Opinionist: Top Ten in Theater 2009

<p>Zachary Oberzan and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's inspired <em>Rambo Solo </em>consisted entirely of his retelling of <em>First Blood</em>, the 1972 novel that inspired the Sylvester Stallone film. <a href="">Read our review here</a>.</p>

<p>On an old steam-propelled, decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel docked at Pier 40 on the Hudson, 2009’s most exhilarating theatrical achievement was staged for free. Called <em>The Confidence Man </em>and inspired by Herman Melville’s 1857 novel of the same name, this enthralling production was the work of Woodshed Collective, a company that specializes in immersive, site-specific performance. <a href="">Read our review here</a>.</p>

<p>The machines that filled the stage in <em>machines machines machines machines machines machines machines</em> made for wholly entertaining steampunk slapstick. <a href="">Read our review here</a>. </p>

<p>The Foundry Theater's ninety minute poetic-historic odyssey <em>The Provenance of Beauty</em> took place entirely on a chartered tour bus, which the audience boarded on 121st Street in Harlem. Throughout the journey, tour guide Sarah Nina Hayon periodically rose from the front row to address the passengers with wry commentary, but the bulk of the "travelogue" was pre-recorded and communicated through the headphones. It's written by poet Claudia Rankine, who was raised in the Bronx and spent months interviewing long-time residents for this piece, which drifts dreamlike through Hunts Point, Mott Haven, and the cringe-worthy gentrification creation So Bro. <a href="">Read our review here</a>.</p>

<p>Most of us associate <em>Our Town</em> with unbearably earnest high school drama club productions, or reruns of that very special "Growing Pains" episode in which Mike and Boner get cast in the play and Mike decides he wants to be a professional actor while wearing a regrettable vest. But Chicago director <a href="">David Cromer</a>, who won an OBIE for last year's <em>Adding Machine</em>, came here to wrest Thornton Wilder's 1938 play back from the tween stage hogs. <a href="">Read our review here</a>.</p>

<p>Yasmina Reza comedy of bad manners, <em>God of Carnage</em>, starred Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. <a href="">The stellar cast</a> reveled in every misanthropic moment, elevating an adequate play into riveting theater. </p>

<p>Young Jean Lee's plays have been instant Off Broadway hits for their personal, probing, and typically hilarious explorations of race and religion in an ostensibly "post-racial" America. This year her play <em>The Shipment</em> featured an extremely talented all-black ensemble in a genre-defying show that looks at how African Americans are perceived and portrayed in mass media. Read <a href="">our interview with Lee here</a>.</p>

<p>Ahhhh, Marin Ireland. The swoon-worthy actress made her Broadway debut in Neil LaBute's tragically ignored <em>reasons to be pretty.</em> The surprisingly affecting play, about two relationships disintegrating at different speeds, never found the audience it deserved, despite Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Actress for Ireland. Oh well, that's what you get for producing substantial, earnest, sophisticated drama on Broadway without big stars. Read our <a href="">fawning interview with Ireland here</a>. </p>

<p>The National Theater of the United States of America [<a href="">NTUSA</a>] is not an official, federally-sanctioned performance troupe, but that's a trivial detail. This mischievous gang of innovators represents some of the best attributes of downtown "experimental" theater, and this year they delivered big time with Chautauqua!, a vaudvellian romp inspired by the Chautauqua Circuit, a wildly popular lecture circuit that flourished across America from 1874 to the Great Depression, using family-friendly entertainment and enlightened discourse to educate rural residents on science, art, culture and progressive politics. <a href="">Read our review here</a>, and don't miss<em> Chautauqua! </em>when the troupe <a href="">revives it for Under the Radar</a> next month.</p>

<p>It's no accident that two of our favorite shows this year were the work of <a href="">Nature Theater of Oklahoma</a>; besides producing some of the most fascinating theater in town, these two productions, <em>Romeo and Juliet</em> and <em>Rambo Solo</em> are companion pieces, exploring memory and imagination's intriguing pas de deux. <em>Romeo and Juliet, </em>which is still running at The Kitchen, is derived from hours of recorded telephone conversations of people recounting what they remember about the play, which most haven't revisited since high school. In the telling, new characters are created (like Euristhepiss, Romeo's flamboyent friend), the poetry is mangled (Where DOTH my Romeo? Juliet is the sky, and I am the sun!"), and gaps in recollection are filled with inspired invention. <a href="">Read our review</a>, and <a href="">see it before it closes</a> January 16th!</p>