The Best Theatre of 2016

2016 was a terrible year for almost everything but the arts. Yes, while we watched in horror at the national news, we could also steal away to the movies or the theatre and watch our fair share of incredible art. Movie-wise, I’m still clawing my way through the 200+ films of note that came out this year, though I would be immensely surprised if anything could come even remotely close to the acutely devastating powers of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Seaa film so heartrending that it actually frightens me to think about sometimes, but once again the theatre has given us a wide variety of wonderful experiences to cherish for years to come.

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Timothy Olyphant and C.J. Wilson in Hold On to Me Darling

For my New York trip in the spring, I was lucky enough to see a handful of very high quality works of theatre, including Kenneth Lonergan’s new play Hold On to Me Darling, which represented an unusual foray in to comedy for a man whose instincts run towards the heartbreaking, though it featured a highly moving final scene. Also of note in New York were David Harrower’s Blackbird, featuring a pair of knockout performances by Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, The King and I in a lavish and energetic production at Lincoln Center (with Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe, and Ruthie Ann Miles), and Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which remains one of the most terrifying and overwhelming experiences of my life, theatre or otherwise.

Also in my travels I was able to see a first-rate production of First Lady Suite, Michael John LaChiusa’s gorgeously cerebral mini-opera at a 31-seat theatre in Chicago, as well a trio of exceptional productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The Yeomen of the Guard, The Winter’s Tale, and the magnificent staging of Hamlet that is likely to go down in the history books as one of Ashland’s best productions ever.

In the Bay Area, things looked quite good as well, with several theatre companies beating their own standards for high quality productions and choosing unique and interesting plays that continue to define the San Francisco Bay Area as a region to watch for outstanding theatre. Those among us who saw plays like The Night Alive at San Jose Stage, The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse, Angels in America: Perestroika at Town Hall Theatre, Little Shop of Horrors at the Ray of Light Theatre, The Hard Problem at the American Conservatory Theatre, or any other of the high quality local productions will know that the bay area is more than just your average spot for regional theaters.

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Beth Wilmurt tears up the theatre as David Sinaiko watches possibly afraid of her astonishing acting abilities, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

And now for my “awards”

Best Performance in a Play: Beth Wilmurt showed us a whole new side to Martha in Shotgun Players’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, radically re-interpreting the character in a way that brought a new level of coherency to a play that, I confess, had never thrilled me as much as it had others.

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Rodney Earl may be charming Ilona, but Nanci Zoppi is bewitching the audience in She Loves Me

Best Performance in a Musical: Nanci Zoppi set the San Francisco Playhouse on fire with her fantastically funny and warm Ilona in She Loves Me.

Best Ensemble: The four members of Theatreworks’s production of Outside Mullingar worked so tightly together I would swear that they had been running the show for over a year

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The cast of The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident prepares for a dance battle for the ages.

Best New Work: Barry Eitel gave us the aggressively bizarre and bizarrely aggressive The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident, a play that my colleagues were not quite as charmed by as myself, but that gave be a sore stomach the next day from laughing so hard.

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Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller create a powerful King Lear with nothing but puppets and a miniature marionette stage.

 

Best Classical Production: The Independent Eye toured with their spectacular King Lear that featured only two actors and a half-dozen puppets. It sounds like a cheap gimmick, but it proved to be perhaps the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen. I reviewed the production for my friend Charles Kruger’s website Theatrestorm here.

Best Musical: San Francisco Playhouse showed their might again after a slightly shaky season with their letter-perfect version of She Loves Me, one of the best musicals of all time

Best Modern Production: The American Conservatory Theatre mounted a grand production of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III back in October, a modernist version of a Shakespearean history play that, while lacking in the stunning power of Shakespeare’s language and grasp of the infinite, reveled in the divine entertainment that such melodramatic plays can give us. A miniseries will be produced in 2017 based on the play, but nothing can beat seeing it on the Conservatory’s epic unit set in the cascading halls of the gorgeous Geary Theatre.

And there you have it folks. The best theatre of 2016. 2017 looks like it’s going to be quite a year again, with several great new plays being produced all over the area. I, for one, am most excited to see San Francisco Playhouse’s The Christians as well as the American Conservatory Theatre’s John.

Until then, happy New Year and great theatre to you all

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