Andrew Osborne’s Best of 2011: Theater

Theater has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but 2011 was especially dramatic with a staged production of my screenplay Dramarama at Middleboro, MA’s Alley Theater this past spring and a reading of my play No Love rounding out the year December 18th at the Eclectic Company Theatre in North Hollywood, CA.  But it was also a pretty dang good season from the audience side of things (even though I didn’t get to see that big Mormon musical everyone keeps talking about)…

1. SLEEP NO MORE

So, for those of you keeping score, this is the THIRD YEAR IN A ROW I’ve listed Punchdrunk’s immersive phantasmagoria as the top pick in my Best Of list…partly because it’s still the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen (despite the best efforts of Gossip Girl to sprinkle lame on it), and partly because I got to see the show again in 2011 when it transferred from Brookline, MA to its expanded NYC incarnation.  Despite numerous visits to the surreal McKittrick Hotel, I still haven’t seen everything – and I’ve never seen the same show twice.

2.  PORGY & BESS

The old version of Porgy & Bess was controversial because it was kinda boring and borderline minstrel-y in its white guy depiction of black life in 1920s South Carolina, while 2011’s American Repertory Theatre revival was controversial (to Stephen Sondheim, at least) because it tampered with the old version.  Despite all that, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the stellar cast and energetic pacing of the Diane Paulus/Suzan Lori-Parks/Deidre Murray revamp of the Gershwin classic for the 21st century.

3.  COMPANY

Speaking of Sondheim…while I didn’t technically see this intensely satisfying all-star production of the quintessential ‘70s relationship musical on stage, I did get to experience the charming “let’s put on a show” exuberance of Stephen Colbert (and his bright red turtleneck) with an enthusiastic live audience thanks to a limited-run big screen broadcast of the sold-out performance.  (And Colbert’s castmates – Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Hendricks, Patti Lupone, a surprisingly villainous Jon Cryer, et. al – were none too shabby themselves!)

4.  R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER:  THE HISTORY (AND MYSTERY) OF THE UNIVERSE

A.R.T. stalwart Thomas Derrah brought the fascinating personal history and pointy-headed theories of geodesic dome enthusiast R. Buckminster Fuller to life in a bravura one-man show, supported by top-notch stage, sound, light and projection design which transformed a cozy college lecture hall into the helm of an interdimensional spaceship bound for infinity.

5.  DINA MARTINA

Whether dispensing gifts like a shroud of Turin style imprint of her own heavily made-up face on a t-shirt or belting out fractured pop songs and show tunes in an ill-fitting Snow White costume, Dina Martina lit up The Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts in Boston and The Crown & Anchor in Provincetown like a surreal cross between Divine, Judy Garland and Zach Galifianakis.

6. BILLY ELLIOT

Burly miners singing and dancing with little girls in tutus + nasty Margaret Thatcher songs (and puppets!) = a crowd-pleasing, potty-mouthed charmer at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre.

7. THE BLUE FLOWER

Dada met Kurt Weill at the A.R.T. in a stylish, fictionalized depiction of artists and scientists in Germany before, during and after the World Wars.

8. THE DIVINE SISTER

Charles Busch’s parody of nunsense from The Song of Bernadette to Doubt provided an endlessly clever launch pad for a tight, witty ensemble at the Boston Center for the Arts, headlined by national treasure Varla Jean Merman.

9. CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS

The American Voices series proved a staged reading can be just as dramatic as a full production when it features actors like Chris Cooper, Marianne Leone Cooper and Middleboro’s own Jared Craig.

10. THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

I went into the A.R.T.’s theatrical nightclub Oberon expecting to see the original stage version of Rocky Horror and got a glorified version of the midnight movie stage show instead, but that’s still a pretty fun night out, especially with awesome Gold Dust Orphan Ryan Landry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

WORST:  HAIR

The Boston cast of Diane Paulus’ Broadway revival sang and danced their hearts out, and it’s hard to go too far wrong with such a powerful, toe-tapping score.  But the squeaky-clean hippies were more like bewigged ‘60s theme park performers than believable characters from a specific time and place, and the political context at the heart of the show seemed freeze-dried and simplistic rather than vital and contemporary.

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