Best of 2019: Top 10 Theatrical Discoveries
There is nothing like the thrilling shock of encountering something brand new in the theater. The hair on the back of your neck stands up, your breathing quickens and you find yourself craning towards the stage. Every trip to the theater brings you face to face with breathing, heaving life but there are some experiences that give your heart and head a workout that need to be remembered at the end of the year.
Lists are terrible things in their finiteness. Everything must fit into a prescribed length. But, of course, in a year of such magnificent playgoing, that is impossible. There were many other outstanding plays and directors encountered for the first time this year which demand recognition including Michelle Carter’s “Better” at Bridge Street Theatre, Adam Bock’s “Before the Meeting” at Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Fairview” at Theatre for a New Audience and “The Outsider” by Paul Slade Smith at Curtain Call Theatre. There were accomplished and well-supported directorial debuts in the Capital Region by Melanie Douglas with “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at Sand Lake Center for the Arts, Laura Darling’s “Emilie” at Confetti Stage, James Alexander’s “The Addams Family” and Brian Clemente’s “The Wild Party” at Schenectady Light Opera Company.
One of the greatest discoveries is a brand-new theatre opening just an hour and a half to the south in funky New Paltz. DENIZEN is a very flexible black box that has focused on new work. Every show we’ve seen there has been our first encounter with the work except for “Every Brilliant Thing,” which we saw twice this past year. Every time you enter the theater, the audience configuration and stage have changed according to the needs of the play and the plays cover a lot of relevant ground by established playwrights like Penelope Skinner and Ike Holter. They have frequent talkbacks, open dress rehearsals and pay what you can nights frequently on Wednesdays during the run. Co-artistic directors Harry Lipstein, Brittany Proia & Ben Williamson trade directing and acting assignments in the season roster and are worthy of hearty congratulations on their amazing first year.
One of my favorite new plays in one of my favorite summer theaters caught me completely unawares this past summer when I encountered “Dig” by Theresa Rebeck at Dorset Theatre Festival this past summer. It is a terrific moral thriller that starred the electrifying Andrea Syglowski as a young woman who returns home on the road to recovery and redemption. She has the hardest time forgiving herself and getting back on her feet. Directed by the playwright, her desperate struggle to survive and even get a full breath after a confrontation with her ex-husband hit me like a gut punch. We were lucky enough to catch Ms. Syglowski in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven” at the Atlantic Theatre Company at the end of the year and hope we can catch her onstage for many, many years to come.
How great is it that the Capital Region has enough activities and participants to inspire a weekly podcast? Local actors Ellen Cribbs and Benita Zahn (of WNYT fame) host this half hour interview show focusing on all things theater with local guests such as Owen Smith of Park Playhouse, Jean-Remy Monnay of Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY Inc, David Girard of Troy Foundry Theatre, Jeremy Buechner of Local Actors Guild of Saratoga and yours truly among others. It’s great to listen to the local stories and passion surge through these interviews and has provided hours of newfound pleasures this past year.
Claire Flynn & Jake Goodman
These two high school seniors played opposite each other and traded leads in Park Playhouse’s “Newsies” and Schenectady Light Opera Company’s “Mary Poppins.” Their preternatural poise and presence in these demanding roles were almost scary. Jake has a cocky charm, a wide-open face with a killer smile and he can dance and sing terrifically. No one seems to be having a better time onstage. Claire I’ve seen in quite a few plays and she’s always pushing the borough’s boundaries of her far-out characters in “Rumors” and “Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding” but in “Mary Poppins” landed on earth with as firm a grip on her character’s purpose and command as her grasp of her umbrella. Wishing these two and every other Capital Region stage loving kid about to graduate the best college experience in the New Year!
Jeremy O. Harris
Jeremy O. Harris hit the New York theater world like a supernova in 2019. His play “Slave Play” debuted to rave reviews at New York Theatre Workshop, amazingly for its treatment of its subject matter transferred to Broadway in the fall. The New York Times said it was “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years.” He had a second new play, “Daddy,” which some people preferred debut with Alan Cumming in the lead at the Vineyard Theatre and starred in a choreopoem he wrote called “Black Exhibition” at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn. He has been a huge presence on Twitter, has parlayed his celebrity into late night television appearances advocating for inclusion onstage and in the audience on the Great White way and oh, yeah, he just got his MFA from Yale Drama this past spring.
The man himself is no discovery to me as I have known and worked with Evan many times since first meeting him on Chad Larabee’s original interpretation of “Great Expectations” which we performed at UAlbany in 2012. He made his debut as a director in the Capital Region this year with two (count them TWO!) very distinctive and accomplished productions of “Seascape” by Edward Albee at Confetti Stage and the stage adaptation of Henry James’ “Washington Square” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz “The Heiress” at Albany Civic Theater. He was largely successful in creating and conveying very different worlds and maintaining a very high level of tension and interest in both shows. He assembled great casts and just as impressively had a lot of support backstage on both productions. Add to that, he also appeared onstage in two very fine productions of “Maple & Vine” with Creative License and “Torch Song” with Local Actors Guild of Saratoga. I’m greatly looking forward to his Capital Region premiere of “Frost/Nixon” at Schenectady Civic Players the end of January.
Piper Theatre Company
Local son John P. McEneny returned home to his alma mater, Siena College, with his Brooklyn based Piper Theatre Company to present “The Lincoln Dress,” a play with a local setting and apocryphal legend. The play was a meeting of four down-and-out dreamers who look to steal a dress for profit which was allegedly worn by Clara Harris who was in the box at Ford’s Theatre on 4/14/1865 when the President was assassinated. The production was imaginatively staged, wonderfully performed and very well attended by the Capital Region theater and political community. Here’s hoping PTC makes many returns home in the years to come.
This one has been on my list for a long time and when I found myself with a Sunday off south of Syracuse, I made a break for it and took the three-hour drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. There I was greeted with a charming, sumptuous, rollicking “Brigadoon” that had a marvelously inclusive and musically talented cast and a scathing, bloodily vengeful “Victory” about Charles II’s Restoration by Howard Barker. One of the great things about being an actor is visiting different communities and seeing new theaters all over. I’ve always felt rewarded for going an extra mile to get to a theater I’ve never attended before. What better year to escape this country, cross the border into Canada and experience the fantasy of “Brigadoon” and the warnings of revenge politics of Barker?
This Sondheim classic received a radical re-imaging by The Playhouse Stage Company under the direction of Owen Smith at Cohoes Music Hall where the building itself took on a leading role in the penny dreadful revenge musical celebrating its 40th anniversary. There are only nine performers in this production but they are omnipresent, powerful as hell and by the final refrain you will feel overwhelmed by this company’s ability to communicate directly into your eyes and share their unhinged obsessions. Jason Jacoby and Molly McGrath in the leads as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett were superb and never better than when using the floor of the Music Hall and moving among the Pie Shop patrons (us in the audience!) and either charming us with a hard sell or dispatching us with a razor to the throat. Thrilling, intimate, tuneful horror in a groundbreaking re-imagining of the story with an imaginative use of the cast and the building.
The Trojan Hotel
This 1893 building on 3rd Street which has been in and out of service but has not seen life for a few years was the latest landmark in Troy used by Troy Foundry Theatre when it produced its world premiere devised play “Yellow” directed by the prodigiously talented Brenna Geffers. The building was a great location for the themes and purposes of the Victorian horror mood piece and it was used well, lit appropriately and dressed creatively. Troy Foundry has done a terrific job in incorporating these found spaces into their mission to bring unique theatrical experiences to the Capital Region and this hotel’s bar, ballroom, staircases and corners were delightful architectural characters to meet.