The Bes(s)t Theatre of 2011

12/22/2011 06:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012
  • Bess Rowen Ph.D Candidate of Theatre at The Graduate Center, CUNY

I have been reading a great deal of lists about the best theatre of 2011. Of course, the fundamental paradox of such lists is that one of the fantastic things about theatre is that every person can have their own reaction to it, and everyone's list is going to look quite different. Somewhere in between fervent nodding and angry headshaking, I realized that I want to make a different kind of list. Rather than looking at what was most "successful" in a traditional sense, here are the pieces that really excited me in terms of overall production quality. If you missed them, keep an eye out for these companies in the New Year!

Many of you already know that I absolutely love Punchdrunk's Sleep No More. The mash-up of interactive theatre, highly trained dancers/actors, and an impressive eye for creating a unique environment all combined to create a truly innovative theatre-going experience. Yet Sleep No More is just one of several shows with truly creative concepts this year.

Take, for example, The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill: Vol. 1 Early Plays/Lost Plays created and performed by the New York Neo-Futurists. This piece, about to return to New York for a few short days, consists of an actor reading Eugene O'Neill's stage directions aloud as the rest of the cast acts them out in a sharp, creative, and hilarious manner. (I will be writing a full post on this piece after I see the show again in January, so keep an eye out for it!) The show was excellent both in concept and practice, and it was able to be both intellectually interesting and purely entertaining simultaneously.

Another clearly unique show was She Kills Monsters, staged by the Flea Theater and their resident acting company, The Bats. Taking us in between the worlds of high school and Dungeons & Dragons, this production managed to stage visually exciting spectacles I would have thought impossible without a Broadway budget. I was so enthralled by this show that it remains in my mind despite its mostly mediocre stage combat. The Flea is a place that continues to expand the boundaries of what's possible Off-Off-Broadway.

Even further away from Broadway, St. Ann's Warehouse brought the National Theatre of Scotland to Dumbo last spring to produce two of the best overall productions I have seen this year. Beautiful Burnout and Black Watch, two pieces that are much more "traditional" than the plays I have been mentioning, were brought alive with creative staging and fantastic acting and directing. The use of physicality and physically trained actors in both of these pieces was also quite amazing to behold, and I felt energized by both of these plays. That kind of affective, exciting response is what is lacking in so many Broadway plays these days.

Another grouping of fantastic shows presents itself in the series of energetic, creative, and excellent Shakespearean productions this year. Target Margin Theater's The Tempest, New York Shakespeare Exchange's The Life and Death of King John, and Public Lab's Titus Andronicus were all very accessible productions that took me by surprise. At least two of those plays are rarely staged in general, but all three of these productions were true to the play while still maintaining their own styles and themes of performance and presentation.

Of course, there were some good shows on Broadway as well, the best of which is certainly David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, with Manhattan Theatre Club's Good People as a second choice. Yet the shows that are really pushing theatre in new directions are rarely, if ever, the kind of pieces conducive to a Broadway theatre. I enjoyed Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die, produced by 13P and Young Jean Lee's theatre company, but having her play with her band in Joe's Pub (of The Public Theater) would not have had the same effect of intimacy in a different space. The mix of autobiography, song, and audience participation would not have been possible elsewhere, and it is precisely that mix that made the piece so new.

There are so many more shows that I appreciated this year, but my purpose with this short annotated list is to remind everyone that there are unsung heroes in theatre. These are the companies and the productions that set out to do something different, knowing full well that they will never be as popular or successful as a Broadway theatre production. They aren't making theatre with that goal, and that is why they are able to produce some of the most inspiring and honest theatre you will ever see. To all of the playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and technicians that make this kind of theatre, please know that I am grateful to you and please keep doing what you're doing.

Happy Holidays to all everyone, and I can't wait to see what 2012 will bring.