Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best of 2009 On-Stage

You either saw them or you didn’t. Tremendous passion and effort went into scores of independent theater productions that had limited runs and now live on only as memories with those fortunate enough to see them. Such is the nature of theater. The following is this year’s list of the top ten straight plays, musicals, and one-person shows that scratched their way onto the New York boards outside of the proper Broadway theaters and big, just barely off-Broadway venues (while reluctantly excluding some very entertaining dance reviews that did not really have a dramatic component per se).

The Godlight Theatre Company’s thoroughly impressive production of George Orwell’s 1984 was completely engrossing for someone quite familiar with the prophetic novel, yet should have been accessible for audiences walking in cold. Inventively staged with the Orwell estate’s blessing in the 59E59’s intimate Theater C, it was a riveting show, particularly timely in these Orwellian times.

Often, the absence of a dramatic foil gives solo theater a distinctly stagey vibe. Not so in the case of Haerry Kim’s Face, mounted during the terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA festival. Based on first-person accounts of Korean so-called comfort women brutalized by the Japanese military during WWII, Kim gave an absolutely riveting performance. It was a viscerally intense theater that still managed to find a small measure of inspiration in her character’s resilience.

Can a Fringe show actually crack the top ten? If it cleverly integrates Edgar Allan Poe’s final poem “Annabel Lee” with his classic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” in an original book musical, then the answer is sure, why not? Indeed, Fall of the House of Usher was a smartly conceived mélange of the Poe canon, featuring some surprisingly memorable songs.

In a fresh twist on the Great American Songbook, jazz vocalist Stevie Holland performed Cole Porter’s timeless standards in persona of his wife Linda, in Love, Linda, an elegant hybrid of solo theater, cabaret, and jazz. Dramatically, she gave Mrs. Porter her due and vocally she demonstrated a real affinity for Mr. Porter’s sophisticated lyrics and catchy melodies.

Though Mrs. Warren’s Profession has been one of George Bernard Shaw’s most revived plays, as it turned out, we did indeed need another production. That is because leads Joy Franz and Carolyn Kozlowski dug into Shaw’s cutting dialogue with absolute conviction. The result was a night of theater that felt surprisingly modern, bringing to mind the work of Neil LaBute.

Kung Fu Blaxplloitation on-stage? Bring it on. Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai had attitude to burn and a killer charismatic lead performance from Maureen Sebastian that delivered a tasty blend of humor and violence.

Transparently based on the life of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the Oscar winning actor and survivor of the Marxist Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, Henry Ong’s Sweet Karma was a fascinating meditation on the emotional and Karmic costs involved in surviving such horrifying madness. Tight and compelling despite its fracturing narrative, Karma offered a few big picture surprises and a moving lead performance from JoJo Gonzalez.

Not produced in New York since its 1922 Broadway premiere, The Tidings Brought to Mary was the first of three planned revivals of French Catholic playwright Paul Claudel’s work from the Blackfriars Repertory. Dealing with themes of forgiveness and sacrifice in the starkest of terms, it was an unusually meaty and demanding production.

Brilliantly re-imagining Karel Čapek’s R.U.R, Mac Rogers’s Universal Robots also packed a devastating emotional punch thanks to a talented cast. A cautionary tale of both technology and ideology running amok, Universal was a heady brew of science fiction and philosophical-ethical questions.

One of the best staged genre productions of the year, Eric Sanders’s adaption of Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo was a cool little production for those who enjoy a good supernatural yarn, but prefer the suggestive to the graphic.

It is amazing how many theaters there are in the City. Sure, there is a lot of dubious work being produced, but there are real gems constantly running somewhere in town. It is definitely worth taking a few chances to see something truly rewarding.