Light the lights: My 2014 top 10 plays list is here

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How was this year in New York City theater? I saw a fair amount, less than in other years, but then, quantity doesn’t beget quality. I saw plays by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Harold Pinter. I’ve never seen that hat trick of playwrights in the same calendar year before – and my first Marlowe production. Also productions by Martin McDonagh and Will Eno, two contemporary favorites. And, a tick for my bucket list: Kenneth Branagh in a Shakespeare play – An absolute highlight.

As the curtain comes down on another year, ticket prices continue to go up. When a seat in the last row of a 1000-seat Broadway house goes for nearly $90 – well I won’t be seeing that show. Gone are the days when you could see a dozen Off-Broadway plays for the price of one Broadway ticket. In New York City though, we are luckier than those in smaller theater markets because there are still ways to get discounted tickets such as TDF, if you qualify, TKTS or Playbill Online, all as available.

Theater, like film, is now delivered internationally on demand through Digital Theatre which offers productions from the West End and Shakespeare’s Globe. Or view in cinemas via NTLive from the National Theatre in London, which beams productions as they are performed, or taped, such as Danny Boyle’s marvelous Frankenstein. It’s not like being in the audience, but if you can’t fly across the pond, it’s manna from heaven for theater lovers like me.

So with my rant finished, how was this year in theater? Bravissimo!

My top 10 plays (in alphabetical order):

1 > The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh

Cripple Billy only wanted to escape – to go somewhere to get away from his small Irish town with the poverty, the gossip and the boredom. One day a documentary film crew from the States arrives… One of McDonagh’s very black, funny-on-the-edge-of-insane plays featured a superb ensemble led by Daniel Radcliffe playing Billy with a sensitive intelligence while being constantly bombarded by the cruel behavior of relatives and neighbors. It was a wonderful production of a lesser (that’s relative) McDonagh play.

2 > Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey

A dark, Irish classic set in impoverished Dublin during the Irish Civil war where one family’s story takes them from misfortune to hope to despair and tragedy. A fine revival from the Irish Rep with a fine cast featuring a powerful performance from J. Smith Cameron as Juno, the matriarch of the Boyle clan who balances practicality with emotional support for her debilitated family: A drunkard husband, an unmarried, pregnant daughter, and a targeted son. When their promised inheritance never comes, illusions are shattered, and Juno must find the inner strength to face a grim future head on.

3 > Macbeth by William Shakespeare

As members of the Angus clan, we entered the Armory’s 55,000 square-foot hall, were led across the moors, through a labyrinthine backstage and up two narrow staircases to the backless bleachers that would be our vantage point for the next two hours as raw ambition filled the air and war was waged in the mud below. Fully immersive and cinematic in scope, this Macbeth was gritty, fierce, lusty and electric. Stunning performances by all, especially leads Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston. I will never forget Branagh’s delivery of the tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow soliloquy.

4 > The Machinal by Sophie Treadwell

Knowing little about this play going in, it took me a while to appreciate all the facets of the production and how they were integral to this expressionist work. The cast was wonderful with Rebecca Hall fully inhabiting Helen, a young woman feeling confined by a mechanical and materialistic society. Longing to break free of the day-to-day, but ill-equipped to do so, she marries her boss whom she loathes, has a child who oppresses her, and is jilted by a lover who leaves her. Short scenes in combination with repetitive dialogue defined the expressionist form, and masterful set design and superb lighting fully supported the script.

5 > Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

It’s hard to resist Shakespeare under the stars on a beautiful summer night in the Delacorte Theater. And when a sparkly production of Much Ado is center stage, all the better. As the wispiest of my top 10, the play rested on the steely wills (and acting chops) of the warring Beatrice and Benedict. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater assumed the characters wonderfully, with the latter enjoyably giddly and goofy once tricked into love. And indeed there was much to love – a fantastic cast, music and set design, putting us firmly in sun-drenched Sicily – magic.

6 > No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter

Has the down-and-out Spooner (Sir Ian McKellen) fabricated his past? Was Hirst (Sir Patrick Stewart) a part of that past? Are these men strangers? Is it real? Does it matter? Judging by the title, it does not. An absurdist Pinter creation, there will always be more questions than answers, more interpretations than absolutes, and two forces needing to control the other. Both McKellen and Stewart are in top form, comically spewing lines of precise Pinteresque dialogue and holding those famous pauses.

7 > The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno

Eno, it appears, is not for everyone. Broadway – not ready – or perhaps not a good fit. I have seen most of his quirky, existential plays, and thoroughly appreciate his work. This play is about words, what happens when they begin to slip away, and where realistic is not an accurate representation of what is real. A superb quartet – Tracy Letts, Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei – play two very different couples, both named Jones, trying to connect on the surface while illness halts communication below. The comic moments, and there many, serve as the balm for the painful reality of looming death.

8 > Red-Eye to Havre de Grace by Thaddeus Phillips, Jeremy Wilhelm, Geoff Sobelle, David Wilhelm and Sophie Bortolussi with Ean Sheehy

The only musical on my list combined brilliant storytelling using opera, dance and poetry in imagining the mysterious, final days of Edgar Allan Poe. This tragi-comedy succeeds also in dispelling the ghoulish nature of the poet. His life is shown as that of complex man with many obsessions, but also shows intense affection for his family. Ean Sheehy’s performance as Poe was first-rate. Tall, thin and gaunt, his resemblance to the man whose visage is so unique and familiar was eerie. Lighting and production design were very inventive, and intricately moved the plot forward.

9 > Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

The ultimate absurdist tale about the fate and identity of a family of characters left unrealized by their author. Desperate to come to life, the characters interrupt the rehearsal of another Pirandello play and demand that their story be told. An equally amusing and provocative play-within-a-play where dramatic lines have been blurred. Well acted and gorgeous in its minimalist production from Paris’ Théâtre de la Ville, the play examines the tension between artifice and reality.

10 > Tamburlaine Parts I & II by Christopher Marlowe

A Scythian shepherd who rises to power to become king of most of the world, Tamburlaine is brilliantly played by John Douglas Thompson, relishing every word and deed. Absent from a New York stage for decades, this edited two-part revival has an eerie contemporary relevance in its religious struggles between Christians and Muslims. Ruthless, bloody and relentless, the production moved along at a swift pace, stopping only long enough to mop up the fake blood, to set the stage for Part II. My first Marlowe play – well done TFANA, where the new Elizabethan mainstage is the best introduction to this author. Continues through 4 january 2015.

There it is. My top 10 in films is up, and my year-end wrap is in the books. In the meantime, what were your tops in theater?

Stagebills montage: Design + animation © 2014 Janet Giampietro

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