Top Ten Stage Productions of 2016

1. “Cleveland” (Psychic Readings)

Anchored by spit-take performances from Madison Coan as a girl who just wants a dress to wear to the school dance and Cricket Arrison as her mother who may be from outer effing space, this production captured everything that makes Psychic Readings’ Late Night Theatre such a vital addition to local stages. The Mac Wellman play begins in pretty tame after-school special territory before quickly taking off into the oddball outer limits, and the Late Night series’ quickly produced, short-run approach resulted in a messily tight production, where the cast attacks the play’s surreal normality with unbridled glee. Kudos for that go to director Carly Bales, our DIY theater’s most go-for-broke performer, who appears to have encouraged the cast to reach for the preposterous—and then see what might lie just on the other side of that. (Bret McCabe)

2. “The Wild Party” (Iron Crow Theatre)

After sitting out the 2015-’16 season, Iron Crow Theatre returned on absolute fire under new artistic director Sean Elias, kicking off its intense season with a feral take on Andrew Lippa’s 1997 musical. Story-wise “The Wild Party” is equal parts “The Iceman Cometh” and the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’: Tempestuous lovers Queenie (Allison Bradbury) and Burrs (Justin Mazzella)—who live a drink, smoke, fuck, fight, repeat existence in the 1920s—throw an all-night rager where couples swap dance and bed partners, jealousies flare, and a gun goes off. What elevated the production above boilerplate “Real Housewives” melodrama is the game cast—particularly the fearless Bradbury—and a deliciously risqué approach, from Ryan Haase’s decadently derelict set design to the wardrobe, which barely covered the guys, dolls, and everyone in between, in get ups that looked like Agent Provocateur asked Jean-Paul Gaultier to create a steampunk line. Fiendishly tragic. (BM)

3. “Force Continuum” (Cohesion Theatre)

Cohesion’s production of Kia Corthron’s knotty cop drama “Force Continuum” opened shortly before a 14-year-old boy with a BB gun was shot by police in East Baltimore on the first anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising, as police brutality and abuse of power remained unchecked. With a standout cast directed by Rosiland Cauthen, the play revolves around three generations of one black police force family while dipping into the lives of a brutalized black family, the homeless, and drug dealers—posing the challenging question too often ignored: How can black cops serve a system that proves itself to be racist again and again? And moreover, how can black cops engage in police brutality? As the trials of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray moved forward, these questions and the intimate, painfully humanizing portraits elevated by the cast proved to be essential in Baltimore’s processing of an ongoing tragedy. (Maura Callahan)

4. “The Master and Margarita” (Annex Theater)

Annex company member Jacob Budenz flirted with biting off more than he could chew by adapting and directing Mikhail Bulgakov’s carnavalesque Soviet satire, in which the Devil and his entourage come to Moscow. That Budenz and Annex pulled it off—with a nearly three-hour running time to boot—is due to its budget visual extravagance and the performers in two pivotal roles. Autumn Breaud brought a serene vulnerability to the star-crossed Margarita, while Martin Kasey nearly walked away with the production as Woland, playing this devilish figure like a Paul Lynde exterminating angel, the kind of judge, jury, and executioner who makes a wittily fey comment right before burning everything to the ground. (BM)

5. “Dot” (Everyman Theatre)

Everyman’s production of Colman Domingo’s “Dot,” which focuses on a Philadelphia matriarch and her family coming to terms with the early stages of her dementia, is hilarious and heartbreaking. Domingo’s witty script shines in the superb performances of the ensemble cast, led by Sharon Hope as Dotty and Dawn Ursula as oldest child Shelly. Domingo doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff, but still wrote a play that ended up feeling joyful. “Dot” is a sincere story that may help audiences feel a little more equipped to handle life’s unpleasantries during the holidays and after. (Cassandra Miller)

6. “Broken Bone Bathtub” (Siobhan O’Loughlin and Submersive Productions)

Immersive theater, with forward-thinking theater groups like Submersive Productions pushing viewers beyond traditionally passive “consumption” of theater, is gaining traction locally. This year, “Broken Bone Bathtub” cast audience members as close friends of creator and performer Siobhan O’Loughlin. The show took place in the bathroom of a Patterson Park home, where audience members assisted O’Loughlin while she took a bath and shared her struggles after a serious bike accident. Participants had a personal stake in O’Loughlin’s innovative one-woman show, which explored the capacity for finding community, connection and kindness in the shadow of suffering. (CM)

7. “Murder Ballad” (StillPointe Theatre)

Staging playwright Julia Jordan and singer-songwriter Juliana Nash’s rock musical upstairs at the Ottobar added just the right touch of desperate commoner to make this production sting. Sweet and thoughtful poetry grad student Michael (Moira Horowitz) sweeps Sara (Sarah Heiderman) off her feet and out of the cycle of drink and fight with bad-boy bartender Tom (Amber Wood), but marriage, a kid, and a routine life on the Upper West Side makes this former Lower Manhattan habitué long for the rough and tumble. Co-directed by Amanda Rife and Corey Hennessey, who also played the narrator, StillPointe turned the love triangle plot of boring yuppie thrillers and mid-tempo Baby Boomer adult-contemporary songs into a seedy, vicious slice of far-too-common thirtysomething ennui evolving into domestic-violence fright. (BM)

8. "Subject/Object” (Naoko Maeshiba at Baltimore Theatre Project)

Naoko Maeshiba’s intimate solo performance at Baltimore Theatre Project was one of the best stage dramas, comedies, dance odysseys, vocal performances, and moving sculptures we saw in 2016—an example of why this list is called “Top 10 Stage” and not “Top 10 Plays.” But it’s not the breadth of disciplines the veteran performer brought into “Subject/Object” that made it stick with us; it was how the improvisational precision of every gesture, step, sound, and word (and for Maeshiba, who rarely speaks in her other performances, a single word carries a lot of weight) felt less like devised theater and more like a phenomenon of nature, the physical result of a thousand points in history meeting at once. Bringing into the fold her Japanese-American identity and the collective memories those origins bear, touching on different perceptions of humor, movement, and beauty, the performance was at once universal and deeply personal. (MC)

9. “Luther” (Arena Players)

This drifting biomusical about Luther Vandross directed and conceived by Randolph Smith is, like most biomusicals, all about the songs and, holy shit, what songs—‘A House Is Not A Home,’ ‘Dance With My Father,’ ‘Never Too Much,’ and so on—all handled deftly by Tamba Giles as Vandross. But it is also a limited, pocket-sized epic that all takes place after Vandross’ stroke in 2003, when the quiet storm gawd was in a physical rehabilitation center with Vandross’ mother, Mary Ida (Tiajuana Rountree), by his side. Flashbacks shoot us back to Luther in his prime, offering up a hypnagogic highlight show with hints at controversies over Vandross’ sexuality and the body image issues that haunted him. (Brandon Soderberg)

10. “Stranger Kindness” (Acme Corporation)

The Acme Corporation’s wonky adaption of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” fucked with what you thought you knew about the classic characters—and theater, for that matter. If you covered your ears, the play resembled a modern production of “Streetcar,” set as usual in Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s apartment with tension visibly rising as the couple’s relationship with Stella’s visiting sister Blanche became more fraught. But the script, arranged by co-directors Lola B. Pierson and Stephen Nunns (full disclosure: the husband of City Paper Editor Karen Houppert), was a whole other thing: Instead of her usual lines, Blanche (Sophie Hinderberger) spoke solely in quotes from Samuel Beckett plays, while Stella (Britt Olsen-Ecker) recited lines from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Mitch (Jamil Johnson), Blanche’s suitor, stammered declarations from feminist icons. Stanley’s presence was established only by the voice of Marlon Brando playing the role in Elia Kazan’s film adaption. Add an uncanny set and appropriately exaggerated physical performances from the cast, and the result was a sensory and linguistic overload—apt for the end of 2016. (MC)

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