Best of 2018, A Year in Boston Theatre
A Culmination by James Wilkinson
I wasn’t going to do any sort of end of year “Best of” list for Boston theatre because to be perfectly honest, I’ve always viewed the idea of ranking art as somewhat ridiculous. How are you supposed to compare a production of a stage classic you’ve seen ten times before with a new work that’s getting its first production? How is a solid but conventional production supposed to measure against one that’s messier but brimming with the energy of untested ideas and creativity? In my mind, it’s always made far more sense to view each production on its own terms rather than pitting one against the other to create an (often times) arbitrary ranking.
On the other hand…what the hell? My calendar is blank for the next few weekends and I need something to amuse myself. Let’s give it a shot. As other critics have released their own “Best of” lists in the previous weeks I’ve noticed that a number of my favorite theater experiences from the past year aren’t getting mentioned as much as I’d like (or at all). There were also a few productions I saw that I loved, but didn’t get a chance to write about so this is a chance to fix that.
As you scroll through the list, though, there are a few things that I’d like you to keep in mind. First, and most importantly, something like this is always going to be highly subjective. I’m making no claims of objective quality (as if such a thing existed), only pointing to my own experiences. Secondly, it’s worth remembering that I didn’t see everything that opened in the greater Boston area. With over 200 shows produced in the area each year, it’s crazy to assume that any one person could take it all in. There are bound to be gaps in what I’m drawing from. I didn’t catch some of the big name shows in Boston like Moulin Rouge or Jagged Little Pill (I have a personal rule that if I’m paying more than $50 per ticket for a performance, it better come with a stellar gift bag made out of gold. To the best of my knowledge, neither show included said gift bag). Third, the idea of picking “ten” best is arbitrary in itself. There were another three productions I considered adding on, but you have to draw the line somewhere or we’ll be here all night.
If you’re interested in seeing the bulk of what’s in the running, you cans shift through the reviews listed on the homepage. By my count, I saw 40 productions in 2018 and wrote about 33 of them. I’m also focusing on shows that were produced within Boston/North Shore, which means no Broadway in Boston series (which means no Hamilton…sorry).
So with these caveats, here’s my “Ten Best of Boston Theatre in 2018” The shows are listed in alphabetical order (not in terms of preference).
Written by the ensemble. Story by Matthew Woods; Directed by Matthew Woods
One of the few theatre regrets I have from the past year is not being able to catch Imaginary Beasts’ production of Picnic at Hanging Rock this past fall but I was sadly out of the country while it was playing. I had never seen one of Imaginary Beasts’ annual winter pantomimes before 20,000 Leagues but it was a good one to start with. Almost a year later, my overriding memory of the production is the giant stupid grin I had on my face from the moment it started pretty much until the lights went down. It was silly and I had fun. What more do you need? The new winter pantomime Paul Bunyan and the Winter of the Blue Snow (an American Tall Tale) opens at Charlestown Theatre Works next month and I can’t wait to see it.
2. Berlin: Or, the Part of you that Wants it: A Musical Comedy Love Story (Written by Accident) - O.W.I (Bureau of Theatre)
Written by Shaoul Rick Chason; Directed by Pete Riesenberg
Theatre artists can be funny people. Ask the most passionate of them to explain what makes the best art and they’ll probably give you some convoluted answer that makes use of buzz words like “dangerous,” “risky” and “provocative.” More likely than not, those same “artists” then end up at the helm of the blandest, “safest” theatre you’re forced to slog through. There’s a chance I went a bit overboard when I praised O.W.I.’s production of Berlin, but I was so excited by the spirit of anarchy that ran through it. It was messy. It was outrageous. It was cartoonish. It deliberately set out to spit in the eye of the audience and push us into uncomfortable spaces. It definitely wasn’t for everyone, but I felt duty-bound to write about it when it seemed like the other critics who had missed the point. It was a rare opportunity in Boston to experience a truly transgressive work of theatre.
Written by Vichet Chum; Directed by KJ Sanchez
If memory serves I caught Knyum, on a weekend matinee, which never bodes well. Matinee audiences tend to be older and less responsive which makes it harder to generate the electricity needed for an engaging time at the theater. As it turns out, Vichet Chum’s one-man show about second generation Cambodian-Americans had an ace up its sleeve: Chum, himself. He was an incredibly engaging storyteller who had you gripped from the word go. At a time when we hear a lot of talk about immigrants, here was an opportunity to hear from immigrants and let them have their say about the American dream.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques
Apollinaire Theatre offered up a couple of really fantastic productions this year that I probably could have slipped into this list. I really enjoyed their production of Three Sisters earlier in the year and more recently enjoyed Two Mile Hollow. But it was hard to top the sense of pleasure and fun that came from their outdoor production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at PORT Park this summer. There were so many lovely small touches to what was a really big show that made the evening magical. I happened to catch it on the most perfect summer night imaginable and totally fell under its spell. It’s not easy to make one of Shakespeare’s most produced works feel fresh and new, but the company at Apollinaire pulled it off.
Written by Jennifer Haley; Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz
I loved this production. Flat Earth Theatre took Jennifer Haley’s wonderful script and turned in a production that was absolutely haunting. The opening scene set a mood of menace and dread that only grew the more you learned about what The Nether’s true subject was. (I won’t say what it is here, go find another production to watch and see for yourself.) Flat Earth’s production was impeccably directed, superbly acted and beautiful to look at. One of those shows where the creative team is firing on all fronts. It hooked you in with the mystery and held you by your throat.
Written by Lucy Kirkwood; Directed by Darren Evans
NSFW was probably the most intelligent script I heard during 2018. Most playwrights looking to explore an issue will build the play around a central thesis or (worse still) spend the entire run time throwing in conflicting arguments in a way that makes you feel like you’re stuck listening to a perpetual loop of the phrase “on the other hand…”. Lucy Kirkwood’s 2012 play felt like she was prodding an issue rather than bashing you over the head with it. It’s the type of “play of ideas” the Brits seem to do so well. You left the show with something to chew on and turn over in your head the following day. Theatre on Fire matched the script by offering an equally intelligent production that also managed to be incredibly funny and featured a great ensemble performance.
Written by Shirley Lauro; Directed by Nora Hussey
I went into A Piece of My Heart expecting a history lesson and ended up with something incredibly touching and human. Shirley Lauro’s play details the experiences of a group of women in the Vietnam War. Some were soldiers; some were nurses; one was an entertainer. What begins as a series of only occasionally connected storylines ends up winding together in the final third in a way that caught me by surprise. So many of the narratives around the Vietnam War are centered on the men who went there. In this era of #MeToo, getting to see a group of women we don’t often hear from come together and share their stories felt like necessary viewing.
Written by Jason Slavick and Rachel Wiese; Music and Lyrics by Nathan Leigh; Directed by Jason Slavick
I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell head over heels for this show. Liars and Believers production was utterly charming, playful and inventive in a way that got into my bloodstream. Ostensibly, a show for children, it radiated a warmth and intimacy that I didn’t want to leave after the lights came up. With a collection of puppets, toys, masks and shadows it explored the concepts of myth, tradition and storytelling that despite its small scale, made it feel epic.
9. Straight White Men – New Repertory Theatre
Written by Young Jean Lee; Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue
I think that a lot of people went into New Rep’s production of Straight White Men with skewed preconceptions about what they would be seeing. Based on the title and a lot of the advance press, I think audiences were expecting a full on attack against the entitlements and privileges that come with being a straight white man. Young Jean Lee’s play does put straight white cisgender men under a microscope, but she comes at her subject with methods that are more compassionate than combative. It’s not that she’s arguing how terrible it is to be a straight white man (Who, in their right mind, would make such an argument?), but she is pointing out that carrying the identity does put individuals in a certain kind of box with certain kinds of restrictions. New Rep’s production understood that and turned in something really quite lovely with a melancholy ending that hit hard.
Written by Alice Abracen; Directed by Lelaina Vogel
Above I said that NSFW was probably the most intelligent script I heard last year. I stand by that statement, but The Tour comes in at an extremely close second. Alice Abracen’s lean script kept its focus small, (two characters, one scene, one location, seventy-five minutes long), but it made the most of it. Anchored by two really strong central performances, this was another play that didn’t spell out a message for the audience, assuming that the viewers would be capable of putting the pieces together themselves. The Underlings will be doing Alice Abracen’s new play, What Rough Beast, next month at Chelsea Theatre Works. I have a feeling it’ll be worth checking out.