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2011 in Review

Our Shakespeare Year 2011 began with a talented ensemble of actors staging one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays in the manner his own company did, with the American Shakespeare Center production of Henry VI, Part 3, during the Actors Renaissance Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. The year ended with another talented ensemble of actors presenting a play about Shakespeare and his company staging one of his latest plays, with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Equivocation at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Between these two productions, we enjoyed a memorable year of 27 Shakespeare and 15 non-Shakespeare plays with several stand-out performances, many indelible Shakespearean moments, and only a couple of disappointments.

This year also saw the launch of Shakespereances.com on October 1. With that launch, I offered my Top 40 Shakespeareances dating back to my very first Shakespeareance in 1974. That list includes six plays we saw through the summer of 2011.

My first formal update of the Top 40 Shakespeareances and Top 10 Non-Shakespearean Honorable Mentions will come at the end of 2012. In the meantime, I’m going to offer my personal 10 favorite Shakespereances and five favorite non-Shakespearean theatrical moments we saw in 2011. All of these are linked to my reviews of the plays.

Top 10 Shakespeareances of 2011

  1. Two Oscar-Winner Shylocks in the Merchant of Venice: Public Theater production at the Al Pacino as ShylockBroadhurst Theatre, New York, N.Y., and the Theater for a New Audience production at the Pace University Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, New York, N.Y. Al Pacino in the former, F. Murray Abraham in the latter. In my review of the latter I said I wouldn’t rank the two performances—and yet, Pacino made my Top 40 Shakespeareances list, specifically for his “Hath not a Jew” speech. While Pacino’s performance, and that speech in particular, were riveting, the New Audience production was overall more satisfying, and Abraham’s portrayal of Shylock in the trial scene rattled the heart strings as much as Pacino’s speeches seared the intellect. Combined, we saw a Shylock for the age.

  2. Henry VI, Part 3, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. In ASC’s Actors Renaissance Season, a troupe of actors mount five plays without a director, with only a week’s worth of total rehearsal time per play, working only from their own parts and cue lines, and in a theater without lighting or other electronic effects. They could be forgiven for staging anything less than excellent. However, aside from accomplishing great, entertaining theater with almost every outing, in Henry VI, Part 3, the company displayed how this early Shakespeare play works best when presented in not only the medium but the method for which he wrote, in the process revealing what a great piece of work it truly is. Almost deserving her own entry on this list was Sarah Fallon’s Queen Margaret, proving the part to be one of Shakespeare’s great female roles and showing why he brought her back, unhistorically, for a fourth time in the finale of his War of the Roses tetralogy, Richard III (Fallon herself will complete her own tetralogical run as Margaret at the Blackfriars this winter).

  3. Henry V, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. Three of the outstanding performances we saw this year was Patrick Midgley as the Dauphin, and as MacMorris, Kate and Alice in Henry Vand as Michael Williams. Fluellen is one of my favorite characters in the canon, and James Keegan was the first actor in seven productions I’ve seen who met (and even surpassed) my expectations. Alison Glenzer brought true heartache to Mistress Quickly, an appealing sparkle to Alice, and a sturdy Fluellen foil to Gower. While this production also had strong performances in Gregory Jon Phelps as Henry V, John Harrell as Chorus, Benjamin Curns as Pistol, and Miriam Donald as Katherine, what made this such a special Henry V was the solid acting of the whole ensemble and director Ralph Alan Cohen’s decision to embrace the whole scope of society Shakespeare portrayed and unleash the richness Shakespeare gave each individual character.

  4. Comedy of Errors, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. Antipholus beating DromioAnother Actors Renaissance Season production illustrating what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum and proving Shakespeare to be the forerunner of Looney Tune cartoons. While the actors treated Shakespeare’s text with respect, many of their performances were over the top, from the Blutoish fiends in monksware assisting Dr. Pinch and the ribald Abbess to the fattest, greasiest Nell ever and the slow-motion beating of Dromio that by itself made my Top 40 Shakespeareances. I laughed so hard I hurt.

  5. The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. Of the five plays RSC presented in the repertoire season at the Park Avenue Armory in the summer, this was the only one I approached with little anticipation (even Julius Caesar, which had earned considerable press in England, appealed to me more). Coming home on the train after seeing all five, it was the memory of this Winter’s Tale I kept revisiting. Ingenious staging (turning the library set of Sicily into the Bohemian countryside, the books becoming trees and leaves) and a strong acting corps were half the equation. Greg Hicks as Leontes was the other half, a performance so thorough and detailed I now consider the part one of Shakespeare’s finest creations.

  6. Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C. I’ve never seen a bad Much Ado, I don’t think, and I can safely say that the Margaret and Borachio dancingprevious seven productions of this play I’ve seen would have made my Top Ten lists in their respective years. Still, Ethan McSweeny’s 1930s Cuban-set production is a stand-out for the hot dancing, the sexy performances of Rachel Spencer Hewitt as Margaret and Mark Hairston as Borachio, a truly funny Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen) and Verges (Floyd King), and Lee Savage’s set with Tyler Micoleau’s lighting. And also for a Benedict (Derek Smith) and Beatrice (Kathryn Meisle) who not only had great chemistry but individually gave their characters more emotional depth than I’ve seen in most B&Bs. McSweeny may have overreached in his translating the play to a Cuban sugar plantation (click here to see my commentary), but out of that concept emerged Shakespeare’s subtext about women’s roles and stratification in an ordered society. And hot dancing.

  7. Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lean and Hungry Theater, WAMU 88.5 FM Radio, Washington, D.C. This hour-long radio production re-set the play in Prohibition-era, Chicago-like Athens, with Theseus as head of the political machine, Oberon as a mob boss with his mol, Titania, and The Wood as their speakeasy club. Puck narrated the condensed play using ’30s gangster slang instead of the text, but slipped smoothly into Shakespeare’s verse along with the other characters acting out the play’s scenes. Not only did the concept work (I’ve never heard such a menacing Oberon nor a sassier Titania), the framework device was equally as funny as Shakespeare’s text.

  8. Romeo and Juliet, Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va. I love dance, so my first experience with a Synetic production (combining ballet, modern dance, and mime with special Romeo and Juliet palm to palmstaging effects) was bound to inspire my enthusiasm. All that, combined with the company's rendering of Shakespeare’s characters and stories, landed this production in my Top 10. The Tsikurishvilis (Paata the director and Irina the choreographer) played up the lovers’ palm-to-palm imagery with hand-centered pas de deuxs, provided intensely athletic fight scenes, and brought out interesting interrelationship subtexts—Juliet and Tybalt, Romeo and Friar Laurence, Mercutio and everybody he encountered—that deepened Shakespeare’s tragic telling.

  9. As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y. I have a confession to make: I like As You Like It. It is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, though I admit it has some serious holes and perhaps his weakest male lead. But it has one of his best female leads and a whole palette of wonderful characters snapping off great jokes and famous speeches. Director Michael Boyd tilted the court scenes toward seriousness and danger, but shifted into full-on romp mode in Arden. Katy Stephens was a Rosalind who most believably pulled off the part of Gannymede, and Jonjo O’Neill made me re-think that whole Orlando-as-worthless notion. Forbes Masson gave us a drily charming Jaques, and Richard Katz as Touchstone combined with Sophie Russell as Audrey for a sublimely acted slapstick sequence. The production also in a fun way broke through the fourth wall—indeed, all walls—by posting Orlando’s love tomes throughout the lobby before the intermission.

  10. Othello at the Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C. Take one of D.C.’s top Shakespearean Othello and Iagoactors, Ian Peakes as Iago, match him up with a lithely leonine Owiso Odera as Othello, surround them with a strong ensemble down to Chris Genebach’s Montano, and put them on another of Tony Cisek’s psychologically transformative sets, you get a landmark production. Director Robert Richmond’s decision (and text shuffling) to give Iago a particularly strong rapport with the audience made this one of the most self-reflective Othellos I recall ever seeing. Still, it was the crackling tandem of Peakes and Odera that gave the show its intensity and an entertainment value that lingered for weeks.

Honorable Mentions:
Top 5 Non-Shakespearean Theatrical Moments of 2011

  1. Equivocation, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. This fictional account of William Shakespeare being tasked by King James’ spymaster Robert Cecil to write a play about the foiled Gunpowder Plot but writing Macbeth Judith and Shags in production pic of Equivocationinstead scored on a number of levels. Bill Cain wrote a witty script, with jokes aimed at Shakespeare’s career as well as bardolatry through the ages. The play packed an emotional punch, too, as Shakespeare tried to forge a relationship with his daughter, Judith, after the death of her twin brother. It also took an intellectual jab at the doctrine of equivocation—touched on by Shakespeare himself in the Porter scene of Macbeth—as it applied to the Jacobeans and is practiced by politicians today. The script was so enjoyable we bought a copy at the intermission. But what really knocked us out was the superb performances from the troupe of six actors, four of them playing multiple parts (Jonathan Haugen playing Cecil alone would make this list), climaxing in the staging of Macbeth before King James (with John Tufts playing both Macduff and King James). Should this be listed in the Shakespeareances list or Non-Shakespearean? Doesn’t really matter; it would top either list.

  2. Fela!, National Theatre Production, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C. This was good-time entertainment, jiving to the music of Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s Afrobeat music, watching Sahr Ngaujah as Fela blowing his horn and charming us with his personality, and listening to the African-tinged operatic singing of Melanie Marshall as Funmilayo, Fela’s mother. All that alone would have put this production on this list. But couple it with the story of Fela’s fight against dictatorial and big-business repression and the staging of one scene that left many in the audience in real tears, and Fela! stands out as one of our favorite outings of the year, including concerts and baseball games. Despite my love of all kinds of music and my background (long ago) as a music critic and entertainment reporter, I had never heard of Fela before attending Fela!. I walked out a fan of the man and his music—and still jiving to the memory days afterward.

  3. The Comedy of Errors, The Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C. I’m cheating, and this is just a way for me to put 11 Shakespeareances on a Top 10 list, right? OK, I admit it. But here’s my validation. Director Aaron Posner turned this Comedy into a play within Set of Comedy of Errors at the Folgera play, with the fictional Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society staging Shakespeare’s play in masks. It was a perfectly fine Comedy of Errors, with Darragh Kennan’s Antipholus of Syracuse revealing how this role was a precursor to all of Shakespeare’s great romantic leads that would come later in the canon. However, the production’s funniest moments were extra-Shakespearean: preceding the play with a mockumentary about the acting troupe, the part of the courtesan being played by a destractedly ditzy and distractingly sexy WMWS member, and a joke at the expense of the Folger Theatre incorporated into Tony Cisek’s ingenious set. So, while the playing of The Comedy of Errors itself didn’t make my Top 10 Shakespeareances for the year, the WMWS at The Folger was easily one of the year’s Top 15 highlights.

  4. The Heir Apparent, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C. The only criticism I could muster about this play is that it wasn’t The Liar, another David Ives–translated French masterpiece STC produced in 2010. With the highest of expectations going in, we came out of The Heir Apparent satisfied. The irreverent script updating 17th century French humor to 21st century American insensibilities was a plus. Having a live pig on stage was a big plus. The seven all-in, all-out comic performances by a talented and attractive cast led by ham-master Floyd King was a huge plus. But as time passes, what emerges as the most singular aspect of this Michael Kahn–directed production was the cast camaraderie. We have never seen a group of actors having so much obvious fun performing a play. Infectious fun.

  5. Rene Thornton Jr. and Allison Glenzer in Tamburlaine the Great, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. The whole ASC Thornton as Bajazethcompany brought emotional depth and vivid life to Marlowe’s highly structured and bombastic verse, but the standout performances were Thornton as Bajazeth and Glenzer as Zabina. Their arrogance was somehow attractive, their fall was truly heart-wrenching, their deaths were deeply disturbing. Their work in Tamburlaine was merely the pinnacle of a string of remarkable performances from these two actors: Glenzer’s Nell and Abbess in Comedy of Errors, Lady Grey in Henry VI, Part 3, Trinculo in The Tempest, and Mistress Quickly, Alice, and Gower in Henry V; Thornton’s Ghost and Player King in Hamlet, Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, Capt. Jamy and King Charles in Henry V, and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

Eric Minton
December 30, 2011

Sarah’s Picks

Top 10 Shakespeareances for 2011

  1. Hamlet, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
  2. Comedy of Errors, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
  3. The Merchant of Venice, Theatre for a New Audience, Pace University Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, New York, N.Y.
  4. Othello, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
  5. Romeo and Juliet, Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va.
  6. The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y.
  7. Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
  8. Macbeth, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
  9. Henry VI, Part 3, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
  10. The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V, WSC Avant Bard, Artisphere Black Box Theater, Arlington, Va.

Top 5 Non-Shakesperean Theatrical Moments for 2011

  1. Equivocation, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.
  2. Fela!, National Theatre Production, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
  3. The Heir Apparent, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
  4. The Chosen, Theater J, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.
  5. Cyrano, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.