Here are the top ten trends of New York theatre’s 2016-2017 season. What do they tell us about the state of the art? What do they reveal about the “zeitgeist”?
1) Radical renderings of the classics: the “deconstructionist” approach
Several bold director stripped the classics to the bone, bearing what each thought was its essence. Sam Gold, for one, emptied the tiny New York Theatre Workshop’s interior, and turned it into an Iraqi-war barracks for his Othello this past fall. The spellbound audience sat on facing bleachers under relentless houselights, while the treacherous Iago (a magnetic Daniel Craig) betrayed the unsuspecting Othello (a touching David Oyelowo). Gold used the same bare-bones approach later on this season with his raw interpretation of Tennessee Williams’s delicate The Glass Menagerie, stripping the Belasco stage bare, revealing a vulnerable Wingfield family with nowhere to hide. Gold’s searing focus was not on Amanda Wingfield (an affecting Sally Fields) but rather on a stoical Laura (Madison Ferris) and her courage to endure.
2) Spectacular revivals and adaptations
In dramatic contrast to the above, other visionary directors made sensational, sweeping choices. British director/designer team Richard Jones and Stewart Laing utilized the entire Park Armory for their super-sized production of The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic play about industrialization and injustice in 1920s America. In the center of the cavernous Armory, they constructed stadium seating for 800, and built the largest turnstile stage in theatre history to circle it. The engine room of ocean liner bound for America rotated around the bleachers, in which a crew headed by Yank (Bobby Cannavale) toiled away. Across town, director Rachel Chavkin transformed the entire Imperial Theatre (including the stage and balcony) into a plush, ornate, 19th century Russian nightclub for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, David Malloy’s exuberant poperetta. A cast of two dozen actors and musicians led by Josh Groban enacted a chapter Tolstoy’s War & Peace under brilliant chandeliers, weaving their way through an enchanted audience.
3) Strong offerings by female playwrights
Broadway boasted two powerful new plays written by women. Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winner, told the story of a blue-collar community in Reading, Pa. struggling to survive when their steel tubing factory threatened to relocate. Indecent, Paula Vogel’s new play-within-a-play directed by Rebecca Taichman, recounted the fate of God of Vengeance, Sholem Asch’s controversial Yiddish-language work that premiered on Broadway in 1922. Off-Broadway featured plays by women on a wide variety of topics, including Sarah Ruhl’s How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (about a woman’s mid-life crisis) at Lincoln Center, and Annie Baker’s The Antipodes at Signature Theatre, a satire on the Hollywood story-telling machine. (Numerous other plays authored by women will be mentioned later on in this season wrap-up).
4) The year of the diva
Strong female characters took center-stage this season, too.
Three star-studded block-buster Broadway musicals featured divas “of a certain age”: Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard; Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone in War Paint; and Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly. In straight plays, Laurie Metcalf shone in A Doll’s House, Part Two, Lucas Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen’s classic, in which Nora returns to the house she left 16 years ago to confront her husband (Chris Cooper) and ask for a divorce. Cate Blanchett dazzled audiences by playing a dozen roles simultaneously in Manifesto, the stunning art-installation at the Park Armory conceived and directed by Julian Rosenfeldt, video artist.
5) Innovative casting
a) Lot-drawing: In Everybody, Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins’s audacious updating of the medieval Everyman at Signature, actors lined up on stage and, before a disbelieving audience, drew lots for the roles they were to play at that performance. b) Turn taking: Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon took turns playing Regina or Birdie in the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. c) All-female Shakespeare: British director Phyllida Lloyd completed her cycle of all-female Shakespeare productions with The Tempest at St. Ann’s Warehouse, starring Harriet Walter. (Previous all-female productions included Julius Caesar and Henry IV, both with Walter, all taking place in a women’s prison). d) The eclectic approach: In the Public Theatre’s sensational Julius Caesar this summer (at the Delacorte in Central Park), director Oskar Eustis cast Elizabeth Marvel as Mark Antony in a production that otherwise featured conventional contemporary casting (men playing men, women playing women).
6) The physically challenged actor takes center stage
In the above-mentioned production of The Glass Menagerie, Sam Gold cast Madison Ferris, an actress with muscular dystrophy, to play Laura Wingfield. The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Martyna Majok’s The Cost of Living starred Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy, and Katy Sullivan, a bi-lateral amputee. Their parallel stories were told with humor, heart, and searing truth in this brave new play about relationships and co-dependence.
7) Plays about immigration
The trend set by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational Hamilton (2015) has paved the way for a series of plays about the immigrant experience in America. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at the Manhattan Theatre Club told of a group of Vietnamese immigrants in America’s southwest and their struggle to adapt to a new culture. Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, the first two installations of Mfonisa Udofia’s nine-play cycle at the New York Theatre Workshop, dramatized a Nigerian woman’s brave effort to settle in America and the consequences on her family. In Napoli, Brooklyn, Meghan Kennedy’s melodrama set in Park Slope (c. 1960), an Italian immigrant couple struggled to raise three daughters and integrate into the American way of life.
8) Dark visions
a) Post-apocalyptic: In Caryl Churchill’s amazing new play Escaped Alone (a Royal Court Theatre import at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), a group of four septuagenarians sat in their backyard, chatting about the quotidian details of their lives, while one occasionally broke from the banter to deliver a terrifying prophesy of total world war, climate catastrophe, and global self-destruction. In Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House (a New Group production at Signature about the disenfranchised artist in a dystopian world), a company of actors reunited after a ten-year hiatus, to find that many were working as political assassins for the CIA.
b) Death: It’s an alienating topic in the theatre, but two writers have embraced it with courage. Wakey Wakey, Will Eno’s elegy to Jim Houghton (the Signature’s artistic director who died last year), celebrated a man’s passage from life to death (complete with a post-performance party). Marvin’s Room, the moving revival of Scott McPherson’s 1990 play at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, told of a dysfunctional family made whole again, as they united to care for two of their terminally ill members.
9) Political plays
a) on PTSD: No less than three productions dealt with this current crisis on our veteran population. Foremost among them was Cry Havoc, at the New Ohio Theatre. This powerful solo show was conceived and performed by Stephan Wolfert, an actor who survived military training and suffered from acute PTSD. He discovered that passages from Shakespeare plays were not only therapeutic for him, but would also be for others. His play text consisted of personal narrative interspersed with relevant passages about war and its devastating effects on the human psyche, drawn from numerous Shakespeare plays.
b) prophesizing the Trump era: Prophetically, Kings of War opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the very same week of the traumatic November presidential election. Ivo van Hove, the celebrated Belgian-born director, returned to the New York stage with a condensation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI (Parts I, II, III) and Richard III into one evening of powerful theatre – about the succession of three rulers (good, weak, and evil respectively) in times of war.
c) responding to the Trump era: Meanwhile, as the season progressed, two classics provided powerful relevance to the current political realities. In June, Oskar Eustis’s bold Julius Caesar in Central Park (mentioned above) featured the title character in a blond Donald Trump wig, and a Calpurnia who spoke with a Slavic accent. While this production proved wildly controversial (audiences cheered, while corporate sponsors pulled their support), the strength of the production lay in Eustis’s brilliant representation of the populace (in Roman times and current ones). Unbeknownst to the audience, Eustis placed dozens of actors among the spectators. After the assassination scene, these unidentified actors suddenly charged on stage to represent the rabid mob and the ensuing chaos. 1984, Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s terrifying adaptation of George Orwell’s classic, offered unsettling parallels between Orwell’s nightmarish vision (“Big Brother”, “thought crimes”, “newspeak”, etc.) and the political realities of our time (“fake news”, “alternative facts”, etc.)
10) Ensemble-style musicals
In contrast to the large-cast, brassy Broadway fare, small-scale ensemble-style musicals captured the audiences’ imagination. Come From Away, by Canadian co-authors Irene Sankoff and David Hein, was a deeply moving account of how 38 planes bearing 3000 passengers were diverted to the tiny hamlet of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001. Like Paula Vogel’s above-mentioned Indecent, also on Broadway, this show featured a talented ensemble of actors and musicians who inhabited the stage for almost the entire performance. And the much-praised production of Dear Evan Hansen moved audiences with its tale of teenage loneliness and suicide. Downtown at the Atlantic Theatre Company, The Band’s Visit was another small-scale musical that will be moving to Broadway in the fall. Written by Itamar Moses and David Yazbek, it tells the true and touching story of an Egyptian band that turns up by mistake in an Israeli – town – and the ensuing relationships that develop between accidental hosts and their unlikely guests.
The season and the “zeitgeist”
This season celebrated innovation, opportunity, and artistic freedom. At the same time, it offered unsettling insights into the present, as well as fearful warnings about the future. As Hamlet said, the theatre fulfilled its function this season, for better and for worse – namely, to “hold the mirror up to nature.”