Best of 2020: Celebrating Greatness in Capital Region Theater

The title of this article may strike you as a misnomer but there was great theater before the lockdown on March 12th and extraordinary measures were taken all year long by theater participants to communicate, support, advocate, comfort and mourn after the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on Capital Region theater. The pandemic has claimed 320,000 Americans and we have had hundreds of productions cancelled that would have occupied hundreds of thousands since March but I feel a compelling need finally to ring the bell for the remarkable accomplishments of my fellow artists in this most challenging year.

Entering 2020, the Capital Region was flexing its muscle with more diverse participants and representation, more Capital Region premieres every season and new and alternative spaces showing up almost every month.

January brought us the Capital Region premiere of “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess with Christina Reeves and Monet Thompson directed by Jean-Remy Monnay and presented at Siena College by Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY, Inc. It was one of the troupe’s very best efforts and presciently engaged in the furious Black Lives Matter discussion which would roil the country and the Capital Region months later after the murder of George Floyd in May.

“Models of Perfection” photo of Angelique Powell and Iniabasi Nelson by Richard Lovrich

Monnay would also be at the helm the next month when Confetti Stage would present Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” with performances by Iniabasi Nelson as Dr. Martin Luther King and an incandescent Angelique Powell. Ms. Powell would return in October for a performance with Mr. Nelson again of an original play “Models of Perfection” presented by Troy Foundry Theatre in a parking lot adjacent to The Trojan Hotel which has become TFT’s new home base. If anything, under challenging circumstances, she was even more inventive, creative and fully, vibrantly alive. The performance was a great metaphor for Capital Region theater this year. Nelson gave solid support in a difficult part. I’m looking forward to seeing his work again, hopefully soon.

Playhouse Stage who would take over the management of Cohoes Music Hall mid-year (great news for the theater community!) had an audacious piece of programming immediately prior to the lockdown. They played two bio-musicals in repertory, “Jerry Lee Lewis vs. Jerry Lee Lewis” written and starring the irrepressible and prodigiously talented Jefferson MacDonald and Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille.” Gina-Simone Pemberton gave a terrific, intimate portrayal of Billie Holliday’s towering talent and harrowing descent into drugs and alcohol.

NorthEast Theatre Ensemble continued its exciting, peripatetic ways giving “The Glass Menagerie” an intimate playing in the somewhat cramped Brouwer House in Schenectady’s Stockade. It was worth it for Shae Colleen Fitzgerald’s luminous Laura.

“Frost/Nixon” photo of Conrad Browne-Lorcher by Jenn Snell Moak

Director Evan Jones lucked out with the scheduling of “Frost/Nixon” by Peter Morgan during Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Luckier still he had the technical support of Nicolas Nealon who more than adequately projected the Act II television interview which is the crux of the play thrillingly brought to life by Conrad Browne-Lorcher as Frost and Steve Leifer as Nixon. We’ve always had the actors to fill a big play and Jones’ bench was impressive-Nick Bosanko, Nick Muscatiello, Ryan Palmer, Joe Plock, Angelique Powell (again!), John Quinan, Abbi Roy & Mike Schaefer. Jones marshaled all of the good fortunes at his command and gave this play a great showing in its long-awaited Capital Region premiere.

We were lucky to be in attendance 3/12 as Capital Rep to witness Artistic Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill struggle to say goodbye to its Market Theatre home with the mournful and rollicking “The Irish and How They Got That Way.” What memories in this building! Many with Kevin McGuire who was in this cast and certainly Patrick John Moran’s “Danny Boy” will be added to our cherished memories.

Then? No theater for 100 days.

We all went online and discovered Zoom and Capital Region theater adapted and created a ton of online content. Almost before March was over Evan Jones, Brian Sheldon & David Rook formed Quarantine e-Theatre casting dozens of actors in world premiere works by local playwrights and raised over $25,000. for a dozen local theaters in efforts that went on right up until Christmas. 

Jean-Remy Monnay enlisted the help of Acting with Aaron, Capital Repertory Theatre, Creative Action Unlimited, Illuminate Theatre, Playhouse Stage & Troy Foundry Theatre to craft a theatrical response to George Floyd’s murder with “8:46” which was subsequently watched over 14,000 times.

Josh Mullin, a local actor returned home from his freshman year at Wagner College with four world premiere plays he’d written and produced a student alumni star packed benefit concert for local theaters that feature student actors-Consortium Actors, Debuts Theatre Company, Lights Up, Playhouse Stage & SYFI.

Creative Action Unlimited presented its first film “Shelter” and raised over $10,000. to finance its filming of “Whitewashed” furthering its mission of presenting socially engaged works prompting action.

Morgan Heyward and her Illuminate Theatre took her autobiographical piece directed by Gregory Marsh “Dear Lil” back to Theatre Institute at Sage and stirred hearts and minds with her experiences navigating a predominantly white campus as a black undergraduate.

Capital Repertory Theatre took its Next Act! New Play Summit online and was able to collaborate with actors across the country.

Confetti Stage took its ConfettiFest online and made its 16th edition a film festival. Classic Theatre Guild filmed a performance of “Clue: Onstage” which it then streamed.

In the late summer, Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield, MA became the first two companies to gain Actors Equity approval to stage professional productions during the pandemic. They subsequently staged four works with “The Hills Are Alive with Rogers and Hammerstein” being my favorite. It was a thoroughly entertaining cabaret performance of some of the master songwriter’s tunes with social liberalism featured prominently.

Locally, Home Made Theater presented the Capital Region premiere of “Cry It Out” by Molly Smith Metzler which I directed and TFT presented the aforementioned “Models of Perfection” created by Katie Pedro, devised & curated by Niya Colbert & David Girard. It was a joyous exercise and a fantastic excuse to get out of the house exploring black relationships and power between siblings and the larger community.

Speaking as one of the creators in this pandemic, I can tell you that it is fraught with anxieties and every step you make needs to be weighed and questioned. Can I ask my actors to do that, can I eliminate this prop, how can I restage this scene so that it has an impact across as wide a playing space as possible? And yet, I would do it again in a heartbeat and I’m already dreaming of Spring.

The strength of the Capital Region theater community proved itself again and again. There are metropolitan areas many times the size of the Capital Region that were not able to create something like Q e-T, “8:46” or Next Act. There were dozens and dozens of readings, radio plays, concerts, interviews, game shows… Many local companies report meeting and exceeding their fund-raising goals and no local companies have closed…yet.

There will be a couple of quiet months yet but I have no doubt theater will return in the Spring. It will probably start with site specific and alternative spaces outdoors. There’s a very good chance that just like after last century’s Spanish Flu that these 20s will come roaring back. Capital Region theater is poised to be more inclusive, adventurously staged and engaged with the world than ever before. Here’s to better days!

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