What is the Real? – My Five Favorite Shows in NYC

I started this entry on September 12th, two days before my last day as a New Yorker and had just passed my four-year anniversary in the City on August 22nd.  These four years have been pretty amazing, crazy, hard, wonderful… really, all sorts of adjectives.

As I think of all I didn’t do, I reflect on what made my four years here what they were.  Therefore, a short series on four years in New York shall commence.

September 12, 2011 – My five favorite shows in NYC:

I came to New York four years ago to study theater. Fortunately, I was able to see a lot of it while here.  I still missed a lot of shows (Fela!, Circle Mirror Transformation, the Our Town revival) that folks spoke very highly of, but I am happy with the breadth of what I saw.

Every time the lights dimmed, I still felt the thrill of live theater.  It is a magical experience when done well.

While shlepping boxes to UPS last week, Joe and I got talking about how many Broadway shows I have seen. Eventually, we figured out it was around 55 (including Book of Mormon last night, which was awesome) and that is not counting seeing shows more than once.  Of course there are many off-Broadway shows and Columbia shows and more, but to even figure that out would be impossible.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have ever captured the correct voice to talk about shows I really loved – it is always easier to talk about the problematic aspects of good, but not great shows.  So here is my fan-girl-ish incoherent ramblings of my five favorite shows:

Sleep No More – Punchdrunk Theater Company – 2011 (still running)

I have been holding off blogging about Sleep No More because I’m just not sure what to say.  I think it is still going to have to have its own blog entry, with many spoilers and much gushing.

But in brief – Sleep No More is a performance piece that interprets Macbeth as though in a Hitchcock hotel.  Audience members wear white masks, and explore the 100 rooms at will, interacting with the space and the actors based on each’s individual path.

Dear friend Robert had this to say, immediately following:

Captivated by the lady in red, Her smell lingers-clothes saturated; dancing with the male witch-we both led; a sweaty head-wet my leg; water dripping from her hair-the sexy witch; bruises on her leg-the bald witch; I smell Her now; and I feel Her porcelain grasp from floors above.

I really loved the experience, it was the most magical theatrical adventure I have ever had. And it challenged my personal conventions as an audience member, many times, and in different ways.  Best immersive, audience experience I have had.

To this point, I have seen it twice, and am going tonight to see it a final third time.  I greatly admire the performers, and am amazed by the production design and just heaps of work it must take to keep the show going.

I have recommended it to all my friends, and I do to you too, gentle reader. =) Tickets are available here, and the show has been extended through January.  If you do go, wear running shoes, go as early as possible (there are staggered entrance times) and enjoy!

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson – the Public Theater – May 2010
By Alex Timbers; music and lyrics by Michael Friedman

How many people do you know who have a favorite year in history?

Well …. I do (1968, in case you were wondering). Which is just one sign of what a history dork I am.
Therefore, when you combine American History, a rock musical, and Benjamin Walker in eyeliner – I’m sold!

The Public Theater production of Bloody Bloody tells the story of America’s 7th president, from his frontier life, to his populist campaign and through his presidency. It was full of crazy intensity, smart reference, and joyful anachronism.  I laughed and was moved by the examination of the serious issues of the 18-teens that have ramifications today.  As Ben Brantly said, ‘Though its style is often as skewed as a tilt-a-whirl ride, “Bloody Bloody” takes precision aim at its central target: an impatient electorate ruled by a hunger for instant gratification.

The intricate, and over-the-top set design extended through the whole house, and in our front row seats, we could see the sweat gather as the cast worked their asses off. … I died at the De Tocqueville joke in the musical retelling of the Corrupt Bargain. … ‘Twas really wonderful.

Cripple of Inishmaan – Atlantic Theater Company – February 2009
by Martin McDonaugh

In the summer of 2005, I interned in New York City for about five weeks. It was a wonderful time, and I grew up a lot, and really, I think only that time allowed me to have the courage to move across the country for real. But, I have one big regret – I did not see McDonaugh’s the Pillowman on Broadway.  Although I had read the Lieutenant of Inishmore, I didn’t know the Pillowman and did not do my research.  Instead, I saw Doubt (very good), and Rent (pretty awful)…

Fortunately, in the Winter of 2009, I began work as an intern for the excellent Atlantic Theater Company. I worked in their Development department, learned a lot, and had the opportunity to see the sold out, and widely acclaimed Cripple of Inishmaan.  The play takes place on Inishman – a rural island of the West Coast of Ireland – greatly interested in an American film crew working nearby – Cripple Billy is especially interested.

Druid and the Atlantic brought this world to life, full of a cast of wonderfully eccentric characters – Billy’s guardians, his love interest (who loves pelting eggs at … basically everything), and BabbyBobby, who helps Billy pursue is dream.  The play is not devoid of violence, no McDounaugh piece could be, but it is bit less intense than his other works.  And it was so funny!

It is hard to divorce the theater-going experience from the piece of theater – and I was unbelievably sick the night I saw Inishman.  All I wanted to do was to be lying prone in my bed. But the show was so impressive and well done that it kept my interest and made it the 3 ish hours worthwhile, regardless of any bodily pain.

Blasted – SoHo Rep – Fall 2008
By Sarah Kane

Freshman year of college, I am riding the Amtrak towards San Francisco, reading through Sarah Kane’s Blasted.  Now, I’m reading this text for a class called “Violence in Modern Theater” so I should not have been surprised by the tone and actions in the play. But regardless, 19-year-old Erin was astounded by the brutal nature of the play (eyeballs being eaten, babies buried under floorboards). Astounded, repelled but ultimately compelled and interested in Kane’s story.

In Blasted, Ian reunites his is former mistress, Cate, in a hotel room in Leeds.  And although we never leave that room, the simple encounter between a former couple dramatically changes not only them, but the whole universe of the play.

Although I was drawn to the play, I couldn’t imagine ever seeing a successful of production of it.  How could it be staged with realistic graphic violence that didn’t entirely distract from the characters or themes of the play?  The violence and brutal-ism are absolutely essential to the piece, for it is often in those moments when the characters are understood.

Perhaps, that’s why it took more than 10 years for an American production to be staged. Director Sarah Benson and her design team did an unbelievable job.  First and foremost, Benson was incredibly specific in her direction – key when staging any piece with violence or sex in it, so that I believed the characters where engaging in this behavior and was never distracted by an actor being awkward or worried about their safety. Once the show began, we were no longer in the SoHo Rep theater, but instead in Kane’s world and nothing could take away from that.

In fact, during a brief blackout before a dramatic scenic transformation, I had a true feeling of fear – that in that moment anything could happen to me. I had to take a mental step back, and say “its ok, you are in an audience in a theater, nothing can happen to you here.” That fear, while less than pleasant, is almost impossible to achieve at any performance.

I walked away, dazed.  The play continued to haunt my imagination for a long time to come.

Passing Strange – Belasco Theater – Spring 2008
Book and lyrics by Stew; music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald

Attending Columbia was an excellent boon to seeing theater. Often we would get offers to see shows, and know basically nothing about them. Such was my experience seeing Passing Strange. And, wow, was that a lucky find.

Passing Strange tells the semi-autobiographical story of Stew (who also wrote the show/played the narrator character/led the band) – a songwriter on a journey of self-discovery from his home in LA to Amsterdam and, eventually, Berlin. Youth, as we know him, is constantly in search of the REAL … but can never quite find it.

The music was wonderful. The story rang true. And the cast, the cast, just blew me away.  The entire ensemble worked their ass off, performing as upper middle class Black church-goers in one scene to West German disaffected punks in the nest.  Just fabulous.

Spike Lee filmed the last few performances of Passing Strange, creating a move version of the show – which is almost as good, and I believe, available on Netflix.  My only major critique was the movie controlled the POV of the audience in a way that felt limiting to me.  The ensemble cast is such an important part of the experience, that seeing only part of the stage can be frustrating… but it is still a great record of a great show.

And those are my five favorite shows in New York.  But of course, there were many other wonderful shows that I have to at least mention: Jerusalem with Mark Rylance, Arcadia, the delightful and mysterious Play Dead, Signature’s Angels in America revival, Brief Encounter (Roundabout), Equivocation (MTC), Vanya (Columbia), and Mourning (Columbia, and one of the pieces I am most proud to have been a part of) and, really… so many others.


Lastly, I didn’t see very much dance while living in New York.  But my two favorites were:

Gallim Dance (Fall for Dance 2010)

CIRCA (Skirball Center, March 2011)

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