Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Top "10" for 2005

I really didn't think I was going to do a "Top Ten" list plays for the year the way I did last year. I wasn't thinking it was going to be an annual thing for Jamespeak. I compiled a list for 2004 because I had ended up just seeing so many plays and so many good plays, including Bug, which had reminded me why I absolutely love theatre.

This year however, I didn't see quite as many shows (don't ask me why), so I thought it would be kind of odd to do a repeat "Best of" list. When November approached, I kept flipping and flopping on the issue and then decided, "Ah, screw it." What made me ultimately decide to do this again was that there was a number of plays I had seen this past year that made me want to give a proverbial "shout out."

I think the fun thing of doing a list like this for theatre is that you get a better sense of the aesthetic tastes of the person making
the list, as opposed to the "Top Ten Films of the Year" lists that are all over the place, since the bulk of those are more or less the same (sure, some critics put Brokeback Mountain in the number 2 slot and others put it in the number 4, but you basically see the same list of movies on different sites).

FULL DISCLOSURE: I did not see any Broadway shows this year, so you won’t find any on this list. I also missed a number of apparently great fan-favorites, such as All Wear Bowlers, I Found Her Tied to My Bed and The Pillow Man. I also saw none of the plays that won NYIT Awards. I’m really sorry I missed these, and from what I hear, they would have been seriously considered for the list had I seen them.

HALF-DISCLOSURE: There are also some plays that did get some acclaim that I did see this year that are absent from the list. Since I do not want to mention names and hurt people’s feelings, I will not mention which ones they are (suffice it to say I saw a couple that I did not like).

So of course take this (like all lists) with more than a few grains of salt.

Now, what constitutes being put in this Top Ten list compiled by Little Jimmy Comtois? The main criterion is that, while watching it, I’m reminded or inspired to “do” a Top Ten list.

In other words, if I’m watching the show and think, “I should do a ‘Top Ten’ this year,” it goes in.

I also have to see more than 30 shows. That way, I can (in theory) devise a list of the ten best plays I’ve seen, the ten worst* and at least 11 or so that were pretty cool to okay to just kinda lame in an inoffensive way.

So, did I see enough plays this year (i.e., at least 31)? Yes, but barely. From my notes and recollections, I saw about 40 (a little more than three per month). I’d feel a little more comfortable with about 50 or 60 viewed, but there you are.

You’ll notice there are only nine, not ten, entries on the list this year. The reason for that is because only seven shows I saw this year made me go, “Ah, yes. This is why I love theatre,” feeling. No inference about the “Sad State of New York Theatre” should be made from this.

So, with all that out of the way, here’s my list for 2005:

10. Honorable mention: The Billy Nayer Show
No, this is actually a band, not a play. However, this band, fronted by the writer/director/star of The American Astronaut, has such a theatrical stage presence, and since watching them at Galapagos in Williamsburg was simply unbridled gleeful fun — the kind of gleeful fun I have when I see a good play — I had to mention them.

9. Just Happy to Be Here? / Skinpoppin
(Arch Productions, “Just Happy to Be Here?” written and performed by Damien D. Smith, directed by Jason Summers; “Skinpoppin” written and performed by Basil Scrivens, directed by Ozzie Jones)
I'm often very wary of plays dealing with September 11 or hot-button “issues,” but was amazed at the display of honesty, insight and candor put into this double-bill of one-man shows. In the first, “Just Happy to Be Here?” Mr. Smith did not reduce any of the characters as stereotypes or resort to vitriolic "Bush-bashing." Likewise, Mr. Scrivens' characters in "Skinpoppin" were pitch-perfect (particularly his opening as a homeless heroin addict trying to sell the audience — me — eight-tracks). Both shows just rang true.

8. Merrily We Roll Along
(Purgason Productions, book by George Furth, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Steve Velardi)
Although I’m not as big a Sondheim fan as Pete is, I just had fun watching the cast of this musical (which I had never seen before) had, particularly Joshua William Gelb, the actor playing Charley (the guy had sweat 15 pounds off his face singing "Franklin Shepard, Inc."). Admittedly, the production was a bit amateurish, but so what? It had more energy and enthusiasm than most Off-Broadway shows, and made me forget my usual cynicism that I bring with to any play (especially musicals).

7. Fleet Week: The Musical
(Gideon Productions, book by Mac Rogers, music by Sean Williams, lyrics by Jordanna Williams, directed by Eric Pliner)
Yes, I’m as surprised as you that not one, but two musicals made it to the list this year. What can I say? The toast of the NYC International Fringe this year, the relentlessly silly musical about gay sailors stopping a terrorist plot while in New York (trust me; despite the plot description, there’s no deep political message or agitprop going on here) did cater to my taste for juvenile and “Ole’ Timey” humor. Also, I’m impressed that Mac, Sean and Jordanna staged a musical that was damn fun and damn funny, with cool musical tunes.

6. Aspen or Bust! Red Bastard vs. Deenie Nast
(Written and performed by Eric Davis and Audrey Crabtree, respectively)
Another double-bill. “Children should be eaten and not heard.” So says Red Bastard, a “Fruit of the Loom” spokesman reject, to an obnoxious and disruptive brat kids in the front row who interrupted his show the night I went. Rather than be upstaged by the kid, Red Bastard decided to spank and spit on (for real**) the pint-sized heckler. His counterpart, Dennie Nast (a.k.a. Audrey Crabtree) was a female Tony Clifton who’s been beaten down by the Hollywood system (and her need to self-medicate). Red Bastard’s (a.k.a. Eric Davis’) ability to deal with his heckler was almost alone worth the price of admission and the reason for being on this list. I’m looking forward to seeing what these two do next.

5. Freak Out Under the Apple Tree: (Some of) The Best of Tom X. Chao
(Written by Tom X. Chao, performed by Chao and Erin A. Leahy)
These short comedic pieces by Chao ranged from being full on silly to thought provoking to introspective. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but anytime Mr. Chao has a show going on, I know, as an audience member, I’m in good hands.

4. The Man Who Laughs
(Stolen Chair Productions, conceived and directed by Jon Stancato)
A play based on a story by Victor Hugo, done as a black & white silent film. Yes, there’s a gimmick going on here. But the gimmick works, and it works to convey an interesting and captivating story. It reminded me that theatre can be fun (something I tend to forget when I go see shows). Also, this was the play that clinched it for me to decide to do a “Best of” list for 2005.

3. Faust in Love (Faust 1.2)
(Target Margin, adapted and directed by David Herskovits)
Telling one part of Goethe’s Faust about the titular character selling his soul to the devil. This piece, I must say, was downright hypnotic. I really have no other way to describe it; watching it brought me into a fugue state that made me forget about the outside world. I don’t know if it was the story, the casting, the set or sound design or what, but I was just sucked in right from the start and engaged until curtain call. Maybe I just like plays about Satan that have nudity.

2. Hail Satan
(Gideon Productions, written by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams)
What is it with Satanism being featured twice on the list this year? And what is it with me congratulating Gideon Productions twice? A very dense and unnerving horror play that deals with the psychological and philosophical horrors of subversion and shunning God. Sean Williams was spot-on as the head of a small group of Satan worshippers, playing him as if he were the leader of the New York Church of Christ.

And the Number One play I saw in 2005….

1. A Beginner’s Guide to Deicide
(Vampire Cowboys, created by Qui Nguyen & Robert Ross Parker)
Hot chicks. Fighting. Puppets. Movies. I knew that, no matter if I decided to do a list or not, this would be hands-down the best play I saw in 2005. (Another full disclosure: Vampire Cowboys invited me to write and perform a piece for their “Revamped” November fundraiser, which I thought was flattering and an honor, and no, this did not influence my decision at all.) This was one of those shows that did nearly everything right that an Off-off-Broadway production could do. Not once did I check my watch or fidget in my seat. A character at the beginning told the audience the show was 90 minutes long. We were then told that we had reached the halfway point, where rather than provide an intermission, we were shown a cartoon unrelated to the play about a little fat ninja. What was (is) brilliant about doing that was that it gave the audience a mental break from the story that an intermission provides, but didn’t sap the audience’s attention that intermissions often do. And, it was pure, unapologetic fun.

So, that’s my list for 2005. Coming up next, an ongoing “dialogue” with playwright and theatre blogger Mac Rogers and my attempt to ride his and Gideon Productions’ coattails.

Needing to get out more,

James “Social Pariah” Comtois

January 18, 2006

* And no, don’t worry. I have no interest in coming up with a “Bottom Ten” list. I’m a nervy prick, I know, but I don’t want to invite bad karma that badly.

** Ah, don’t worry people. The kid’s (stupid and neglecting) mother gave him permission.



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