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January 31, 2019 Comments Off on #TBT: R. Barron’s Best-Loved Theatre of 2018 Views: 348 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

#TBT: R. Barron’s Best-Loved Theatre of 2018

Gretchen Krich stars in Taylor Mac's play HIR at ArtsWest Playhouse, a co-production with Intiman Theatre

Gretchen Krich starred in Taylor Mac’s play HIR at ArtsWest Playhouse, a co-production with Intiman Theatre.

 

Seattle saw some excellent, locally-made theatre this year.  From the hundred-some I saw, here are my top picks of the year: shows that were memorable, accessible, entertaining, artistically inspiring, and stretched the bounds of what theatre can do in our imaginations, hearts, and minds.

 

And for more theatre recognition, don’t miss this year’s Gypsy Rose Lee Awards, by Seattle Theater Writers.  Check out the final list of nominations out now, which cover everything from overall production to directing, acting, design, and more.  Winners will be announced this Friday (tomorrow!)  on the Seattle Theater Writers Facebook feed & reported back on SGS.   

 

 

  • Hir (ArtsWest/Intiman, March 1-25 at ArtsWest)

 

The folks who hated this show — and there were plenty — it’s not a show made for them.  But for some among us with this kind of jacked-up families or environments, this show was both a mirror and a salve.  It’s a powerful moment for a playwright to see us, recognize us, and not pathologize us; and Taylor Mac’s script delivered that in a way that only someone with a lot of similarly-FUBAR memories could do.  The design work set the chaos, and toppled over into humor when it was needed most (shadow puppets and a Patrick Swayze banjo, anyone?); the direction kept it under just enough control; and the actors gave it life.  Gretchen Krich, in particular — love her role or hate it — was a force. But the interplay of the whole cast (Evan Barrett, Adrian Kljucec, Krich, and Charles Leggett) made the moment.

 

 

  • Little Shop of Horrors (Reboot Theatre Company, May 4-19 at Slate Theater)

 

No one is more surprised about this than me.  I don’t even particularly like Little Shop, and I was skeptical when Reboot announced this was what they were running with as their annual production.  Well good on them, bad on me, because it was magical. The puppets were exceptional; the casting was exciting; the vision for making the plant have a human stage presence, and whose combined surround-sound insistence better painted the pressure Seymour was under, was radical & clear-sighted; and the whole production just f’ing worked.  It’s exactly the imaginative vision and result I want out of modern theatre.

 

 

  • Silhouette (Annex Theatre, April 27-May 19)

 

This new work was described as an a cappella, sci-fi musical. To which I responded, wtf is that. Imagine my surprise when it was full of catchy music, interesting character interplay, witty lyrics & choreography (can choreography be witty? well, it was), & innovative design work (on a nothing budget). As I noted in my preview, that plus great direction and a huge & diverse cast made it reminiscent of all the finest in uber-queer cult classics.  This is one of those rare, rare shows where I’d love to see a remount.  

 

 

  • A Small History of Amal, Age 7 (Forward Flux/Pratidhwani, September 19-October 6 at West of Lenin)

 

Was there anyone in the audience who didn’t start eye-watering involuntarily there toward the end?  As I noted in my review, this was a tender show, small (as the title suggests), with a great cast & tremendous direction & movement.  Forward Flux closing down (or is it a hiatus?) was one of the greatest artistic losses of 2018. Whatever their plans, I hope producing more great new theatre — & especially smart coproductions like this one — is high on the list.

 

 

  • Village Theatre: Hairspray (May 10-July 29) & The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes (September 13-November 18)

 

With these, Village showed its muscle with both established, much-produced shows & brand new musicals. Howard Barnes was thought-provoking & a great work of imagination, brought to life with an excellent cast and design work.  Hairspray was a top-notch production of big singing and strong acting, a simultaneously light-hearted and emotional show about a toxin our country may never get rid of: racism.  You can find my reviews here (Barnes) and here (Hairspray).  Between these two shows, it’s little wonder why Village was among the most-nominated for Gregory’s and Gypsy Rose Lee Awards.

 

 

  • Sincerely Yours (Village Theatre KIDStage, March 23-31 at First Stage Theatre)

 

Seven female high school students gathered periodically for two years (or less, with some later arrivals), were paired up with advice from two mentor artists (one each in music and writing), and came up with … this?  Told through intimate letters, it’s a tale of women’s courage and leadership — and then displacement — in the factories during World War II.  The script was mature, the songs were both moving and pleasant on the ears, and the cast (also of teenagers) rose to the challenge. I’m a big fan of giving student work a shot (more on that here), and this production embodied the reason: this stripped-down production of Sincerely Yours was clear, smart & inspiring, and it deserves to be seen beyond this short (though solid) development run.  

 

 

  • Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (ArtsWest, June 7-July 8)

 

ArtsWest worked some real theatre magic, transforming its mainstage space into a cabaret, where both Billie Holiday and Hedwig could take stage on alternate nights and give audiences a show.  But none were more magical than Felicia Loud who, while not simply cloning the original artist, transported audiences to a smoky club, enchanting in her performance and heart-wrenching in watching her unravel.  Masterfully directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton.

 

 

  • Alice Gosti: Material Deviance in Contemporary American Culture (On the Boards, March 29-April 1)  

 

The enormous trolleys of pure stuff still dominate my mind when I think back to a year of fine productions at On the Boards, and I think that was its core purpose in the show: to demonstrate just how dominant “stuff” has become in our immediate environs, our minds, & our lives.  Gosti’s conceptualization of the show, and its execution through exceptional dancers (of which Alyza DelPan-Monley stood out), made this among the very best in dance productions I saw this year, locally produced or otherwise. (See review here.)

 

 

  • Black Bois (On the Boards, April 26-29) & Tail Feather (Earth Pearl Collective, June 14-16 @ Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute)

 

Not one but two collectives of all-Black artists this year put up mainstage runs exploring queer masculinity, and both merited the packed houses they received.  Black Bois, choreographed and directed by Dani Tirrell, featured eight dancers, a composer and band, a poet, and a muralist; included a diversity of gender expressions; and was told through myriad overlapping scenes of large-scale art, poetry, music, absurdity-truth, and music and dance throughout.  Tail Feather, which also included varying artistic expressions (dance, spoken word, music) against a visual backdrop, centered around the specific identity of butch women, giving them space in a time when butch identity is often subsumed into non-binary and trans identities (see review here).  Both shows were demands for space to show up in Blackness and queerness, and reflections of diverse identities within those spheres.  

FrostNixonStraw

 

  • Frost/Nixon (Strawberry Theatre Workshop, January 18-February 17 at 12th Avenue Arts)

 

I’m not old enough to know what Frost or Nixon actually acted like, but from what I know, this all-female cast of folks nailed it.  Amy Thone, whose performances never disappoint, carried with her all the aura of dishonesty and obstructionism that Nixon emanated; and performances by Alexandra Tavares and Sarah Harlett were shrewd, too.  Acting was tops in this all-around great production.

 

 

  • Akropolis Performance Lab: Crime & Punishment (January 5-13, at West of Lenin) and The Maids/Vexations (October 25-November 24, at private residence in Lake Forest Park)

 

These were totally different shows, but both showcased what seems to form the core of Akropolis Performance Lab’s work: interpreting literature through dynamic choreographed movement, grappling with difficult texts, and playing unfamiliar music.  Do you know what a hurdy-gurdy is? I sure didn’t, until being mesmerized by it by music director Zhenya Levy for three hours in Crime and Punishment.  Both of these could have gone terribly wrong: three-plus hours of classic Russian literature is generally not my idea of a good time; and doing an intimate and trippy Genet show for an audience of 10, with a breakless plodding impossible tune (Vexations, repeated over and over throughout the course of the show) serving as the live backdrop sounds like it could be torture.  But this ensemble is eager for the challenge, and that dedication is reflected in the quality and creativity of their work.  Most importantly, it manages to win the audience over to those difficult (and sometimes obscure) works, too.

 

 

  • The White Snake (ReAct, at 12th Ave Arts)

 

Yet another surprise winner of the year, this show at ReAct was an absolute charmer.  The myth was told beautifully all around; but the part that won’t leave my mind is the creativity and easy flow of turning swirling umbrellas into a transfixing snake, gliding across the stage.  

 

Honorable mentions (alphabetical order):

 

  • Anansi & the Halfling (Annex) (a new tale of frustration, growth & identity by Madison Jade Jones, told wonderfully in storytelling and dance)  
  • ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sound, @ 12th Ave Arts) (a fully ASL/spoken-English production is a concept that surely should continue, and Sound delivered on this wonderfully; next time, maybe something modern?)
  • Blood Wedding (Williams Project @ Equinox) (equal parts theatre & block party, as the show’s different scenes led audience members around the outdoor spaces of the Equinox arts compound to witness the big event — all while eating tapas and drinking copious amounts of sangria)
  • Broken Bone Bathtub (Siobhan @ private residences) (technically a tour, but the simultaneously hyper-local nature — in someone’s house, in their actual bathtub — made the experience, in a very intimate storytelling performance) (review here)
  • Don’t Call It a Riot! (Ten Auras @ 18th & Union) (a superb script from local playwright Amontaine Aurore, and a strong production; look for a remount this spring at 12th Avenue Arts) (review here)
  • Don’t Split the Party (Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey @ Slate Theater) (I liked this show for a combination of the reasons I liked A Small History of Amal and She Kills Monsters: it’s small and cute and nerdy and shero-centric)
  • Dragon Baby & Dragon Mama (Sara Porkalob @ 18th & Union) (even in a readings/developmental workshop format, Porkalob’s skill in storytelling — while portraying a million characters at once — shows why she’s a superstar)
  • The Nether (Washington Ensemble Theatre) (seriously y’all, this was creepy, even before the play started — well done)
  • She Kills Monsters (Theater Schmeater) (this nicely-realized blend of shero-power, nerd humor, & ‘90s pop culture made me all warm inside)
  • Skeleton Crew (ArtsWest) (a great modern script, wonderfully directed, acted, and designed — convincingly transplanted a West Seattle theatre audience into a Detroit factory break room) (review here)
  • Veils (Macha Theatre Works @ West of Lenin) (intriguing and modern script, plenty of conflict and reflection alike, fast-moving direction, and strong female characters cast well)
  • Wild Horses (Intiman @ 12th Ave Arts) (while I could go either way on the script, the performance of Dedra Woods — who tackled a bazillion characters in this one-woman, coming of age story — was terrific)
  • Year of the Rooster (MAP, @ 18th & Union) (never have I seen a more impressive actor-as-animal than Shane Regan playing a fighting rooster)
Taylor Mac Photo by Teddy Wolff

Taylor Mac
Photo by Teddy Wolff

And One Other Thing …

 

In a year of fanfare, something that didn’t get nearly enough of it was Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music — a touring show (and thus not eligible for my hits-list above, despite having earlier local development work at On the Boards), which made a one-day stop at the Moore.  All people talked about, if they saw it or talked about it at all, was how some white lady interrupted the show with a 10-minute diatribe complaining that white people didn’t get to be the center of attention for once.  And yes, that was quite something — way to be, Seattle.

 

But Mac’s show, not #HecklinBecky, was the star that night.  It was a beautiful rendition — in a 3-hour, 30-year slice (the full show is 24 continuous hours!) — of American history, centered on those who didn’t get to write the history books.  The band — consisting mostly of female rockers who rocked, plus music director Matt Ray, who also rocked — led new arrangements of well-known songs (and some less so), interpreting history through a pop music lens.  Local artist Timothy White Eagle is part of Mac’s close cohort, and worked the crowd as a Dandy Minion. (He also tours nationally and internationally with the show; locally, he’s an On the Boards resident artist this year, and was featured in a recent show at Seattle Art Museum.)  And Machine Dazzle’s costumes were really more like creations that took on a life of their own.  It’s his artistry that really made me see what a costume can do for a show — not just in function, but in an artform all its own.  (Read more about the show here, and my interview with Machine Dazzle here.)  

 

Mac also wrote Hir, the ArtsWest production of which tops my list of the year.  It’s no accident that Mac received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for 2017.  Judy’s work is also the queerest f’ing thing I’ve ever seen. (Mac uses the pronouns he and judy.)  If you get the chance to see any of Taylor Mac’s work this year, GO.  

 

What were your favorite locally produced shows of 2018?  Comment below to let us know. And there’s plenty of good stuff out already this year — so start keeping your best-of lists now!  

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