Arts & Culture

Best of theater 2018: Sensations that crossed borders

Clockwise from left: Jeannette Bayardelle and the company of “Girl from the North Country” at The Public Theater (Joan Marcus); David Emerson Toney (Holloway), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Reginald Andre Jackson (Wolf) in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at D.C.’s Arena Stage (C. Stanley Photography); David Morrissey (left) as Mark Anthony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus in “Julius Caesar” at Bridge Theatre in London (Manuel Harlan).
Clockwise from left: Jeannette Bayardelle and the company of “Girl from the North Country” at The Public Theater (Joan Marcus); David Emerson Toney (Holloway), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Reginald Andre Jackson (Wolf) in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at D.C.’s Arena Stage (C. Stanley Photography); David Morrissey (left) as Mark Anthony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus in “Julius Caesar” at Bridge Theatre in London (Manuel Harlan).

My 10 best theatrical experiences of 2018 emanate from all over the atlas: D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront; New York’s Central Park; under London’s Tower Bridge; Stratford, Ontario; and even a Pennsylvania social-services center on Lake Erie. The variety of locales is a reminder of the possibilities of great drama popping up everywhere.

1. “Girl From the North Country.” The best musical of the year - first produced in a fine London incarnation and perfected in a follow-up edition at New York’s Public Theater - brought together the talents of playwright-director Conor McPherson (“The Weir”) and folk-rock troubadour Bob Dylan. McPherson uses the Nobel Prize winner’s songbook to soulfully embroider a multi-character Depression-era story, set in a boardinghouse in Duluth, the Minnesota city of Dylan’s birth. The result is a tender, mellifluous rumination on desperate times and sad outcomes.

2. “Underground Railroad Game.” Philadelphia-based Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard created this clever, disturbing and gut-grabbing performance piece to reveal the eternally corrosive legacy of slavery. Their method was to turn the audience at Woolly Mammoth Theatre into students at a school assembly and to take us through a series of wickedly funny, unsettling - and sometimes violent - vignettes to show us how accessible our prejudices remain.

3. “The Ferryman.” An epic achievement in storytelling by dramatist Jez Butterworth, director Sam Mendes and a cast more than 20 strong. On Broadway, no less - by way of London - Butterworth weaves the tale of a Northern Irish farmer and former member of the Irish Republican Army in the time of the Troubles between Protestants and Catholics. There is no safe haven from the turmoil, not even in the boggy countryside, when the IRA comes looking for its onetime soldier in this wonderfully absorbing play.

4. “Dance Nation.” A glorious off-Broadway surprise hit by Clare Barron, this wise comedy-drama is a chronicle of the travails of an Ohio all-girls after-school dance team, in which the girls are played by women of all ages and by one man, as well. Under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans, and distilled most effectively through the performance of Thomas Jay Ryan as the dancers’ dour coach, the play wryly records the folkways of America’s penchant for competition in every discipline imaginable.

5. “Yerma.” This updated version of the 1934 play by Federico García Lorca, about a woman who loses her sanity over her infertility, was a sensation at the Park Avenue Armory, which is emerging as one of New York’s most important venues for ingenious theater of both visual style and impressive scale. Performed in a glass box, with the audience peering in from opposite sides, the modern-dress production, adapted and directed by Simon Stone, gave us the sense of actors - especially the remarkable Billie Piper - living out a Lorca nightmare, as though they were specimens in a terrarium.

6. “Two Trains Running.” Arena Stage, in partnership with Seattle Repertory Theatre, revived what is sometimes regarded as one of August Wilson’s lesser achievements, a story set in a black-owned Pittsburgh diner in the midst of the racial unrest in the late 1960s. But as director Juliette Carrillo and a splendid cast revealed, any one of Wilson’s works has the potential to bowl you over and reorder your priorities. On this occasion, it was a Wilson tale of deep scars nursed in the humdrum surroundings of a humble eatery on the brink of extinction that evinced unexpected emotional depth.

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7. “Sweat.” I had seen Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play twice, in Washington and New York. Yet neither time did the play about the labor and ethnic hostilities aroused in a dying Pennsylvania town after a factory decides to ship jobs to Mexico affect me as forcefully as the touring version New York’s Public Theater, which was produced in 18 cities and towns in five Rust Belt states over 29 days this fall. As grown men wept around me in a makeshift theater in Erie, Pennsylvania, I finally fully grasped the impact of the piece - how it spoke truth to the powerless.

8. “Julius Caesar.” The theatrical revelations this year included Shakespeare plays that always seem to be tripped up by stolid approaches to challenging texts. At the new Bridge Theatre in London, Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner assembled a superb cadre of actors, including Ben Wishaw, David Morrissey and Michelle Fairley; filled the playing area with audience members who became impromptu citizens of Rome; and developed the most exciting, cogently political take I’ve ever witnessed of a play that in lesser hands can devolve into turgid speechifying.

9. “Coriolanus.” Bravo, too, to that wily Quebec-based visionary, Robert Lepage, for turning one of the other Roman tragedies into a sensory delight, courtesy of a cinematic approach that offered a theater audience the visceral charge of a big-screen thriller (and a superior actor, André Sills, assaying the title role). The site was the venerable Stratford Festival in Ontario, which, under Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, has been trying out a host of casting and directorial innovations. His recruitment of Lepage for this assignment was inspired.

10. “Twelfth Night.” And then there’s director Shaina Taub, who made Central Park’s Delacorte Theater an essential destination for wholly embraceable invention. Her “Twelfth Night,” complete with her irresistible, original pop score, assembled professional actors, as well as amateur performers, from an assortment of city neighborhoods to reinvigorate one’s own romantic feelings for one of Shakespeare’s great comedies. The production was a product of the Public Theater’s Public Works initiative. If you want a primer on how to keep the Bard fresh and capable of mass appeal, by all means, consult the minds behind this program.

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