Speaking of lists: it seems especially silly to recap the year in theater, since unlike with books or movies, you can’t use a list of “the year’s best” as a guide for what you need to catch up on; most of the productions I might mention are long gone. But by the same token, it’s absurd to review theater at all in most venues – most of my readers undoubtedly don’t live anywhere near where the plays I write about are showing. Obviously, I’m not in thrall to commercial logic when it comes to what I write. In which case, why write a recap just because it’s December 30th?

Well, because I’m sitting in an airport, on my way home from vacation (hence the light blogging of late), and writing a recap is a way of reviewing the year in my own mind.

Looking back, 2013 was, for me, a year that belonged to the Public Theater in New York. Virtually everything I saw there this year was fresh, exciting, and eminently worth seeing. This has not always been the case, and undoubtedly it portends a reversal next year – but in the meanwhile, I can bask in the recollection of:

  • Fun Home and Here Lies Love, two of the year’s best new musicals. The first is a chamber piece with an operatic heart, an adaptation of what I would have thought was an unadaptable graphic-novel-style memoir about growing up under the thumb of a closeted father, and coming to grips with his (possible) suicide immediately after coming out yourself. The second is a participatory disco-musical biography of Imelda Marcos, which revises and exceeds Evita, its obvious precursor, in characterization, in political acuity, and, frankly, in sheer tunefulness. (Plus the audience gets to dance with Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro.)
  • Arguendo, the latest offering from Elevator Repair Service, a small theater company doing some of the most interesting work with text that I’m familiar with. The play uses the transcript of a first amendment case about nude dancing as its text, but rather than stage the trial, it performs the text – thereby serving as an illustration of the point (central to the case) that performance as such is meaningful, and can’t be reduced to a textual message.
  • The Good Person of Szechwan, a fantastic Charles Buschian revival from the Foundry Theatre of Brecht’s fable of gods and men, and good and evil. Headlined by the incomparable Taylor Mac as the (female) prostitute with a heart of gold, Shen Te, who must periodically disguise herself as a ruthless (male) cousin, Shui Ta, if she is to survive in this wicked world, the show achieved the tonally extremely tricky task of marrying high camp to completely sincere feeling. This is the production’s second time around the block, and I do hope there’s a third, as I didn’t get a chance to review it before it closed.
  • Add in two worthwhile offerings in the Delacorte in Central Park - A Comedy of Errors and a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost - plus a revival of Wallace Shawn’s bitterly cutting play, The Designated Mourner, and you can see why I say it’s been quite a year.

It’s also been an exceptionally bountiful year for Shakespeare in New York. Though not necessarily always an entirely successful one, the sheer abundance is worth noting – and celebrating.

  • Two notable productions of Julius Caesar graced Brooklyn’s stages. In one, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the setting was African, and for once the civil war of the second half worked better than the intrigue of the opening acts. In the other, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the setting was a woman’s prison, and for once Brutus’s protestations that (s)he loved Caesar referred to a genuine emotion rather than something more formal and covenantal.
  • Meanwhile, two wildly opposed interpretations of Macbeth stalked Manhattan’s blasted heaths. One collapsed the play down to the mind of a single character, as Alan Cumming played a psychiatric prisoner enacting Shakespeare’s play (and playing nearly every part therein) by way of obliquely explaining how he came to be imprisoned. The other gave center stage to the witches (who also got to play multiple characters), malevolent forces in whose hands Macbeth (played by Ethan Hawke) is little more than a pawn.
  • Romeo and Juliet didn’t fare as well as even these equivocal achievements, but I tend to suspect that has something to do with the spirit of our age, which runs counter to the primal currents of the play. But the most heralded Shakespeare offerings were also the most emphatically, even ideologically, traditional: two “original practices” productions from Shakespeare’s Globe, Richard III and Twelfe Night, both directed by Tim Carroll and starring Mark Rylance, playing in repertory. (My review of both, along with a discussion of the original-practices movement, appears in the next issue of the print magazine.)

Other New York theatrical highlights included:

  • Tribes, an attentive play about different varieties of deafness, at the Barrow Street theater. (For those of you in or near Chicago, another production is now playing at Steppenwolf. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve at least liked and usually loved whatever Austin Pendleton directs.)
  • Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a charming cabaret-musical based on an episode from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, playing now and hopefully for a while yet at Kazino, a nightclub-in-a-tent, though the tent does seem to keep moving about (as tents will do).
  • No Man’s Land, an arcticly comic piece of Pinterian obscurity starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (review forthcoming; it plays in rep with Waiting For Godot and down the street from another Pinter, the far more accessible Betrayal - all three are worthwhile, but No Man’s Land was my favorite by a good margin).

Sometimes the best theatrical experiences aren’t staged at all. Red Bull Theater continues to put on a truly astonishing reading series – the highlight from the second half of last season (seasons run from October to July) was a version of Corneille’s The Liar reworked by David Ives, while so far this season the standouts have been John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Ostrovsky’s Too Clever By Half.

And, not to leave out the gentle giant to our north, of the various Canadian productions I took in this past year, the two that have stayed with me most strongly were a pair of plays about adultery and misplaced accessories: an operatic Othello at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and a cinematic Sargent portrait of Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

I don’t know if there’s a terribly good commercial reason for me to write as much as I do about theater. But if the inclination to do so gives me an excuse to take in seasons as rewarding as this one has been, commercial sense be damned.