2013 in Review
Top 20+5 Shakespeareances of 2013
It was the year of Romeo and Juliet. We saw eight stage productions this year, one movie, and one filmed ballet. One of those Romeos was a woman in a gay-themed version of the play. One of those Juliets was a man in a boys' school setting of the play in which four guys performed Romeo and Juliet. We also saw four guys plus a deejay playing Othello, one guy play Macbeth, and a woman and man take on almost the entire canon.
It was the year of gender singularity: an all-male Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Twelfth Night, and Richard III; an all-female Titus Andronicus; and two all-female versions of Julius Caesar. One of those Caesars was set in a prison, one of two prison settings of Shakespeare plays we saw this year.
It was the year of incredibly bad performances of Romeo and Juliet, and incredibly good performances of Helena, Helena, Helena, and Helen. We saw Olivia like we've never seen her before, and then we saw her like we've never seen him before. We saw Antony in a ruin, Richard in a parking lot, and Benedict and Beatrice in Joss Whedon's home.
It was the year we saw 61 stage productions and two feature film releases of Shakespeare plays, along with nine DVDs (including two great series from BBC, Shakespeare Uncovered and The Hollow Crown). Additionally, we saw 11 non-Shakespeare stage productions. We attended six Shakespeare productions in one New York weekend; we saw two Midsummer Night Dreams in two non-neighboring states in three days; I saw five student productions in one day; and we saw one play mounted in one day.
2013 was a good year of great Shakespeareances. It's hard to cut off the list at 50, let alone 20 (not so hard to cut it off at 60, though). So, I decided to list them all this year. I also appreciated the breadth of Shakespeare interpretation we saw. Some directors and actors took bold approaches to these 400-year-old plays and roles—some of which worked, some of which didn't. And some directors and actors hewed devotedly to the original texts and Elizabethan production principles, revealing Shakespeare's own bold approaches in these 400-year-old plays. Both approaches made the Top 5.
And the acting. Oh my. From big names on Broadway to new names in tiny studios, we saw one laudatory performance after another. Notably, our year of stage productions ended with a performance that was one of the year's greatest—Mikhail Baryshnikov in Man in a Case at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.—precisely because of what it was not: One of the world's greatest dancers in history, he of the athletic leaps and supple body movements, Baryshnikov played two men of pathological constraint, and his very rigidity made for riveting theater.
Portrayals writ large tend to get the loudest kudos, but performances that find their power in their stillness—that rather than an unleashing of passion present a strong bond bottling up the emotions—should perhaps get the greater respect. One small, quiet, but profound moment this year stands out, in the American Shakespeare Center's production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. When Allison Glenzer's Countess disowns Bertram, it can bring tears to the audiences' eyes. We sense in her a deep hurt layering on top of her ongoing grief for her late husband (oh, how she wishes he were here, how she wishes her son were more like him), and at the same time we see her love for Helena, her disappointment in Bertram, and yet the worry of a mother whose son has gone off to war. That is great acting, a moment in which Glenzer is the Countess, and through her sheer talent we become the Countess, too.
It's possible we can appreciate such talent all the more in an actress we usually see playing male clowns and boisterous ladies. Over the years and the many Blackfriars productions we've attended, Glenzer has given us that full range. But in one performance, she knotted it all together into one incredible, indelible portrayal, and that kicks off my…
Top 20 Shakespeareances of 2013
- Allison Glenzer as the Jailer's Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. If this had played in New York or London, the buzz over Glenzer's performance as the Jailer's Daughter—palpable in the streets of Staunton—would start a rush on the box office and the annual awards lining up behind her. Glenzer weaved each of her many talent threads into a tapestry of an 18-year-old girl who descends from giddy man-crush to tormented madness before ending in a state of peaceful insanity. It was physically funny, it was contextually comic, it was improvisationally daring in the way she incorporated members of the audience into her performance, it was tear-inducingly tender, it was tragically touching. She earned exit applause with each of her scenes, except her last—on that exit she left behind an audience moved to paralysis. Glenzer achieved ultimate theatrical art and one of the greatest Shakespearean performances I've ever seen.
- David Tennant as Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England (via RSC's Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcasts). You're standing on the pinnacle of a great performance, knowing you will never get any higher, when suddenly a volcano erupts out of nowhere and takes you higher. In every way that describes the impact David Tennant's portrayal of Richard II had on me. Figuring this role could get no finer than Derek Jacobi's right-as-rhyme 1978 performance in the BBC series, Tennant came along and changed everything I thought I knew about the role. And it is so right because he built his Richard on his last scene when he offs two would-be murderers with all the virility of Dwayne Johnson. This was a dangerous, prowling Richard, imperial, with a force of personality to back it up. Tennant is so expert at the verse that he ranges from playful to threatening throughout and nails superbly all of Richard's great speeches. Surrounded by a strong cast, including Nigel Lindsay as Bolingbroke and my old fave Michael Pennington as Gaunt, Tennant anchors a brilliant production helmed by Gregory Doran at the height of his skills.
- Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's Globe, Belasco Theatre, New York, N.Y. This all-male cast accomplishes something I didn't expect: the best collective renderings of Viola, Olivia, and Maria I've ever seen in the performances of three men, respectively, Samuel Barnett, Mark Rylance, and Paul Chahidi. The centerpiece performance is Rylance's, whose Olivia is prim and proper but starts losing her composure as well as her bearings when Cesaria, nee Viola, shows up. Barnett completely captures Viola's troubled situation underneath a veneer of spunk, and Chahidi is sexy and forceful as Maria. Yet, the key to this production is how tightly the whole cast adheres to the text as written. Director Tim Carroll keeps the action simple and subtle, and the result is a simply hilarious production with Shakespeare's genius on full display.
- Othello: The Remix, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago, Ill. This is both great Shakespeare and great rap, and it's exactly what you might expect if Shakespeare today grabbed a microphone and started to flow about Othello, the hip-hop star, and his longtime crewmember, Iago, who seeks revenge for being bumped down to third billing behind Cassio. The Q Brothers along with Postell Pringle as Othello and Jackson Doran as Cassio and Emilia are a tight crew and great actors. The rhymes mingle Shakespeare with modern references and many mentions of tennis—trust me, it works. This production is both funny and tragic, in your face and uplifting.
- Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, N.Y. Set in a modern women's prison, this production allows you to appreciate Shakespeare's ancient Rome political drama in a most visceral way. The fear surrounding the conspirators is palpable because we see the guards (they are ushers), representing how walls have ears. We appreciate Caesar's tyranny in the performance of Frances Barber. We appreciate Brutus' conundrum in the performance of Harriet Walter. We appreciate Cassius's split personality in the performance of Jenny Jules. Just when you are fully involved in the notion of Rome as a prison, the prison suddenly becomes mere theater; we go with the abrupt shift and head down a new allegorical arc when the year's biggest gotcha brings the play home at a whole new level. Brilliant.
- All's Well That Ends Well, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. From beginning to end, from top to bottom, and even from side-to-side, this production was both astute and fun in execution. All's Well has always been one of my favorite plays, and this production proves why it is so. Each cast member in every single role (several double parts) could be singled out for kudos, so expertly do they derive their characters from Shakespeare's lines, which they deliver with perfect touches of humor and pathos. And then—and then—when you simply are enjoying the play for the play's sake, a musical interlude of The Decemberists' "The Infanta" takes over the stage before the final scene. The way the audience applauded, the cast could have done a curtain call for that performance alone.
- The Tempest, Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va. The first time I've ever seen a Shakespeare play—or any theater, for that matter—in which I was handed a free rain poncho with my will-call ticket and sat in a designated splash zone. Synetic's dancing and acrobatic miming players performed the entire production in ankle-deep water on the stage, and the environment didn't stop them from stomping and diving and rolling about as if all was dry and normal. The elements set this production apart from any other Tempest, or any other Shakespeare, really, but the production also deserves kudos for being a clever telling of this play, including staging the back story we only get in dialogue from Shakespeare. And water or no water, the costumes and set by Anastasia R. Simes were the true stars of this show.
- Return to the Forbidden Planet, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. This goes on this list and not in the non-Shakespeare category because the majority of lines in the play are Shakespeare's or contextually altered Shakespeare, including my favorite, "Beware the ids that march." The super-silly, Shakespeare-twisting, pun-aplenty play itself is simply great fun, but what catapults this production to its position on this list are the musical performances carried out by the cast, using all acoustic instruments. One of this year's golden theater moments was the Albatross crew lifting off to the song "Wipe Out" with music director Chris Johnston (Lt. Hotlix McShredalot) playing the famous guitar lead on his banjo. Then Dylan Paul as Captain Tempest weighs in on the trombone which he takes from the stand next to his Kirk-like bridge seat, and we were launched to another world.
- Julius Caesar, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.When I first heard the summer before that René Thornton Jr. and Sarah Fallon had been cast as, respectively, Brutus and Cassius, I was anticipating this production with the highest of expectations. They were exactly what I hoped for, especially their tent scene, which was delivered with Mamet-like urgency and precision and proved to be electrifying theater. On top of their performances, Benjamin Curns was a peacock of an ego as Caesar who dominated the play even after his assassination, Gregory Jon Phelps was an enigmatic Antony, and even corps performers like Chris Johnston as Casca turned in memorable portrayals.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va.The dancing, the staging, the sexually charged choreography, the titillating girlfight, all made for an entrancing, silent adaptation of Shakespeare's text, but it's the comic portrayals in mime and movement by Emily Whitworth as Helena and all the rude mechanicals (Ryan Sellers' Peter Quince stands out most) that elevated this production. Whitworth was a young, female Buster Keaton, so expressive and precise was her silent characterizations. The rude mechanicals were so funny, especially as everything was performed to an on-stage piano soundtrack, that I would have sat through a two-hour performance of them alone.
- Madeline Wise's Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Millbrook Playhouse, Mill Hall, Pa. Two days after seeing the Synetic Midsummer Night's Dream and its fabulous presentation of Helena in the performance of Emily Whitworth, we saw another truly great portrayal of that tricky part. Madeline Wise, playing opposite my son Jonathan Minton as Demetrius, played true to the text and rendered with great ease a character so many others find difficult to pinpoint. Hers wasn't just the greatest Helena I've seen, it was one of the truly great Shakespearean performances I've seen.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon film. Ever since I learned that Joss Whedon gathered his Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast for Sunday evening Shakespeare readings at his home, I have longingly hoped that he would film a Shakespeare play (if not the whole canon). I've never gone on a date with higher anticipation than I did seeing this film, and amazingly he surpassed my expectations and even my hopes. This is spot-on Shakespeare from somebody who appreciates the finer storytelling tactics The Bard uses, tactics Whedon has always infused in his own work on TV and screens. The script is relatively pure and the cast is solid, with benchmark performances from Amy Aker as Beatrice and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.
- Twelfth Night, Taffety Punk, Washington, D.C. For much of the play we were confused by the concept: either Viola had already drowned, or she was experiencing a near-deathhallucination (the latter turned out to be true). We were clearly watching an undersea Illyria, with seashells adorning the characters, giant fish floating through the room, and Malvolio appearing in cross-gartered scuba gear. Weird. Meanwhile, Feste was a personification of Death. However, the context ended up turning the play's melancholy subtext into the production's exoskeleton and gave Viola's heroism its proper due. And though confused, we were still in stitches and appreciating the well-honed humor and excellent Shakespearean performances of this cast, in particular Tonya Beckman as Olivia, the most virtuoso performance of that role I'd seen—to that point.
- The Hollow Crown, PBS. The four-part, cinema-quality, BBC production of Shakespeare's second history tetralogy suffers from some unfortunate choices by the directors who either wanted to impose their own principles on Shakespeare's text or because each play had to fit into a two-hour broadcast. But the whole is well produced and solidly acted, and two performances take their place among the all-time greats: Tom Hiddleston as Hal/Henry V (his laying down the crown during his courtship of Katherine is precious) and Jeremy Irons as a sly but fiery, conniving but emotionally starved Henry IV.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Theatre for a New Audience, New York, N.Y. Maggie Siff was an elegiac but spiteful Beatrice, Jonathan Cake was a posturing but insecure Benedick. Individually, in tandem, and in groups they each and together nailed every single joke, while their rocky courtship played with pitch-perfect sincerity. As great as they were, it was director Arin Arbus's handling of the material that made this production such a standout, finding just the right tone for every character and emphasizing key moments for maximum dramatic and comic effect.
- The Play's the Thing, Brooklyn Technical High School, New York, N.Y. Drama teacher Emily Tuckman invited me to attend a daylong final exam for her five classes which each would put on an abbreviated Shakespeare play: Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The productions alone were worth my daylong commitment: a Claudio you could ache for, a deeply hurt Hamlet, Othella played as a lesbian general, a perfectly charming As You Like It with a top-tier Rosalind, and a hilarious Pyramus and Thisbe. On top of watching these shows, I got to spend the day interviewing some of the kids and having conversations with others. They passed their final exams, but I may have learned more about Shakespeare than they.
- I, Malvolio, The New Victory Theater, New York, N.Y. Tim Crouch doesn't just give us Twelfth Night from the perspective of the play's steward. He turns his account into a multidimensional lesson in bullying, and he does this in a one-man show that is as much a tightrope walk without a safety net as it is theater for children. Whether he's attempting suicide with the help of two children from the audience, proving to us how nutty the others in Twelfth Night really are, or berating the audience just for being there, we laugh almost nonstop, even as Crouch's Malvolio chastises us for laughing.
- The courtship scene in Henry V, The Folger, Washington, D.C. How good was this courtship scene? The direction of this production was so irritatingly mangled that without this scene the production itself would be near the bottom of the list. But as aggravated as we were about the production overall, we were just as smitten with the acting, especially the courtship between Zach Appelman's Henry and Katie deBuys' Katherine with Catherine Flye participating as Alice. It was one of the best 10 minutes of Shakespeare I've ever seen, ending with a kiss that was witchcraft.
- Alan Cumming's Macbeth, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, N.Y. Alan Cumming plays a patient in a hospital ward for the criminally insane, acting out Shakespeare's Macbeth almost in its entirety, performing 15 roles using distinguishing voices, postures, and devices (Malcolm is a doll; the murderer is his own reflection). It's a bold artistic venture as he weaves hints of the crime he's committed with the regicide and bloody tyranny at the heart of Shakespeare's play. It's an even bolder physical challenge as he moves in and out of so many characters and comes close to drowning himself in the bathtub. It's interesting Shakespeare; it's mesmerizing Cumming.
- Bootleg Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost, Taffety Punk, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.The fact that this production was put together in one day and performed one time only, the preshow buzz, the community feel: all would give this event a high rating. But it was the great acting of great Shakespeare that sticks here, in particular Eric Hissom's glam Spaniard Armado and the Muscovite scene in which Navarre dressed as a bear, Longaville as a Moscow mobster, Dumaine as Putin, and Berowne as Sputnik.
The Top 5 Non-Shakespearean Theatrical Moments of 2013
- Man in a Case, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C. To see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance was a thrill in the anticipation. To see Baryshnikov not dance turned out to be more fascinating. In this adaptation of two Anton Chekhov short stories, Baryshnikov portrayed two men who encase their emotions, one displaying extreme constraint in his bearing and movement as well as his attitudes, and one swallowing his heart in shyness. Baryshnikov displayed the former by controlling his body in absolute rigidity. He presented the latter first through a dance of hands with the woman of his affection, and then the two did a pas de deux while lying on the stage floor. Seeing him leap and spin would have been cool, but watching his suppression and stillness was cooler, yet.
- The Country Wife, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. To the layman, what the ASC Actors' Renaissance Season troupe accomplishes is nothing less than miraculous. A dozen actors put together this Restoration comedy, with all the minute blocking, stunts, choreographed scene changes, and antic interactions with no director or designer and only 20 total hours of rehearsal. Yet, just four shows into its run it staged as seamlessly as a show that's been fine-tuned for months. Chris Johnston does a star turn as the fop Sparkish, and Tracie Thomason hits a climactic high note just by writing a letter.
- The Robben Island Bible, The Folger, Washington, D.C. This was a staged reading of the play, four trained actors supplemented by one academic with script in hand reading a play drawn verbatim from interviews writer Matthew Hahn conducted with political prisoners who had been held at the notorious South African prison during apartheid. Though not really a production, the reading was theatrical in the performances of the actors playing the various prisoners who picked out and signed favorite passages in a Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and the play itself provided entrancing drama. We heard Shakespeare's lines resonate with deeper meaning than we ever knew before, and we got a glimpse into the world and personalities of the victims of apartheid, of which Nelson Mandela was one.
- The Custom of the Country, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, VA. Four men, trousers down around their ankles, one man crawling on the floor and another clutching an icepack to his crotch, all in agony from sexual overuse at a male stewes, will likely be one of the funniest scenes we'll see this year. It's a tear-inducing moment. Yet it's only one of many comic moments from this shockingly daring play written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger around 1620. Here's material even the Farrelly Brothers might think too raunchy. The Actors' Renaissance Season troupe, though, tackled this seldom done (and never done in North America) text with both the scholarly expertise and eye-winking entertainment credo that sets them above all other acting companies we've encountered.
- She Stoops to Conquer, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. When Hardcastle (Benjamin Curns) leans into young Marlow (Gregory Jon Phelps) and accuses him of overacting, it brought the house down. That one moment played on so many layers: in Oliver Goldsmith's plot, in the plot within the plot, in the theatrical context, in the repertoire context, in the six-plus years of watching this company and these two actors interact in now countless performances. That was a highlight of the hilarity of this well-plotted comedy exquisitely acted by this talented and intelligent company. Well, over-acted, really.
January 1, 2014
Top 20 Shakespeareances
- Return to the Forbidden Planet, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. The play I wanted to see again.
- Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe, Belasco Theatre, New York, N.Y. If we had not watched the actors being dressed and applying their makeup, the change in gender would have been difficult to discern.
- Othello: The Remix, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago, Ill. The Q Brothers not only make Othello enjoyable and accessible for the teenage-set, they make hip-hop enjoyable and understandable for their parents.
- Julius Caesar, Donmar, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, N.Y. The perfect answer to all who think that actresses can’t play male roles (e.g., soldiers).
- Hamlet, Prince of Grief, The Public, New York, N.Y. Afshin Hashemi presents and plays a Hamlet for the 21st century.
- Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, N.Y. A tour-de-force performance times 15.
- I, Malvolio, The New Victory Theater, New York, N.Y. Tim Crouch presents Malvolio’s backstory and the audience learns who is the real bully.
- The Tempest, Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va. A great production with the added anticipation of the splash zone
- Bootleg Shakespeare Love’s Labour’s Lost, Taffety Punk, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C. Actors from D.C.’s different companies came together for a single free performance and everyone in the theater had a great time.
- Henry IV, Part One, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. Rick Blunt was born to play Falstaff.
- Coriolanus, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington D.C. The depth and quality of the acting allows the entire ensemble to shine.
- In Acting Shakespeare, The Pearl Theatre Company, New York, N.Y. Fun insight into the road traveled by James DeVita from fisherman to Shakespearean actor.
- Twelfth Night, Taffety Punk, Washington, D.C. A thought-provoking production staged on a “Finding Nemo” set.
- Richard III, Drilling Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, Broome and Ludlow, New York, N.Y. A fun stage—an in-use NYC parking lot—and several excellent performances make for a wonderful production.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon film. I hope this is first entry in a new Joss Whedon film series of Shakespeare’s entire canon.
- Antony and Cleopatra, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, Ellicott City, Md. A sensual Antony and Cleopatra with a strong supporting ensemble.
- Romeo and Juliet, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, St. Mary’s Community Center, Baltimore, Md. Different takes on Mercutio, Peter, Tybalt and Friar Lawrence refresh this annual standard.
- Women of Will, The Gym at Judson, New York, N.Y. Tina Packer discusses and presents the five different archetypes of Shakespeare’s women.
- Coriolanus, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Carlin’s Park Seabreeze Amphitheater, Jupiter, Fla. Actors and audience braved the rain together and at the play’s end each group applauded the other’s bedraggled grit.
- Edward III, Shakespeare Project of Chicago, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill. The reading’s “on-book rehearsal” style enhanced my understanding of the play.
Top 5 Non-Shakespearean Theatrical Moments
- The Robben Island Bible, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C. This quietly powerful production left a lasting impression.
- She Stoops to Conquer, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. Pure fun!
- Man in a Case, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C. The quiet movements kept the troubling words in sharp focus.
- The Lady Becomes Him, Faction of Fools, Gallaudet’s Eastman Studio Theatre-Elstad Annex, Washington, D.C. The message board deserves its own sketch show.
- Our Town, Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. Creative use of the spare set—especially the cemetary—together with the actors’ subtle performances produced thought-provoking theater.