorgeous musical accompaniment and minimal, though elegant, visuals on offer. Yet thanks in huge part to Monaco’s energetic delivery, the words are instantly compelling, drawing you in deeply to a tale that keeps unfolding in unexpected ways.
Also unexpected was an interlude, which arrived about 90 minutes into the over 2 hour intermission-less show, where Ellis halted the action and spoke on institutional racism, cultural appropriation, and the prison industrial complex. At the time, many expressed bafflement at why Ellis’ monologue existed within this show. I can’t really say I had an answer then, though I was hooked on every word.
The show’s dueling ambitions do not, now, feel as strange. We know that we need a theater that confronts injustice and lifts up underrepresented voices. We also are going to very badly need some pure escape into other worlds. Perhaps James and Jerome weren’t so crazy to simply conclude: why not both?