20 Times I Missed Theatre in 2020
It's been a hell of a year. With theatres shuttering in March, no one could have predicted this pandemic would leave the state of the arts forever changed. Like most theatre artists, I've been in mourning for our industry because unlike film or television, there's no clear timeline of when live entertainment can resume. During this time, I also realized I don't miss theatre as much as I thought I would. It turns out when the craft that defined your entire identity is suddenly stripped away it can lead to some important revelations!
There were many issues in the arts before the pandemic including gender and pay equity, workplace safety, and most prominently the continued marginalization of BIPOC artists. Following these events within the Chicago theatre community and nationally was and continues to be overwhelming. The outpouring of stories and criticism has been vast, but vital and I hope we can continue these conversations as we navigate our industry's future. Initiatives proposed by We See You W.A.T. and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and artists like Jeremy O. Harris bring me hope we can advance these conversations into tangible actions.
Thankfully, we have not had a shortage of online programs and performances to satisfy our desire for art. Instead of doing a "best of" list, I compiled the performances across television, film, and Zoom theatre, that reminded me of why we love theatre even when it doesn't always love us back. I didn't include any live productions because I only saw a handful and it would seem a disservice against those that didn't even get a chance to open. It also makes this list more accessible as you can still enjoy some of these performances from the comfort of your home.
1) Losing My Mind: A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream
Who could have imagined this soundtrack would set the tone for the year? Sondheim purists may scoff at the notion of pumping up his standards into jams, but don't knock it till you try it. Created by Joshua Hinck and Scott Wasserman, this soundtrack is full of oomph, laughs, and groovy fun. It brings new meaning to reviving the classics. Dance your way into 2021 with this sweet mix. "Unworthy of Your Love" isn't a bad way to start.
2) Kill Move Paradise
TimeLine Theatre Company brought a moving, metatheatrical story as the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to prove relevant. Written by James Ijames, Isa, Daz, Grif, and Tiny are four young, black men ripped from the world too soon. They ascertain their fate in an unsettling purgatory that includes a fax machine with an ongoing list of names of every time a black person is killed. Cleverly directed by Wardell Julius Clark, this performance managed to creep under your skin despite it being remote. Read it if you can or get a sneak peek here.
3) Where We Stand
When executed correctly, a solo performance can be one of the most engrossing things you've ever seen. This was the case with Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who not only wrote Where We Stand, but performed it with remarkable finesse. Presented by Baltimore Center Stage and WP Theater, Grays poses a philosophical examination into what constitutes community, and by extension our humanity. Tamilla Woodard directs this unraveling fable that leaves you questioning what we value and who profits from our investment. Grays' soothing voice echoing into an empty theater offers many interpretations with every haunting movement and line.
Musical episodes are nothing new when it comes to television, but Riverdale has marked their resurgence. The CW melodrama knows how to do it right having incorporated horror classics, Carrie and Heathers, into their plots seamlessly in the past. Season four saw them shift in taking on the beloved Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Riverdale is certainly a wicked little town, and the episode was a nice spotlight for Kevin (Casey Cott) who usually is a supporting player to shine. Any opportunity to introduce Hedwig to others is A+ in my book plus this cast had the chops to pull it off. "Tear Me Down" and "Sugar Daddy" were particularly memorable.
5) Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
Sondheim purists can ditch the disco I guess, and instead tune in to Take Me to the World. Premiering on the 50th anniversary of the original Broadway production of Company (which would have coincided with the Company revival this year RIP), the lavish celebration commenced in style. Technical snafus be damned, this fundraiser for Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP) persisted even when host Raul Esparza vanished (he still sang, don't worry). Highlights included Katrina Lenk's sultry rendition of "Johanna" and the Tonys' 2020 Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical sole nominee, Aaron Tveit, in a charismatic turn on "Marry Me a Little". And bless the surprise trifecta that emerged with Meryl, Christine, and Audra in "The Ladies Who Lunch". Musical theatre Twitter has still not recovered.
6) Never Have I Ever
Never Have I Ever is peak television. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, this Netflix series explores sex positivity, grief, and family through young women of color. It focuses mostly on a trio of high school sophomores with the headstrong, yet hilarious Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her BFFs, the nerdy, queer, Fabiloa (Lee Rodriguez) and resident drama queen, Eleanor (Ramona Young). In season one, episode seven, Eleanor finds herself cast as leading lady Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Naturally, she has her own family drama threatening to upstage her moment. While predictable in how her dilemma unfolds, it successfully captures how art imitates life in ways we don't, or maybe consciously, always connect until confronted with them.
7) All One! The Dr. Bronner's Play
The Passage Theatre is a company whose work I've always welcomed with open arms. It's no surprise they managed to pivot their new play to Zoom, but also play in this sandbox to the fullest capacity. All-One! is a devised work about the life of Emmanuel Bronner, who created a soap with eighteen purposes that you've probably seen in Whole Foods. Directed by Sammy Zeisel and written by Beth Hyland and the Ensemble, this production tried out every purpose to see if it worked. While washing their hands, fruit, and even hair, it turned into a thoughtful meditation on self-reflection personalized to each's quarantine habits. It made for a unique genre-defying experience throwing together ASMR, PowerPoint, and of course, lots of suds.
8) Mad Forest
We honestly should have been listening closer to Caryl Churchill this whole time. Theatre for a New Audience and Fisher Center at Bard presented a limited viewing experience of Mad Forest: A Play from Romania. Depicting before, during, and post the Romanian Revolution of 1989, this political firestorm was a perfect show to channel our collective rage. Directed by Ashley Tata, it perfectly encapsulated Churchill's absurd humor and dark poetic musings. The most impressive collaboration came from witnessing Afsoon Pajoufar's scenic design be remodeled virtually through video design by Eamonn Farrell and video programming by Andy Carluccio. It made for a dazzling display seeing each ensemble member's background so intricately personalized moving to and fro from the battlefield to a grand hall.
9) Diary of an Erotic Life
Like most arts organizations, the National New Play Network's annual conference went virtual this year. In the midst of panels and open discussions, it included a spirited reading of Prop Thtr's Diary of an Erotic Life. With inspiration taken from “Earth’s Spirit” & “Pandora’s Box” by Frank Wedekind, Olivia Lilley and her ambitious ensemble produce a stimulating work that I hope to one day see in person. Set in Lincoln Park, it explores the performance of allyship, politics, and romance as a young, South American, female, immigrant, Lulu (Valeria Rosero), tries to carve out her American dream. Even as a reading, this story was intoxicating, pulling you in with the many possibilities in which this tale could take shape.
10) The Vanishing Half
Regarded as one of the best books of 2020, Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half lives up to the hype. Following twin light-skinned black sisters who "disappear" from their hometown, the two quickly separate and one secretly passes as white. Bennett secures her status as a riveting fiction author in this follow-up to her first novel, The Mothers. The novel extends to following the sisters' daughters as they grow older, including Desiree's daughter, Jude. She ends up working as an usher at a local theater and watching her enter this new world through fresh eyes made me nostalgic. The scattered programs, cast politics, and going home just to get up to do it all over again took me back. While a brief part of the story, it was nice to feel at home again. Thankfully, HBO has picked up this book to series so we'll be getting our eyes on it soon.
11) I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel is one of the most inspiring, artistic voices in our lifetime. She established herself as a gifted comedic and introspective voice in the hit series, Chewing Gum, based on her play. Expectations were high for her new HBO follow-up series, I May Destroy You, which on title alone is magnificent. Created, written, produced, co-directed along with Sam Miller, and starring Coel, this world is entirely hers and we're thankful to be living in it. Inspired by Coel's own sexual assualt experience, Arabella navigates her work, relationships, and trauma. The series expands upon its original premise across the season exploring different kinds of violation. It ties in cancel culture, social media as a vacuum, climate change, and putting radical empathy into practice. On top of being a master of monologues and queen of catharsis, Coel does what many artists strive to in creating unapologetic, vulnerable work that stimulates discourse.
Free Street Theater has promised a high volume of virtual premieres this upcoming season. If Wasted is any indication of their potential, it's well worth tuning in. FST's youth ensemble produced a spectacular piece centered on water in Parched last year, and this year they explored the element of waste. Despite being at home, it was incredibly interactive prompting questions live to answer via Zoom chat. It was a communal viewing experience that allowed us all to bask in the talent of these young individuals while also examining our own contribution to polluting the environment. Directed by Katrina Dion and devised by the Pulaski Park Youth Ensemble, Wasted offered this time of pause as an opportunity to brainstorm ways we can invest in and protect our future.
13) The Baby-Sitters Club
Speaking of amazing kids, The Baby-Sitters Club shows that younger generations are not to be underestimated. Based on the series by Ann M. Martin, this Netflix reboot from Rachel Shukert offers a wholesome, comfort watch with touches of conflict. I would gladly die for any of these girls, but the one who perhaps grows the most is Mary Anne, played by the sweet Malia Baker. The final two episodes of the season show her finding her voice as a director for the summer camp play. These episodes took me back to discovering the magic of theatre for the first time. Everything seems possible and while nothing goes as planned, it's some of the most fun you'll have in your entire life.
P-Valley is the show you're probably not watching right now, but should be. Based on her play, Pussy Valley, Katori Hall brings this sizzling series to Starz. Hall, who pens most of the episodes, shows the sweat, blood, and tears that goes into stripping. Set in the dirty South in Chucalissa, Mississippi, it's home to the Pynk, struggling to stay afloat in a sea of mesmerizing dancers, mothers, and "men being men". Fans of Hustlers will immediately be intrigued, but this isn't so much a sisterhood than a joint force for survival. It has some predictable plot points, but its depth of characterization, particularly for Mercedes (Brandee Evans), is impressive to behold. Take in the glittery yet gritty costumes, performances, and magnetic women of P-Valley.
15) Black Like Me
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's reading of Black Like Me needs to be one of the first shows produced when we're back in person. Written and directed by Monty Cole, it's based on the memoir by John Howard Griffin. Griffin, in the name of journalism, darkened his skin to "experience" being black in the South in the 1960s. His intentions as well as his investigation are held to great scrutiny by a predominantly all-black ensemble who narrate, impersonate, and undergo John's journey. Intriguing, interactive, and interpersonal, this show left me breathless in its complexity. It holds up history under a microscope while unpacking how it connects to our present with police brutality, protests, and being black in America.
PEN15 debuted the most accurate representation of doing middle school theater. The stellar second season of this Hulu cringe comedy created by Maya Erskine
Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman reached its peak in episodes six and seven. Seventh-graders Maya (Erskine) and Anna (Konkle) put on their school play, which feels like a mix of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Jersey Boys sans singing. Maya is cast as the lead opposite the charming Gabe (Dylan Gage) while Anna comes into her own in the crucial role of stage manager. From rehearsals, to tech aka hell week, to the cast party following opening night, they provide a hilarious overview that shows at the end of the day we're a bunch of dorks who care a lot about this niche artform.
MCC Theater's annual Miscast gala is always a highlight. This year raising money for The Mental Health Coalition (MHC) in addition to MCC, Broadway performers get the chance to sing songs they traditionally wouldn't get to otherwise. Some of these performances felt like straight up music videos racing around streets and rooftops while others went for a more simple set-up in their living room. Adrienne Warren's "Before the Parade Passes By" was beyond sensational and Beanie Feldstein's "Dancing Through Life" featured a remarkable cameo from her dog, and Kristen Chenoweth to boot. Similar to Sondheim's Birthday celebration, it's still available to view if you're missing your Broadway faves.
18) The 40-Year-Old Version
If P-Valley is the series you probably missed this year, then The 40-Year-Old Version is the film you missed out on. You can easily correct this misstep as it's currently streaming on Netflix. Written, directed, and produced by playwright Radha Blank, this film is loosely based on her life and marks her directorial debut. It's a heartwarming, coming of later age story of a forty-year-old, once promising playwright who debates exiting stage left out of theater and into rapping. Blank perfectly captures the commercialization of theatre, the pitfalls of creativity, and how hustling leaves you hung out to dry. With many laugh out loud moments and stunningly shot in black and white, this film produced by Lena Waithe is well deserving of your time.
19) Circle Jerk
The week Circle Jerk dominated theatre Twitter was glorious. I won't say much as Fake Friends will be granting it a triumphant return this upcoming January, but you don't want to miss it. Written and directed by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, who also play multiple roles, it's a social media frenzied, musical theatre and Real Housewives infused, cyber crazed wormhole that I would gladly get lost down any day of the week. With direction by Rory Pelsue and presented in collaboration with Cat Rodriguez and Ariel Sibert, this dramaturgical wet dream will leave you salivating in astonishment.
20) The Crown
Perhaps the best season of Netflix's The Crown so far, we were graced with a presence we've craved for so long: the Princess of Wales. Creator Peter Morgan relished in giving the People's Princess a tapestry of tension to dart through. Through montages of movement, it allowed a way for Diana, played remarkably by Emma Corrin (who nails the art of eye acting), to shed away her insecurities. Whether roller skating bright-eyed through the palace, one upping her husband yet again while dancing to Billy Joel, or singing Phantom of the Opera as an awkward anniversary present, she was endlessly enthralling. And the fact that all of these events happened in real life was the icing on the cake to an already thoroughly fascinating figure.