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Sunday, January 01, 2006

My Favorite Theater/Opera of 2005
Since I left the ratings that I gave to the plays/operas I saw in 2005 on the list I posted, in theory this is the easiest group from which to extract my favorites. Of the 29 productions I saw last year, the following received a B+ or higher. They’re in the order I saw them.

The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, seen on Broadway
An amazing piece of work—but is it really a play? Despite fantastic staging and great acting, including some fine performances from actors more known for their work on the big screen (Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum), this struck me as more of a staged horror story than a play. For distressingly common reasons (specifically, a deaf audience member sitting on the front row of the balcony getting into a loud argument with the folks sitting next to him—I mention his deafness because it meant he was unwittingly loud in his remonstrations; so loud I was afraid the actors might stop the performance, as they did when I saw Copenhagen in London), a layer of the “real world” prevented me from fully engaging with the play, especially in the first act, but given the grotesqueries, perhaps I should’ve been glad for the unwanted distance. I always get the sense that even more than for most actors, Jeff Goldblum’s acting style is determined by his height—his physical presence seems to drive all his choices, from the way he controls his voice to the way he sits, the way he walks. In this play, his default state was a great fit for his role—he had to be a man who conveyed a sense of barely restrained power, both physical and bureaucratic, that the poor sap on the receiving end had to be very careful not to set off.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, by David Yazbek/Jeffrey Lane, seen on Broadway
Ah, the joy of low expectations. I’d never been very fond of musicals—I can probably count how many I’ve seen before moving to New York on the fingers of both hands, and the ones I’ve been impressed by on one—and we got tickets for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for the sake of an out-of-town visitor. What fun! A cool set, genuinely funny lines, good acting (we went to the pre-Tony show, and you could really tell that everyone was pleasantly nervous, especially Norbert Leo Butz, who was heavily favored to win—and did), and singing that amazed me (I just couldn’t believe the quality of Sherie Rene Scott’s voice).

Hecuba, by Euripides, adapted by Tony Harrison, seen at BAM
There was just one reason I got these tickets—Vanessa Redgrave. I’ve seen her in comedies, dramas, and tragedies, and she’s never let me down. The most striking thing about this production was technique—it really is what separates British actors, especially in the classical repertoire. The performance was unamplified, and even thought it was staged in the BAM Opera House, it was a little difficult to catch some of the dialogue, or should I say declamations. I stupidly bought tickets in the cheap seats, and BAM management annoyingly allowed people to enter up to 45 minutes into the performance, which meant the spell kept getting broken, but even with the heavy-handed Iraq symbolism, I enjoyed it immensely.

Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires, by Staceyann Chin, seen off-Broadway
The biggest problem with one-person shows is what the actor does with him- or herself while they’re speaking—even an actor of Antony Sher’s caliber didn’t quite succeed in overcoming dangling-arm syndrome (in this sense it helps to if your character’s an alcoholic so you can keep a glass in your hand at all times). Staceyann Chin’s performance in her autobiographical show was particularly impressive for what she did with her body—tremendous energy used in the service of her words (it didn’t hurt that she stripped down to bra and panties a couple of times, either). And as moronic as it makes me seem to say this, the fact that I only realized toward the end of the show that she was reciting poetry rather than performing a script seemed like a good thing.

Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung, by Richard Wagner, seen at Seattle Opera
My third complete Ring cycle (all at Seattle), and I can’t imagine a more amazing live "show." The special effects of the movies (swimming Rheinmaidens, fire-belching dragons, sometimes flying horses), the compelling story of a really high-quality elemental soap opera, amazing music, wonderful singers, and the required immersion of a "properly" mounted cycle—four operas performed over the space of six nights—there’s absolutely nothing to compare. Alan Woodrow as Seigfried couldn’t act for toffee, but his voice was just right, and Jane Eaglen was magnificent (I can’t believe I was worried after Walkure, when she’d seemed to be holding back to a worrying degree—she’s done this before and knew what she needed to do to keep the voice going for the later operas that she needed to carry). Greer Grimsley, who I’d seen several times before and thought so-so on was the best Wotan I’ve seen—clearly he’s found his perfect role.

Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley, seen on Broadway
Cherry Jones is such a goddess—an unparalleled actress and an out lesbian (LOVE the smooch at the Tonys), I wanted so much to like it that I was afraid I’d be disappointed. No worries. A beautifully spare throwback to the days of well-made plays and yet with themes that are absolutely contemporary. I must say I’m a little shock that Eileen Atkins, that is, Dame Eileen Atkins, is taking over next week when Cherry Jones moves on—she seems shockingly overqualified to be a replacement, but I guess it’s a testament to the appeal of the role.

Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler, seen in preview on Broadway
This had so many strikes against it—a musical (and Sondheim to boot, I remember years ago accompanying a Sondheim queen to a performance of Sunday in the Park With George on the West End and his being absolutely exasperated that I wasn’t transported by its genius), a novelty staging (I’d just seen Rent—strictly for research purposes—the week before and was exasperated by all the faffing around with the set), a high concept, and all that buzz about Patti LuPone (who I mostly know as a minor player on Oz) and her tuba. I thought it magnificent—the conceit really worked for me, I couldn’t believe how well the cast performed musically (playing sans score, of course), the songs were great. I loved it. In the couple of months before I’d seen several shows that I really liked but that were critically panned (for example, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way), but I had absolutely no doubt that this would be a hit.

4:48 Psychose, by Sarah Kane, performed in French at BAM
Talk about forebodings of doom—a month or so after I bought tickets for this, a letter came from BAM basically warning the audience-to-be that this was going to be a difficult play, performed by Isabelle Huppert in French with very limited subtitles. Maybe I did what the director, Claude Régy (I don’t know for sure that the letter was his doing, but I strongly suspect it) intended and came to the play prepared. I bought the script in advance, I read up on Sarah Kane’s life and work; I can’t say that I did anything about my very rusty French, but I at least thought about it. When we arrived at the theater, it was, as one of the ushers put it, “under heavy manners”—constant warnings that there’d be no late seating, forceful reminders that there’d be no re-entry if audience-members left, even rather motherly inquiries from the ushers if we’d been to the bathroom. All theaters should do this (save, perhaps, for the toilet police)—before the play began, there was a palpable sense that something mysterious and amazing was about to happen. I’ll never forget the look of “what the hell’s going on” on the faces of the ushers when, even before the lights went down, the audience went into a profound anticipatory silence as if by consensus. Régy’s direction and Huppert’s performance were peculiar to say the least—she effectively stood absolutely immobile (other than very occasional random-seeming hand spasms) speaking and shouting her lines amid long pauses. I was absolutely haunted by it—for days after I thought about the play, I re-read it, I attended the “chat” with Régy a couple of days later. Unfortunately, it seems that toward the end of the run they relaxed the heavy manners and completely lost the magic. A colleague who went on the last day told me that they were allowing late entries more than halfway into the performance, which made it impossible to connect with the work. If it hadn’t been for the Ring, this would be my favorite theatrical experience of 2005.

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