This is one of our 3 part series in which DCTS writers reflect on the best of the past season.
Here we have Tim Treanor’s view of the
Best Productions of the 2008-2009 Season
Why do we tell each other stories? The older I get, the more I am compelled to conclude that it is the only damn way we learn anything. Oh, the pedants will articulate their abstract principals, but for most of us, the only way to understand anything is to see it in operation. It strikes me as I pour through legal precedents (my day job is as a lawyer) that I am doing nothing more than reading stories, and seeking to profit from their teachings.
The stories which make up my top ten selections for the 2008-2009 season are a lot more interesting than the stories in my casebooks, but they are just as instructive. They share this in common with the cases: they are true stories – even when they are fiction. The ten shows I describe below, along with the vast majority of other shows I have had the privilege to watch on the Washington stage vibrate with moral and emotional truth. To do otherwise – to, for example, cater to popular and romantic beliefs and myths, as many movies and television shows do – is to turn art into trash, and to set back the cause of human understanding. Thus when one of my articulate critics (critics have critics, and so on ad infinitum) wrote in to dispute my review of King Lear and to praise an ersatz version of the play in which Cordelia survives, my only response can be but that version isn’t true – isn’t true morally, or emotionally, or in human terms. We are always in the war of all against all, and happy endings must be earned.
So permit me to bow my head in joyous respect toward the following ten productions. They say that the truth hurts, but I would see these truths done again and again if I could.
(As always, I have not included Fringe plays, amateur productions, re-dos of plays shown in previous years or plays seen outside the immediate Washington area.)
#10. A Delicate Balance . Arena Stage. Mysterious and beautiful, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-winning play received a bravura production from Arena Stage. Terry Beaver’s towering performance anchored a brilliantly-acted and beautifully-produced experience in which a series of inexplicable feelings and irremediable failings led, improbably, to reconciliation and peace.
#9. Hell Meets Henry Half Way . Pig Iron Theatre Company at Woolly Mammoth. This was a spectacular fountain of invective fueled by the spewings of characters who well and truly hated each other, and who employed the sort of blistering wit not heard since Oscar Wilde as their primary weapons. The verbal napalm was both breathtakingly funny and skin-strippingly effective, and it reduced the performance space to a bath of laughter and pain.
#8. dark play, or stories for boys, Forum Theatre. The story was, as they say, stripped from the headlines – clever teenage boy, using the power of the Internet, fools a local dullard into believing that he is in love with a woman who labors under a mysterious secret, with disastrous results. Playwright Carlos Murillo’s stroke of genius was to combine this story with the concept of darkplay, a form of theater in which only some of the participants know they’re in a play. Forum rendered Murillo’s excellent script with fabulous directing and acting. All hail Director Michael Dove, Charlotte Akin, Clifford Williams III, Casie Platt, Brandon McCoy and especially the spectacular James Flanagan.
#7. The Bread of Winter . Theater Alliance. To succeed, a production must immediately persuade the audience to suspend disbelief and to accept the givens of the play. Here’s what Victor Lodato and Theater Alliance got us to accept, from the very first moment of the play: the Sun has gone out, and we live in a mysterious and perpetual darkness. Through brilliant staging and Lodato’s canny observations, we bought it because in many ways the Sun has gone out, and we do live in darkness. A superb production, full of superb performances.
#6. Henry IV, Part 1, Folger Theatre. What a fine thing Folger did, making this 400-year-old play about events that happened six hundred years ago accessible and moving. Every element of this play reeked with authenticity, and was radiant with fine performances. Henry IV, Part 1 made us understand that crucial moment in English history when a young man decided to stop being a prank-playing drunk and become a great Prince and King instead. God save the Folger!
#5. Maria/Start . Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Woolly played the hell out of Jason Grote’s brilliant play about the consequences of ignoring the truth. Spectacular performances – particularly from Naomi Jacobson and Sarah Marshall – informed the fantastic events of this incredible play. Magical realism? I bought every minute of it. If this was all Woolly had done this year, they could have counted their season an artistic success on its merits alone. But it wasn’t all they did this year.
#4. The Suicide . 1st Stage. A fabulous new theater company appeared out of nowhere to produce this wonderfully funny, absolutely audacious story by the hitherto (to me) unknown Russian playwright Nicolai Erdman. A large, well-drilled ensemble cast, composed of actors with little Washington experience, made this production sing. In particular, two performances – Lucas Beck as a sad-sack prospective suicide, and David Winkler as a sleaze who tries to squeeze an endorsement out of the suicide note – were among the best I saw all year.
#3. Antebellum, Woolly . Mammoth Theatre Company. Here’s a question for you, if you have the guts to hear it. During World War II, how different were we, who tolerated segregation and lynchings and the burning of towns, from the Germans, who tolerated ghettoes and concentration camps and the gassing of human beings? Playwright Robert O’Hara’s answer: some, but not as much as you’d like to believe. To underscore the moral truth of the play, O’Hara has two venues – an Atlanta household anticipating the debut of the movie version of Gone With the Wind and the office of the Commandante of a Nazi concentration camp – on an improbable collision course. He pulls it off, thanks in part to superb performances, particularly by Andrew Price as the Commandante. This was the best of a marvellous production year for Woolly Mammoth.
#2. Dante . Synetic Theater. This awesome production of Dante’s Inferno featured Synetic’s real gift: not its spectacular movement-based storytelling, with which we are all surpassingly familiar, but its astute and perceptive ability to portray the underbelly of the human psyche. The Inferno, of course, is not a story in the traditional sense; it is more a guided tour of hell, and Synetic made itself into a marvelous travel agent. Those who saw it will never forget its images, including the human spiders; the gluttonous globules of fat squeaking their way to the firepit, and the professional liars and agitators who walk around with their feet on backward.
#1. King Lear . Shakespeare Theatre Company. Director Robert Falls chose to look the truth as hard in the face as Shakespeare did when he wrote this, his most honest and realistic play. The result is something that, like last year’s Last Days of Judas Iscariot, transcends theater and approaches religion. Falls, like Shakespeare before him, identifies the roaring, annihilating maw of human ambition at the core of this play, and couples it with the lunatic violence which is its engine. That he placed it in 1990s Serbia only served to bring to mind the clearest and most recent setting in which the human race damned itself; he could have chosen a hundred different times and places. King Lear serves as a profound reminder of the fragility of our continuity, both as a political entity and as a species.
Performances of the Year, 2008-2009
The popular conception of the actor is that he is vain and egotistical. It is not true. The actor, if he does his job correctly, is as humble as a priest. An actor who struts and preens upon the stage is a failure, and at best a mere celebrity (unless, of course, the play calls for the character to strut and preen). A true actor surrenders his ego, and becomes, for the course of the play, whatever the playwright and the director require. A scholarly, philosophic man may become a simpering idiot; a genteel, refined woman may become a foul-mouthed prostitute; a committed progressive may be a backwoods bigot. Actors take off their clothes; smoke cigarettes; appear drunk; curse like sailors – and do so without a moment of hesitation, because that is the requirement of their profession. And whatever they think of their character’s behavior must go out the window, since at every moment on stage they must be authentic, and authentic characters invariably judge their own behavior to be justified, at least while they are doing it.
It is almost impossible to appreciate the difficulty of this task. Human nature makes us spend our whole lives constructing our own personality, using heroes and role models. The actor tears all that work down for the space of the play, and instead shows the face which the playwright has designed for him. Do you want to play Sir Toby Belch? Well, for three hours or so you must – before hundreds of people – be a mean drunk, predatory and proud of it. Afterward you may be whoever you wish; it doesn’t matter to the audience, who may very well be standing behind you at the supermarket check-out line the next day, and not know who you are.
The sixty-three actors whose work I am respecting below (including those in the ten best performances) have this year created acts of perfect generosity, in which they have surrendered themselves so that we can hear, and understand, the thoughts of Shakespeare, Stoppard, Albee and other brilliant (if more obscure) playwrights. Thanks, guys.
#10. Monalisa Arias as Rosemary . Brainpeople . Rorschach Theatre. For a few years, Arias has hung on the periphery of Washington theater, giving startlingly good performances in small roles. This year, she got a big role, and she knocked it out of the park. Playing a woman with a multiple personality disorder, Arias created a dozen different characters, each one of them compelling. In her final character, she played the protagonist’s father. I do not know of a male actor who could have done it better.
#9. Kim Martin-Cotton as Goneril . King Lear . Shakespeare Theatre Company. Goneril takes a more significant role than usual in Robert Falls’ astounding version of this astounding play. The evil in this play, accompanied by lunatic violence, runs in a river of bilge, and Goneril is its channel. Martin-Cotton rode the character like a cowboy breaking a bronco, and managed to break our hearts as well. Her final moment was the most electrifying I saw on stage this year.
#8. James Flanagan as Nick . dark play, or stories for boys . Forum Theatre. You must understand that Nick is a boy who lies on the Internet, luring a dim young man by convincing him that he is loved by a woman who is in fact, entirely fictional. His final triumph was to trick his mark into shooting him. Nick is the embodiment of senseless, foreboding, high-tech danger – and yet Flanagan made him so likeable. A bravura performance.
#7. Lucas Beck as Semyon . The Suicide . 1st Stage. This company came out of nowhere to become one of the best small companies in the Washington area, and Beck, who did superbly in all of the four plays he was in, is its best actor. In The Suicide, written in the twenties by the obscure Russian playwright Nicolai Erdman, Beck played a young, eggnog-addicted, unemployed young man who yearns to play the tuba and, failing that, to commit suicide. It is a unique role, and Beck, who had a lot of ways to play him, chose the funniest path. He played him straight.
#6. Naomi Jacobson as Sylvia . Maria/Stuart . Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. There is no actor in Washington who so regularly submerges herself into a role as Jacobson does; in this play, she inhabits the character of a woman who lost her mind and chopped off her hands (Jacobson wielded prosthetic hooks throughout the production, with considerable skill). Throughout this incredible play Jacobson’s Sylvia gradually reveals the heartbreaking and terrifying secret behind her suicide attempt, until by the end you just want to give her a hug, hooks and all.
#5. Tom Story as Prince Hal . Henry IV, Part 1 . Folger Theatre. The emergence of Story as an actor – he was also great as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare Theatre’s Twelfth Night – is one of the cheeriest stories in the theatrical season. He played Prince Hal as he really was: a fulcrum of history. The moment he accepted his father’s harsh criticism, and resolved to give up his dissolute friends and accept the responsibilities of leadership, would lead England to its greatest glory. Story gave that moment the gravity it deserved, without ever losing its human quality.
#4. Terry Beaver asTobias . A Delicate Balance . Arena Stage. In Edward Albee’s Pulitzer winning play, Beaver portrayed the sort of man who almost doesn’t exist anymore: of impeccable breeding and a good heart, he knows how good people should feel in every situation, and then tries to feel that way. Beaver made Tobias everything Albee designed him to be: powerful and humble; grave and light; selfless, and wounded to his core.
#3. Bruce Rauscher in multiple roles . Love, Peace and Robbery . Keegan’s New Island Project. Can an actor make you understand how a dog feels when he is disappointed by his master? Bruce Rauscher can, and did in this small masterpiece of a play. Rauscher played multiple characters, including the dog and a sullen teenage kid, and what that meant was that he had multiple ways to break your heart. When I came home, I gave my dog her long-anticipated walk, even though it was forty degrees out, and I had to write my review.
#2. David Winkler as Aristarkh . The Suicide . 1st Stage. How’s this for chutzpah: a total stranger, hearing that you are about to kill your despondent self, asks you if you wouldn’t mind penning a suicide note claiming that you were really doing it for his cause, which is the cause of the Russian intelligentsia? Among all the roles I saw outside the magical realism genre, there were none more difficult to make credible. Winkler, one of 1st Stage’s new actors handled this challenge with the ease of a thirty-year veteran, and imbued this preposterous character with such magnetic charisma that I looked forward to his appearance throughout the play, even though the rest of the cast was also superb.
#1. Sarah Marshall as Ruthie . Maria/Stuart . Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. For the first Act of this play, Marshall gives a spot-on performance as a mean old woman barreling toward senescence. Oh, Ruthie has her secrets! Oh, she has her lies! But even though her brain is turning to cottage cheese, she retains her incendiary tongue, which she uses to eviscerate her three daughters, who are pretending to love her as they await her death. Marshall really picks up the pace, though, in the second Act, after Ruthie is dead. Inhabited by a soda-swilling shape-shifter, her body careens about the room, singing in German and blistering her family with the truth, in ways her lies could never do when she was alive. This is a performance theater lovers will be talking about for years, and use as a jumping-off point for any discussion of superior acting.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Kate Arrington as Regan, King Lear, Shakespeare Theatre Company . Sara Barker as Hermes/Graleo’s Wife, Peace, Washington Shakespeare Company . Lucas Beck as Bidger, The Violet Hour, 1st Stage . Lucas Beck as Teddy, Pig Farm, 1st Stage . Lucas Beck in multiple roles, Red Herring, 1st Stage . Patrick Bussink in multiple roles, Marisol, Forum Theatre . Keith Eric Chapelle as Ion, Ion, Shakespeare Theatre Company . Chorus (Rebecca Baxter, Lise Bruneau, Kate Debelack, Laiona Michelle, Patricia Santomasso and Caleb Jones), Ion, Shakespeare Theatre Company. Steve Ciuffo as Dr. Hinca, Hell Meets Henry Half Way, Pig Iron Theatre Company at Woolly Mammoth . Ralph Cosham as Gustav, Heroes, MetroStage . Ben Cunis as Fortinbras, Living Dead in Denmark, Rorschach Theatre . Mike Daisey, How Theater Failed America, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Aubrey Deeker as Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Theatre Company . Rick Foucheaux as King Henry, Henry IV, Part I, Folger Theatre . Ed Gero as Gloucester, King Lear, Shakespeare Theatre Compny . Ed Gero as Ivan, The Seafarer, Studio Theatre . Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead, Looped, Arena Stage . Brian Hemmingsen as Krapp, Krapp’s Last Tape, Keegan Theatre . Mitchell Hébert, Lord of the Underworld, Eurydice, Round House Theatre . Rachel Holt as Lorraine, The Receptionist, Studio Theatre . Annie Houston as Nancy, Seascape, American Century Theater . Christopher Innvar as Mirabell, The Way of the World, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Naomi Jacobson as Paulina, The Winter’s Tale, Folger Theatre . Carter Jahncke as Krapp, Krapp’s Last Tape, Spooky Action Theater . David Graham Jones as Hotspur, Henry IV, Part 1, Folger Theatre . Stacey Keach as King Lear, King Lear, Shakespeare Theatre Company . Floyd King as Richard, The Seafarer, Studio Theatre . Ben Kingsland as Richard, The Bread of Winter, Theater Alliance; Josh Kornbluth as Citizen Josh, Arena Stage; Jason Lott as Alan Anton, This Perfect World, Charter Theatre . Alex Mandell, Young Man Playing Romeo, Shakespeare R & J, 1st Stage . Sarah Marshall as The Docent, Boom, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Brandon McCoy as Adam, dark play, or stories for boys, Forum Theatre . Ellen McLaughlin as Claire, A Delicate Balance, Arena Stage . Channez McQuay as Aunt Monica, See What I Wanna See, Signature . Jennifer Mendenhall as Nira, The Accident, Theater J . Eric M. Messner as Old Donner, Artist Descending a Staircase, Longacre Lea . Rick Miller in all roles, MacHomer, WYRD Productions at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Alan Mills as Puck, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Synetic Theater . Jeff Murray as Nikita Khrushchev, The Missiles of October, Heritage Theatre Company
Hugh Nees in multiple roles, Alice, Round House Theatre . Nancy Paris as Beverly, The Receptionist, Studio Theatre . Jase Parker as Lord Chancellor, Iolanthe, Washington Savoyards . Steve Pickering as Kent, King Lear, Shakespeare Theatre . Andrew Price as Oskar von Schleicher, Antebellum, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Alice Ripley as Diana, Next to Normal, Arena Stage . Oren Sandel as Mr. Sir, Holes, Adventure Theater . Sarah Sanford as Maya, Hell Meets Henry Half Way, Pig Iron Theatre Company at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Stephen Schnetzer as Voltaire, Legacy of Light, Arena Stage . Stephen Schmidt, Professor Harold Hill, The Music Man, Washington Savoyards; Robert Sella as Leo, Design for Living, Shakespeare Theatre Company . Judy Simmons as Mrs. Paroo, The Music Man, Washington Savoyards . Bobby Smith as Priest/Janitor, See What I Wanna See, Signature Theatre . Tom Story as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare Theatre Company . Joseph Thornhill as Lenny, Crazyface, Constellation Theatre Company . Yasmin Tuazon as Scheherazade, 1001, Rorschach Theatre . Alex Vernon as Andy, Take Me Away, Solus Nua . Dito van Reisersberg as Henry, Hell Meets Henry Half Way, Pig Iron Theatre Company at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Amy Waldman in multiple roles, Red Herring, 1st Stage . Brittany Williamsas Maia, Walmartopia, Landless Theatre Company . David Winkler as Seavering, The Violet Hour, 1st Stage . Harry Winter as Father, Eurydice, Round House Theatre
Favorite New Plays Debuted This Year by Steven McKnight
Favorite Musicals, Performances and Performer of the Year by Joel Markowitz
Don’t forget to vote for the Audience Choice Awards