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2014 In Review and Top 20 + 10 Shakespeareances

More and Less: Now There's a Concept

Do the math: four, six, five, six, six, four, eight, one, and four. Do not add these numbers up. Rather, these figures, individually, are the total number of cast members we saw this year in full-length stagings of, respectively, William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Richard II, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, Hamlet, and George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan.

A five-person Richard II might be a training exercise, a one-man Hamlet might be a special event, and all the rest could be gimmicks except—well, do the math: in addition to the one-man reading of Hamlet, seven full-scale productions of Shakespeare plays had casts of eight or fewer. That's a trend. We are in the age where a cast of 15 seems crowded.

We can bemoan the state of the art in which actors are finding less and less employment, and they aren't the only ones: scenic designers, lighting directors, and even costumers are finding Shakespearean work shriveling, even as Shakespeare's works continue to be staged in overwhelming numbers. I genuinely feel for these theater professionals with real empathy: Not only is my son an actor, I'm a journalist, and a lot of my colleagues have been locked out of their chosen career even after 20 years or more of stellar work due to a myriad of social and financial trends.

Nevertheless, the dwindling numbers on stage and, in my experience, the increasing numbers in the seats represent a heartening trend in staging Shakespeare. This year, we saw 60 Shakespeare stage productions and one new film (out of a total of 83 plays we attended), and we're seeing an unmistakable shift in aesthete. More productions are eschewing the conceptual excesses that dominated the past 40 years—when directors imposed their thematic whims and dictatorial wills on Shakespeare's texts and our sensibilities—in favor of scaled-down, text-centric Shakespeare. This focus on what Shakespeare wrote and how he staged his plays is opening up a world of old discoveries to a new generation of audiences. That's another trend I see in the seats of theaters that are turning text-centric: their patronage is skewing younger.

That's not to say conceptual creativity is dead. We saw three productions this year that used Shakespeare to create new works exploring either inner turmoil of the modern state of minds (Enter Ophelia, distracted and Cry "Havoc!") or the political turmoil of the modern state (And to the Republic). Besides, simply presenting all of Hamlet through four actors while maintaining fealty to the text is conceptual creativity to the extreme. Notably, actors forming their own small companies to explore real Shakespeare and the vibrant potential of theater are responsible for these visionary stagings.

We saw some great acting again this year, and we heard a lot of great music, too. From Fiasco Theater Company's a capella chorales and bluegrass ditties to Brave Spirit's Celtic take on Billy Idol's "White Wedding," the music was as much a highlight as the Shakespeare. Meantime, the American Shakespeare Center, which always integrates good music into its productions, put together a touring troupe of actors matching in musical talent that of many arena concerts we attended this year (and we attend some 40 concerts per year).

This was the year for King Lear, for good, bad, and notoriously indifferent. Ira Glass's unfortunate tweet, "Shakespeare sucks," after seeing the Public's production in Central Park starring John Lithgow (whom Glass thought, individually, was great) at least brought welcome attention to one of Shakespeare's most timeless plays (despite Glass's contention that it has no modern relevance—he's flat-out wrong). Even before that episode, King Lear was dominating our theatrical landscape. We saw five productions of Lear (this year's leader was A Midsummer Night's Dream at six, but we saw 30 different Shakespeare plays this year, quite a variety). These were momentous productions, too, with Frank Langella in a lauded Chichester Festival production, my old fave Michael Pennington at the Theatre for a New Audience, and the aforementioned Lithgow playing the title role. King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play, yet before this year I had never seen any production to rival the 1977 Royal Shakespeare Company version that hooked me on theater. Surely, some King Lear would top my annual Top 20 list.

Or would the American Shakespeare Center top it yet again, for the third year in a row? The little company in rural Staunton, Va., consistently stages some of the best Renaissance-era theater productions anywhere in the world (and we've been just about everywhere in the world of Shakespeare), and they do it in their replica Blackfriars Playhouse, one of the most beautiful play spaces anywhere in the world. In 2012 (Richard III) and 2013 (The Two Noble Kinsmen), they achieved transcendent theatrical moments for me (both are in the top five of my ongoing Top 40 Shakespeareances). I actually considered forbidding myself putting ASC at the top again no matter how good the production might be in order to share the spotlight. However, one, that would be dishonest and, two, ASC undercut that resolution in a hurry. Early on, one of its productions, again, scored as one of those elite theater moments in my life.

Yet, it was challenged, not once but twice. In fact, this was the most difficult year to select my number one because, from the end of the summer to the end of the year, three productions were scuffling over the top spot, each spending time at number one. That said, I want to reiterate here that while this list is ranked by my preference, it is not meant to denigrate productions landing near the bottom of the list: indeed, the difference in quality between Number 4 and number 54 on the Shakespearean list, and one through 22 on the non-Shakespeare list, is slim, all being shows I'd gladly sit through again. Also, another first this year, my wife, Sarah, made her debut on writing the review of Taffety Punk's Bootleg Shakespeare production of Pericles because family business kept me from attending the play: thus, you will also need to check out her rankings, below, which are significantly different from mine.

So allow me to describe exactly how I arrive at my rankings. Upon writing my reviews, I place the production in this list: this establishes my in-the-moment attitude right after seeing the play. At the end of the year (yesterday, in fact), I revisit the whole list with a longer view and certain memories that prove more indelible than others. The list rearranges, a little and a lot: some plays move up or down significantly (one production fell 10 spots, another rose 14). If I need a tie-breaker (as was the case with the top three this year), I focus not on what made them great but what made them less great. Still stymied (as was the case with the top two this year, which had zero flaws), I turn to contextual merit: placing the performance in a long view of the play. Even that didn't settle the matter, for I went into one production expecting little and got a lot while the other I went in expecting a lot and got more.

Ultimately, I use the Our Town test. In Thornton Wilder's play, the recently deceased Emily is given a chance to relive a moment in her life. This turns out to be the final tragic nail in that play, but I use the notion simply as a device: at the point of death, if I'm given a chance to relive a Shakespeare or theater moment from the year, which would I choose? Let me be clear, this is only a litmus test for this list: if I'm allowed to relive one moment in my life, I guarantee it's not going to be a play (I can think of a dozen moments with Sarah I'd rather relive before anything else, and that's all I'll say about that). Anyway, I use this litmus throughout the rankings, and ultimately it distinguished this year's number one from number two.

I simply would have to see those arrows hitting the trunk again.

Click here for the rankings

Eric Minton
December 31, 2014


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