Let’s continue the countdown of my favorite theatrical moments of 2011. (Catch up with six through 10 here.) Just a reminder, this list is based on shows that I saw in 2011 and the descriptions may include SPOILERS; so consider yourself warned.
Drumroll, please. My top five are:
5. Venus in Fur: The Transformation — I bow down to Nina Arianda (who almost made this list twice for her work in Born Yesterday). Let me just quote an earlier blog post, “In this deliciously sexy play, a young, seemingly inept actress auditioning for an S&M-tinged period piece surprises the director (and the audience) by slipping into the “role” with uncanny ease. …[Arianda] doesn’t seem to be acting; to paraphrase a Meryl Streep quote, her soul seems to have shifted. Simple, unshowy and yet transfixing, this transition feels magical and a portent of darker, more mysterious forces at work.”
4. Follies: The Breakdown — Has any American musical ever been so suffused with ambition? It’s form shaking yet reverential, minutely psychological but also grandly entertaining. In the current revival, all these contradictions come together in the justly lauded final sequence of vaudeville numbers from the leads. For me, although I enjoyed them all, it starts with the best: Danny Burstein (with ace support from Kiira Schmidt and Jenifer Foote) attacks “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues” with startling bravado and skill. It’s a heartbreaking, rip-roaring, virtuosic, difficult, dizzying moment of music theater at its best and most complex…just like the show as a whole.
3. Uncle Vanya (Sydney Theatre Company): The Fall — Life is messy; it can’t be defined as comedy or drama or horror or romance. This glorious Chekov production (which is making an unexpected New York stop in 2012) captures that chaos perfectly, like no other theater I’ve seen. Everyone in the ensemble has moments of fearless, heartbreaking silliness but, for me, the most emblematic occurred when Yelena (the incomparable Cate Blanchett) leans against a door, caught up in her own lies and thoughts of illicit love. As always, she’s posing; she’s making a drama of being gorgeously bored. Then, the door flies opens behind her and she tumbles unceremoniously backward. It’s funny, a bit pathetic and most certainly very human. With moments like this one, this production truly reinvigorated my love for theater. Unmissable.
2. Sleep No More: The Look — Whether you are wandering slightly confused as action happens elsewhere or you’re toweling off one of Macbeth’s naked witches, everything about this adult spookhouse/Shakespearean riff/site specific dance piece breaks rules and unsettles expectations. I felt the true genius of what Punchdrunk is up to as I joined a pack of masked audience members closing in on Lady Macbeth. She was careening down a hallway, clearly on the brink of her final madness, and suddenly she began to see us, discover us. We were the ghosts tormenting her as we followed her down the hall, surrounded her, needed from her. I was alternately thrilled and horrified, the line between audience and performer completely broken down and yet clearly (and cleverly) illuminated. I’ll never sit in any audience and feel quite so removed again.
1. Jerusalem: The Giant — After nearly three hours of bluster and beer, celebration and heartbreak, the outcast drifter and irascible storyteller Johnny Byron is finally alone in the woods. He begins a frenzied ritual, bloodied, banging on a drum, calling to the giants that once roamed the British countryside. The stage rumbles. Is it the bulldozers come to remove him from his last stand? Or has this wild man actually summoned the impossible, a stomping denizen of our collective imagination and poetic heritage? The audience is swept up with the frenzy, wanting to believe in magic, believing in theater, believing that there is something mythic still left in a crushing world. Thanks to playwright Jez Butterworth and the genius that is actor Mark Rylance, we are certain that giants still walk the earth.
I’ve had my say; now it’s your turn. Add your favorites to the comments below.
And may your 2012 be filled with many more great moments, theatrical and personal!