There were so many memorable theater-related moments this year that were not part of any scripted show that they threatened to upstage any moments on stage. Even some of the most encouraging of these off-stage moments – such as the Town Hall held at the Public Theater on sexual harassment in the theater, or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s efforts on behalf of hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, including the song “Almost like Praying” – were silver linings in a largely cloud-filled year. See my Stories of Reeling, Resisting and Persisting.
Still, even in 2017, there were plenty of worthwhile moments in shows that ran in New York this year to help us to escape from, or inspire us to engage in, the world outside the theater.
They happened unexpectedly, in shows you might not otherwise care for, and they happened in every month.
Going chronologically, I’ll start with two very different moments in shows about China, both of which opened in January.
Confucius began with a few seconds of a realistic-looking video showing the dramatic landscape of Zhou Dynasty China (complete with dark clouds gathering overhead), before the curtain rose to reveal row upon row of performers bathed in stage smoke and glowing blue light, then glowing yellow, then glowing red. In alternating rows, the men — dressed in bright blue billowing robes with flowing sleeves – and the women — in deep red – leapt and bounced and bowed, and then circled one another with dignity and grace. It was stunning.
Made in China, a satirical puppet musical, was “inspired by true events,” according to Wakka Wakka, the theater company that produced it. I suspect the true part doesn’t include an American named Mary and her neighbor getting sucked down her toilet and winding up in the People’s Republic of China, where a dragon eats them.
In any case, one of the most memorable moments occurred before that event, when Mary’s household appliances came to life, explaining that they were made in China – such as a toilet plunger. A gun sings:
I was made by children in Hunan!
Fifteen hours each day, they’re having fun!
Safely tucked away from awful sun
make for you the cheapest All-American gun!
Pointed satire about worker exploitation and gun violence all in one verse. It was…memorable.
Beardo, a musical by Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) about Rasputin, climaxes in what begins as a ludicrous scene of heavy-set men wearing tutus attempting to dance a Russian ballet. But they turn out to be Rasputin’s assassins, and, through some kind of mystical alchemy, the moment turns from mockery into something both beautiful and chilling.
The Sweeney Todd Off-Broadway takes place in a theater transformed into a British pie shop – complete with the pies—and theatergoers sitting on benches around picnic tables. At one moment, Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney Todd stuck his hardened face right up against a theatergoer sitting at the end of one of the benches, and barked: “MOVE!” The man scooted over, so that Sweeney would have room on the bench right next to him to strangle the beggar woman.
In Significant Other, Jordan was a gay man whose three best female friends abandoned him one by one to get married, while his dating life was going nowhere. In a hilarious and heartrending moment, he engaged in an elaborate dance of indecision as he struggled with whether or not to click the key on his computer that would send a gushing e-mail proclaiming his love to a new office colleague.
Three days before Groundhog Day was to open, its star Andy Karl injured his knee. The doctors ordered him to take a few days off. When he returned, in a cheeky bit of improvisation in what was supposed to scene of seduction, he lounged on the sofa, proudly showed off the elaborate black knee-brace on his bare outstretched leg, and stuck a glass of Scotch on top of it.
In Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, an early 20th century explorer of Antarctica meets a struggling freelance musician from Brooklyn, and she learns some important lessons from him. How do they connect? He bursts through her refrigerator, of course. It is not the only moment this season of a character bursting through a refrigerator. That happened as well in Stuffed about overeating – and that refrigerator was padded.
Venus is a play based on the true story of an early 19th century woman from Africa who was exhibited in freak shows in Europe. The very first thing we see on stage is the character/actress putting on a nude body suit, with the aid of a man dressed like a circus ringmaster. Then she poses for us, “naked” save for a scant loin cloth. The unspoken question: Are we, the spectators in 2017, all that different from the ones who paid two shillings in 1810?
Whatever else you may say about the moment that a Trump-like Julius Caesar – who wears suits with too-long ties, and has a Slavic wife – descended into his gold bathtub in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, it was certainly memorable. This was true (given all the attendant public outrage) even for people who didn’t see it.
In Cost of Living, Eddie gave his disabled wife Ani a bath, and decided to serenade her with a piano concerto. There is no piano in the bathroom, and Eddie never learned to play anyway, much as he wanted to. But he takes her paralyzed arm from the water, drapes it on the bathtub’s edge and plays her like a piano, synchronized with the radio broadcast.
In Hamlet, to demonstrate the prince’s insanity, Oscar Isaac wore a paper toilet seat cover around his neck and pranced around the stage at the Public Theater in his underpants.
Reg E. Cathey as Creon cried out in anguish in Antigone in Ferguson, presented for free by Theater of War Productions in a basketball court in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Tony Yazbeck tap danced his way spectacularly through “The Right Girl” from Follies (which we’re told is Harold Prince’s favorite musical.)
In A Clockwork Orange, there was a moment when all eight members of the all-male cast portraying youthful thugs, took off their shirts en masse, revealing their Olympic-level training. If it was unclear why they did so, not a single theatergoer complained.
Denise Gough portrayed Emma, an alcoholic and drug addicted actress in People Places and Things was a complex woman of many moods. One moment brought this home in a theatrical way by her suddenly …replicating into maybe a dozen Emmas rushing around the stage.
In The Band’s Visit, an Egyptian police band that’s lost asks for directions from a bored café proprietor, Dina (Katrina Lenk) “There is not Arab Center here,” Dina replied. “Not Israeli Culture, not Arab, not culture at all.”
Perhaps because I just saw them, nearly every show that opened in December seemed to have a memorable moment — the ensemble of Mabou Mines’ Glass Guignol fitting actress Maude Mitchell with gigantic arms and feet and turning her into a giant living puppet.
The moment in Parisian Woman when Uma Thurman interrupts the man who’s been complaining about her infidelity, having heard keys in the door. “It’s my husband”
The first moments of Hailey Kilgore’s ecstatic dancing in the sand in Once On This Island.
The very first moment in Farinelli and the King, the very last play to open on Broadway in 2017, was not just memorable; it was thrilling. It was the moment we saw the sumptuous set, multi-tiered, rich dark wood, red brocade and pre-electric chandeliers that were lowered in front of us, so that the performers could light the candles in them. What made this so memorable – what makes so many moments in theater worthwhile – is the excitement of anticipating what will follow.