My favorite 10 Austin theater productions of 2018
This past year, I've had the pleasure of reviewing more than 50 local theater productions for the Austin American-Statesman and Austin360. These have ranged from the big-budget productions of Zach Theatre and the Broadway in Austin touring shows to surrealist, non-narrative experimental performances on the tiniest of stages. Most of the theater in the city is of a high quality — even when the production value is low, there’s always an enormous amount of heart, talent, and energy on display — and some productions stand out in my memory more than others.
These, then, are my top 10 favorite pieces of theater from 2018. I’ve included only local productions, so this takes out Broadway in Austin and any other touring companies, and they are specifically my favorite productions, not necessarily the ones I would list as the “best.” My reactions to these shows were personal, and I explain why. Even though it’s a subjective ranking, it’s still a pretty good look at the variety and quality of theater being produced in Austin.
Growing up on Long Island, I often journeyed into New York City to see Broadway shows with my parents. Because I had the attention span of a youngster, most of what we saw were musicals. I loved them when I was young, but as a surly, cynical theater major in college, I turned my back on musicals in favor of the “real art” of well-crafted plays and experimental theater. Had I gone to college at Texas State University, I doubt I would have ever believed there was a difference between musicals and “real art.” The Texas State musical theater program, headed by Kaitlin Hopkins, has produced one home run after another these past few years, with timely productions of classic shows that resonate as much politically and socially as they do emotionally. Though there have been a number of productions of "Cabaret" of late, both in Austin and elsewhere, Texas State’s version captured the intense anger of our current political moment and tied it to the script’s dire warnings against fascism and antisemitism. By downplaying the sexiness and fun of even the early parts of the musical, this production of "Cabaret" was deliberately off-putting from its opening number, lending new power to the text in an exciting and frightening way.
A couple of themes recur in my top 10, including the simple power of a well-written text performed by a talented cast. John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Doubt” is such a text, and when it comes to actors there are none more talented in Austin than Babs George. Her performance as Sister Aloysius in City Theatre’s production was a tour de force, bolstered by an amazing, antagonistic chemistry with Joel Gross as Father Flynn. Their scenes of confrontation with one another created some of the most potent tension I’ve experienced as an audience member all year and was a master class in how intensity on the stage doesn’t require any kind of trick or manipulation beyond the power of strong performers.
Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg” at Zach Theatre was, in some ways, the polar opposite of “Doubt.” While the performances in “Doubt” worked together to create a sense of conflicted tension, the potency of the performances in “Heisenberg” was the creation of a sexy and believable, if unconventional, romance. Though Stephens’ play was well-constructed, if unmemorable, the pairing of Liz Beckham and Harvey Guion in a mismatched, May-December romance made the production a stand-out. Guion’s stolid fussiness served as a rock against which Beckham could play off endless amounts of manic energy, creating a delightful frisson that caused the show to crackle with memorable energy.
7. "The Merchant of Venice"
As I’ve mentioned in reviews, I admit I’m not one for productions of Shakespeare. I find that the immortal words of the Bard are much stronger on the page these days than they are on the stage, surviving as literary masterpieces more powerfully than they do as theatrical masterpieces. The production of “The Merchant of Venice” by the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance proved me wrong. The command performance by Burgess Byrd as Shylock — a woman of color playing a role famous for being an antisemitic caricature — turned the entire story on its ear, presenting the narrative from the perspective of the intended villain and creating an immense tragedy about the horrors of racism and antisemitism. Director Adam L. Sussman’s decision to recast the romantic narratives of the play as a satire of reality television further contrasted the vapidity of these stories with the agony of Shylock’s experience. This was the best production of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen.
6. "The Immigrant"
Part of what made “The Merchant of Venice” work so well was the focus on antisemitism, an old monster that has reared its head again of late. As a Jew myself, stories about the Jewish experience resonate particularly strongly, and that was the case with “The Immigrant” at Austin Playhouse. Mark Harelick wrote the play to convey the life story of his grandfather, Haskell Harelick, a poor Russian immigrant who escaped the pogroms to emigrate to America. By coming in through the port of Galveston, he ended up in the small town of Hamilton, Texas, where he eventually built himself up to become a successful businessman and pillar of the community. Joseph Garlock’s portrayal of Haskell was one of my favorite performances of all time. The nuanced sadness, wry humor and cheerful resignation that he brought to the role reminded me of my own family members and crafted a portrait of the character even stronger than the one on the page. For me, it was the performance of the year.
Though several of the productions I’ve mentioned were successful because of their simplicity, “Enron” from UT Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance (2018 was a strong year for theater at area universities) worked because of its complexity. With a broad playing space, a gigantic cast, multimedia creations and even a few spectacular, life-sized, lit-up velociraptor puppets, director Hannah Wolf threw everything but the kitchen sink into this production of playwright Lucy Prebble’s examination of the unhealthy business culture that brought down Enron. What’s more, Wolf’s choice to cast only female and non-binary actors for the play created an extra layer of commentary on the connection between this world of illegal business dealings and the dangers of toxic masculinity, making “Enron” timely on several levels.
4. "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?"
As much as I can enjoy and appreciate theater intellectually, productions that hook me often do so by making me feel something intense — heartbreak, anger, sadness and more. Rarely does theater make me feel like I’m in danger. Capital T Theatre’s production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” was that rare exception. I never felt like my physical safety was threatened, of course, nor that I was in any way being abused by the production. But by treating the taboo of bestiality — along with other sexual taboos — with extreme seriousness, “The Goat” took what could be a humorous concept and turned it into a bleak tragedy that asked me to think long and hard about my own lines and limitations. I can’t remember the last time I felt so scared and uncomfortable in a theater (and I mean that as a compliment).
3. "Significant Other"
In over three years of reviewing professionally for the Statesman I’ve encountered only one show I haven’t been able to write about objectively — Jarrott Productions’ “Significant Other.” Joshua Harmon’s script is witty and insightful and tragic at the same time, and director David R. Jarrott did a strong job keeping the show moving along at a good pace, but both of those views are influenced by how overwhelmingly powerful I found Will Douglas’ performance to be. As Jordan Berman, a gay man driven nearly insane watching all of his female friends get engaged and married, Douglas brought such a caring, heart-wrenching, self-destructively neurotic pathos to the stage that I was swept away in identification with the character, as well as reminded of a friend who had recently died. According to my wife, it was a very good production; for me, it was the most emotionally riveting, harrowing and uncertainly cathartic experience I’ve had in some time.
Just as I did at “Significant Other,” I walked away from “Ragtime” at Texas State in tears, though in this case they were tears of joy. I have enjoyed “Ragtime” ever since seeing it in its initial Broadway run, and I’ve long believed it is a better musical than it’s given credit for. This production showed why — it's a show about turbulent times in America that debuted during a relatively stable period. Now, in an era which is once again roiled by racial hatreds, antisemitism, labor activism and (at best) the benign ignorance of the wealthy class, “Ragtime” stands out as a timely statement about what America can and should be versus what it so often is. The show’s final vision, of a bi-racial, multi-ethnic family, might be overly sentimental, but it’s the kind of vision we need to help guide us to a better future. As I walked out of “Ragtime,” for the first time in a while I felt like I could believe in that future.
1. "Performance Park"
“Performance Park” was not only my favorite piece of theater of 2018, it was also, the best piece of theater in Austin in 2018, the best piece of theater in Austin since I began reviewing, and possibly the best piece of theater in Austin so far this century. That’s because “Performance Park” played with the very convention of what is possible in theater, creating a new form of immersive, participatory performance — influenced and inspired by similar ground-breaking works such as New York’s “Sleep No More” — that points toward the future of live theater. By turning the entire Vortex complex into one immersive stage, writer/director/producer Bonnie Cullum and an immense team of talented artists working at the top of their game crafted a simple-but-effective story about oppression and the power of community to overcome tyranny. This story unfolded through the guise of an individualized, game-based journey for each audience member that tied their unique experience to the larger meta-narrative, making the story personal for each participant. As a celebration of the Vortex’s 30th anniversary and a culmination of the kind of multicultural, intersectional work the company thrives on producing, “Performance Park” was a massive success. As a formal exploration of the limits of what we call “theater,” it was a unique event that was unlike anything else I have experienced in Austin or, sadly, am likely to experience again anytime soon.