From dazzling musicals to gripping dramas, here’s the best D.C.-area productions of 2017, as chosen by our critics.
5. M. Butterfly, Everyman Theatre — This graceful yet biting take on David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winner benefited from lush visuals and sensitive direction, which unfolded layer upon layer of the enigmatic tale of a French diplomat’s affair with a cross-dressing Chinese opera singer, Song Liling. The show’s other ace was Bruce Randolph Nelson as compromised attaché Rene Gallimard, who both learns and teaches how to love. (Full review.)
4. The Pajama Game, Arena Stage — Fresh design and well-plied choreography lent this lean, sizzling production of the ’50s classic the sheen of a modern workplace musical comedy that might have been written yesterday. Boasting a stacked cast, including lovable leads Tim Rogan and Britney Coleman, alongside fabulous singing hoofers like Eddie Korbich, Blakely Slaybaugh, and Donna McKechnie, director Alan Paul made each of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ memorable songs count for more than just another spin of the jukebox. (Full review.)
3. Wig Out!, Studio Theatre — Director Kent Gash’s production of Tarell Alvin McRaney’s incredible Wig Out! brought the ball to its audience. It was not necessarily profound, just profoundly, one-hundred percent on its own planet of loveliness in portraying the community and struggles of house ball kids. And peeking out from between the margins of its old-fashioned Sparkle and Dreamgirls-in-drag melodrama was the light of history, the legacy of many and all kinds of tightknit families that were decimated by HIV/AIDS, and some very fierce runway. (Full review.)
2. Jesus Christ Superstar, Signature Theatre — A hothouse tent revival of the rockin’ gospel musical, Joseph Calarco’s staging bound the audience and the cast as one joyous congregation, and it was electric. Along with the joy came artfully rendered biblical suffering, and a trenchant call to question politicians who preach, and preachers who proselytize politics. Starring Nicholas Edwards as a passionately expressive Jesus, and Ari McKay Wilford as a thoroughly nuanced Judas, this Superstar sang eloquently of truth and religion. (Full review.)
1. The Father, Studio — Florian Zeller’s devastating drama about the effects of age on André and his family echoes the effects that man’s generation had on the world. In an unforgettable performance D.C. favorite Ted van Griethuysen switched the character’s light on for all to see. So indelible was van Griethysen in David Muse’s powerful production, that André might still be wandering Studio’s halls, searching for lost time. (Full review.)
5. Twelfth Night — Shakespeare Theatre Company — For sheer originality, director Ethan McSweeny’s take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with it’s fabulous opening airport scene — and the haunting idea that the tale is perhaps the (final) imagining of Viola — was a daring idea that truly paid off. It was also a wonderfully inventive solution to what is, in truth, an absurdly fanciful plot of mistaken identities, love at first sight and mischievous servants. Another of Shakespeare’s 17th century versions of a romcom, there is farce, absurdity, and plenty of his signature undercurrents of melancholic angst. With a large cast and a big, largely unstructured space, the challenge was cohesion, but the large ensemble nailed it with enormous energy, intensity and superbly-timed comedy, from the witty to the wacky. Add interludes of evocative live music and the effect was as entertaining as it was, in its final moments, reflective. (Full review.)
4. Hir, Woolly Mammoth — In the overflowing haystack of contemporary plays crammed with “edgy” topics, the needle is Taylor Mac’s Hir. A tragicomic study of an increasingly beleaguered family through a Walmart lens, this is sub-prime America in crisis. Mired in the kind of socioeconomic pressures that kill education, ambition and futures, the but-for-the-grace-of-God pathos here is that these people know what they are missing and the difference it would make. If Mac checks a few of the usual PC boxes (gender identity, military PTSD, domestic abuse), she does it with the kind of unhinged honesty — and flights of surreal fancy — that kicks it onto a whole new level. The stellar ensemble truly delivered. Every character carved out their own traumatized space and every trajectory of despair or hope came through, while always suggesting and evoking the ambivalent ties that bind. (Full review.)
3. The School for Lies, Shakespeare Theatre Company — There are some things the Internet will never replace. Take the fun, frilly, and decidedly cheeky David Ives adaptation of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope into The School for Lies. A romcom for wordsmiths and seventeenth-century wig-lovers, Ives delivered his updated satire with such unstoppable couplets and irreverent references it feels like rap for the literati. Spinning the production like a top, director Michael Kahn captured the subtle and the ridiculous in pitch-perfect measure. There is simply no screen in the world that can deliver the cozy joy of seeing a talented ensemble do it live: whip-fast repartee, bone-dry wit, and crazed physical comedy — all without missing a beat. (Full review.)
2. The Lover and The Collection, Shakespeare Theatre Company — Staging Pinter’s absurdist plays for a mainstream audience is a risky business at the best of times, but in this age of entertainments that would make the crowds of the Roman Coliseum blush, Michael Kahn’s choice to stage two back-to-back — The Lover and The Collection — was an act of supreme affirmation. Pinter done well is a unique and subtly mind-blowing trip into the unsolvable puzzles of adult relationships — the needs, the insecurities and the subterranean power plays — and in the right hands it creates consummate theater. With exquisite sensibility, Kahn captured each play with immense clarity, delivering the bristling tensions and humor in Pinter’s ruthless contemplations of adult connection. The casts were stellar, finding the poetry and music in the wry language and savoring his every pregnant, poignant pause. This was Pinter delivered with orchestral passion. (Full review.)
1. A Raisin in the Sun, Arena Stage — Arena knocked it out of the park this season with an extraordinary rendering of Lorraine Hansberry’s enduring classic. The story of a poor, hardworking 1950s African-American family grappling with the dreams and disappointments of an unexpected windfall, the show was dense with beautifully drawn themes: the demoralizing grind of urban life, the legacy of slavery, and the perennial constraints for both men and women of traditional gender roles. There is no fanfare or gimmick here — it is all about digging deep with nuance and suggestion. With a restrained yet uncompromising vision, director Tazewell Thompson and a phenomenal ensemble brought the very heart and soul in the play. Every performance came from a place of seamless authenticity, every moment lived with nerve-tingling intensity. Truly a magical theatrical experience. (Full review.)
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