1. Dark Play or Stories for Boys (Outcry Theatre) Written by Carlos Murillo, Dark Play explores the crooked path of a young man (Nick) who yearns to connect with another boy on a deeper, sexual level. However his dysfunctional background may have contributed, these impulses are sadly, unacceptable to him. Worse than unacceptable, really, they are anathema. When Nick uses cyberspace as a portal to his Shadow Self, it intuitively leads to a self-destructive arc that is stunning, appalling, and completely consistent with a culture that obsessively breeds self-loathing male predators. It felt like a 21st Century version of Albee’s The Zoo Story, confusing male intimacy with self-annihilation. There is an urgent, tortured poetry to Murillo’s script that carries the thread of inevitability, and conducts icy shudders.
Outcry Theatre’s brilliant director, Becca Johnson-Spinos, and her high octane, frenetic cast created a primal sacrament of rage, confusion and virility, tumultuous as the rites of Dionysus and his Maenads. With very little scenery and props, they invoked a mesmerizing journey, at once devastating, compelling and all too convincing. At the core of any society, when groping for answers to the mystery of gender and maleness, havoc and panic can easily brim to the surface. When manhood is treated as frail, volatile and contingent.
Some plays are outré. Some break new ground. Some are devastating. Some plays do all this, and forever change the way you see the world. They succeed on so many levels you feel as if lightning has cracked your skull. Outcry Theatre’s production was brash, merciless, cunning, overwhelming. Based on a true story, Dark Play explored the nature of gender identity, sexuality, male contempt, and the Shadow Self : guardian of truths “too terrible” for us to admit. Even to ourselves. Outcry demonstrated you don’t need deep pockets to create astonishing drama.
2. Mean (Ochre House) : Matthew Posey’s Ochre House, a theatre group that consistently pushes boundaries and confounds expectations, concocted (summoned?) a spectacularly sinister, jarring and intense depiction of Charles Manson in Mean, a musical set in a divey California honky-tonk, where supposedly, Manson, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Tex Watson meet for the first time. It’s not particularly interesting to portray villains in an unsympathetic light, and Mean, subversively, gamely, doesn’t make this mistake.
It’s hard to say whether the result of this deeply unsettling show is a feeling of repugnance, shell-shock or helplessness. By setting the story in such a squalid milieu, Manson, Squeaky and Tex don’t seem that much different than the rest of the clientele. The shotgun Carl keeps behind the bar makes it clear that menace is never far from their threshold. But it’s more than that. When a musical and/or dance number comes up, there’s an almost celebratory (or at least assertive) tone to the shadow realm that Mean taps so freely. What initially seems raucous and harmless, gradually takes on a darker cast. Mean ultimately achieves a precarious balance, making us participants in Manson’s nightmare without converting us, slipping just enough strychnine in our drinks to ignite a queasy sea change.
3. Hello Again (Uptown Players) is a fairly innocuous title, for what has to be one of the most audacious, painful, sad, funny and often profoundly touching musicals I’ve ever seen. We witness a series of sexual encounters in which one partner tries to bring love into the mix, mostly without success. It is a black comedy of conflicting needs. It's incredibly rare to see a show so uncompromising in its bleak, disappointed worldview. It’s tone reminded me of The Threepenny Opera (Brecht,Weill) Sexual Perversity in Chicago (Mamet) and The Pillow Man (McDonagh). I’m not saying rage and despair are the only valid descriptions for the adult world of compromise and negotiation, but live long enough, and they seem worse than accurate. Hello Again was beyond powerful. Beyond relevant. It’s was so immediate, so frank and forthcoming in its parade of broken toys. The music was moody, melancholy, brash, beckoning, sometimes doggedly hopeful. Once again, John de los Santos (working with a fearless, scintillating cast) evinced genius in orchestrating a demanding, volatile story that might have foundered in lesser hands.
4. Sweeney Todd : The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Level Ground Arts) : Perhaps the most startling aspect of Sweeney Todd is its rigorous moral compass. Considering the premise (pathological barber Todd murders clients, subsequently baked into pies by confederate, Mrs. Lovett) it’s positively stunning. Both rapacious in its hunger for justice and possessed of a sardonic eye blacker than the La Brea Tar Pits, Sweeney Todd : The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler) is by turns wrenching, tender, horrific and inexplicably (cathartically) hilarious. When Todd and Lovett extol the propitious, coincidental cannibalism of their pastry business in the song, “A Little Priest” you wince even as you giggle. There is, I believe, genius, in Sondheim and Wheeler’s musical that begins with a ridiculously grisly legend, convinces you to sympathize with its protagonist, then deluges him in a downpour of karmic catastrophe. .” LGA did phenomenal work with this ambivalent, bizarre, excruciating, yet brilliant musical. You can’t bring off this kind of unstable, perverse, satirical story without a keen understanding of human nature and the delicate chemistry of life-changing theatre. What director John de los Santos accomplished was breathtaking, impeccable, unforgettable.
5. Melancholy Play (Upstart Productions) : Melancholy Play is, without question, absurdist comedy, and never pretends to be anything different. It’s close to mind-boggling. If someone met you at the zoo, and said, “OK. I’m going to make an ostrich disappear. OK. Here’s the ostrich. Now, it’s going to disappear.” You’d probably be skeptical. And yet playwright Sarah Ruhl pulls it off. She makes the ostrich disappear. She uses this approach to deflate cherished myths about lasting, rewarding, exhilarating relationships. She takes the tipsy, glimmery, metaphysical aspects of love and mocks them in such a loopy way you laugh almost by reflex. Intense love often focuses on what it means to connect, without losing your identity in the process. In Ruhl’s universe, this translates to, “Why are you an almond?” If you ask it like you mean it, the results are euphoric. Director Jonathan Taylor and his whimsical, intuitive cast brought just the right touch to this outré, audacious flight of fancy (which seems to me) the equivalent of coordinating a flea circus in a vodka bottle. It truly was a marvelous, intriguing, frenetic ride.
6. The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Kitchen Dog Theater) : It’s hard not to wonder if playwright Martin McDonagh has a cruel streak, or if he’s simply trying to find the best tools to dissect the bestial nature of the world. In The Pillow Man, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane he digs ferociously into mankind’s ability to become cozy and nonchalant with sadistic, even sociopathic behavior. One suspects sardonic humor is injected as much for practical reasons as thematic component. Without the excruciating comedy (such as it is) the experience might be completely unbearable. You can’t just walk away from McDonagh’s theatre, he’s too cunning for that. He hurls lightning bolts like a deranged, flagrant, savage god.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane examines the relationship between Mag Folan and her grown daughter, Maureen. We are forced to wonder what difference in the long-suffering, acerbic Mag, and her disgruntled, spinster daughter, Maureen, might have caused their attachment to take such a grotesque, pathological turn. Beauty Queen makes you wonder what Cinderella might have done, had she been thwarted, repeatedly. It is hard to find words that do justice to the performances of Karen Parrish and Nancy Sherrard (under the guidance of Cameron Cobb). The ferocity and degree of personal investment necessary to fulfill such an excruciating and demanding script. It’s rare to see such a high caliber of acting and these two were nothing short of remarkable.
7. Mrs. California (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas) : Written by Doris Baizley, Mrs. California is a tongue-in-cheek, low key comedy, set in 1955, during the finals of a contest that will determine the best homemaker. You’d expect any play with this premise to be drenched in irony, and certainly Mrs. California fits that description, but there’s much more. There’s not a lot of the broad humor (catty behavior, nasty sabotage or leering judges) that was part and parcel of say, Michael Ritchie’s cynical 1970’s film, Smile. You wince when you see the four finalists (Mrs. Modesto, Mrs. San Bernadino, Mrs. San Francisco, Mrs. Los Angeles) competing in categories like : setting a table, cooking a meal, sewing a garment, because it’s degrading to think anyone’s value is tied to a skill.
But in comparison to other pageants, it doesn’t seem so bad. At least they’re not being evaluated on sex appeal. They are, however, being graded according to a paradigm created by men. That is to say, they’re being rewarded for their ability to play geisha. There’s a great poster that says (in essence) Nice women rarely make history. The truth of that adage illustrates the sad wisdom of the very smart, deeply moving, Mrs. California. Baizley asks, “Are women truly cherished for who they are?” You’d think in the 21st Century these questions could be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Sadly, an election year was perfect timing for a thoughtful, resonant, nuanced show like Mrs. California. Director Robin Armstrong once again demonstrated her sublime, impressive mastery of memorable, poignant theatre.
8. Company (Jubilee Theatre) When it premiered in 1970, Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) and George Furth’s (Book) Company was considered groundbreaking, and with good reason. The structure, the ideas, the tone, brought a new kind subtlety and sophistication to the genre of musical theatre. There’s an urgent, nuanced frankness to Company, that doesn’t feel cynical, in the same as say, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, or Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera. Though at times there seems to be a sly irony behind musical numbers like “Side by Side by Side” and “Barcelona.” The entire show seemed suffused with a wry, wistful, searching subtext that produced a lovely tingle when something fierce and authentic began to peek through. You gradually became aware that the songs and scenes were operating on more than one level. When lead character Bobby sang “Marry Me a Little,” a plea for marriage without intrusion and mess, you wondered if what he was asking was even possible. Jubilee Theatre’s production of Company (directed by Harry Parker) had a large, vibrant, supple cast, quite adept at the coy, impetuous shifts in the material. They handled Jennifer Engler’s urbane choreography with grace and panache, as well as the mercurial dialogue and song. It’s rare to experience such depth, resonance, spontaneity, vibrance and unabashed pleasure in a musical comedy. To hear passages from a performance long after you’ve left the theater.
9. Avenue Q (Theatre Three) : an utterly deadpan spoof (or maybe not) of Sesame Street, Avenue Q had to be one of the more curious, sharp-witted, raunchy, subversive musical comedies I've ever seen. It’s cynical, but perky, in songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” It’s deprecating, yet earnest (“It Sucks to Be Me”). It’s nonchalant, informative, and gleefully frank. Consider the number when Kate Monster and Princeton are making love while Gary Coleman sings, “You can be as loud as you want, when you’re having sex.” Kate and Princeton are not exactly as naked as puppets could be, but they are graphic and leave very little to the imagination. If you think about it, this musical is consistent with the ideology of Sesame Street. It offers honest, practical, casual information about living in the world, in an upbeat, optimistic context. The only difference is, Avenue Q is for adults. When you apply the same principles to adult content, it may not be literal satire, but it sure feels that way.
Avenue Q has all the accoutrements of Sesame Street, including cartoons and puppet characters. The set has that same feeling of urban brownstones and inner city sprawl. The creators of Avenue Q - Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx (Music and Lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (Book) - have mixed the indefatigable sprightliness of the iconic, breakthrough children’s show with just enough weary, grownup world jaundice to spark maniacal brilliance. There’s something perverse and grotesque going on when Christmas Eve reassures Kate Monster that…”The more you ruv someone, the more you want to kill them…” or Gary and Nicky explain in “Schadenfreude” how great it feels to watch somebody else suffer. You feel guilty participating, but the sheer audacity of their divulgence, punctuated by a sunshiny ditty, make it impossible not to laugh. I was wondering how Theatre Three was going to manage Avenue Q in their Black Box, but the intimacy only enhanced this mind-blowing, loopy comedy. The remarkable cast had more energy than a box full of grasshoppers, and beyond versatile: clever, raucous, subtle, campy, jazzy, and teeming with heaps of withering wit.
10. Annie (Theatre Arlington) : Happily, luckily, fortuitously, Annie was one of those rare phenomena : a genuinely moving, optimistic show, with gobs of razzle-dazzle and a cracker-jack cast. Overflowing with poise and panache. Sarah Youngblood, in the title role, was authentic, professional and intuitive, without ever seeming precious or cute. When she threatened to clobber a bully, she didn’t aim for “adorable spitfire,” but was simply forthright. Formidable and present, ably avoiding the dangerous territory of Cutieville.
“Maybe” and “Hard Knock Life” must surely be two of the most wistful, angry, melancholy songs ever written for children. Creators : Thomas Meehan (Book) Charles Strouse (Music) Martin Charnin (Lyrics) tread a fine line between pathos and melodrama, wisely modulating emotion without ever seeming mawkish or manipulative. It’s this strong dose of reality that balanced chipper classics like “Tomorrow” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” Annie never milked the despair that motivates us to reach for encouragement, but neither did it try to conceal it. The longer you live, the harder it is embrace unmitigated moxie and elation, but Annie managed to accomplish just that, and more.