The Best Theatre of 2015 Looks Forward to 2016

Ellen Maddow in Golden Toad
Ellen Maddow, Mikeah Ernest Jennings, and James Tigger! Ferguson in The Golden Toad. Photo by Suzanne Opton.

At least as far as the American theatre is concerned, 2015 was the year of Hamilton. While Alexander may have never been elected President of the United States, he’s now, for the time being at least, the King of Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda well deserves every prize, magazine cover, and official genius designation that he’s received in the past year, or will receive in the year to come, for creating this show. However, as is often the case when the mainstream media deigns to pay any heed to the theatre in this country, one artist ends up as the recipient of all of the attention.

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To celebrate a new year (and a newly revamped Clyde Fitch Report), I thought I’d revisit some of the less heralded artists who created my most memorable theatrical events during 2015. None of these folks got invited to be on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, but all of them are turning out the kind of highly personal, innovative work that makes living in New York still worth it after all of these years. But rather than just look back, I asked them what theatrical performances they were looking forward to attending in 2016. Their responses were as wide-ranging and idiosyncratic as their art. I’m certainly adding many of their recommendations to my must-do list for 2016.

Ellen Maddow/Talking Band

In January of last year, Talking Band transformed the vast Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa into the immersive experience of the The Golden Toad. Co-written by and featuring Maddow, the play was a multigenerational saga mapping both the intricate web of relationships of the modern American family and the shifting geographies of the gentrified greater New York City region. They’re currently back at La MaMa with Burnished by Grief, also written by Maddow. When asked what she was eager to see in 2016, Maddow recommended two new pieces: Kristine Haruna Lee’s To the left of the pantry and under the sugar shack, opening February 12 at the La MaMa Club, and Clare Barron’s I’ll Never Love Again, opening February 24 at the Bushwick Starr. Maddow describes the work of both women as “exhilarating…daring, funny, smart, and a little bit dangerous.”

Polly Frost. Photo by Ahron Foster.

Polly Frost

2015 featured two extraordinary solo shows by female writer/performers focusing on their vexed relationships with a deceased parent. One was Dael Orlandersmith’s Forever at New York Theatre Workshop about her working-class Harlem mother. The other was Frost’s monologue about her bourgeois Pasadena dad, We Only Get One Father – So Why Was I Given Mine?, presented in October at Cornelia Street Café. Both pieces tackled what it means to mourn a relationship with a narcissist and the troubling emotional inheritance the survivor is often left with. Looking forward to 2016, Frost says,

“I’m very excited to see early music conductor William Christie’s opera production of André Campra’s Les Fêtes Vénitiennes. I was blown away by Christie’s production of Lully’s opera Atys years ago at BAM. He brought historical precision to the music and dance performances and a post-modern staging approach to the material. The result was exquisitely haunting and resonant in a way po-mo productions often aren’t”

Christie’s company Les Arts Florissants will appear at BAM April 14-17.

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David Greenspan

Two of the overriding concerns of this playwright/actor’s work is the porous relationship between the stage and life and the curious power of the theatre to covey both immortality and oblivion onto its most devoted practitioners. These themes were on ample display in March in his play I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees, directed by Leigh Silverman in a production that situated the audience and actors together on the stage at Abrons Arts Center. In this jazz riff on the “memory play,” a young California man undertakes a pilgrimage across the United States to see the eponymous 1930s movie star perform Blanche in a Long Island summer stock production of A Streetcar Named Desire. While Greenspan’s piece was infused by the spirit of Tennessee Williams, he’s looking forward to a Downtown take on another canonical American playwright, Target Margin Theater’s Mourning Becomes Electra, opening February 7 at Abrons. Greenspan, whose had a longtime association with that company says, “Mourning Becomes Electra is, as many of [Eugene] O’Neill’s plays are, radically experimental. And I can think of no company better suited to produce this work in a contemporary vocabulary consistent with O’Neill’s bold experimentation.”

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Michael Levinton/Little Lord

Another artist long associated with Target Margin, Levinton struck out on his own a few years ago with producing partner Laura von Holt to form Little Lord. Their production of BAMBIF*CKER/KAFFEEHAUS mashed up Disney, Freudian analysis, and The Sound of Music to tell the story of Felix Salten, author of Bambi, notorious pornographer, and victim of Nazi anti-Semitism – while also transforming The Brick into an ersatz Viennese pastry emporium. Levinton’s pick is a new adaptation of The Black Crook by Joshua William Gelb, opening at Abrons in September: “It’s supposedly the first true piece of American musical theater, and it has this crazy back story, and 2016 is the 150th anniversary of it’s premier.” Gelb also appeared as Bambi with Levinton’s company, so if his performance in that show is any indication, New York is in for a treat.

Michael Laurence
Michael Laurence in Hamlet in Bed. Photo by Tristan Fuge.

Michael Laurence

Laurence’s two-hander Hamlet in Bed, starring himself and Annette O’Toole, performed this past fall at Rattlestick Theater. In it Laurence played “Michael,” an actor obsessed with Hamlet who casts a washed-up, alcoholic actress as Gertrude in his experimental production of the play. She may or may not be the woman who gave him up for adoption 30 years earlier. At the same time that he reconstructs one of the quintessential plays about fathers and sons into one about mothers, Laurence also suggests that a predisposition to theatre, like any other addiction, might be passed down in the genes. His top pick for 2016 is the Ivo van Hove production of The Crucible, opening for previews February 29 on Broadway: “It’s like my favorite American play, a perfect play, almost…but now it meets the iconoclast Ivo Von Hove… Whenever he gets his hands on a classic text it ends up being revelatory.”

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Yvan Greenberg/Laboratory Theater

Greenberg’s GENET PORNO at HERE Arts Center was provocative in all the best ways. Not only did he stage sections of Jean Genet’s debut novel, Our Lady of Flowers, as if they were scenes from a gay internet porn video (complete with dildos for the three member cast), he introduced the piece by walking out at the beginning of the show and talking to the audience stark naked. And it actually added up to something – a profound meditation on the eroticism of the written word as opposed to the horniness of the Internet image. He’s excited about seeing the Italian experimental theatre company Societas Raffaello Sanzio, under the direction of Romeo Castellucci, when they bring Go down, Moses to Peak Performances at Montclair State University from June 9-12. Greenberg says,

“Castellucci’s work is shocking, visceral, and engaged in deep, deep, deep, and dark spiritual, mythological, and societal themes…Plus, it’s some of the most theatrically brilliant and beautiful theater in terms of visual and audio experience.”

Mia Yoo in Pylade
Mia Yoo and Marco Mandic in Pylade. Photo by Theo Cote.

Mia Yoo/La MaMa

Yoo, the Artistic Director of La MaMa, returned to the stage in December after a decade-plus absence to appear as Electra in the American premiere of Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Pylade directed by Ivica Buljan from Croatia’s National Theatre Split. Featuring an astonishing level of nudity, physical violence, and forced audience participation, the production played like Artaud on a crystal meth binge and included some business with a watermelon that I can pretty much guarantee will never be repeated on the New York stage ever. It may be the most in-your-face production I’ve ever experienced, and while uneven also unforgettable. Yoo is looking forward to Cherchez La Femme, a new musical featuring the songbook of 1980s club act King Creole & the Coconuts, opening at her theatre in May.

There you have some insider scoops. Now go buy some tickets!