By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.
For the entirety of 2016, I have freelanced as a theater critic for the American-Statesman, reviewing all manner of shows small and large, from the splashiest musical to the edgiest experimental laboratories. As we wrap up this very long year, I’ve put together a Top 10 list of my favorite shows of 2016.
This is a highly personalized, idiosyncratic list, and it is specifically my favorite theatrical productions of the year rather than a “best of” list. For those kinds of rankings, I find that you need a group consensus of the kind bestowed by the B. Iden Payne Awards or the Austin Critics Table Awards. This, however, is just my personal favorites of the almost fifty shows I reviewed, and the reasons why I found them to be so good.“Mary Poppins”
Zach Theatre’s “Mary Poppins.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.
Zach Theater has the funding to produce the biggest-budget local shows in Austin, and occasionally that money seems to be spent on emphasizing that “bigness” at the expense of story-telling. This was emphatically not the case with their production of the stage adaptation of Disney’s Mary Poppins. The story of Mary Poppins required strong performers, magical scope, and, most importantly, a large sense of whimsy and fun. Those director Dave Steakley delivered in spades, thanks to a talented cast ranging from veteran thespians in the lead roles, incredibly gifted child actors, and a stupendous ensemble whose enormous song-and-dance skills created several show-stopping numbers. Although other shows stayed with me longer on an emotional and/or intellectual level, Mary Poppins was certainly the most fun I had seeing a show in 2016.
Sometimes a production stands out because the text itself is so good, and the director and actors simply and elegantly present that story to the audience with few bells and whistles. This was the case with Penfold Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris. The play, a sort of sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, is a thoughtful, provocative exploration of race relations in the United States, comparing the 1950s to the present day through the stories of a single house’s owners. Clybourne Park’s “gimmick”—jumping between the two eras during intermission—is one easily achieved without much technical magic, and so it falls to a given production to relate the text’s story as directly and powerfully as possible. Director Nathan Jerkins and a formidable cast did just that, and their Clybourne Park was a funny, intellectual, confrontational meditation on some of American history’s most troubling legacies.
Everything about Dust was new and fresh—it was the first production of a new theater company (The Heartland Theatre Collective), with a new play written by a young playwright (Nicole Oglesby) and helmed by a young director (Marian Kansas), featuring a cast of current UT Austin students performing in a unique space (the tiny Pony Shed at the Vortex Theater). The young women behind this production, though, belied their relative inexperience with a powerful play, incredibly intimately staged, that spoke to both historical awareness and contemporary issues of class, sexuality, and gender. I went in to this show with relatively lowered expectations, knowing that the creators were so young, and was surprised and delighted by the level of professional craft and strength that I saw. I definitely look forward to more work from Heartland in the future.
Capital T Theatre is probably my favorite theater company in Austin (though they are closely followed by Hyde Park Theatre, whose playing space they frequently use), because artistic director Mark Pickell’s taste in plays tends to speak to my own—dark comedies that are as funny and heartfelt as they are bizarre. Nick Jones’ Trevor is just such a text, telling the story of a chimpanzee “actor” living in a suburban home with a human woman who thinks of herself as his mother. Needless to say, things end up going poorly for woman and chimp alike, with hilarity and heartbreak along the way. The soul of Trevor, though, was Jason Newman’s portrayal of the titular chimpanzee, in a hyper-physicalized performance that required as much stamina as it did emotional depth. The muscular, energetic show explored the relationship between human nature and animal nature in a way that was hysterical in all senses of the word.
“Hand to God”
Hand to God is my second Capital T production on this list (I told you they were my favorite company), and to me it was their strongest of the year. Playwright Robert Askins’ exploration of youth, sex, religion, and violence in small town Texas was rife with both laughter and winces, in equal measure. Amidst a ridiculously detailed, realistic, mutable set designed by director Mark Pickell, the furiously talented cast hit notes of humor, horror, and heart around the bizarre concept of a Christian ministry puppet possessed by the devil. The highlight of the show was Chase Brewer, as the young boy whose puppet gets possessed, who almost impossibly managed to portray two unique characters and personalities at the same time. There were moments I swear I heard both the voice of the boy and the puppet simultaneously, although logically I know that was impossible. His performance left a lasting impression that truly impressed.
“With Great Difficulty Alice Sits”
I don’t know if Salvage Vanguard Theater’s With Great Difficulty Alice Sits (written by Hannah Kenah, who stars as the titular Alice, and directed by Jenny Larson) was deliberately intended to be a production for Halloween or not, but it was definitely the scariest show I saw all year. That’s not to say that the production was full of jump scares and horror tropes; quite the opposite, in fact. Alice was a slow burn of mounting angst, literally embodied by Alice’s pregnancy-without-end. As Alice grew bigger, so did the tension. What began as humorous surrealism quickly turned into dark existential horror, embodied by an ingenious set and props that literally fell apart in front of us. Strange, elliptical, and ambiguous, With Great Difficulty Alice Sits was equal parts deeply moving and deeply troubling.
The Austin Critics Table gave Vortex Theater’s production of Terminus (directed by Rudy Ramirez, with dramaturgy and assistant directing from Gabrielle Randle) the honor of Best Drama at the 2015-2016 awards, and with good reason. Gabriel Jason Dean’s new play about family secrets, economic depression in rural America, and the ways in which race plays heavily into both is, unfortunately, more timely than ever as we reach the end of 2016. As part of Dean’s larger multi-play project,The Attapulugus Elegies, I expect we’ll be hearing much more about Terminus in the years to come, as an important, necessary, and at-times hilarious look at the hidden corners of America that many of us urbanites have allowed to slip us by, with dangerous and heartbreaking results.
If I had to name the single most interesting acting performance I saw in 2016, it would be Ben Wolfe in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, produced by Austin Playhouse and directed by Don Toner. Wolfe was not the only strength in Disgraced, of course; the rest of the cast was superlative, and the production was a simple, no-frills portrayal of Akhtar’s sophisticated drama of ideas and relationships. Wolfe, though, took his performance to another level, creating a man so layered by the lies and assurances he tells to himself and to others that we could see those levels get sliced apart by the circumstances of the play and his reactions to them. What at first seemed to be a relatively stock portrayal turned out to be the carefully crafted persona put on by a much deeper stew of insecurities and anger, as Wolfe potently revealed throughout the course of the play.
The shows put on by Austin’s Rude Mechanicals can sometimes be hard to classify, because they will remount past productions, consider entire runs to be “open rehearsals,” and create such substantial changes to a work that has been previously produced that it appears almost unrecognizable. Field Guide was something akin to this, labeled by the company as a “second draft.” The unfinished, inchoate nature of the work was part of its strength, though, mixing the play’s first draft (co-created by Kirk Lynn and Madge Darlington, and itself based in part on adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) with new text by the cast, especially Hannah Kenah. The mix of this all was delightfully chaotic without becoming confusing or muddled, and it lent a fresh vibrancy to the performance that actively brought the audience in as co-creators, both metaphorically and (in a few sections of direct address to us) literally. What made Field Guide so breathtaking, though, was its amazing implementation of simple-yet-elegant staging techniques that created breathtaking moments of surprise, whimsy, and theatrical magic. Some of those images are amongst the most unique and ingenious I’ve ever seen on a stage, which is what made Field Guide such a revelation this year.
Theater doesn’t get much simpler and more direct than Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs: two actors, a bare stage, no obvious light or sound cues, and no intermission. Hyde Park Theatre’s production of the play (directed by Lily Wolff) added a slight twist—the actors performed in the round, inside a rather small playing space—that only added to the direct immediacy of a text that is already about the fierce intimacy between couples that at times verges on the obscene and dangerous. With powerful, nuanced, funny, heartbreaking performances by Liz Beckham and Michael Joplin, Lungs was spoke to me on a deep, direct, personal level (in part due to my own stage in life, I just admit) and I have thought about it frequently ever since. That is why it was by far my favorite production of the year, and I look forward to more work from Wolff, Beckham, Joplin, and Hyde Park Theatre in 2017.