Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Salima, Rachael Holmes as Sophie, and Jamairais Malone as Josephine in Arena Stage’s production of “Ruined.” Photograph by Joan Marcus.
Choosing a top ten list is always problematic, but I’m particularly thankful for how hard this list was to create, because it affirms how much good theater Washington saw in 2011. The Washingtonian’s theater writers reviewed more than 70 shows this year, and it’s really remarkable how many of them were considered for inclusion here. But in the end, we went with the ones we simply couldn’t get out of our heads, which I think is the hallmark of a really effective production. We’re all looking forward to 2012.
1) Ruined, Arena Stage
To me, a play should strike the perfect balance between entertaining you, breaking your heart, and making you see something you never noticed before. Ruined, which won playwright Lynn Nottage the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009, did all of these things while also taking a horrific subject and making it into something beautiful. Charles Randolph-Wright’s Arena Stage production was haunting and hopeful, leaving us with a joyful affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
2) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf , Arena Stage
Washington theaters bested New York not once but thrice this year, first with this Edward Albee play, of which New York mag’s Scott Brown wrote, “If a theater can’t be found [in New York] to accommodate it, let’s consider building one.” Is there anyone in theater as unfairly talented as Tracy Letts? The August: Osage County playwright proved his acting chops are still formidable in his performance as George, a man who delights in spewing endless bile at his equally vicious wife. And don’t worry, New Yorkers, it’s coming to you in 2012.
3) Uncle Vanya, the Kennedy Center
Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company returned to the Kennedy Center this year with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya—a coup for Washington audiences, because we had the show’s only US engagement (it was recently announced that they’ll be bringing it to New York next year). Blanchett, who dazzled audiences in A Streetcar Named Desire in 2009, had a less prominent role here but still shone as Yelena, the much younger wife of a Russian landowner. Costars Hugo Weaving (as Dr. Astrov) and Richard Roxburgh (as Vanya) showed how utterly fascinating gloomy nihilism can be.
4) Follies, the Kennedy Center
Stephen Sondheim? Check. An all-star cast? Check. The most expensive production in the Kennedy Center’s history? Double check. Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Paige, Linda Lavin, Terri White, et al. reminded us why Sondheim is the king of the American musical. Follies transferred to Broadway earlier this year, giving us the rare chance to exclaim that this was one thing DC did first.
This is a cheat, but I don’t care. Both of these productions were Samuel Beckett at his best: distilled, minimalist, reverent. Fragments, a series of short plays by Beckett, came to the Kennedy Center in April, directed by the legendary Peter Brook and presented by his Parisian company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. And Krapp’s Last Tape, which graced the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre earlier this month, starred British powerhouse John Hurt as the lonely, irascible Krapp in one of the best performances I’ve seen, ever.
6) Venus in Fur, Studio Theatre
When David Ives’s quirky play about acting, sadomasochism, and power debuted in New York, it made a star out of actress Nina Arianda (the New York Times described her as “sensational”). The show’s Washington incarnation, directed expertly by Studio’s David Muse, didn’t disappoint. The two-person, 90-minute play showed how riveting interpersonal tension can be, and weaved the struggles of every power-based relationship into a play-within-a-play setting. As Vanda, a squeaky-voiced and seemingly scatty actress, Erica Sullivan delivered.
7) A Bright New Boise, Woolly Mammoth
Woolly Mammoth never fails to give audiences at least one sterling new show per year and this production of a new play by Samuel D. Hunter opened Woolly’s 2011–2012 season in style. Ominous, darkly funny, and bleak, the play was notable for standout performances by Woolly cast members, from Michael Russotto to Kimberly Gilbert.
8) The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Director Ethan McSweeny took Shylock to the city that never sleeps in this June production, which relocated the action from Venice to 1920s New York. “New York actor Mark Nelson is a brilliant Shylock,” wrote Leslie Milk, who described him as “embittered and authentic in his tortured sense of justice.” McSweeny’s decision to ground the show in a hotbed of religious and ethnic tension enhanced the play’s main themes, resulting in a fascinating production.
9) Let Me Down Easy, Arena Stage
At a time when everyone in Washington was obsessed with health care (or the lack of it), Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show took an all-encompassing approach, tackling the subject through 20 different narratives. Smith researched the show by conducting more than 300 interviews with different subjects, and she deftly portrayed the ones who made the final cut, from a swaggering, macho Lance Armstrong to a quietly heartbreaking South African orphanage director. The result was a thoughtful, funny, and affecting production, which you left wishing everyone in power could be forced to go see it.
10) The History of Kisses, Studio Theatre
If you ever get the chance to see a David Cale show, go. He’s gawky, awkward, and utterly charming. A gifted storyteller whose work has been featured on This American Life and The Next Big Thing, Cale portrayed all the characters in this gorgeous 90-minute show—a fusion of vignettes and scenes about love, sex, and longing. It was poignant, achingly funny, and very moving.
Honorable mentions go to:
Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth (a restaging, which was the only reason it didn’t make the top ten)
The Habit of Art, Studio Theatre
Equivocation, Arena Stage
Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Arms and the Man, Constellation Theatre Company
What were your favorite shows of 2011? Let us know in the comments.