Best of 2021: Greater Nippertown Area Theater

We drove to Stamford, CT in February to see a play but it was late April before there were productions in the Capital Region. Much of the theater we saw this year was out-of-town so my Best of 2022 list is going to have quite a few road trips. Although we probably only saw a third of what we would normally see in a playgoing year pre-Pandemic, what we did love was galvanizing, revivifying, and extraordinary. Brandishing our Excelsior Passes and masks, the very act of attending theater felt daring…a death-defying act. Thankfully many of the theater artists we attended responded in kind, creating vitally important work because there was a great deal at stake. We dealt with a reasonable number of cancellations due to weather at outdoor theaters in the summer and the Omicron variant in the past two weeks but there were highlights frequently and these 10 were my absolute favorite theater performances of 2021. I am eager to see what’s next.

“Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage

Second Stage Theatre at Helen Hayes Theatre, NYC, NY

Lynn Nottage worked in a brand-new key for her of scabrous, howlingly funny dialogue delivered by four ex-cons working their way back to respectable lives in a roadside sandwich diner overseen by the commanding Uzo Aduba. There was an abundance of Black playwrights represented on Broadway this Fall and this one rose to the top for me with it’s huge heart, gut busting humor and implacable foe.

“The Demolition Downtown” by Tennessee Williams

Die-Cast at Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, Provincetown, MA

Director Brenna Geffers took Tennessee Williams’s short play, originally published in Esquire Magazine in 1971 and took it’s Viet Nam fears rivening the country 50 years ago and let the paranoia and suppression explode into our summer of continued unease and disease. The stage was mainly lit in the Bas-Relief Park by three workers wearing miners’ lights on their heads. The physical production crumbled as the threats to the suburbs continued and the soundtrack contained a mix of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and Trump’s address on 1/6.

“Eleanor” by Mark St. Germain

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA

Photo by David Dashiell

Harriet Harris could not be better in the role of Mark St. Germain’s “Eleanor” which is Eleanor Roosevelt. The marriage of role, performer, and subject matter was perfect.  She is an entertainer spinning stories, a mother to comfort us, a confidante, a fierce champion of civil rights, and somewhat surprisingly, her own sharpest critic. It was extraordinary work by this Tony Award winner and I feel lucky to have witnessed it. It’s an old-fashioned piece in some ways but it was done by peerless craftspeople, committed artisans speaking truth to power. It was heartening to attend that the theater, at least, has powerful forces working for the good of the country and its ideals.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Eugene O’Neill

Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, NY

Every theatrical production coming out of the pandemic has seemed like a challenge but how about Eugene O’Neill’s three-hour plus masterwork? BST dared to forge ahead with what they described as the Everest of American drama and triumphed. They upped their production ante with costumes (Michelle Rogers), set (Marc Swanson), lighting (Nick Hawrylko) and a haunting original score by Justin Morell but the actors provided the fireworks with their tenderness yielding to explosive interactions. The great ensemble directed by John Sowle were Taylor Congdon, Roxanne Fay, Christopher Patrick Mullen, Christopher Joel Onken & Steven Patterson.

“Matilda” by Dennis Kelly & Tim Minchin

Playhouse Stage at Park Playhouse, Albany, NY

Photo by Willie Short

Imagine there’s a small group of extraordinarily talented children and they’ve been promised a showcase for their talents over a year and a half ago but a worldwide cataclysm interrupts their plans and they must remain inside, rehearse over Zoom for a year while grown-ups across the world denied, debated and dithered until finally, they could scream out “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you have to grin and bear it, If you always take it on the chin and wear it, Nothing will change!” Kudos to director Chuck Kraus, music director Brandon Jones, the leads Molly Engelhardt, Claire Flynn, Jason Sorrano, Chris Frazier as Trunchbull, and all those irreplaceable revolting children!

“Nina Simone: Four Women” by Christina Ham

Berkshire Theatre Group at Unicorn Stage, Stockbridge, MA

Photo by Jaoey Rae Russell

The play is set in the aftermath of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL which inspired Nina Simone to move from entertainment to activism. Felicia Curry gave a transcendent performance as Simone singing the hell out of the songs and unleashed her fury on those who would have her censor herself. “I’ll slay folks with my lyrics and save my bullets for later.” My one regret this year is that I did not give her rendition of “Sinnerman” a standing ovation mid-show. This play was a siren’s call to arms.

“Pipeline” by Dominique Morriseau

Circle Theatre Players at Sand Lake Center for the Performing Arts, Averill Park, NY

Pipeline Photo by Eric Washburn

There was a fine production of this play by WAM at Shakespeare & Co. not long before the Pandemic shut down all the playhouses but it got a fantastic production this past summer with Siobhan Shea’s Capital Region premiere of it out on Route 43. The young director, Shea, showed herself very nimble and resourceful; using projections, direct address and every inch of the stage to tell this story of a young Black man in peril. She also assembled one of the best casts of the year with Rebekah Brisbane, Kristin Crouch, Jonathan Lajas, Imani McCalmon, David Quinones & Majestic Tillman.

“Queen of the Night” by travis tate

Dorset Theatre Festival at Southern Vermont Arts Center, Manchester, VT

Photo by Joey Moro

The outdoor setting of “Queen of the Night” became a character in the play “Queen of the Night.” Father (Danny Johnson) and son (Leland Fowler) have retreated to this remote camping site to commune before the ex-wife and mother of the two remarries and hash out their differences as a father to a gay son. The playing area (fantastically designed by Christopher & Justin Swader with a dozen startling lighting effects by Yuki Nakase Link) is perched on an embankment at SVAC with a vista of forest behind it which will be employed throughout. “Queen of the Night” was a World Premiere by travis tate and DTF, playwright tate and director Raz Golden have taken on the challenge of their outdoor setting, this fractured country, and searching their own hearts to create a first-class work of art.

“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel House and Gardens, Garrison, NY

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Shakespeare’s final play was the final production for HVSF of their 34-year residency at Boscobel and the director Ryan Quinn and choreographer Suzannah Millonzi made the most of the environment with a terrific coup de theater in the opening scene as there was a bank of stage smoke 30 yards from the playing area of the tent which the cast emerged from as if being hurled up from the sea by the shipwreck that starts the play. Terrific use of music, dance and humor kept this Tempest swirling to its redemptive conclusion.

“Walden” by Amy Berryman

TheatreWorks Hartford at Riverfront Recapture, Windsor, CT

There were a few exceptional uses of outdoor locations and none were more imaginative, daring, or successful than TheatreWorks production of “Walden” directed by Mei Ann Teo which took place down a quarter-mile path in the industrial section of town on the edge of the woods. Every patron was handed a pair of headphones and the drama about an astronaut (Jeena Yi) who returned to earth to convince her sister (Diana Oh) to leave her sustainable life experiment with her climate activist boyfriend (Gabriel Brown) to assist on a mission to Mars was played in a vast area surrounding and inside a tiny house facing away from the woods. The actors could enter and use the house, wander in fields 20 yards in either direction, and be perfectly understood as the tensions escalated between fighting for the Earth’s future or embracing a more questing vision. The capper on the night was the use of otherworldly lighting effects (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) in the surrounding woods as night descended.

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