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The Theatrical Year in Review

Fifteen Back Stage critics take a look back at 2004's theatre and dance offerings and select their favorite productions and performances of the year.

A Year of Mothers

When the rules are broken but dramatic integrity is maintained, you get exciting theatre. Performer-playwright Lisa Kron did that in 2004 with Well, her "one-woman show with some other people in it." Kron, a founding member of the Five Lesbian Brothers, has presented a number of autobiographical solo pieces. In Well, produced at the Public Theater in March, she stripped intellectual constructs and exposed raw insides. Playing herself, Kron satirized the artistic impulse to categorize neatly the messy events of life through her mother's (played with humor and compassion by Jayne Houdyshell) continual interruptions of Kron's monologues with inconveniently truthful details.

In more-conventional dramas, mothers emerged as the preeminent figures, with powerful performances from J. Smith-Cameron in Sarah, Sarah at Manhattan Theatre Club, Estelle Parsons in The Day Emily Married at Primary Stages, and Phylicia Rashad in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. On the male parenting side, Philip Bosco skillfully exposed the disappointed heart of a bullying father in Twelve Angry Men.

The playwright of the year had to be Lynn Nottage, who followed up her Intimate Apparel at Roundabout with Fabulation or, The Re-education of Undine at Playwrights Horizons. Apparel, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play, follows an African-American seamstress (an intense Viola Davis) in her struggle for financial and emotional independence in 1904. Fabulation charts a reverse course, with a contemporary PR queen (an equally fierce Charlayne Woodard) returning to her abandoned family after her business goes bankrupt. Both plays make for complex, vital journeys.

—David Sheward

In Praise of Political Theatre

Unsurprisingly, politics dominated my stage world this past year. The revival of Wallace Shawn's scathing Aunt Dan and Lemon commented on the misuse of authority. Then, it was Kissinger; now, it's you-know-who.

The duplicitous Nixon era was skewered in Dirty Tricks. Despite the splendid Judith Ivey, the one-woman study of Martha Mitchell was numbing and awkward.

Lies and the liars who tell them formed the bedrock for Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, the angry documentary about detainees in Cuba. Also factual, the troubling Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) told how Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law protected pedophile priests. Fiction that could be fact pervaded Sam Shepard's furious The God of Hell, an account of a "ruthless, diabolical" government bent on demanding conformity.

Even less obviously political works had partisan overtones. Paul Rudnick's scattered Valhalla, Terrence McNally's intense Prelude & Liebestod, A.R. Gurney's imperfect Big Bill, and John Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo's rock opera Bare all dealt with sexual manipulation, while Caryl Churchill's jolting A Number explored the consequences of cloning. Dipping into the past for statements on how we (might) live today were Stephen Sondheim and Nathan Lane's intermittently successful The Frogs and August Wilson's incandescent Gem of the Ocean.

Among the memorable performances: Kristen Johnston and Lili Taylor in Aunt Dan and Lemon, Richard Thomas in Prelude & Liebestod, John Michael Higgins in Big Bill, John Byner and Peter Bartlett in The Frogs, Andrew Stewart-Jones in Guantánamo, Dallas Roberts in A Number, Phylicia Rashad in Gem of the Ocean, Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays, and Ashlie Atkinson and Jeremy Piven in Fat Pig.

—David A. Rosenberg

High Drama and Athletic Virtuosity

Six electrifying productions created a stir on the downtown dance scene this past year and constituted the best of the 31 performances I reviewed in 2004. The spectacular half dozen divide neatly into two categories: Three of the shows derived inspiration from specific dramatic genres and were characterized by powerful, imaginative storytelling techniques, while the other three were distinguished by astounding displays of athleticism and terpsichorean virtuosity.

Directed, choreographed, and designed by David Gordon, Dancing Henry Five wittily encapsulated the full drama of the classic Shakespeare history play into a comic, insightful, 60-minute evening of dance-theatre. Choreographer Noémie Lafrance turned a Lower East Side parking garage into her "stage," sat her audience in cars, and presented a glamorously atmospheric evocation of the film noir aesthetic in a stylish, narrative dance work titled Noir. Our Little Sunbeam, an inventive dance-theatre interpretation of the Chekhov play Ivanov, presented by the Seattle-based company 33 Fainting Spells, brilliantly played the drama's introspective investigations of the human psyche against quotes from astronauts discovering the wonders of outer-space exploration.

With Tetrapod, choreographer Clare Byrne served up a remarkably athletic ensemble work full of dangerous thrills, her dancers continually testing the limits of their bodies' strength and agility. Choreographer Astrid von Ussar, celebrating the second anniversary of her company, also wowed us with a highly energetic evening of fiercely physical dances. And the extraordinary feminist tap dancer Roxanne Butterfly completely captivated viewers with light and speedy footwork that represented virtuosic tap-dancing at its finest.

—Lisa Jo Sagolla

Europeans in Fear

Europeans have often exhibited a predilection for cautionary tales about darkly drawn, violent characters. In the new world, though, Europeans may have a different take on savagery. Are they resigned to live in a world where murder is a fait accompli—something to live with, something even to embrace?

Everyone has been praising Frozen, Scottish playwright Bryony Lavery's startlingly original pedophile play. Technically, the piece is stiletto sharp, with expansive monologues, quirky exchanges, and powerful imagery. What stays with you, though, is the determined, revenge-minded mother who ends up communicating with her child's killer at her living child's behest. This delicately layered woman, amazingly inhabited by Swoosie Kurtz, is the most memorable character of the year.

Not as intellectually rigorous, but perhaps even more entertaining, was BAM's German-language Nora (A Doll's House) by Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz Berlin. By whom? In German, really?

The company is a vibrant, smart troupe of actors based in Berlin. And this Ibsen adaptation, by Thomas Ostermeier, thrillingly manages to raise questions about violence as a legitimate reaction to social decay. In between thumping rock music and manic dance sequences, Ostermeier's bank manager and sexy, pampered wife were a perfect modern paradigm. My favorite moments involved this fashionable Torvald (played by the brilliant Jorg Hartmann) using his cell phone to take specious photographs of his three lovely children. When Nora ends the play by shooting him to a bloody pulp, the audience watched, slack-jawed. Quite an event it was.

—Michael Lazan

Top-Notch Acting Turns

As Sinatra liked to recall, it was a very good year. Indeed, for this Back Stage reviewer, 2004 brought a plentitude of performances and productions to praise.

Early on, a mélange of gorgeous voices—Mary Testa, Mary Beth Peil, Sherry D. Boone, and others—enriched Transport Group's bold and elegant revival of Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite. Toward year's end, another astounding group of voices electrified Best of Both Worlds, a rhythm-and-blues take on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, while Daniel Davis, Gary Beach, and a team of miraculous male chorines brought the revival of La Cage aux Folles to delicious life. Vigorous ensembles created other vibrant revivals, though of different ilks, in Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Melvin Van Peebles' Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and director Alex Lippard's mounting of Euripides' Hecuba, with Kristin Linklater in the title role.

Meanwhile, a couple of two-handers made memorable impressions: Jim Dale and William Atherton in Address Unknown and Fritz Weaver and Kati Brazda in Trying. And solo performances proved again that fine theatre needs little more than an actor who can write: Martin Moran in The Tricky Part, Heather Raffo in 9 Parts of Desire, and Nicky Paraiso in House/Boy.

A lot more turns were rave-worthy. To name a few, the manic musicality of Robert Whaley and Tony Grimaldi in their Wrong Way Up, the frisky comedy of Reg E. Cathey and Lynn Whitfield in the uneven White Chocolate, and the comic timing of Jeremy Shamos in W.S. Gilbert's Engaged.

—Ron Cohen

Superior Revivals Dominate

For superior revivals of classic English and European works, London is generally reckoned the champ, but the Mint Theater Company, The Actors Company Theatre (TACT), and the Pearl Theatre Company helped balance the scales.

The Mint's fine A.A. Milne and J.M. Barrie excavations—Mr. Pim Passes By and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, respectively—proved there is more to these two writers than "Winnie the Pooh" and "Peter Pan." Similarly, TACT delivered a splendid semi-staged mounting of The Chalk Garden, a decidedly adult work by Enid (National Velvet) Bagnold, while Marivaux's Double Infidelity and Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken were given assured stagings by the consistently fine Pearl.

The innovative Caroline, or Change provided artistic payback—and great entertainment—by way of Jeanine Tesori's tuneful score and Tony Kushner's imaginative vision. And for a pure distillation of the musical at its best, Barbara Cook's Broadway (sadly, her last collaboration with Wally Harper) was sheer joy.

New Yorkers were deprived of Sondheim's latest, Bounce, but he was well-represented in big productions and small: New York City Opera's superb Sweeney Todd (with Elaine Paige making her first foray into Sondheim territory), Lonny Price's delightfully silly all-star Candide concert (to be broadcast on PBS in January), and Brooklyn's Gallery Players' production of Merrily We Roll Along.

It's not all revivals: The first season of the New York Musical Theatre Festival offered elaborately staged new works, all with merit, with the rock opera Caligula among those showing promise of a future life.

—Harry Forbes

Off-Broadway Was the Place to Be

Certainly, Off-Broadway had its share of innovative theatre this past season. In particular, though work was uneven, the New York International Fringe Festival featured noteworthy shows from out of town. Both blah, blah, blah (the brainchild of Lowell Bartholomee) and Common Knowledge (with writer-performers Doug Budin and Randall Rapstine) were absolute gems, offering up hilarious skits that skewered current mores. And though not part of the Fringe, Lovers and Other Stranglers was also a clever series of skits that tackled life, death, and forbidden lusts—more like Edward Gorey or Stephen King in its quirky, eerie style.

Shows from overseas also made their mark, specifically Argentina's Forever Tango and two entertaining British imports: Fascinating Aida (a spirited female trio) and Berkoff's Women (Linda Marlowe's strong one-woman show). Forever Tango was a well-deserved returnee, having visited Broadway in 1997. It traced the history of Argentina's national dance with a cast of varied ages, proving that superb, sexy dancing is not limited to the under-30s. Also making an appearance was a visually stunning Indian dance-puppet-theatre production, Transpositions, and, from Japan, the moving drama Senpo Sugihara: The Japanese Schindler, about a Japanese ambassador who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Finally, Romeo and Juliet underwent a dizzy overhauling at Jean Cocteau Repertory (which itself was recently overhauled, moving from non-Equity to Equity status). This show hurtled forward in a nonstop 90-minute retelling of the classic, capturing the wild spirit of the play, with eight actors playing all roles and changing gender, age, and status in a flash.

—Irene Backalenick

Something Old, Something New

Old may only be in the eye of the beholder, especially when Pina Bausch's stylish company takes the stage. For 20 years she has been coming to BAM, and this year she celebrated with a three-hour feast for the eyes, Fur die Kinder…. At the New Victory, Rennie Harris' Legends of Hip-Hop featured a bunch of hip-hoppers, none better than the age-defying Electric Boogaloos, a marvel of elastic limbs, rhythm, and soul. From the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company came his anniversary piece, Pentimento (he has also been around for the 20-year mark), and the deeply emotional performance of Rachel Tess. And though Katarzyna Skarpetowska has been in the David Parsons Company for many years, this year she took the spotlight in the classic solo Caught and attacked it with a vengeance.

New to me was Rebecca Stenn, in the Altogether Different series, riding on folds of soft fabric in Ocean, her remarkable solo, and presenting her smart company, Perks Dance Music Theatre, with some fine choreography. Bangarra Dance Theatre at BAM combined visuals and transcendent performers with the choreography of Stephen Page and Frances Rings in mounting an exquisite stage production. A new take on flamenco lit up the Joyce stage when Compañía María Pagés melded together modern dance and jazz movement, then put it on strong ballet dancers who could click their heels with the best of them. Karole Armitage resurfaced with a blazing new approach, demonstrated in her piece Time Is the Echo of an Axe Within a Wood. She showed what persistence could accomplish.

—Phyllis Goldman

Strong Stories and New Musicals

Without doubt, the most involving evening I spent at the theatre as a reviewer in 2004 was at Bug, Tracy Letts' searing Off-Broadway drama in which Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon played a pair of lost souls who allow a conspiracy theory about bloodsucking aphids to rule their lives. Unnerving—but also a big ton of itchy fun.

Two other plays followed Bug's suit by bringing solid storytelling skills to edgy subject matter: David Folwell's extremely dark sex comedy Boise at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and Rahti Gorfien's engrossing study of an adulteress (played by Emily Zacharias) with fertility issues, When It Rains, at the WorkShop Theatre Company.

Outstanding performances: Frank Langella as the aging choreographer ensconced in Inwood in Broadway's short-lived production of Stephen Belber's Match; Ben Shenkman portraying a celebrated but troubled painter in Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen; Johnin E. Reade as the exasperated adolescent daughter in Donald Steele's Graceland (WorkShop Theatre Company).

Finally, it was a joy to witness the excitement surrounding the first New York Musical Theatre Festival. Although none of the offerings I reviewed (Joe Starts Again, And the Earth Moved, A Hundred Years Into the Heart) is likely to become the Oklahoma! or A Chorus Line of its era, each show had its own small pleasures. It's terrific to be reminded that so many people are committed to making musicals these days. I look forward to seeing how NYMF's second season plays out in 2005.

—Mark Dundas Wood

It's the Performances That Linger

Nobody thinks that these are great days in the American theatre, but in New York, at least, there is always, always plenty of remarkably good acting, often by far-from-famous actors. Peter O'Connor, for instance, is not a household name, but in an Off-Off-Broadway production of Beyond the Horizon, Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play, O'Connor played the doomed hero with the "touch of the poet" that O'Neill called for, his eyes focused, yes, "beyond the horizon." Lanie MacEwan brought a trite role to life as the secretary who pines for her boss in an admirable Off-Off-Broadway revival of Counsellor-at-Law by Elmer Rice.

Rose Rage, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, came to New York from the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, with its versatile actors in multiple roles. Joe Forbrich played Jack Cade, Shakespeare's working-class demagogue, with what I'm informed was a dead-on Chicago accent, a brilliant comic turn amid the zestful gore of Edward Hall's staging. The Othello that the Cheek by Jowl company brought to BAM from Britain was dominated by the galvanic, dangerous Iago of Jonny Phillips.

Amid the slam-bang farce of Jewtopia, stout, gravel-voiced Gerry Vichi was particularly funny as an irascible rabbi and an obscene grandpa, doing his grouchy, grumbly thing as others clowned around him. Finally, in the controversial Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, John Cariani found an original—and hilarious—way to play Motel the tailor, expressing Motel's feelings through wildly collapsing body language.

It's a pleasure to salute them all.

—Julius Novick

Year-End Bouquets

In a nonvintage year, let's raise our glasses to the following:

That Dirty Word "Promising" Award: To playwright Adam Bock for his fresh theatrical voice in Five Flights, presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater; to Will Eno, a verbally ambitious playwright, whose The Flu Season, presented by the Rude Mechanicals, demonstrated inventiveness while walking a razor's edge.

Laurette Taylor Award for Female Performance: To Catherine Byrne for her vital and poignant Breda, a long-suffering wife, in the Irish Repertory Theatre's Eden.

Susan B. Anthony Be Pleased Award: To the Women's Project for its continued support of women playwrights, as evidenced by The Antigone Project, wherein five female authors (and five female directors) spun tales of the single woman fighting authority. Notable: Lynn Nottage's A Stone's Throw.

You Speak With Forked Tongue Award: To ventriloquist Jay Johnson, who, with his witty puppets in The Two and Only, produced a solo biography that was heartfelt, sophisticated, and funny.

So Bad It's Really Good Award: To Judy Kaye, whose delightful and convincing portrayal of eccentric socialite singer Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Temperley's two-hander Souvenir features bad singing that is truly a hoot.

Foreign Flavors Spicing the Off-Broadway Stew Award: To the visitors: from Japan, Tokyo Ginado Theatrical Company with Kazuki: This Is My Earth; from Ireland, Abbey Theatre Company's The Playboy of the Western World. To the residents: Australian company Hair of the Dog with The John Wayne Principle, and Cherry Orchard, Russian professionals with juiced-up Chekhov, with The Seagull 2288.

—Karl Levett

Discovery, Fulfillment, and Reappraisal

Among the pleasures of regular theatregoing is seeing new talent develop, or promising talent mature. Having followed John Patrick Shanley's career from the beginning, I am happy to report that his latest play, Doubt, is not only his best play, but also the best new drama of the 2004-05 season so far. He has come to terms with his own demons—from his reportedly difficult childhood—and created a stirring, provocative drama. It can't hurt to have Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne as your leads.

The cleverest comedy was Quincy Long's People Be Heard, which pilloried America's school boards. Once again this talented playwright has ripped his subject matter from the headlines. Funda Duval gave a memorable performance as the last person you would place on a school board and Annie Golden astonished in six roles.

13P (Thirteen Playwrights) introduced me to an exciting new voice, Anne Washburn, whose postmodernist comedy The Internationalist is one of the most surrealistic of American plays. Mark Shanahan made a personable everyman, while Heidi Schreck spoke an entirely made-up language as his foreign guide.

It was glorious rediscovering Finian's Rainbow in Charlotte Moore's brilliant concert staging, which gave Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets a chance to glitter and be gay. Musicals Tonight!'s move to the 45th Street Theatre proved fortuitous: Its moving, polished concert version of Meet Me in St. Louis resurrected the reputation of the heretofore scorned stage adaptation of the classic MGM musical. And how could we forget that inspired quartet of musical zanies, The Bicycle Men, in the Fringe Festival?

—Victor Gluck

Wide-Ranging Journeys

A year's worth of theatregoing: so many plays, so many worlds, so many ways of reaching one's theatrical destinations.

With Slava's Snowshow, Slava Polunin whisked audiences to a bittersweet, Beckettian clown world with bubble and wind machines, delighting audiences young and old alike.

In the Dramahaus New York production of Diary of a Chambermaid, bales of hay were deployed to cinematically sweep the audience into the 19th-century French countryside, where a pert house servant (the superb Lael Logan) found that her duties included more than dusting.

Lenora Champagne took her audiences back to Sept. 11, and then even further—to the Louisiana bayous of her 1950s childhood—with a droll narrative, pungent Cajun music, and innocuous lighting cues in Mother's Little Helper.

Origami birds, ritualistic staging, and a cacophony of performer-created animal sounds were all that were needed for Entero's Rashomon to transport its audience to the jungles of the Far East, where a murder is variously perceived by those who did and didn't see it.

The Flea Theater and the Talking Band made audiences believe that talking, magical birds could be found in present-day New York with the charming cross-generational musical fable The Parrot.

Theodora Skipitares used shadow puppetry and masks alongside a pungent text to evoke the Trojan War (as well as this country's presence in the Middle East) in Odyssey: The Homecoming at La MaMa.

With so many destinations in so many time periods, how can one not feel both exhilarated (and jet-lagged) at the end of 2004?

—Andy Propst

Here's to the Women

It's time for another round of "Stimy" Awards, honoring the most-deserving theatrical productions and performances of 2004.

With Meryl Streep in her corner, playgoers figured Sarah Jones' Bridge & Tunnel was a sure bet. The versatile performer re-created a multicultural poetry slam that was truly a knockout. The New York International Fringe Festival spawned quirky competitors for the best of fest title: Angry Young Girl Gang, Big Trouble in Little Hazard, Kiss and Cry. Emerging from the pack was The Chaos Theories, inspiring both shock and awe.

Women wowed us, from Eve Ensler in The Good Body to the quartet of Antoinette LaVecchia, Sharon Washington, Ellen McLaughlin, and Mary Testa in String of Pearls. Pretty Faces stole the New York Musical Theatre Festival crown, The Snow Queen prevailed at the Looking Glass Theatre, and Nora's Bloke wooed Blue Heron patrons. Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn lent their low-key intensity to 'night, Mother.

In the end, these shows burn brightest in the memory: Ripple Productions' Innocent When You Dream, New York Theatre Workshop's Light Raise the Roof, and Theater Ten Ten's Iolanthe. Creative Mechanics presented the most creatively indelible production, reviving Steven Berkoff's take on Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher. Frank Blocker, Shannon Maddox, and Janice Herndon were hypnotic under director Gabriel Shanks, and the designers (Allen Cutler, Chris Meade, and Erik C. Bruce) turned the Independent Theater into a haunted mansion full of harrowing imagery.

—Elias Stimac

The Fringe Festival and More

Pith, a New York International Fringe Festival offering, wins my vote for creativity, versatile acting, and storytelling. Written and directed by Stewart Lemoine, it is a tribute to imagination and improvisation. An outsider-narrator (Jeff Haslam) coaxes a reclusive widow (Davina Stewart) out of her belief that her long-disappeared husband will return from South America by luring the woman and her servant (Leona Brausen) into joining him in acting out an imaginary search for the husband. They switch rapidly between many characters and become caught up in the game. The performances were delightful and impressive.

Another notable Fringe offering was Decoding the Tablecloth, written and acted by Gabriela Kohen and directed by Connie Grappo. Kohen reenacts her childhood as an Argentine-Jewish immigrant to Brooklyn, portraying each culture and paying tribute to her Holocaust-survivor grandmother. Here, too, character switches were well done. The sincerity of sentiment came across.

Also worthy of note was Guinea Pig Solo, produced by Labyrinth Theater Company and the Public Theater, depicting how soldier José Solos' (John Ortiz) traumatic service in Afghanistan damaged him, his family (Judy Reyes and Alexander Flores), and others in his life. Both playwright Brett C. Leonard's script and the acting were strong. Vincent, a sung-through musical version of Van Gogh's life—a concept that sounds potentially dreadful—succeeded in communicating the artist's (Paul Woodson) angst and brother Theo's (Eric Scharck) loyalty. Sturgis Warner directed and Robert Mitchell is the writer-composer. The Big Vig, while light, was believable in presenting the culture of a Schenectady Everyman, fulfilling the artistic mission of the Working Class Theatre.

—Esther Tolkoff

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