Best Of: Theater 2011

Photo courtesy of thisisbossi
2011 07 16 – 6398 – Washington DC – Redrum at Fort Fringe
courtesy of thisisbossi

We Love DC authors Don, Patrick, Rachel and I may have different backgrounds in criticism and performance, and varying preferences for theatrical style, but we share a goal – to bring you our thoughtful, honest opinions on the passionate, challenging craft of live theater. Though the actual season calendar isn’t over yet, it’s time for the annual wrap-up of 2011. Here’s at look back at some of the highlights (and a few lowlights) of our theatrical year.

Photo courtesy of Tony DeFilippo
Arena Stage – SW DC
courtesy of Tony DeFilippo

Don:

Looking back at last year’s roundup I see that I cheated slightly, so I’ll do it again. Even though Arena opened Oklahoma! in November of last year when I saw and reviewed it,  it returned for the summer when Rachel saw it. I’m going to call it last year so I can start off with a woo – it was a good and uncomplicated fun couple of hours. I’m on record as saying that you need to rise above the bar of just throwing any old thing up on stage that could just be on a small or silver screen, but bringing some live energy to a classic musical can do it and Oklahoma! did.

Other than that, there was a lot of fun on stage for me this year. Not that it was all stuff that knocked it out of the park - STC’s An Ideal Husband was unoffensive but of little note, NRTC’s Stop Kiss was well produced and acted but felt very datedLandless gave us the fan-servicey but fun staging of Dr Horrible which my Whedon-obsession demanded I enjoy despite its Hulu-ability, and The Color Purple was that flavor of expensively staged but sloppily directed and choreographed that seems to be something we only tolerate from touring shows.

But the things that edged on greatness were real winners. STC’s Much Ado, despite its flirtation with cultural insensitivity, was lovely and well-acted and the Neo-Futurists’ return to Woolly was – and I say this with love, Mr Pho – even better than Patrick says it was. Cherry Red called it quits with a live-action version of The Aristocrats which I ended up finding so enjoyable I stuck around for the second show and watched it again. We’ll miss you, you filthy bastards.

Above that I saw some really fantastic stuff. STC’s Old Times was conversation fodder for days and Reggie Watts was wonderful performance art. Looking back at all my reviews I have to say I enjoyed The Heir Apparent best of all. The staging was lovely, the pacing frenetic and the acting fantastic. Floyd King is a local treasure who I would watch read the phone book… so long as you let him mug and do some physical comedy while he does it.

Photo courtesy of ekelly80
faces
courtesy of ekelly80

Jenn:

I reviewed thirty-eight plays in 2011, and I still don’t feel like I saw enough theater. Even the productions I didn’t care for, I’m grateful to have seen, for it’s easy in times of economic trouble to bypass the arts completely. DC audiences are loyal and tenacious, and I hope DC theaters can continue to be brave and produce challenging works.

2011 will be punctuated in my memory by two incredible performances – Derek Jacobi in King Lear (London’s Donmar Warehouse at BAM in New York – cheating here, I wish it had come to DC) and John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape (Dublin’s Gate Theatre at Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC). Jacobi brought me to tears and Hurt left me speechless. Those experiences are why I keep returning to the visceral power of live theater.

But it was also a year in DC of brilliant ensemble pieces, plays that danced with language and mythology. Like Patrick, I was blown away by Woolly Mammoth’s continued audacity, Oedipus El Rey in particular, and thrilled by Studio Theater’s Enda Walsh Festival bringing several works by one of my favorite playwrights to DC audiences, especially the poetic sucker-punch of Penelope. Studio was also responsible for my top DC theater pick of the year – Venus in Fur, absolute Jenn catnip in its combination of strongly committed actors and an imaginative script fearlessly building towards an ending of truly terrible beauty. Plus, what can I say, I could never resist a corset.

Folger Theatre brought pageantry to a new level with Cyrano and Othello, both productions showcasing two actors delivering rich rewards – Eric Hissom as Cyrano and Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago. The glittering glamor of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Merchant of Venice mined the dark heart of that difficult play, while Arena Stage’s Trouble in Mind tackled the ugly slights of racism with sad beauty and funny grace. Arena also hosted Steppenwolf’s outstanding Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as shatteringly funny and terrifying as being pelted by martini glasses.

Finally, it wouldn’t be DC theater without a nod to the Capital Fringe Festival. Where else can you get tied up to another person and force fed goo from a syringe? Always fascinating, sometimes painful, the experiments of Fringe never bore, and give me hope for the continued vibrancy of live theater in the years to come.

Photo courtesy of Kevin H.
Elizabethan Theatre
courtesy of Kevin H.

Patrick:

2011 was an excellent year for DC theater. Whether it was Pulitzer-winning playsoutrageous improv, or quirky new works put on by any of the smaller arts groups in town, the 2011 portfolio of shows was very strong. It’ll make for an interesting Helen Hayes Awards come April, and I can’t wait to go and do another Theatre Prom Diary.

There is a lot of promise in the DC theater scene; I’ve always placed it right up there below New York and perhaps Chicago. This past year we’ve seen a big push to unify the performing arts community with the creation of theatreWashington. I am excited to see what they can do in their first full year in 2012.

If I have to highlight one theater this year it has to be Woolly Mammoth. I’ve become a big fan of their productions and this past year they have hit home run after home run. From The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to Clybourne Park to Bootycandy to Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies- Woolly shows this year have entertained, provoked, and been nothing short of excellent.

Honorable mentions include Signature Theatre’s Art (looking back I think it’s an under-rated comedy) and Liberty Smith (finally something fun from Ford’s!)

But it’s not about my list- it’s about the fact that this city had a great year in theater. I hope they can keep the ball rolling as we enter 2012.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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