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10 Spectacular Theatrical Experiences of 2014 - The Bold and Fantastic Works of the Last Season

2014 was a spectacular year for theatre. Racial politics, war crimes, celebrity culture, and other relevent themes were played out through forms of the past with a contemporary theatrical lens. I'm a a major fan of plays with music featuring actor musicians with nods to myth so this was obviously the perfect time to be an audience member.

Here are the most notable works I experienced:

10 Spectacular Theatrical Experiences of 2014 - The Bold and Fantastic Works of the Last Season
The Mysteries. Photo: Hunter Canning

The Mysteries- The 5+ hour retelling of the Bible featured a gigantic ensemble that spoke to and served the audience during the intervals, adding extra weight when they stepped into the most iconic Biblical figures. The 48 short plays by the likes of Dael Orlandersmith, David Henry Hwang, Craig Lucas, José Rivera, Eisa Davis, Ellen McLaughlin were funny, lyrical and insightful. Ed Iskandar's direction and the downright fierce dramaturgy by Jill Rafson tied the plays together through seamless transitions and symbols forming a cohesive universe. And every so often, there was gorgeously arranged actor-played music, written by David Dabbon and music directed by Dabbon and Jody Schum, including a cover of The Killers' "All Things That I've Done," a much needed pick-me-up in the 5th hour. One of the most ambitious plays I've ever seen establishing a community of actors and audience, this play totally made Jesus look awesome. (Presented by The Flea)

An Octoroon- Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's take on the base of popular American theatre was the best new play of the year. Fiercely relevant, the blackbox epic was staged by Sarah Benson and featured toppling transitions, sinking ships, and everything you can ask for in an honest-to-goodness melodrama. The entire ensemble was committed from Amber Gray's tormented but ingenious Zoey to Jocelyn Bioh's saucy slave Minnie, who brought the house down with her brassy line readings ("Not today, not today." she defensively warns while being held back from beating down a pregnant woman). If you missed it at Soho Rep, fear not! It's coming to Theatre For a New Audience in February. Full disclosure: I joined the production as a PA later in the run. (Presented by Soho Rep.)

WOW An Opera (Work in Progress)- Joe Diebes and Christian Hawkey's spectacularly tragic opera based on the rise and fall of the late 80's/early 90's lip syncing duo Milli Vanilli was created from a mosaic of sources authentic and self-admittedly suspect and told through a live updating score. David Levine's immersive staging spanned the entire BRIC media arts center from a press conference in a real studio to a fully realized recreation of the music video "Girl I'm Gonna Miss You" in a real art gallery curated for the show. The thrilling piece used celebrity culture to create a tragedy tailored for now. (Presented by BRIC part of the BRIC House Fireworks Residency)

10 Spectacular Theatrical Experiences of 2014 - The Bold and Fantastic Works of the Last Season
WOW: An Opera. Photo: Ryan Muir

Brand New Ancients- Rapping at the top of her voice, Kate Tempest weaved a tale of heroes and fate with vivid imagery and a sick beat. The point of views created in verse were the most well-developed characters I've seen all year. (Presented at St Anne's Warehouse part of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival)

Ghost Quartet- The best musical of the year relies on the imagination of the audience and the soaring, unique vocals and instruments (an autoharp, erhu, dulcimer, etc.) of its title band. The complex, sprawling tale by Dave Malloy (one of the most innovative contemporary composers in theatre) under the direction of Annie Tippe weaved together four souls (including Malloy) echoing throughout history drawing inspiration from Stephen Sondheim to Stephen King. Don't miss it at the McKittrick Hotel this January. (Presented by The Bushwick Starr)

Hamlet- Shakespeare's most famous play was thrillingly staged by Eric Tucker through irresistible games and simple staging to reveal new insights into the the psycologically complex characters. Notably, the 4-person ensemble mud wrestled during the funeral of Ophelia. (Presented by Bedlam)

10 Spectacular Theatrical Experiences of 2014 - The Bold and Fantastic Works of the Last Season
Ghost Quartet. Photo: Ryan Jensen

Father Comes Home from the Wars parts 1, 2, and 3- Rooted in Greek epics, Suzan-Lori Parks's sprawling Civil War drama asked relevent questions about owning oneself and what true justice is. The play also featured the cutest deus ex machina in the form of a loyal dog played by Jacob Ming-Trent. With two more plays in the trilogy, I'm super-excited to see what comes next in the saga. "Mark it." (Presented by The Public Theater)

The Box- The Foundry followed up the benchmark staging of Good Person of Szechwan with Marcus Gardley's modern vaudeville examining the prison system and the horrific racism that fuels it. A fairy tale laced with Greek epic, the athletically paced 5-actor production directed by Seth Bockley was both funny and provocative with a mirroring plot of Deadlust working through the labyrinth of the prison system while his son Icarus inches closer and closer to his fate. (Presented by The Foundry Theatre)

10 Spectacular Theatrical Experiences of 2014 - The Bold and Fantastic Works of the Last Season
The Box. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Tristan and Yseult- Emma Rice's Kneehigh company is a force of eclectic power. Drawing from one of the all time great romances born in Kneehigh's native Cornwall, Tristan and Yseult was framed by a jaunty band of the Unloved and a mysterious presence known as White Hands (a commanding Kirsty Woodward) telling the story of passions, war, and doomed love. Acrobatics, poetic language, clowing, and a little bit of Wagner made this some of the most exciting storytelling of the year. (Presented by St. Anne's Warehouse.)

The Source- Daniel Fish's multimedia opera response to the Chelsea Manning wiki leaks used the first hour of its 80 minute run time projecting faces reacting to...something. Some were confused. Others horrified. During this, an auto tuned quartet sang Ted Hearne's score and Mark Doten's libretto made up of files, testimonials, and other sources accompanied to a small orchestra and samples of audio and popular media of the time. All of this culminated in an untouched look at the leaked video of an american drone strike killing dozens of innocent people . An unforgettable cathartic silence swept the audience. (Presented by BAM part of the 2014 Next Wave Festival)

10 Spectacular Theatrical Experiences of 2014 - The Bold and Fantastic Works of the Last Season
The Source. Photo: Ed Lefkowicz


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