Best of 2017: Theatre
2017 was a rough year for drama critics, and I don’t just mean locally. It’s uniquely challenging sitting in front of a computer all day, trying (or not trying) to tune out the world’s relentless onslaught of bleakness, then dressing up for a night on the town at a play that will be either political (fine) or escapist (also fine) or quite possibly both (eek). Leaving the outside world at the theater doors was challenging in a year that was All Despair All The Time. When local companies announced their 2017-18 seasons in the spring I smelled a step backwards – maybe a reaction to proposed cuts in federal arts funding? – with an overreliance on dead white guys and very little in the way of fresh voices. Halfway through the season it’s not quite as bad as I feared, though nothing’s really blown me away, either. Maybe I’m just grumpy? Someone please alert me if I start to pull a Channing.
Anyway, misery and despair aside, I logged 34 shows this year, many of which were very good. It was definitely an actors’ year – if the Dorrys had happened again (that’s a different story) it would have been challenging to winnow the acting fields down. So these were my top ten shows for 2017:
- Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (The Wilbury Group)
Anne Washburn’s three-act sci-fi comedy is based around a single episode of The Simpsons, the one that parodies the 1991 remake of the 1960s thriller Cape Fear. The Wilbury Group really ran with it, operatically staging the show in their old home at the Southside Cultural Center.
- Olneyville, the Operetta! (Manton Avenue Project)
A pair of Victorian time travelers, a magical talking fish, and an introverted arsonist work together to clean up the river in this hilarious, insane play written by ten local fifth graders.
- Lonely Planet (Counter-Productions Theatre Company)
Set in a New York map store at the height of the AIDS crisis, actors Jim O’Brien and Christopher Plonka brought out the humanity in a play heavy on the symbolism.
Toxic masculinity was, uh, pretty inescapable this year, and Epic Theatre Company certainly noticed. Peter Shaffer’s Freudian story of teen rage and Lucas Hnath’s Olympic drug drama aren’t too far off from one another, and they were both done very well, the former in the spring, the latter staged in the fall at an actual swimming pool (uncomfortable bleachers and all).
- The Caretaker (The Wilbury Group)
I didn’t review this one because it was Wilbury’s second Pinter play of 2017 and they were simultaneously running House Warming, which sounded more fun. (I think I only just realized that they opened their new space with a show called House Warming and another one about a houseguest that won’t leave. Ha.) Richard Donelly is great as the crotchety old man pitting two brothers against one another in rural England.
- The Great Gatsby (Burbage Theatre Company)
Here’s one you can still catch – Burbage christens its new home in Pawtucket with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazzy ensemble melodrama, playing through December 17.
- Dutchman (Mixed Magic Theatre)
Blink and you would have missed Mixed Magic’s zippy production of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, which came and went in under 45 minutes. Mixed Magic simultaneously staged Baraka’s beefier play The Slave, though I missed that one. (The run’s actually been extended through January 7th, and the two shows are now being done back-to-back.)
- The Music Man (Theatre By The Sea)
A gigantic cast sang their hearts out in this mindless old-timey musical about a huckster, a librarian, and the 76 trombones that bring them together.
- The Sea Pageant (Strange Attractor)
Major solar eclipses aren’t an everyday occurrence, and neither are performances like this one, a sort of low-impact anarchic dance with 100 performers cavorting on Easton’s Beach as the sun disappeared and the temperature dropped about twenty degrees.
- Skeleton Crew (Trinity Rep)
Stellar performances by Lizan Mitchell and Will Adams really elevated Dominique Morisseau’s iffy Detroit auto plant drama. Everything Trinity did this year was fine – if I were grading them I’d give Death of a Salesman a B and The Mountaintop a C and everything else would fall somewhere in between. It might just be a trick of the calendar, since their last (2016-17) season started off really great.
Death of a Salesman (Trinity); Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Contemporary Theatre Company); Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Epic); Church (Wilbury); Don’t Be Evil (Burbage)
You can’t see them all
Some shows that I missed (but wrote previews for) included The Diana Tapes, a thriller about Lady Di staged in a business incubator hub thing; the competitive Devised Theatre Festival at Mixed Magic Theatre; The Hotel Plays, a walk-through Tennessee Williams/Shakespeare hybrid staged at Barnaby Castle before its Provincetown premiere; the young Seaside Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth on a Newport playground; and Invasion!, a Swedish political comedy at Brown.
Let’s pretend it never happened
2nd Story Theatre’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the year’s biggest dud, with terribly miscast actors reading dumb lines on a poorly designed set. Even the costumes were lackluster, which is something I never expected to say about 2nd Story. On the afternoon of the press preview a noticeable chunk of the audience left during the intermission, and at the curtain call one older audience member wiped out on the floor in his rush to flee the scene. I hate rude people but in this case it was hard to blame him.