Theater: The Best Shows of 2013

From: Huffington Post

By Michael Giltz

Here's a look back at my favorite shows of the year. The truly frustrating, wonderful thing about theater is how ephemeral it is. Performances are slightly different every night depending on the actors, the audience, the weather and a million other factors. Of course, when the cast changes, the show changes even more. So already shows like Matilda and soon After Midnight are very different (better, worse, just as good but in different ways) as the shows I saw and reviewed. And despite seeing three shows a week, I've still managed to miss some of the most acclaimed shows of the year. Maybe it was the title -- it sounds like an Off Broadway revue designed to be commercial -- but I never saw Bad Jews, only to have a friend see it on closing night and tell me I'd missed the best play of the year. Argh!

So of the shows I actually saw, here are my favorites. And thanks again to the actors and writers and directors and artisans and stage hands who make it happen, even on shows I didn't like. No one gets into the theater to become rich. A bad movie can be annoying; a bad play should make you empathize with the actors who must go onstage every night and try and kick some life into a dead mule. I try to reflect that in reviews that never avoid calling a flop a flop but always try to pan for gold and celebrate a particular performance or element of even the worst show that offers a glimmer of talent.

THE BEST SHOWS OF 2013

1. and 2. Julius Caesar/Twelfth Night
3. Parsifal at the Met
4. August Wilson's American Century Cycle
5. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
6. Passion at CSC
7. Matilda The Musical
8. The Weir at Irish Rep
9. The New York Musical Theatre Festival
10. Savion Glover's STePz
11. A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder
12. The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner at BAM
13. Isaac's Eye/Year Of The Rooster

1. and 2. JULIUS CAESAR AT ST. ANN'S WAREHOUSE/TWELTH NIGHT -- The trappings for this Julius Caesar are boldly innovative: an all-female cast! An immersive experience with armed guards taking you to your seat! A setting of a prison! But all of that melted away and what I remember most is a Shakespeare play I've never been terribly fond of brought to vivid, brilliant life led by a brilliant cast. Not a brilliant cast of women -- though that they were -- but a brilliant cast of actors. I couldn't imagine anyone male or female better in these roles than Frances Barber, Harriet Walter, Cush Jumbo and the rest. A triumph for director Phyllida Lloyd and her entire team.

In contrast, the London Globe Theatre's production of Twelfth Night was thoroughly traditional. The staging was done as in Shakespeare's time, the actors donned their makeup and costume in sight of the audience and it was an all-male cast. But just like Julius Caesar, the casting was not a stunt but an approach to the work that drew out riches and insight into the play that no other casting would do. This troupe also performed a solid Richard IIIin repertory and it was a treat to see actors in dramatically different roles from one night to the next. But Twelfth Night was the highlight, with even the movement of an actor from one part of the stage to another handled in hilarious fashion. (The women glide across the stage as if on a moving sidewalk with their feet hidden under voluminous dresses; the effect is invariably striking and amusing, while the speed at which they move reveals the character's state of mind -- it's not just a gimmick.) At the heart of it was Mark Rylance, one of the great stage actors of this or any time. He's smart enough to surround himself with the best so this show had many pleasures, including the unexpected delight of seeing Stephen Fry on stage (!) and Samuel Barnett in two delicious turns as women. He's a handsome man and a fetching woman and one would hate to choose -- luckily, with live theater we can have him either way.

3. PARSIFAL AT THE MET -- My first experience of Wagner's gorgeous masterwork was overwhelming in its beauty. A religious experience indeed, overseen by director Francois Giraud and sung by an impeccable cast including Rene Papa, Peter Mattei and Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal.

4. AUGUST WILSON'S AMERICAN CENTURY CYCLE -- One of the theatrical triumphs of the year didn't take place on Broadway. It happened at a radio station. The Greene Space is a performance venue shared by WNYC and WQXR. They partnered with the August Wilson estate to stage readings of all ten plays in Wilson's epic look at the 20th century, with one play for every decade. They'll be edited and aired on public radio in 2014 and the audio recordings will be made available in various ways through libraries, academic institutions and the like (though one has to hope a commercial release of all ten will also happen). Overseeing this endeavor was playwright, actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who brought together a dream team of veterans of Wilson's plays to perform them for posterity. I attended three of the readings -- Jitney (which is the only Wilson play yet to debut on Broadway, a fact Santiago-Hudson is determined to change), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Gem Of The Ocean. Each had their pleasures and each made me eager to see them again in fully staged productions. Since I hadn't seen the latter two (I've seen the other eight in the cycle at least once), this event offered me exactly what it intended -- a chance to experience Wilson's great words performed by great casts. They stand on their own but they're also invaluable for those who have yet to see them on stage. Since Wilson was the second most produced playwright in America last year (after Shakespeare), clearly most everyone has the chance to see at least some of his plays. That will surely make them all the more hungry to read and hear the rest. And then they'll discover this resource, this archive, this work of art.

5. VANYA AND SONYA AND MASHA AND SPIKE -- I missed its first incarnation at Lincoln Center, so while many critics had this on their list last year, I caught up with it on Broadway. It's Christopher Durang's warmest, most human comedy and the funniest show of the year. The entire play is perfectly cast and it's great to see stars like David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver make room for Kristine Nielsen's remarkable turn in the role of a lifetime. I look forward to the revivals sure to come.

6.PASSION -- The revival of Stephen Sondheim's Passion was the highlight of Classic Stage Company's season. It wasn't a revelation for me -- I loved the show when it debuted on Broadway -- but the excellent cast and staging combined with the gift of CSC's intimate space to make this a truly memorable evening of theater. Judy Kuhn and Melissa Errico were triumphant and Ryan Silverman (new to me) was their match as Giorgio. Over the years, I've been heartbroken that a number of shows that premiered at CSC didn't transfer and get a longer life, if only for the selfish reason that I wanted to see them again. Here's one more to add to my list.

7. MATILDA THE MUSICAL -- It came from London wrapped in hype and lived up to expectations. This, for me, is the family show of the moment, with a wickedly black sense of humor, great and eye-catching production design and solid songs that offer plenty of opportunity for witty and engaging performances. They improved on Roald Dahl's novel in ways both large and small, adding some emotional depth without sacrificing his rather nasty worldview and it's all perfectly wonderful for kids and their parents. The score isn't great enough to send me into heaven, but it's solid and funny. I'll be remembering and laughing and shivering just a bit over Bertie Carvell's brilliant embodiment of Miss Trunchbull for the rest of my life.

8. THE WEIR AT THE IRISH REP -- I seem to be alone in finding Conor McPherson's new play The Night Alive underwhelming. It's sure to be on many other Best of the Year lists. But I am a big fan of his work in general and this impeccable revival of The Weir is a case in point. I loved it when I saw the show well into its run on the West End. Here it was even better and an excellent way to celebrate the Irish Rep's 25th anniversary. I'm only astonished it isn't still running, though Off Broadway is such a puzzle for commercial producers I suppose I shouldn't be surprised this didn't transfer.

9. THE NEW YORK MUSICAL THEATRE FESTIVAL -- This annual celebration of new musicals wisely moved to the summer where it could get more attention. NYMF is an institution now and 2013 was a banner year in terms of quality. Bend In The Road was a Broadway worthy production of Anne Of Green Gables, with Alison Woods a delight in the central role. Volleygirls was a seriously commercial and fun look at high school volleyball bursting with talent in its largely female cast. (I suppose the flops Lysistrata Jones andBring It On! scared investors off sports musicals but they missed a winner here.) Other shows almost as good included another high school set story Crossing Swords, a look at the making of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie named Castle Walk and Onalea Gilbertson in another terrific turn in Mata Hari in 8 Bullets. Can't wait for 2014.

10. SAVION GLOVER'S STePz -- Every year, dancer, director and choreographer Savion Glover has a three week residency at the Joyce and offers up a new show. STePz is the latest and one of the best from this enduring talent. He did everything imaginable with steps and stairs, aided by an excellent cast including above all the marvelous Marshall Davis Jr. From the opener set to John Contrane's "Miles' Mode" to the penultimate triumph of a haunting "Mr. Bojangles" sung by Sammy Davis Jr., it was an evening of pure delight.

11. A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER -- Like Catch Me If You Can a few seasons ago, this is a great production of a merely good musical. But it out-Droods The Mystery Of Edwin Drood in its music hall silliness, the set design is brilliant, the cast strong and Jefferson Mays a wonder in playing virtually half of the characters in the show. It's a show-stopper of a turn and more than that because Mays never hijacks the show to show off; he creates individual characters and brings them to life. If no one told you what he was doing, you might not even notice until half way through the night. (My god, isn't that the same actor??!!) Great fun.

12. THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER AT BAM -- Just as the year came to an end, actress Fiona Shaw, dancer-actor Daniel Hay-Gordon and director Phyllida Lloyd (yes, the same talent behind Julius Caesar) delivered theater at its most elemental and powerful. Their performance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music used subtle, centuries-old craft to tell the story of a sailor haunted by the killing of an albatross and doomed to tell his tale of woe to passers-by seemingly for all eternity. Shaw and Hay-Gordon did a delightful dance, with Shaw voicing all the parts and the two seamlessly trading off the physical parts with clarity and grace. One moment Shaw is playing the Wedding Guest and the next the Mariner, one moment Hay-Gordon is the Guest and the next he's a sailor or the albatross and they never miss a beat. Impeccably done and hopefully the latest in what will continue to be an exploration by Shaw and Lloyd of great poetry on stage.

13. ISAAC'S EYE/YEAR OF THE ROOSTER -- It was the year of Ensemble Studio Theatre for me. This small house nurtures new playwrights with care and passion. They introduced me to the distinctive voices of Lucas Hnath and Eric Dufault, two talents I'll be following for years to come. (Indeed, Hnath already delivered a fascinating piece on Walt Disney, confirming his promise.) Good writing attracts good actors so I also had the pleasure of watching Bobby Moreno strut around the stage like the cock of the walk as he embodied the confused, angry, preening rooster Odysseus.