Ever since college, theater brainiacs have been trying to convince me that the theater’s most irritating quality (its fleetingness) is really its strength. Stroking their collective Philosophical Chin, they would pontificate on the “ephemerality of the form” and the “beauty of transcendence” and the “grace we find in letting go.” Uh, actually—that’s stupid, I hate it, no. I think the wonderful thing about theater is that you can remount it. A performance isn’t some gossamer spiderweb that wafts away in the first breeze; it’s robust. After the curtain falls, you can restage it! You can move it! You can pretend you’re European and play it in rep!
Ohhhhhh, rep. It’s the dream. As ever, some of the greatest works we’ve seen this year have benefitted from some other country’s rotating repertory system: the Schaubühne’s barnstorming, mess-making, spirit-altering Richard III was first mounted in 2015, and has been maintained in the theater’s catalogue since then. Phillipe Quesne’s magical Mélancolie des Dragons—an ode to finding wonder in handmade things—was first mounted in 2008, and this year’s most perfect show, Robert Lepage’s 887, was made in 2015 for Panamania, the gigantic arts and culture festival accompaniment to the Pan Am games, and then sent on tour.
So here are the top ten 2017 shows I nominate for our own New York repertory. Maybe they could come back at their original venues? Or, like The Wolves and The Band’s Visit, they could wander across town to take root in new soil. I hereby promise to show up and tear tickets if someone will remount one of these beauties. (See here for my 2015 list; see the Current State of Woe and Disaster for the fact that I didn’t make one for 2016.)
Farmhouse/Whorehouse This show didn’t just knock my socks off. It took my socks, re-wove them into a cunning fabric-art work, and handed them gravely back. This was the third and final monologue in artist Suzanne Bocanegra’s astonishing autobiographical trilogy—following When a Priest Marries a Witch and Bodycast—in which actors play Bocanegra, her words filtered into them through an in-ear microphone. In this one, Lili Taylor told us, “Hello, I’m Suzanne Bocanegra” and then launched into a densely braided lecture-with-slides on women and work. Bocanegra’s grandparents’ farm was across from what would come to be known as the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” and that weird coincidence leads somehow to Oneida utopianists, hippie survivalists, the portraits of sex-workers in Manet’s paintings and a tour of Bocanegra’s own artworks, including her superb futuro-peasant costumes for the Big Dance Theater. These patient, kind, funny, erudite plays are some of the most important of my life. They have a truly contagious affect: as you walk away from them, you find yourself making connections and noticing structures that were hidden away before.
Villa The Chilean dramatist/director Guillermo Caldéron’s superb drama about a mysterious trio of women named Alejandra shifts its nature as you watch it: first it’s an Absurdist comedy about committee-think, then, almost without your realizing, it becomes a terrifying reminder of real world atrocities. Having the world-class Caldéron working out of the States is like being alive when Brecht was making work in California. We should be seizing the opportunity to produce him on every stage we have.
The B-Side:“Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” The Wooster Group’s latest record album interpretation—this one conceived by Eric Berryman—is about as simple a piece as you can imagine: the performers play the album; they sing along with it; Berryman sometimes reads a bit of contextual information from the record sleeve. This “interpretation” works even better than the Group’s other record-album work from this recent season—the lovely Early Shaker Spirituals—thanks to the wit and genius of the original prison-farm song-wrights. The Woosters tend to bring their best pieces back; make sure you don’t miss this one if they do.
Chroma Key The group Title:Point was on my 2015 list as well, and here’s another one that’s just too brilliant to let fade. When these lunatics—specifically playwright Spencer Thomas Campbell and director Theresa Buchheister—hit their stride, their zany noir spoofery blends with a wonderful, kitsch-y grossness to become a weird hybrid beast that’s equal parts Marx Brothers, Raymond Chandler and Ed Wood. Stay alert this January, since the Exponential Festival features another Title:Point show. Groucho willing, it’ll be as glorious as the last two.
What the Constitution Means to Me If you’ve ever heard Heidi Schreck speak, you’ll know that this wonderful show is a perfect embodiment of her voice—always about to break with tears, yet also, somehow, containing an audible smile. In a photo-perfect recreation of a V.A. hall, Schreck re-enacts the titular speech she gave while criss-crossing the nation her senior year of high school. On that long-ago competition spree, she won enough money for college; for this one, she includes a testimonial from Danny Wolohan (because he’s a good man), and concludes with a Constitutional debate with the formidable twelve-year-old Rosdely Ciprian. The group’s delight in one another—Heidi, Danny, Rosdely, and the specter of Heidi’s younger self—makes your heart thump with feminist hope. There should be a production of this everywhere, Gideon Bible–style.
Mind on Heaven Ben Williams and Brian Cagle’s performative wake for their friend the Chattanooga avant-gardist Dennis Palmer takes the form of a half-sozzled multimedia scroll through everything Palmer held dear: videos of Southern musicians, footage of backwoods holy men, anti-Confederate mischief (tough luck, Jefferson Davis memorial plate!), and jokes about heart failure. It’s extremely wild and joyful, but the show is also an appropriate tribute: Palmer loved to introduce artists to each other, and here he is keeping up the habit, even after his own death.
The Body is a House You never find out the “real” identity of the avant-burlesque star Narcissister—in performance, she always wears her signature mannequin half-mask, which gives her a terrifying, plastic stare. The rest of Narcissister’s wordless cabaret, though, is all about revelation: an inverted strip-tease in which she enters naked and finds her outfit hidden in her orifices; a Russian Doll–style dance for a double-faced Janus figure; a scary cradle-to-literal-grave number, where she plays all seven ages of woman by quick-changing from one to the next. It’s eerie and unforgettable and transgressive, and, one hopes, on its way back to us.
Say Something Bunny! Alison S.M. Kobayashi’s exquisite one-woman documentary performance was the surprise super-smash of this season—a sensitive little project (she rescued an old recording, then tracked down the story behind the scratchy voices) which became a testimonial to humanism itself. This one’s a little bit of a cheat, since it’s not closed yet. After selling out repeatedly, they’ve extended into April. That’s what you can do when you’re an independent producer, and your “season” doesn’t have to roll inexorably on. Still, the minute it closes, I’m going to start whining that it should return.
School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play Speaking of smashes, Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy about Nigerian school girls exploded once word got out that the best ensemble in town was playing the funniest lines—so the play should be revived just so people can see it. But I’d also argue it needs to come back to be expanded into a Nicholas Nickleby–style serial. The piece’s main flaw was how hastily it moved to its conclusion, and anyone who saw it would have happily spent a dozen more hours at Aburi Girls Boarding School. If HBO doesn’t sign up Bioh and her show (they’re idiots if they don’t), Mean Girls could actually re-introduce the theatrical installment-drama. I know I would subscribe to a whole season of it.
They, Themself and Schmerm Becca Blackwell has been a gravel-voiced, shy-eyed presence in experimental shows for a long time now: they were the ox-shouldered barkeep in Samara and the titular horse-slash-heartthrob in Erin Markey’s alt-autobiography A Ride on the Irish Cream. For their solo debut, though, Blackwell puts all the avant-gardery aside to make this superbly funny one-schmerm show, telling real, hilarious, often poignant stories about gender, surviving sexual assault, and having a libido like a freight train. You are a lucky duck if you’re reading this early enough: Schmerm returns in the Special Effects festival this January at the Wild Project.