A musical is an odd beast, and one which does not occur in nature. When was the last time that you, while crowding into the Metro, or pouring coffee for your sweetie, or advising on the debt ceiling, broke into song? Me neither. But it happens all the time in musicals, and at the most inappropriate moments, too – such as when contemplating divorce (Follies) or murder (Sweeney Todd) or statehood (Oklahoma!)
But I was astonished to discover that among the 102 Washington-area productions I saw during the 2010-2011 season, three of the best five were musicals – jaw-droppingly good. It was as though there had been a sudden consensus among all Washington theaters to put on the best musical within their capability. Not only did the Shakespeare Theatre Company give us their first musical, but so did Solas Nua (the wonderful Improbable Frequency) and 1st Stage (the sparkling By Jeeves).
In setting forth my ten best theatrical experiences of 2010-2011, I have excluded Baltimore-area shows (including a wonderful Stick Fly!), Festival productions (like the CATF, Source and the Fringe), revivals of recently-done plays (such as the superb Clybourne Park at Woolly) and Community Theater.
As always, your results might vary:
The Ten Best Productions I saw in the 2010-2011 Season
10. Juno and the Paycock, WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare. Company) A profoundly dissonant combination of laughter and despair, by Sean O’Casey, who may well be Ireland’s greatest playwright. The domestic comedy (Cam Magee and Joe Palka are brilliant in this) is a backdrop to a tragedy which knows no limit – the historical prototype for experiences in the newly-free Middle East and Central Africa. A great triumph for director Shirley Serotsky, who had a very good year.
9. The Arabian Nights, Arena Stage. Mary Zimmerman’s story about stories understood – in ways that previous productions did not – that Scheherezade told her stories in order to reintroduce Prince Shahryar to humanity. In savage Washington, Zimmerman’s efforts may also have reintroduced us to humanity.
8. Amadeus, Round House Theatre. I’ve seen this show half-a-dozen times, but Mark Ramont’s Round House production was the clearest I ever saw. I understood, for the first time, Salieri’s great mistake: that he asked God that he be rich, famous, successful – instead of that he be good.
7. Ruined, Arena Stage. I understand – we all understand – that Central Africa is in a state of siege, and that horror and despair is at every moment at risk to wipe out every concept of civilization that we hold. Lynn Nottage has the moral courage to hold out the redemptive possibility of love, and Arena Stage had the skill to give that possibility flesh.
6. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Steppenwolf Theatre at Arena Stage. It’s hard to imagine that fifty-one years after Virginia Woolf devastated audiences in New York, a superb new cast could re-imagine the play in a way which could add new insights. But this play did; in particular, Tracy Letts bestowed on George a fierce aggressiveness which gave Martha (Amy Morton), for the first time, the right to be sympathetic.
5. Chess, Signature Theatre. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this brilliant production of the only-modestly-successful musical fantasy based on the Fisher-Spassky chess tournament, but I cannot escape the impression that had this been the production which had occurred on Broadway all these years ago, it would have succeeded. Jill Paice headed up a first-rate cast.
4. Venus in Fur, Studio Theatre. David Ives’ remarkable wise script allows us to understand the impulse behind the surrender of power, and brilliant performances from Christopher Conn and the remarkable Erica Sullivan made it real. The best work I have ever seen director David Muse do.
3. Candide, Shakespeare Theatre. Finally, somebody got this right! Lillian Hellman tried to turn this into a condemnation of McCarthyism, but the great Mary Zimmerman had a better idea – turn to the original Voltaire novel to find out intention and mine the irony for maximum comic effect. The magnificent Leonard Bernstein score and superb production values filled Candide with light and joy.
2. Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland at the Shakespeare Theatre. We go to Iraq with Black Watch, Scotland’s most honored military unit, and there discover how it is to live and die in the desert. One of the most intense stage experiences ever devised, anchored by superb performances, including especially by Paul Higgins.
1. Oklahoma! Arena Stage. There is a moment late in the production of this show, during the picnic, in which someone drags a toy wagon with a badly-modeled oil well and some dime-store plastic cows on it. “Oklahoma’s oil,” says one crudely-lettered sign; and “Oklahoma’s cattle,” another says. It seems out of place among all the high production-value elements you’ve seen so far. And then you realize – this isn’t Oklahoma bragging about its natural resources. This is what Oklahoma is offering – its billion-dollar oil industry, its hundred-million cattle factory – in return for membership in the nationhood of America.
Arena’s Oklahoma! was, and is, many things – brilliant revival, showcase for dance talent, gorgeous original arrangement – but what it is most of all is an act of patriotism. I mean not simply the decision to cast Hispanic and African-American actors in principal roles, thus paralleling the actual racial composition of Oklahoma at the time the play was set. I mean also that it captured, with loving fidelity, a time in which all Americans, and potential Americans, bought into the promise of this country, and backed their feelings with their lives and their treasure.
Our reviewer was criticized by a commenter for comparing the love and support America received in Oklahoma! to our bitter present-day political dialogue, but our reviewer was right. The lesson which Oklahoma! teaches us today, as it did when The Theatre Guild first produced it during the war, is that our country is worth loving, and neither ideology nor personal interest trumps the promise of America.
Ranking performances, like all contests involving judgment, is inherently subjective and flawed, and so is mine. I draw the conclusions that I draw – unlike the judgments, for example, of ice dancing evaluators – on no specific criteria, other than what I like. You are free to offer your own judgments, based on what you like, and I wish you would.
The Ten Best Performances I saw in the 2010-2011 Season
10. Christian Conn, Thomas, Venus in Fur, Studio Theatre. His intelligent, generous, dynamic performance was essential in this hundred-minute pas de deux of power. Conn must transform Thomas from an all-knowing and all-powerful playwright/director into a slave, without losing an ounce of what he is. Conn succeeds.
9. Joe Brack, Bob the Pizza Guy, bobrauchenbergamerica, Forum Theatre. I thought long and hard about this designation. Brack was on stage for less than ten minutes – but those ten minutes were among the most tension-laden I saw this year. He comes on stage like an ordinary guy – even less-than-ordinary, dim, slovenly, kind of goofy. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he turns up the heat as his story gets more chilling. And a feeling drops over the audience which I can compare only to the feeling you might get when you jump out of an airplane and your parachute doesn’t open. There is a joke at the end which diffuses all of the tension, and when Bob the Pizza Guy walks out of the room, he walks out with the audience in his pocket.
8. Hollis Resnik, Old Woman, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company. If all of the cynicism Voltaire put in his famous novel could be boiled into one character, that character would be the one Hollis Resnik embodied in the Shakespeare’s marvelous production. Resnik made her character’s weightless flexibility, her relentless allergy to principal, seem as natural as breathing. Anyone who saw her in Arena’s Light in the Piazza and in this role can tell you what extraordinary range she has.
7. Jenny Jules, Mama Nadi, Ruined, Arena Stage. Lynn Nottage originally patterned this character on Brecht’s Mother Courage, and you could see the parallels in Arena’s stunning production. But Mama Nadi must compromise herself more deeply than Mother Courage ever contemplated, and – unlike, say, the character Hollis Resnik played (above) – retains her essential dignity and leaves us with hope. A remarkable tour de force.
6. Tracy Letts, George, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Steppenwolf Theatre at Arena Stage. Letts is better known as a playwright than an actor (August: Osage County), but his work inhabiting a seminal role in a seminal play was the most creative work I saw by an actor this year. Without (it goes without saying – it’s Albee!) changing a single word of dialogue, Letts turned this character, traditionally played as a dangerously passive-aggressive failure, into a snarling, raging, son of a bitch and in so doing achieved the impossible: he made Martha (a brilliant Amy Morton) sympathetic.
5. Jill Paice, Florence, Chess, Signature Theatre. In this story, forged in the aftermath of the fabulous Fisher-Spassky world chess championship match, Paice played the coach of the American champion who falls in love with the Russian champ…which is to say, she played someone who was shipwrecked before she set sail. There are probably three dozen artists whose voices are powerful enough to sing the Andersson-Ulvaeus rock score, but Paice is the only one I know who could look as vulnerable and real as she did.
4. Daniel Rabin, Abdul Shah Massoud, Honey (in The Great Game: Afghanistan – Part III), Tricycle Theatre at Shakespeare Theatre. Actors who can convincingly play great leaders are almost as rare as great leaders themselves; Rabin managed to invoke Massoud in half an hour. After seeing this play, I consulted Steven Coll’s Pulitzer-winning “Ghost Wars”, in which he describes CIA officers who saw Massoud as “a Che Guevara figure, a great actor on history’s stage. Massoud was a poet, a military genius, a religious man, and a leader of enormous courage who defied death and accepted its inevitability…He was quiet, forceful, reserved, and full of dignity, but also light in spirit.” Astoundingly, Rabin was all of that in his brief time on stage.
3. Paul Higgins, Sergeant Major/Journalist, Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland. Imagine a man so tough, so fierce, that he can keep Scotland’s legendary Black Watch in line – a man who radiates an inner incandescence which threatens to explode at any minute, and yet possesses good judgment and steely resolve. Then imagine a clueless journalist, mild-mannered and meek, who seeks to interview these same Black Watch soldiers in their querulous retirement, and who is at every moment intimidated by them – who looks, in fact, like he is interviewing a pack of lions. Then imagine they are played by the same actor. This is what Paul Higgins did, and it was amazing.
2. Ed Gero, Antonio Salieri, Amadeus, Round House Theatre. Effortlessly and unfussily shifting from an old man to an artist at the peak of his powers to a youngster praying for success, Ed Gero added this stunning performance, as lucid as a fresh brook at morning, to his enormous book of superb Washington work. Gero revealed that years ago he auditioned for the role of Mozart in the movie version of Amadeus, but lost it to Tom Hulce; if he had instead won it, and Hulce had consequently become a Washington stage fixture instead of Gero, Washington would have been the poorer.
1. Erica Sullivan, Vanda, Venus in Fur, Studio Theatre. Audiences left this show speechless, as is appropriate in the presence of magic. She was so profoundly brilliant in this piece that it is impossible to imagine it being done any better. I really find myself inadequate to the task of describing how good she was; if you saw her, you know, and if you didn’t, I’m very sorry.
Ten Other Stone-Brilliant Performances
11. Nicholas Rodriguez, Curly, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
12. Amy Morton, Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Steppenwolf Theatre at Arena Stage
13. Jason B. McIntosh, Sam, “MASTER HAROLD”…and the Boys, Quotidian Theatre
14. Lauren ‘Coco’ Cohn, Coral Hicks, Glimpses of the Moon, MetroStage
15. Matthew Vaky, All Roles, Chesapeake, Bay Theatre
16. Derek Smith, Antonio, Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Theatre
17. Sasha Olinick, Mozart, Amadeus, Round House Theatre
18. Jessica Frances Dukes, Elizabeth, In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, Woolly Mammoth
19. Judith Baicich, Karen, Wife Swappers, Cherry Red Productions
20. Aaron Ramey, Jud, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
Other Outstanding Performances (in alphabetical order)
Gordon Adams, Hamm, Endgame, Doorway Arts Ensemble; Bazin Akhaven, Harun al-Rashid, The Arabian Nights, Arena Stage
Brent Bauer, The Kid Boxer, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Heritage-O’Neill Theatre; Andrew Baughman, himself, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Landless Theatre Company; Daniel Betts, various roles, The Great Game: Afghanistan – Part I, Tricycle Theatre at Shakespeare Theatre Company; Jeremiah W. Birkett, Christian, Ruined, Arena Stage; Jason Blair, Jasper, House of Gold, Woolly Mammoth; Joey Bland, multiple roles, A Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics, Woolly Mammoth; Joe Brack, Earl of Leicester, Mary Stuart, WSC Avant Bard; Joe Brack, Franklin Hoenneker, Cat’s Cradle, Longacre Lea; Frank Britton, Hans Albert Einstein, Einstein’s Dreams, Spooky Action Theater; Frank Britton, Richard III, Richard III, WSC Avant Bard; Lili-Anne Brown, multiple roles, A Girl’s Guide to Washington Politics, Woolly Mammoth; Danny Burstein, Buddy, Follies, Kennedy Center; Carlos Bustamante, Paul, Wife Swappers, Cherry Red Productions; Louis Butelli, Will Stafford, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre; E. Faye Butler, Aunt Eller, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage
Nancy E. Carroll, Mammy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Druid Theatre at the Kennedy Center; John Michael Casey, various roles, Cat’s Cradle, Longacre Lea; Mirenka Chechova, the Fool, King Lear, Synetic Theater; Vincent Clark, the Duke, Magic, Washington Stage Guild; Julia Coffey, Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Theatre; Donnis Collins, Multiple Roles, Blood, Sweat and Fears III – The Red Velvet Curtain, Molotov Theatre; Carrie Coons, Honey, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Steppenwolf Theater at Arena Stage; Chuck Cooper, Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare Theatre; Drew Cortese, Bassanio, Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Ralph Cosham, Moon, The Real Inspector Hound, MetroStage;Dan Crane, Silo/Lola, Birds of a Feather, Hub Theatre; Dermot Crowley, JohnnyPateenMike, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Druid Theatre at the Kennedy Center; Evan Crump, Vigo Jansen, The Resurrectionist King, Active Cultures; J.W. Crump, Larry, Mr. Marmalade, Dark Horse Theatre Company; Carmen Cusack, Nellie Forbush, South Pacific, Kennedy Center
Mickey DaGuiso, himself, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Landless Theatre Company; Mike Daisey, himself, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Woolly Mammoth; Anderson Davis, Joe Cable, South Pacific, Kennedy Center; Ben Davis, Halle, “MASTER HAROLD”…and the Boys, Quotidian Theatre; Katie deBuys, Mrs. Givings, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, Woolly Mammoth; Aubrey Deeker, Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Theatre; Matthew DeLorenzo, Candy Darling, Pop!, Studio Theatre; Nick DePinto, the Conjurer, Magic, Washington Stage Guild; David DeSantos, Shahryar, The Arabian Nights, Arena Stage; Erick Devine, Jeremiah Burnett, And the Curtain Rises, Signature Theatre; Matt Dewberry, Roy/Pale Male, Birds of a Feather, Hub Theatre; Natascia Diaz, Susy Branch, Glimpses of the Moon, MetroStage; Romi Diaz, Jacosta, Oedipus el Rey, Woolly Mammoth; Jessica Frances Dukes, various roles, Bootycandy, Woolly Mammoth; George Dvorsky, Daddy Warbucks, Annie, Olney
Julie-Ann Elliot, Maeve Lynch, Charming Billy, Round House Theatre; Nabil Elouahabi, The Mullah, The Lion of Kabul (The Great Game: Afghanistan – Part II), Tricycle Theatre at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Cameron Folmer, Lord Goring, An Ideal Husband, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Eleasha Gamble, Laurey, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage; Michael Glenn, Jonah, Cat’s Cradle, Longacre Lea; Philip Goodwin, Kenneth Tynan, Tynan, Studio Theatre; Molly Cahill Govern, Eva, Charming Billy, Round House Theatre.
Suheil Haddad, Sa’id, Return to Haifa, Theater J; Heather Haney, Mary Stuart, Mary Stuart, WSC Avant Bard; Jay Hardee, Johnny, Juno and the Paycock, WSC Avant Bard; Laura Harris, Constanze Mozart, Amadeus, Round House Theatre; Michael Harris, Clov, Endgame, Doorway Arts Ensemble; Dennis Hasty, Calvin, A Wrinkle in Time, Round House Theatre; Mitchell Hebert, Dan Lynch, Charming Billy, Round House Theatre; Christopher Henley, Joxer Daly, Juno and the Paycock, WSC Avant Bard; Brit Herring, Frank Keller, Red Herring, Washington Stage Guild; Rachel Herron, Lauren, Looking for the Pony, Venus Theatre; Eric Hissom, Cyrano, Cyrano, Folger Theatre; Eric Hissom, Dr. Givings, In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, Woolly Mammoth; Rachel Holmes, Sophie, Ruined, Arena Stage.
Vanessa Issembert, Molly, The Happy Elf, Adventure Theatre.
Stacey Jackson, Philomena O’Shea, Improbable Frequency, Solas Nua; Susaan Jamshidi, Sympathy the Learned (and others), The Arabian Nights, Arena Stage; Clint Johnson, Eubie, The Happy Elf, Adventure Theatre.
Jane Margulies Kalbfeld, Gertie, Fuddy Mears, 1st Stage; Rozina Kambos, Miriam, Return to Haifa, Theater J; John Robert Keena, Joe Bonaparte, Golden Boy, Keegan Theatre; Jeff Keilholz, Renfield, Dracula, Maryland Ensemble Theatre; Floyd King, Emperor Franz Joseph II, Amadeus, Round House Theatre; James Konicek, Mr. Daldry, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, Woolly Mammoth; Irini Koval, Goneril, King Lear, Synetic Theater; Marcus Kyd, Ricky Greenleaf, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Round House Theatre.
Josh Lamont, Margaret Mead, Hair, National Touring Company at Kennedy Center; Bill Largess, Henry Puling, Travels with my Aunt, Rep Stage; Jessica Lefkow, Cassius, Julius Caesar, Taffety Punk; Victoria Longwell, Molly, Merry, Happy…What?, Hub Theatre; Janet Luby, Dr. Wallace, Beyond Therapy, Bay Theatre; Sam Ludwig, Solomon, Speech and Debate, Rep Stage; Tim Lynch, Mr. Bonaparte, Golden Boy, Keegan Theatre.
Whitney Madren, Anna Besso, Einstein’s Dreams, Spooky Action; Cam Magee, Juno, Juno and the Paycock, WSC Avant Bard; Jan Maxwell, Phyllis, Follies, Kennedy Center; James McMenamin, Jerry, At Home at the Zoo, Arena Stage; Rob McQuay, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Annie, Olney; Eric Messner, Tristram Faraday, Improbable Frequency, Solas Nua; Tracy Lynn Middendorf, Kate, Old Times, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Donna Migliaccio, multiple roles, A Broadway Christmas Carol, MetroStage; Lauren Molina, Cunegonde, Candide, Shakespeare; Crystal Mosser, Juliana, F#@cking Up Everything, Charlie Fink Productions; Tedhg Murphy, Billy Claven, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Druid Theatre at the Kennedy Center; Andy Murray, Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Matthew G. Myers, Nelson, Who’s Your Baghdaddy?, Charlie Fink Presents.
Edward Nagle, Bertie Wooster, By Jeeves, 1st Stage; Katie Nigsch-Fairfax, Honoria Glossop, By Jeeves, 1st Stage
Geoff Packard, Candide, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Kelly Painter, Isabelle, Play Nice!, Venus Theatre; Joe Palka, Captain Jack Boyle, Juno and the Paycock, WSC Avant Bard; Gregor Paslawsky, Max Tarasov, Superior Donuts, Studio Theatre; Ian Merril Peakes, Henry VIII, Henry VIII, Folger Theatre; Marni Penning, Maggie, Red Herring, Washington Stage Guild; Bernadette Peters, Sally, Follies, Kennedy Center; Lee August Praley, Christian Mohammed Schwartzelburg, F#@cking Up Everything, Charlie Fink Productions.
Jamie Quirk, Franz, Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland at Shakespeare Theatre.
Daniel Rabin, Najibullah, Miniskirts of Kabul (The Great Game: Afghanistan – Part II), Tricycle Theatre Company at Shakespeare Theatre; Ron Raines, Ben, Follies, Kennedy Center; Johnny Ramey, Franco, Superior Donuts, Studio Theatre; Amy Rausch, Grace Miller, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Heritage-O’Neill Theatre; Raad Rawi, various roles, The Great Game: Afghanistan – Part I, Tricycle Theatre Company at Shakespeare Theatre; Nigel Reed, Stuart, Beyond Therapy, Bay Theatre; Megan Reichelt, Emily Winter, The Resurrectionist King, Active Cultures; Mark Rhea, Eddie, Fool for Love, Keegan Theatre; Susan Rhea, Lorna Moon, Golden Boy, Keegan Theatre; Bob Rogerson, Richard Moscow, The Moscows of Nantucket, Theater J; Michael Russoto, various roles, Travels With My Aunt, Rep Stage; Michael Russoto, Yvan, Art, Signature Theatre.
David Sabin, the Earl of Caversham, An Ideal Husband, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Lorena Sabogal, Rufina Amaya, The Saint Plays, Factory 449; June Schreiner, Ado Annie, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage; Todd Scofield, multiple roles, Cyrano, Folger Theatre; Arianna Scoggins, Crystal, Little Shop of Horrors, Infinity Theatre; David Segal, Max Greeny, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Heritage-O’Neill Theatre; Adam Jonas Segaller, Einstein, Einstein’s Dreams, Spooky Action; Ryan Sellers, Christopher, Cowardly Christopher Finds His Courage, Synetic Family Theater; Kacie Sheik, Jeannie, Hair, National Touring Company at Kennedy Center; J. Fred Shiffman, Felix Ungar, The Odd Couple, Theater J; Stan Shulman, Mr. Carp, Golden Boy, Keegan Theatre; Chris Sizemore, the Arbiter, Chess, Signature Theatre; Anna Deavere Smith, all roles, Let Me Down Easy, Arena Stage; Mundy Spears, Prudence, Beyond Therapy, Bay Theatre; Tom Story, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Tom Story, Andy Warhol, Pop!, Studio Theatre; Alexander Strain, Simon, Scorched, Forum Theatre; Russell Sunday, Walter, Chess, Signature Theatre.
Sarah Taurchini, Morse, One Flea Spare, Forum Theatre; Paul Tinto, Cammy, Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland at Shakespeare Theatre; Michael Tolaydo, multiple roles, Charming Billy, Round House Theatre.
Rebecca Vail, Lucy, Mr. Marmalade, Dark Horse.
Rebecca Watson, Millicent Cavendish, And the Curtain Rises, Signature Theatre; Erin Weaver, Meg, A Wrinkle in Time, Round House Theatre; Rick Westerkamp, ensemble, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Landless Theatre Company; David Whalen, Billy Lynch, Charming Billy, Round House Theatre; Cliff Williams III, Phil, bobrauchenbergamerica, Forum Theatre; Cody Williams, Will Parker, Oklahoma!, Arena Stage; Lance Cody Williams, various roles, Bootycandy, Woolly Mammoth; Harry Winter, David Kay, Who’s Your Baghdaddy?, Charlie Fink Productions; Brenda Withers, Roxanne, Cyrano, Folger Theatre.
Larry Yando, Dr. Pangloss, Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company; Chuck Young, the President, Night and Day, WSC Avant Bard.
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