In a year when theater has been shut down, and opened up; when it’s been re-defined , and in effect defunded; when it’s been a force for unity, and a cause for division – in such a year as 2020, it’s challenging, and perhaps absurd, to come up with my top 10 favorite shows of the year, as I’ve done for a decade. But it also feels more necessary than ever.
I’m grateful for theater in 2020 as in no other year, and for theater that was unlike any previous year.
Much of it has been presented online in the months since theater buildings were shut down in mid-March, but “online theater” encompasses several different approaches. For each of them I’m grateful.
There were the virtual anthologies of original plays, which I’m listing collectively as number one in my Top 10 — an unconventional choice for an unconventional year.
There were the recordings of productions that were fully staged pre-pandemic. It would probably be unfair to single out these individual recordings made in previous years, but I am grateful to the National Theatre in particular for presenting a new one every week for four months for free (It’s now relaunched as a subscription streaming service), and for the Metropolitan Opera for continuing to present a new one every day for free during the entire pandemic period.
These recorded productions include the “live-captured” and film adaptations of stage plays and musicals that were presented on the commercial streaming services — most notably “Hamilton” on Disney+ but also What The Constitution Means to Me on Amazon Prime; and David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO. as well as The Boys in the Band and other forthcoming adaptations on Netflix. If I’m going to include in my top 10 list of theater those shows that appeared on screens, why should these shows on commercial streaming services be excluded? The battle over whether theater is theater if it’s presented on screen has had real-world consequences — witness the rift between Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA; the two unions have reached an agreement but we’ve yet to reach consensus. I’ve considered the original versions of these shows in previous years, so, for the purposes of this year’s top 10 list, I have decided to look elsewhere (As definitions evolve, I may have to change my mind in future lists.) In any case, I am certainly grateful for them.
The bulk of what has been considered theater during this pandemic year has been “Zoom readings,” most but not all of it of previously produced plays. It would be hard to find anybody who has fallen in love with this platform, but it’s what we’ve got, and most of my top 10 have made the most of it. I’m especially appreciative of three producers of high quality theater – Play-PerView , MCC’s LiveLabs, , which have produced original one acts by major young playwrights, and Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley’s thrice weekly Plays in the House (part of their daily Stars in the House) Theater of War Productions stands out for its use of Zoom not only to present starry adaptations of Greek tragedies, but to connect the plays to 21st century issues, and to connect the viewers to each other to discuss them.
So, here’s my top ten list. You’ll notice three plays were live and in-person, two of them on proscenium stages, one of them on Broadway.
1. Virtual Anthologies: #WhileWeBreathe, Homebound Project, Viral Monologues
Has there ever been a more quick, passionate and innovative collective dive into theater making under impossible conditions than in the various virtual anthologies of original plays? Most of the individual plays are monologues, as brief as a few minutes. In the spirit in which they were put together, I choose them collectively. They are collectively astonishing.
Among the most effective anthologies is #WhileWeBreathe.an hour-long video of 11 short new plays, subtitled “A Night of Creative Protest,” which grew out of conversations the week after the police killing of George Floyd, and debuted in August. (It remains online indefinitely.) The last of the 11, Aurin Squire’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” is the longest play (at about ten minutes) and feels like the most developed. Lynn Whitfield and Esau Pritchett play an older couple who live through five days of the current crisis, recalling a lifetime of tragedy, including the circumstances in which Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddamn.” Their relationship is touching and subtly amusing, their recollections deeply sad, their attitude evolves into…hopeful?
More ambitious but also more diffuse are The Homebound Project series, which were presented over five separate programs from May to August (Homebound Project 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5), each of which had a different “prompt” or theme; and the nearly weekly production of The 24 Hour Plays’ Viral Monologues, the most effective of which have had themes (such as Covid and Incarceration); more than 50 of the plays have been gathered together in a more traditional anthology — a book.
(See number 7 below for a series that could be categorized a virtual anthology, but was sufficiently different from these to be considered separately .)
2. Russian Troll Farm
The Russian trolls in the title are inspired by the actual employees of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency who tried to sway the American Presidential election of 2016 through fake news, incendiary memes and outrageous conspiracy theories manufactured by dummy social media posts. But Sarah Gancher’s full-length original play was not just extraordinarily well-timed. It was both funny and frightening, but also surprisingly empathetic to the five characters, who are recognizable as office workers everywhere. And the production was impressively designed, its visual aesthetic merging the workers with the work they do – scrolling Tweets superimposed on their faces. If the odd bursts of imagery sometimes felt aggressively off-kilter, abstruse and jittery, that is arguably an accurate reflection of the times.
3. The Line
A starry cast portrayed seven actual frontline medical workers in New York– two doctors, three nurses, an Emergency Medical Technician and a paramedic — telling their own wartime stories of dealing with COVID-19 in well-edited, interspersed monologues. This was the latest documentary play by the team that produced “The Exonerated” and “Coal Country.”
4. What Do We Need To Talk About?
Richard Nelson used characters whom he had written about since 2010, to create an original play in which they are in lockdown and talking to one another on Zoom – a clever way to get around the distraction of the flawed platform. The result was beautiful and sad, funny and moving, terrifically acted, and perfectly timed – a precise reflection of our sudden new era. Nelson followed up with two more Apple family plays that I did not consider as successful. But few other playwrights and directors have committed to writing such full-length works of theater for the online medium.
5. Cambodian Rock Band
There were some noteworthy plays on New York stages in the first two and a half months of 2020, and Lauren Yee’s disorienting, genre-bending show was one of the most memorable. Framed as a rock concert, it shifted tone and time and focus to tell the story of two men caught up in the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s and the reckoning decades later — one a victim, the other his victimizer. Frances Jue was arresting as the impish, teasing Emcee of the show, who turns out to be a mass murderer — based on an actual person who was a teacher beforehand, and afterward one of the only to admit his guilt in a court of law.
6. A Soldier’s Play
Charles Fuller’s murder mystery, finally on Broadway for the first time in a fine production directed by Kenny Leon some four decades after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is so good that even if you’ve seen the 1984 movie adaptation “A Soldier’s Story” (which marked Denzel Washington’s major movie debut) and remember who done it, the play is still riveting. That’s because, while Capt. Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) has been sent to a segregated Louisiana army base in 1944 to investigate the murder of Black Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier), the playwright is investigating a much larger crime – racism.
7. Theatre for One’s Here We Are
This first online version by this experimental company, which for a decade has created short works for one performer and one audience member at a time, managed to combine several aspects of our current moment into something fresh and different. The creative team developed technology to reproduce the sense of intimacy between actor and audience that comes naturally to the stage — the actor could see the audience member, not just the other way around. The original monologues, most of them directly about the way we live now, were written by Black women playwrights — and what playwrights: Lynn Nottage, Lydia Diamond, Regina Taylor! — with all the directors and cast members BIPOC (Black, Indigenous (or) People of Color) Unlike the virtual anthologies I praised above, the eight “micro plays” of “Here We Are” (only slightly longer) were presented separately. An audience member signed up to go online and was assigned one of the plays at random — encouraging theatergoers to return another time for another play. Not surprisingly then, Here We Are extended several times, running from 8/20 to 10/29.
8. Mad Forest
Bard’s splendidly glitchy production of “Mad Forest,” Caryl Churchill’s fascinating avant-garde drama about the 1989 Romanian Revolution, was the first live play I’ve seen since the shutdown that attempted a full staging via Zoom. Rather than just reading the stage directions, the twelve actors enacted them – a mother slapped her son; friends shared a piece of chocolate, and lay down together on a lawn; a couple hugged one another; the members of a wedding party ggot into a massive group brawl — although each of the actors, all undergraduates at Bard, was performing remotely from locations across the country where they are sheltering, the show was a revelation, and something of a revolution itself, suggesting new paths forward for online theater….The grainy dull transmission reproduces the effects of a bad television broadcast — just the sort of TV that we can imagine the Romanians had to put up with. Each twitch of Zoom felt deliberate
9. Songs from an Unmade Bed
BD Wong working with his husband the videographer Richert Schnorr, and enlisting some starry accomplices, turned a 15-year-old solo musical about a gay man in New York reviewing his life of loneliness, lust, loss and love into a witty and inventive series of music videos that hung together and suggested a new way of approaching adaptations for online theater.
This hour-long play is one of the four I saw in-person within a two-week period in October, when the virus seemed temporarily at bay in New York City. It was clever and enjoyable, using the streets and landmarks of Greenwich Village in the 21st century as a fairly persuasive substitute for the places in 19th century Montmartre frequented by the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who we’re told was a more or less professional voyeur. One of the most spectacular aspects of Voyeur is that, as crazily avant-garde as it is, it was so integrated into the crazy scene of the Village on a Friday night that it was difficult to know which was a creation of the Bated Breath Theater company. This takes on a bit of an edge now that the coronavirus is surging — lets hope the scene in the Village isn’t quite as crazy (i.e. packed) on Friday nights. But the show, which has been extended through January 10, 2021 and requires the audience to be masked and socially distanced, is yet another example of the creative ways that theater makers have used art during this difficult time to provide some relief, some distraction, some intellectual and emotional stimulation…even some joy.