Monday, January 05, 2009

Top 10 of 2008

Well folks. It is indeed that time where I offer my list of my 10 favorite theatrical experiences of the year. I've mulled over the list and revised and shuffled and have finally come up with a pretty accurate cross-section of very good plays I had the privilege of seeing this past year.

As always, more than a grain of salt should be given, considering I missed a number of very well-reviewed and well-regarded shows (SoHo Rep's production of Blasted immediately springs to mind).

Is there any through-line with my top ten, or is there anything noteworthy in my choices? I'm not sure. When compiling my list, I didn't notice any particular trend in my playgoing, and I'm not sure if my final list makes any over-arching comment on theatre in 2008 in general. I picked some dark plays, some light plays, some funny plays, some tragic plays. Some are grounded in the real world, some most certainly not. Coincidentally, two shows that made the list featured Americans being abducted by terrorist groups, though the plays themselves couldn't be more different in style, genre, structure or tone.

For those interested, the final tally of productions I saw in 2008 ended up to be 56 plays (compared to the 49 plays I saw in 2007): a little over a play a week. Of these 56 plays, two of them were Broadway shows, six were Off-Broadway and the rest (48) were Off-off-Broadway/indie.

My final tally for the top ten: one Broadway, one Off-Broadway and eight Off-off-Broadway/indie.

Okay. Let's stop stalling. My top ten list for 2008:

10. Hostage Song
(Horse Trade Theatre Group, book by Clay McLeod Chapman, music & lyrics by Kyle Jarrow, directed by Oliver Butler, at the Kraine Theatre)

An indie rock musical about hostages and public beheadings has the potential of being in very bad taste or very self-righteous, but the creators of Hostage Song avoid both of these traps to create a very funny, insightful and touching play. Then again, would we expect anything less from Mr. Clay McLeod Chapman?

9. The Most Damaging Wound
(The Production Company, written by Blair Singer, directed by Mark Armstrong, at Manhattan Theatre Source)

A group of old college friends reunite to bond and cautiously enter the threshold of adulthood. Like Hostage Song, in the wrong hands, The Most Damaging Wound could have gone horribly wrong (ending up a "chick flick for dudes"). Fortunately, the Production Company's production was well made, emotionally honest, realistic and effective. A prime example of captivating acting and storytelling set in a very real and recognizable world.

8. How Theater Failed America
(Ethereal Mutt Productions, written & performed by Mike Daisey, directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, at Joe's Pub)

Other potential titles for Mike Daisey's excellent monologue show could be How Theater Became America or How Theater Saved Mike Daisey's Life. Although Daisey points out the serious problems and flaws with our current theater model, he offers some very practical suggestions as to how to keep theatre alive and strong (or rather, he reminds us that it still is and can continue to be). It was (is) an absolute must-see for anyone who's worked - or is working - in theatre.

7. Sleeper
(Manhattan Theatre Source's PlayGround Development Series & Small Pond Entertainment, written by David Ian Lee, directed by Nat Cassidy, at Manhattan Theatre Source)

The second play on this list that deals with an American being held hostage in the Middle East. One of the things that saves Sleeper from being merely a position paper against the Bush administration's foreign policy is that it is populated with well-rounded, believable characters, not archetypes or mouthpieces. Right-wing characters are smart and sympathetic, left-wing characters are phony and hypocritical. A visceral and cerebral show that deals with the political as well as the personal, and astutely explores why and how there's often a divide between the two.

6. The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots
(The Gallery Players, written by Nat Cassidy, directed by Neal Freeman, at Manhattan Theater Source)

This incredibly fun show about the death and legacy of Christopher Marlowe (sort of) and his failed attempt to write a play about Caligula came from the same creative duo that helped create Sleeper (Nat Cassidy and David Ian Lee). Marlowe is working on a drama about Caligula when an assassin plunges a knife into Marlowe's eye. As Marlowe dies, he revisits his own life and Caligula's (who died at the same age as Marlowe). In addition to being well acted by Cassidy and Lee as Marlowe and Caligula, respectively, with a delightful turn by Keith Foster who portrays William Shakespeare as a sweet-natured naïf, The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots is a very inventive and funny play that gives Marlowe the Charlie Kaufman treatment.

5. The Chalk Boy
(The Management, written and directed by Joshua Conkel, at UNDER St. Marks)

If Our Town was re-imagined by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Joshua Conkel's play about the disappearance of a small town high school football hero throwing everyone's lives in disarray captures that insecurity and confusion about one's own identity and the hell of being in high school. It also gets the rhythms and speech patterns of how high school kids really talk and act, which is no small feat.

4. Rainbow Kiss
(The Play Company, written by Simon Farquhar, directed by Will Frears, at 59E59)

Simon Farquhar's brilliant and harrowing play about a young Scottish man slowly being eaten alive by mental illness and depression at first may seem like a hackneyed melodrama, but is really a play with true insight into its characters, themes, and locale. This was one of the most effective and terrifying shows I've seen in a very long time.

3. August: Osage County
(The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, written by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at the Imperial Theatre)

Hey, it's the play that won the Pulitzer this year. I'll assert that Tracy Letts' drama about the dysfunctional Weston family that has to reunite after the death of the family patriarch lived up to the hype. It was three hours long and I wouldn't have minded if it was another 20 minutes. The acting was excellent, the story was captivating and compelling, the set was amazing. Ultimately, I felt like I was watching a marathon session of a really good HBO series.

2. The Angel Eaters Trilogy (Angel Eaters - Rattlers - 8 Little Antichrists)
(Flux Theatre Ensemble, written by Johnna Adams, Angel Eaters directed by Jessi D. Hill, Rattlers directed by Jerry Ruiz, 8 Little Antichrists directed by Kelly O'Donnell, at the Wings Theatre)

Hey, if film critics can count The Godfather and Godfather Part II as one entry on their "Best Of" lists, I can do the same thing with Johnna Adams' Angel Eaters Trilogy. I decided to put the trilogy under one entry because all three plays would have made it on the list individually. So, rather than crowd out other worthy entries for the list, I figured that listing the plays as a trilogy would be the best course of action. Adams' ambitious genre-bending generation-spanning trilogy about a family that has the blessing/curse/blessing of resurrecting the dead was truly a thrill to witness. In particular, the second piece, Rattlers, was one of the best plays I've seen in several years.

And the number one play I saw in 2008...

1. Fight Girl Battle World
(Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, written by Qui Nguyen, directed by Robert Ross Parker, at CenterStage NY)

This was a very close race between my favorite Vampire Cowboys show to-date (which is really saying something) and the Angel Eaters Trilogy. Both were very much up my proverbial alley and gave me an incredible amount of excitement to go to the theatre. But ultimately, Fight Girl Battle World ended up being my most favorite theatrical experience of 2008. Constantly and consistently fun and funny (which I of course expect from a Vampire Cowboys show), FGBW upped the ante on stagecraft and storytelling by staging some seemingly unstageable things in amusing and inventive ways (hey, I never thought Star Wars would make a good stage play; Robert, Qui & Co. have proven me wrong). Everyone on board brought their A-Game to the show, which, from the fights to the puppetry to the soundtrack to even the hilarious opening PSA with Boba Fett and a tauntaun, is pure fun from start to finish.

So, there you have it. My "take it or leave it" top 10 list for 2008. Let's see what 2009 has in store for us.

Listing his ailments,

James "Chronic Whiner" Comtois

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Blogger Goose said...

And now I feel 2008 is done. Always love the top 10. And, each year - I have seen more and more of the ones that make it to your list. Or, have been involved in at least one.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

I also loved so many of these, though it is a shame you missed "Blasted".

3:02 PM  
Blogger jengordonthomas said...

I missed so much theatre this year, but FGBW was one of my most enjoyable moments in too! Plus it made seriously consider becoming a superhero.

10:07 PM  
Blogger jengordonthomas said...

But apparently left me unable to type coherent sentences....

10:08 PM  
Blogger Nat said...

Thanks for the shout-out(s), dude! It's much appreciated! I'm glad you enjoyed the shows.

I hope you get a chance to catch ANY DAY NOW, too, since you and I seem to have a very similar appreciation for horror 'n' stuff. :-)

1:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

James: You rule. Thank you for the nod(s).
Now, when do we get to play together?

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your support for The Most Damaging Wound has been tremendously heartening. Thank you not only for celebrating the play but for writing such a thoughtful and incisive review.


Blair Singer
Playwright, MDW

3:59 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Well hey. Well done, sir. I thoroughly enjoyed The Most Damaging Wound. very well done!

5:01 PM  

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