Cameron Kelsall’s Best Theater of 2017

2017: the year of the breakout Philly playwright

Every December, theater critics ask ourselves the same nagging question: should I publish a “best-of” list? These end-of-year inventories highlight the outstanding work we’re privileged to encounter, but the process of quantification can also be fraught.

In Douglas Wlliams's world premiere, Akeem Davis and Charlotte Northeast played bike-store gearheads (or shitheads). (Photo by Joanna Austin/AustinArt.org)

How, exactly, do I define best? Is it the most memorable work, most unique, most enjoyable? Should I give preference to new works? Whatever I do, I know someone will feel left out. That comes with the territory.

In the past few years, content with my memories, I’ve resisted the temptation to craft such a catalog. But the sheer amount of outstanding performances I saw this year — coupled with the not-so-subtle suggestions of several friends, including my editor — won the day.

Nationally, I saw more than 200 productions in 2017, but the majority were right here in the Philadelphia region. That number alone should testify to the stellar theater scene that’s cropped up along the Schuylkill.

Whittling 200 shows down to 10 truly laudable works seemed a Sisyphean task. On first glance, my choices may come across as a motley assortment of disparate eras, styles, and levels of seriousness — which, I’d say, describes my taste. (I did, after all, rush from a classical-music gala this September straight to a Fringe show whose title included several words the Inky wouldn’t dream of printing). But more than anything else, I think my choices represent the spirit of Philadelphia theater, which encompasses everything from guerrilla performances in basements and coffee shops to the infamous $400,000 Pig Iron pageant.

Fresh perspectives

The proliferation of new works from local playwrights who chose to make Philly their theatrical home gratified me most. Not long ago, many thought that Philadelphia playwrighting began with Bruce Graham and ended with Michael Hollinger — full stop. (Both Graham and Hollinger debuted new plays this year, to mixed reviews). Thankfully, organizations as varied as PlayPenn, the Foundry, InterAct Theatre Company’s Core Playwrights program, and artist-run collective Orbiter 3 have widened the net, making room for a cadre of fresh perspectives.

In February, Douglas Williams’s wryly funny, sneakily moving Shitheads, produced by Azuka Theatre, grabbed my brain and didn’t let go for weeks. I struggle to think of another play that captures a subculture — in this case, the grizzled but devoted employees of a bicycle shop in New York City — with such refreshing, authentic clarity.

Under Kevin Glaccum’s crackling direction, a fine cast turned slang, innuendo, and a blue streak of profanity into poetry. Not content to rest on their laurels, Azuka followed Shitheads with Jacqueline Goldfinger’s The Arsonists, a haunting, elliptical riff on Electra that’s currently traveling the country as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

L to R: Jaylene Clark Owens, Jamison Foreman, and Jessica Bedford struck a deal to deceive the art world in James Ijames's 'WHITE.' (Photo by Matthew J. Photography.)
L to R: Jaylene Clark Owens, Jamison Foreman, and Jessica Bedford struck a deal to deceive the art world in James Ijames's 'WHITE.' (Photo by Matthew J. Photography.)

James Ijames — a favorite local actor for over a decade — emerged as a formidable playwright. I’ve enjoyed most of his works, but WHITE, which premiered at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon in May, thrust him into a new category. With a sharp eye for detail and a keen ear for witty but pointed dialogue, Ijames crafted perhaps the strongest statement on the commodification and appropriation of race since Suzan-Lori Park’s Venus. Rarely has merriment turned so quickly to an air-sucking chill than in the play’s closing coup de théâtre.

Wild rides

Theatre Horizon also offered the long-overdue area premiere of Lisa Kron’s finely wrought 2.5 Minute Ride, under the assured direction of Elaina Di Monaco. But Di Monaco and her collaborator Haygen-Brice Walker created an even more exemplary evening of theater with their freewheeling, foul-mouthed, strangely wonderful The Groom’s a Fag; The Bride’s a Cunt; The Best Man’s a Whore; and the Maid of Honor (Just) Hung Herself in the Closet, which they self-produced in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

Don’t let the title’s off-color language (or its grammatical imprecision) fool you: Walker and Di Monaco clearly loved playing with their audience — who were required to sign a waiver before entering the theater — but they are serious and well-schooled theater artists. Walker’s play brilliantly explored our cultural obsession with both the institution of marriage and the pageantry that accompanies it, turning even-keeled adults into hectoring zombies. It also wrestled with the terrible price of toxic masculinity, which feels especially prescient now.

Two other Philly Fringe offerings — one Curated, one Neighborhood — have stayed with me since September. The searing, musically inventive opera We Shall Not Be Moved, co-presented as part of Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural O17 Festival, put the city’s present in a delicate but forceful conversation with one of the defining events of its past.

The ever-valuable Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium presented a delightfully daffy staging of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano at the Bethany Mission Gallery. Their production honored the spirit of the French Absurdist’s “anti-play” while still having lots of fun.

L to R: Mierka Girten, Michael Shannon, and John Judd in McCarter Theatre's production of Sam Shepard's 'Simpatico.' (Photo by Richard Termine.)
L to R: Mierka Girten, Michael Shannon, and John Judd in McCarter Theatre's production of Sam Shepard's 'Simpatico.' (Photo by Richard Termine.)

Jersey strong

New Jersey has its own thriving theater scene, which Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center displayed with a near-definitive production of Lynn Nottage’s 2004 Intimate Apparel. Blending pastiche, melodrama, and realism, director Jade King Carroll and actor Quincy Tyler Bernstine found every inch of heartbreaking humanity in Nottage’s portrait of an African-American seamstress in 1905 New York who longs for something to call her own.

More recently, McCarter imported a production of Sam Shepard’s Simpatico from Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre. The show served as a fitting tribute to the late playwright, who died in July. It was a thrill to get a taste of classic Chicago storefront theater in our own backyard, and to watch the longtime ensemble — which included Michael Shannon, the theater’s cofounder — work together in perfect sync.

I didn’t intend to name a favorite production, but one production stands above the rest: Curio Theatre Company’s staging of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, directed by Gay Carducci and featuring a trio of formidable women — Rachel Gluck, Colleen Hughes, and Tessa Kuhn — as the struggling, seething, and impossibly real Magrath sisters. The work of these extraordinary artists got me to consider the layers of meaning buried beneath Henley’s chirpy, comic dialogue, radically reshaping my interpretation of a play I’d long ago written off as just another Southern-fried bagatelle.

What more could you hope for when you go to the theater?

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on December 29, 2017

200 plays! That is amazing. Quite pleased to see We Shall Not Be Moved and Bald Soprano on your list.

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