Top 10 of 2009
Well, folks. I hope you've all acclimated to our new surroundings going by the name of 2010 and are ready to get this new year started right and get this new year started quickly. It's time for me to stop dawdling and deliver to you the list of my 10 favorite theatrical experiences of the year.
Despite the economic turmoil we faced in 2009 (and are still continuing to face), this past year turned out to be a great year for theatre, not just in terms of content (although there was that) but in terms of audience. This is by no means scientific, but I had noticed that virtually none of the shows I had gone to see this past year had that clichéd and embarrassing 2-3 people in the house: almost all of the plays I saw had respectable to full to sold out houses.
When being interviewed by Patrick Lee to plug Infectious Opportunity over the summer, I brought this observation up over the course of our brief phone conversation. Patrick agreed that that had been his experience for the year as well (and he saw quite a larger number of shows than I had). Why was this? I couldn’t begin to guess. Will that be the case for 2010? Again: no idea. Suffice it to say, from my theatre-going experience, the general audience for theatre seemed to be large and strong.
2009 was also the year I saw remounted productions of previous Top 10 list shows, such as Mac Rogers' astounding Universal Robots and Vampire Cowboys' gleeful Fight Girl Battle World. Obviously they weren't contenders for this year (based on my self-imposed rules for this annual list), but they still were exceptional theatre-going experiences for me this year.
As always, I missed a number of "hot ticket" and critically acclaimed shows, such as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, the Production Company’s Meg’s New Friend, and Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult, as well as many other shows I’m sure would be contenders for the list. I’m sorry I missed them. But there you are. There’s always a show or six out there that I didn’t get the chance to see, so once again, take this list with the grain of salt or seven.
Also, a number of friends and colleagues made it to the list as well (though I must point out a couple of these connections were made after having seen their shows). Some of you may roll your eyes at this. The rest of you have seen their plays and know why they’re on the list. Hey, what can I say? I associate with a number of talented bitches.
What’s the final tally of plays I saw this year? Alas, I lost my tally (yes, I write down the plays I go to for the year) after being laid off (the list was on my work computer). But the final count hovered around 60 or so (i.e., a little more than the number I saw in 2008).
Well, okay. Like I said: enough dawdling. Here’s my Top 10 list for 2009…
10. Dream of Me
(Mainspring Collective, written by Alexandria LaPorte, directed by Hilary Krishnan, at the Players Theatre)
Inspired by Charles Mee's Fetes de la Nuit, Mainspring Collective's multimedia collection vignettes dealing with New Yorkers trying to make romantic connections and deal with the loss thereof offered a great deal of entertaining insight and commentary on a subject 99% of New Yorkers could relate to. The excellent ensemble cast played around with stories and scenes concerning new benefits/stumbling blocks to the rules of relationships and breakups, such as cell phones, text messaging and the Facebook relationship statuses of exes. I found this show simultaneously funny, sweet and poignant, but at no time did I find it false.
9. Put My Finger in Your Mouth
(The Right Brain Project, written by Bob Fisher, directed by Nathan Robbel, at the RBP Rorschach in Chicago)
That's right: we got a Chicago production on my list. There are no geographical borders here. This production of Bob Fisher's lurid Neil Gaimanesque fairy tale about two sisters confronting loss and the forces of evil in polar opposite ways walked the line between contemporary real world story and mythic fable without being confusing, cloying or self-indulgent. I had an absolute blast seeing this play. Thanks to Fisher's script, Nathan Robbel's smart and slick direction and the ensemble cast, Put My Finger In Your Mouth had a whole lot of style and didn't get too caught up in its own aesthetic.
(Rising Phoenix Rep, written by Crystal Skillman, directed by Daniel Talbott, at Jimmy's No. 43)
This sweet, sad and low-key comedy written by Crystal Skillman and directed by Daniel Talbott about a lonely woman sneaking away from a co-worker’s birthday party to talk to a quiet and isolated man shows New York as a place where one can find the urge to scream out one's life to total strangers out of sadness and desperation. Having this show (which took place in the back room of a bar) performed in the back room of a bar was a really nice touch and reminder of one of the (many) advantages theatre can have over film. Although both plays are radically different in style, tone and overall content, Birthday shares with Dream of Me the theme of the unique isolating effects New York City has on its inhabitants and the low-key solace found in making an unlikely connection with a stranger.
(Management Co., in association with Horse Trade Theatre Group, written by Joshua Conkel, directed by Isaac Butler, at Horse Trade UNDER St. Marks)
The work of Joshua Conkel returns to my list with MilkMilkLemonade after the excellent and haunting The Chalk Boy, his Lynchian take on Our Town, appeared on last year's list. Much of the fun with this play about a young farm boy, his emphysemic Nanna, his best friend (a chicken that wants to be a standup comic) and the local hellion he plays house with, is watching Conkel, Butler and the superb cast get away with such relentless silliness and touch upon some genuine pathos in all the preposterousness. As one can no doubt deduce from its title, MilkMilkLemonade revels in being immature yet manages to have flashes of poignancy throughout. This show was a pure delight from start to finish.
6. Penny Dreadful, Episode 11: "The House Where Bad Things Happen"
(Third Lows Productions, written and directed by Bryan Enk and Matt Gray, at the Brick Theater)
I was a bit unsure as to how exactly to feature the second season of Bryan Enk’s and Matt Gray’s 12 episode sci-fi/horror time travel epic, the watching of which was a monthly routine for me for the latter part of 2008 and the first few months of the year. Should I post Penny Dreadful as a whole on the list, a batch of episodes, or just one episode in particular? And if I pick one episode, which one, and why? Although there were many excellent episodes in the serial and wonderful moments in various episodes throughout, I ultimately decided that its penultimate episode, “The House Where Bad Things Happen,” really encapsulated the best of the series and of my experience watching it month to month. Both funny and thrilling, silly and shocking, this episode of Penny Dreadful had me at the edge of my seat. And…well, you can actually see for yourself. This is one show on this list that is available on video here (as well as the entire series here).
5. Adventure Quest
(Sneaky Snake Productions, in association with the Brick Theater, written by Richard Lovejoy, directed by Adam Swiderski, at the Brick Theater)
From the Brick Theater's Antidepressant Festival. Beckett by way of DOS-based adventure video games (with hints of Groundhog Day). What starts off as a cheeky sendup of a specific type of video game from the 1980s and '90s turns into something more profound without being even remotely pretentious. Adventure Quest comically - and sometimes bleakly - shows how free choice is just an illusion and how life is like a video game: frustrating, repetitive and endless.
4. Glee Club
(Blue Coyote Theatre Group, in association with the Brick Theater, written by Matthew Freeman, directed by Kyle Ancowitz, at the Brick Theater)
The second play on this list (after Adventure Quest) that hailed from the Brick Theater's Antidepressant Festival. I guess Matt Freeman script + Kyle Ancowitz direction + Annual summer Brick festival = one of my favorite plays of the year. Mr. Freeman made my list a couple years ago with his An Interview With the Author, and now returns with Glee Club, a bleakly funny show that left me with a dopey grin on my face and a slightly queasy feeling in my gut. It's about a glee club in Vermont getting ready to do their most important gig of the season, but discovers that their best singer, a recovering alcoholic who’s recently gone on the wagon, can no longer sing without the sauce. Glee Club was the feel-good tragedy of the year.
3. Soul Samurai
(Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, in association with the Ma-Yi Theatre Company, written by Qui Nguyen, directed by Robert Ross Parker, at HERE Arts Center)
What would a Top 10 list be without the latest Vampire Cowboys show? Soul Samurai took elements from '70s blaxploitation films, The Warriors and martial arts movies to offer 100 minutes of pure unadulterated fun. Qui stepped up his already spot-on game with his storytelling in this Tarantino-structured narrative, Robert brought some new touches to the show that I'd not seen in a Cowboys show before, and the tight five-person cast makes you forget you're watching a small ensemble and not a huge company of 30. Every year I always look forward to the latest Vampire Cowboys show the way a young child looks forward to Christmas. And unlike some Christmases, the Cowboys never disappoint.
(Gideon Productions, written by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams, at the SoHo Playhouse)
When I had originally written about my experience seeing Mac Rogers' play about a group of death fetishists who hire a woman to kill herself on video, I wrote that I was unable to write a formal review based on my close ties with many people involved with the production, including my own sister. However, this was easily one of the best plays I saw this year, and to not include it on this list for self-made quasi-political reasons would render this list utterly valueless. Viral is a unique story that brilliantly taps into our modern culture. It's very dark, and very disturbing, and not in an, "edgy New York theatre" way. But it's also very funny. Viral is one of the best plays I saw in 2009 and if you saw it, it was one of the best plays you saw in 2009.
…and the Number One play I saw in 2009:
1. The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
(The Amoralists, written and directed by Derek Ahonen, at PS 122)
I knew after seeing writer-director Derek Ahonen’s The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side that it was the best play I had seen so far in 2009. A couple weeks after seeing Ahonen's show about a commune of utopian anarchists living above a vegan restaurant, I was pretty certain it would be the best play I’d see in 2009. It simultaneously dealt with both abstract ideas and physical human behavior in such a fun and insightful way. This was such an immersive theatrical experience for me that by the end of the show, I didn’t feel like I’d been watching its characters so much as I’d been living with them. Even with a nearly three-hour runtime, I was sad that the show was over when it came time for the curtain call. The Pied Pipers, which enjoyed a well-deserved extended and transferred run, was a fun, thought-provoking and sometimes intense play that reminded me why I love theatre.
So, there you have it. My "take it or leave it" top 10 list for 2009. Let's see what 2010 has in store for us.
Everybody dance now,
James “Freedom” Comtois