It’s obvious but it bears repeating: theater is special because it’s live. A play may run for years but the version seen on a specific night is only for that audience. There are nuances in every performance that will happen only that one time, a singular pearl to be treasured.
So when I thought about writing a best of 2011 list, I kept thinking more about my favorite moments of the year and not the “best” overall productions. To be fair, a list of my favorite plays and musicals of the year wouldn’t look all that different from this list. I’d drop two or three that were only great in fleeting moments (I’ll let you guess which ones) and replace them with the more cohesive pleasures of Other Desert Cities, Blood and Gifts, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Arena/Steppenwolf) or The Divine Sister.
Note that this list is based on shows that I saw in 2011 (though some may have premiered earlier) and the descriptions include SPOILERS; so consider yourself warned. Without further ado, my favorite theatrical moments of 2011 were:
10. Clybourne Park (Steppenwolf): The Joke — An African-American woman, pressed by circumstances, lets loose with a crass whopper of a “white girl” joke and the whole audience (on stage and off) gasps with laughter and horror. In one moment, this thought-provoking and unsettlingly funny riff on A Raisin in the Sun finds the perfect way to get to the dark heart of our conflicted, ongoing struggle with race and otherness.
9. Silence: The Musical!: The Velcro — Theater often tries to compete with seamless illusions of film spectacle, but why? It can be more magical to see the wires, a chance for the everyone to collectively “pretend”. So when the crude, lude and joyously “cheap” (I mean that as a compliment) Silence recreates moments from Silence of the Lambs on a shoestring budget, it’s a blast to watch them dig into their theatrical sandbox and play. My favorite: to enact scenes from Catherine’s imprisoned perspective down the well-like hole, they roll on a flat, pull away a hidden circle, lean in at awkward angles and, as if staring down into the depths, look through the hole at the audience with childish glee. Did I mention the hole is revealed with a loud, awkward pull of velcro? Delicious.
8. The Normal Heart: The Monologue — In a play keening with emotional speeches, one stood out for how it finally broke down all my defenses. Bruce Niles (Lee Pace), gliding through the production as if he is somehow above it all, finally lets down his guard and tells the story of the fear and humiliations he met when transporting his gay lover’s body. It was not only heartbreaking but you could feel it lighting a fire in the audience, each person wanting to tear down the theater’s walls and begin shouting for equality.
7. Anything Goes: The Breath — Musicals are marathons for performers, particularly triple threats (dancer/singer/actors). Part of what we love when we watch a great music theater performance is virtuousity, the sense that we are watching something impossible made to look effortless. So when Tony-winner Sutton Foster, after finishing a punishing dance break in the joyous (but epic) title number, turns away from the audience and takes a deep breath, we are awestruck and delirious with suspense. In that moment, that delicious pause, she reveals that she is human, but also singularly goddess-like. We all suddenly realize that she’s about to start belting the crap out of the song again when most of us would be laid out on the floor.
6. The Book of Mormon: The Payoff — Much is made of the envelope-pushing jokes in this musical blockbuster but, to me, the real star of the show is its story construction. The show, forgive the Commodore’s reference, is a brick house. This becomes most apparent at the climax, when the African villagers perform their scabrously funny “Joseph Smith American Moses” for the visiting Mormon dignitaries. Everything we’ve seen to this point in plot, character and even staging (of course the villagers would assimilate the Broadway/pageant-ography they’ve witnessed!) comes together and pays off. We are supremely satisfied because the moment locks into place like the final piece in a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.
Come back tomorrow to get the rest of the list!