Top Plays of 2014

I’m positive that there are things I’m missing from early in the year, because I only have notes through April with me now. But, in chronological order, here are my top ten plays from 2014. It was harder to narrow down than I thought it would be, and so when it was a close call I went with the ones that have stuck with me, and that I’ve kept thinking about long after I saw them. It’s been a pretty remarkable year for shows like that. 

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: This is probably cheating, since I saw it for the first time shortly after moving to NYC in 2012. I absolutely adored it then, and I absolutely adored it when I saw it again after its move from Ars Nova to a bigger midtown location. It’s a rock opera, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, adapted from a small slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Young, naive Natasha Rostova travels to Moscow to await the return of her betrothed, Andrey, from the wars, but finds herself enchanted by the beautiful and not wholly trustworthy Anatole. Her story eventually intertwines with that of Pierre, Andrey’s best friend, unhappily married to Anatole’s sister. Dave Malloy originated the role of Pierre (though he was no longer playing it by the time I saw it in 2014) and Philippa Soo, playing Natasha, is staggeringly talented and a name to watch. 

The music is beautiful, the performances were spot-on, the staging was inventive and made sitting through a three-hour rock opera adaptation of a Russian novel a positive delight. Oh, also, the actor playing Dolokhov gave us free wine because we happened to be sitting with someone he knew, so… all around, everything you want from an evening of theatre. 

(seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t know this show, download it at once, it’s truly great) 

2. Twelfth Night: Okay, this one is probably also cheating, because I also saw this in both 2013 and 2014. But it’s part of the reason I’m here in London now, so that’s probably important. And this production completely transformed the way I look at Twelfth Night, which I freely admit I never much liked before, and now consider one of my favorites. This production allowed me to rediscover the joy in the play, which a lifetime of watching knock-offs of the Trevor Nunn film version had almost completely sapped away. It was my first all-male production, and I found the experiment fascinating– and also that it justified my impulse that there is more than just nerdy dramaturgical interest to be gained from understanding early modern playhouse practice as deeply as possible… which in turn helped me justify the mostly completely batty decision to come to London. 

3. Cripple of Inishmaan: This play taught me that I might possibly like two things I thought I didn’t: Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, and Martin McDonagh’s writing. Blasphemy, I know– but the only thing I ever read of his was The Pillowman, and then I was too traumatized to read more. But Inishmaan was an utter delight, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I seriously misjudged Daniel Radcliffe’s talents– and more importantly, I think, his humbleness and his obvious dedication to working hard at the job of acting, not just coasting along as a movie star, as he obviously could. 

4. Much Ado About Nothing: I was terribly excited for Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing, and the show far exceeded my high expectations– mostly by completely transforming those expectations. Like Twelfth Night, this production completely changed my understanding of the essential dynamics of the play. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater’s Beatrice and Benedick were unlike any I’ve seen in the best possible way: rather than being obviously the two smartest, coolest people in the room– so that the question of their getting together only seems to be an eye-rolling matter of when– they portrayed the quarrelsome lovers as proud and prickly, lashing out when you sense they’d rather reach out, if only they weren’t too afraid of being mocked. This is not to suggest that the pair were soaked in maudlin self-loathing, but rather that their vast intelligence and genuine high spirits were also undergirded with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Most interestingly, this had the effect of raising actual questions about their eventual union. Would they actually manage to overcome their quips and fear to get together? Their public denials in the last scene read to me, for the first time ever, not just as a silly final layover before the inevitable happy ending, but a moment in which there seemed to be a real chance that they would choose pride and safety over happiness at last. 

5. Two Gentlemen of Verona: My wish for 2015 is that more people start producing all-female Shakespeare that a) isn’t The Taming of the Shrew and b) doesn’t feel like it needs to hedge its bets with explanations, framing devices, and commentary. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gentlemen of Verona was a perfect example of the power that simply presenting a play and letting women embody it can have. The gender decision spoke for itself: director Sarah Rasmussen wisely recognized that no more adornment was required.  

6. Into the Woods: I’d never actually seen a live Into the Woods before this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a hard play for many musical theatre fans to see, I think, because the filmed Broadway version casts such a long shadow. But Amanda Denhert’s production straddled the perfect line between staking an interpretive claim and sucking the magic out of the show by privileging the director’s vision above the strength of the play itself. It was, in other words, sufficiently different from the original version to shake off the specters of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien, but did not feel the need to achieve this by, say, setting it in modern-day New York City.  

7. Julius Caesar: Yet another production that helped me see a play I thought I knew very well in an entirely new light. As I wrote, the trouble with Julius Caesar often seems to be that all the good bits– or at least all the famous bits– happen in acts 1-3. But Tom McKay’s beautiful, soulful Brutus so fully inhabited the heart of the play, it became not just a story of politics and assassination, but a character study that had to be followed to the bitter end. 

8. The James Plays (plus part 3): I can’t stop thinking about these plays. Weeks after seeing them for the second time, I had to go buy the script because I couldn’t stop trying to remember lines, scenes, and moments. The last time I can remember seeing a play and it having that kind of effect, the play was by Shakespeare. The opening scene of James I might be one of the best-written first scenes I’ve read, full stop. I’ve linked them anyway, but my reviews are so far from encompassing what I’ve come to think and feel about these plays, because I wrote the reviews right after seeing them, and it turns out these plays take much more time than that to fully unfold. 

9. Charles III: When I first read about Charles III last spring I was desperate to see it, and I’m so glad that I not only got the chance, but it was exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the politics of it, but Mike Bartlett’s drama is much more human than that. It’s a classic Shakespearean historical tragedy, and its setting in the near future rather than the past only serves, somehow, to reinforce this feeling. As the man said, what’s past is prologue. 

10. The Knight of the Burning Pestle : How often do you feel pure, joyful delight in the theatre? Not often enough. But what’s so remarkable about Burning Pestle is that it achieves this joy without just being a confection of a play. It’s terribly silly, but it’s not shallow. George and Nell ground the play, radiating warmth and welcome. If more plays reminded people that there’s no right way to go to the theatre, maybe more people would come. 

Middle Temple Hall

Last weekend was Open House London, when historic and culturally important locations that are normally either closed to the public or charge admission are open for free. We went to several places, but my favorite was Middle Temple Hall. One of the four Inns of Court, members today can go for daily lunches in the Hall. It’s tucked away just off the Strand, a warren of gardens and cobbled streets that is, like so much here, completely invisible from the street if you don’t know to look for it.

Built between 1562 and 1573, it is (as one of the placards in the hall said) basically a miracle that the Middle Temple is still standing after the fire of 1666 and the Blitz (though it did suffer some damage during the latter, but it seems as if the affected areas were restored largely with the original materials).

Of course, the most interesting aspect of Middle Temple Hall for me, is this:

Though the website and some printed materials elide this to “first performance,” but all we actually know is that it’s the first performance on record, which may not be the same thing. At any rate, it’s pretty amazing to stand on a floor where William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage almost certainly stood. The Globe put on a production of Twelfth Night in 2002 in the hall, and the arranged it in a very long alley, with audience members along the two long sides of the hall, and one of the shorter ends. 

This is much more similar to staging at the Globe and Blackfriars (though the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men weren’t performing there yet in 1602) than facing the audience flat-on would be, but it’s also sufficiently different to raise a lot of interesting questions about staging. And if this was the very first performance, if perhaps the play was written for the Candlemas celebrations that year, would these slightly altered staging demands (if the Globe was even ‘correct’ in choosing to orient the stage that way) be reflected in the requirements of the text itself? A play that could only be performed in the Inns of Court would be pretty useless to the company– whatever its original intent, they’d know it would eventually have to be done at the Globe– but perhaps alterations were undertaken in the interim? After all, Candlemas falls very shortly before Lent, when the theatres were required (at least technically… it doesn’t seem to be a rule they often bothered to follow) to be closed and there would (again, in theory) be plenty of time for rewrites.

To conclude, I’d like to present this fact from the website’s description of the “finely carved oak screen at the east end of the Hall”: “The screen’s two double-leaved, spiked doors were installed in 1671 in an attempt by the Masters of the Bench to prevent high-spirited and rebellious students from occupying the Hall for illegal revelling over Christmas.” Oops.

The Globe on Broadway

Re-posts of what I wrote last year about Twelfth Night and Richard III, transferred to Broadway from London’s Globe Theatre.

Twelfth Night. 
“Okay,” a friend of mine said the other day, presumably (rightfully) sick of my incessant excitement about Twelfth Night and Richard III, imported from the Globe to Broadway via the West End. “But really, what’s the point?

She was referring, of course, to the conceit behind the production: all-male, traditional costumes and staging, a pre-show dressing ritual and a post-show jig. In short, likely the first attempt at a period-accurate production in New York City a good long time. And one may ask why, of course– such a thing certainly makes less sense on a Broadway stage than at the Globe, where the authenticity of the production can be mirrored by the authenticity of the theatre itself. The answer in theory is first, because the production is supposed to be incredibly good, and producers surely wouldn’t have put up the expense for a Broadway production if they didn’t think it really was; and second, because I think there is value in staging a play the way it was written to be staged, if only for the sake of experiment.

In practice, the answer turns out to be, because Shakespeare done the way it was written to be staged, with a superlatively skilled cast, in fact achieves the exact opposite of what I assume my skeptical friend was imagining: not a stodgy museum piece, but one of the liveliest, funniest, and all-around best productions of Twelfth Night I’ve seen in a very long time, if not ever.

The two poles of the play are Mark Rylance as Olivia and Samuel Barnett as Viola. Barnett’s first entrance as Viola in a dress did get a laugh, though that was more likely because he was crawling out of a trap door. Barnett is more or less the ideal male Viola, with a naturally high-pitched voice and feminine mannerisms. He embodied Viola’s self-conscious discomfort in her borrowed body so well that the multiple refractions of man-playing-woman-playing-man more or less vanished. Particularly opposite Liam Brennan’s hilarious Orsino, the blurred space between man and woman that Viola inhabits was palpable, and often very funny.

Director Tim Carroll is judicious in the darker shading which so often consumes productions of this play. Barnett’s delivery, for example, of Viola’s line “I am all the daughters of my father’s house/And all the brothers, too, and yet I know not” ended in Viola crumbling almost into tears… an opportunity that Orsino immediately seizes to finally get his hands on Cesario, something he’s been itching to do all scene, transforming what is momentarily a tender moment into a deeply and comically awkward hug and almost-kiss.

Mark Rylance’s heavily stylized performance as Olivia likewise keeps the character from the pathos that the role is capable of. I was initially skeptical of this, and of the complete lack of dignity that Olivia possesses from the moment Rylance enters, swooping in wide circles to permit a large train and to show off a ridiculous gliding walk that Olivia and occasionally Maria both employ, which makes it look like their conical dresses are somehow being dragged along on wheels rather than feet. But as this mask of hyper-stylized femininity ranges from this pseudo-dignity into giddy and ridiculously desperate love, Rylance will occasionally erupt into shouts or (more frequently) laughter, which feel so spontaneous and natural in contrast to the artifice that they are genuinely shocking and very delightful. I came to realize that this stylization was as much a trait of Olivia herself as a performance technique. Olivia and Orsino became much more of a matched pair, a duo for whom everything– from loving to mourning to commanding– is a pose to presented rather than a role to be genuinely inhabited. It made me understand the subtitle of the play in a different way. I have always taken “What You Will” in a way that makes it roughly synonymous with “As You Like It.” But Olivia and Orsino in this production brought to mind “will” in the sense of “willpower,” and “What You Will” as a reflection of the fact that Illyria is a country ruled by two people who are convinced they can mold both themselves and the world to be whatever they desire.

Though Olivia and Orsino are the most obvious examples, overall this is not a Twelfth Night in which the characters are known to us. A profound opacity encases everyone. Barnett’s Viola delivers her brief soliloquies from such depths of confusion that they cannot be revelatory. Her mind is so unknown to herself, there is no way for her to reveal it to us. Though Stephen Fry’s Malvolio is much more confidently intelligent (a refreshing change from the usual depictions of the character), even he is too “sick of self-love” to know himself truly, much less make that self known to the audience. This same intelligence rescues the ending from becoming “The Tragedy of Malvolio,” as is so in vogue. This idea of opacity may sound like shallowness, and therefore like a criticism, but it actually isn’t. The characters blindly careening about without entirely understanding what they are doing or why becomes a core aspect of the comedy of the play, and from a textual perspective, is a fascinating contrast to the plays where characters do know themselves intimately, and which are almost exclusively tragedies.

For me, the production drove home one of my devout beliefs about Shakespeare– and obviously, as a dramaturg and person obsessed with Shakespeare scholarship, I’m biased. But I believe, and I think this production proves, that the more one understands about Shakespeare, about the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and performance practice, the better able one is to translate those things into the best possible version of Shakespeare today. Obviously, I’m not saying that I think every production needs to be in period dress with all-male casts. But understanding these things– for example, the stark class differences that period dress permits, or the altered expressions of sexuality in an all-male cast– is not dramaturgical masturbation or stuffy set dressing for people who lack creativity, but an essential aspect of the text itself.

I’m intrigued to see how all of this will translate to a historical tragedy like Richard III, particularly the very different role of the women. But if nothing else, the point is to see a very talented cast approach a play with complete dedication to understanding not only the written text, but all the unspoken assumptions about performance practice upon which the text rests– to try and reveal what audiences saw and fell in love with over 400 years ago, what first made these plays the cultural forces they are now. Inundated as we are at present with deeply mediocre and poorly understood Shakespeare productions, it seems like a laudable goal to me.

Richard III.
The first Shakespeare play I ever saw was Richard III, and I fell asleep. One of my only distinct memories of the production is Queen Elizabeth running onstage after King Edward has died, wailing, tearing at her long red hair. Envying Elizabeth’s beautiful red curls was one of the primary emotions I can recall from the production; that, and the sounds of battle in the second half jolting me awake. Oddly, I don’t particularly remember Richard– I say oddly, because one of the most striking features of the text is Richard’s constant and close relationship to the audience. And in the Globe’s Richard III, Mark Rylance takes this relationship to a logical conclusion which had never occurred to me, and which ripples outward through the whole production in entirely unexpected ways.

Until seeing this production, I was inclined to think of Richard as a proto-Iago– someone who draws you into his confidence, who seeks to clarify his motives to you, even when he doesn’t seem entirely sure of what those motives are. To Mark Rylance’s Richard, the audience is just another group of people that need to be conned. His jovial attitude and faux-confidences very gradually give way over the course of the performance to the realization that this is a Richard who is pretty genuinely psychotic. Human feeling and connection are beyond him, be it towards his brothers, his wife, and yes, the audience. The position we spectators occupy is no more privileged than that of anyone else in the play.
A sort of fascinating effect of this is to broaden the scope of the piece as a whole. The performance history of Richard III tends to read as a list of famous Richards, but this production feels strikingly ensemble-based, with characters like Buckingham and Hastings holding nearly as much weight as Richard himself. In straddling the play’s odd line between history and tragedy, this production falls on the side of a history play, and feels therefore like it is the story of entire country with a madman at its head, not just the rise and fall of Richard himself.

Restoration-era revisions of Richard III were made uncomfortable by the moral ambiguity of Richard’s victims and did their best to polish them into martyrs. Plainly put, none of them are very good people. This production seems to revel in that dichotomy. Something’s rotten in the state of this England, and though Richard is the ultimate manifestation, it is a corruption that has seeped through all levels of the court, and beyond. The laments of Hastings, for example, when he is hauled away as a traitor, are soured slightly by the remembrance that a mere scene ago, he was rejoicing in the deaths of men equally unjustly executed.

The other effect of this choice is to place emphasis on the only bastions of morality in the play: the women. This is, of course, helped by the excision of the invective-spewing Queen Margaret (who is a common cut, but I was disappointed not to get to see how the production dealt with her). But the remaining ladies– Richard’s wife Anne;  his mother, the Duchess of York; and his sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth– are not merely docile and good. Well, Anne is fairly docile. But they are also the only characters who appear capable of genuine human feeling, the only ones for whom the massive death toll of the play connects on any personal or emotional level. They are the witnesses in whom the human cost of the wars are registered. This is not achieved, however, like the very worst productions of Shakespearean tragedies may lead you to fear. There is no Queen Elizabeth tearing at her flowing locks (not that their wigs would permit it). This is, at least for the women, a world without wailing. And in this world, where Richard’s ostentatious performances have made all displays of emotion suspect, Elizabeth’s steady stillness speaks more profoundly to the heart of her grief than any tears could.

Having already written about Twelfth Night, that the men embody the women without winks or mockery goes without saying. Kurt Egyiawan presents a formidable matron as the Duchess of York, paired with the Earl of Richmond in a bit of doubling that is unexpectedly resonant. Joseph Timms’ Lady Anne is pushed deeper into stylization than the other ladies, though he proves the undisputed champion of the full-skirted glide. But out of the men and the women, the breakout star of the production is Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth. The only character who can hold her own against Richard, Barnett’s dowager queen is a portrait of dignity, grace, and fierce intelligence. Her scene opposite Richard is staggering, and Barnett was the imminently deserving recipient of the only exit applause in the play. This, it should be noted, while Mark Rylance himself was still onstage. The play is studded with attempts by various characters to call Richard to account for what he is and what he’s done, bookended by Richard’s scenes opposite Lady Anne and Elizabeth. Anne is utterly defeated (a fact that is emphasized by her increasingly haunting reappearances in the remainder of the play), and we can’t help but join in Richard’s glee at this improbable victory. But by the time Elizabeth and Richard face off, we are overdue for a reminder of what we have been laughing at, and the wake-up call is electric.

Rylance’s interpretation of Richard, while allowing for a richer sense of the world as a whole, is admittedly not as dramatically dynamic as a more self-knowingly villainous Richard can be. Without Richard’s direct engagement with the audience, the sense that he is letting us in on a secret, the weaknesses in this early text of Shakespeare’s feel plainer, the lack of nuance more obvious. But Rylance’s willingness to make Richard ridiculous is far more refreshing than the usual trap of playing the Famousness of a role rather than the role itself. It’s an eerie and insidious interpretation, and his refusal to allow us the pleasure of acting as his sidekicks on his journey to power is a bold commitment to what seems to be his essential understanding of the character. Smarter Richards seem as though they surely must have an agenda for when they become king, or recognize the importance of power– this Richard, as he plainly states, just wants to play the villain. And we’re as charmed and helpless as anyone while watching it happen.