Much of the time Off-Broadway theater produces the kind of work you would expect from independent, DIY creative projects: small companies with a handful of actors put on shows in tiny, dilapidated, black box theaters for an audience of friends, relatives, and scenesters. The scripts are either home grown or plays so old it’s easy (and cheap) to obtain the rights. Sometimes the resulting work comes off amateurishly — probably because the people involved are amateurs. They have day jobs in restaurants and offices, or they are fresh out of college, and most of the time both. But because New York is America’s theatrical cultural capital, the brightest, most talented theater people from across the country do their most innovative and creative work here on the dusty stages and musty halls below 42nd street and in the outer boroughs.
2012 was a good year for Off- and Off-Off Broadway theater in New York. Young playwrights and actors produced excellent, often overlooked material, and some new performance spaces offered a home for compelling, daring new work. In the last twelve months I have seen and reviewed thirty-nine plays. The following is a list of my favorite 10 Off-Broadway plays from 2012, in order from last to first.
10. The Viriology by Ben Clawson and Strange Dog theater company. As the name implies, this is an analysis of the species vir gloriosus or the Common American Bro. Your average theatergoing New Yorker thinks of the Common American Bro as a knuckle-dragging, ham-necked biped whose linguistic range is limited to sports related shouts of joy or outrage. Ben Clawson and company show us that the Bro is actually capable of complex emotions, verbal acuity, and soul-shredding irony in the spirit of Pulp’s classic 1998 album This Is Hardcore. Their show inverts the marriage plot of classic comedy, dramatizing, by contrast, the lonely tragedy of the misogynistic narcissist who find himself alone on the other side of old age. The actors Scott Cagney, David Murgittroyd, and Alejandro Hernandez proved that acting in a bromance for the stage can be far more entertaining than any comparable Hollywood product.
9. Judge Me Paris by Austin McCormick. Burlesque has been the big news in alternative downtown entertainment for the last decade, probably because it has everything independent theater could ask for: small, underpaid acts; acts that can take place wherever there is a four by four by one foot raised square for a stage; a spotlight; and sex appeal. Austin McCormick takes the fundamentals of burlesque’s glamour and attitude and marries them with big production values to inject juice into the Restoration era drama The Judgement of Paris — a mythological masque on the beginning of the Trojan war. Paris, the most beautiful son of Priam, king of Troy, is chosen by the gods to be the judge in a beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Judge Me Paris filled the 303 Bond St. Theater in Gowanus, Brooklyn — a wonderfully atmospheric and dilapidated warehouse — with music, light, and gorgeous dancers whose performance bordered on one of Eros’s sacred rites.
8. Olives and Blood by Michael Bradford and Neighborhood Productions. In 1933 the dramatist-poet Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires on theater and the theory of the duende. The duende is a spirit in Spanish folklore that maliciously or helpfully keeps humans grounded. For Garcia Lorca this spirit helps artists locate the border between the rational and the supernatural. It is the spirit that gives you chills and makes your hair stand on end when you see really great theater. Garcia Lorca wanted to capture this spirit to use in his stagecraft, and Neighborhood Productions’s staging of Michael Bradford’s play does just that. Trescante (played by Armando Riesco) is haunted by the ghost of Garcia Lorca (Gian-Murrary Gianino) who he believes he murdered on Franco’s orders in an Andalusian olive grove in 1936. The unfolding of the tale is a lyrical meditation on death, guilt and memory.
7. The Honeycomb Trilogy by Mac Rogers and Gideon Productions. The big story in independent theater this year was playwright Mac Rogers’s sci-fi epic, which was reviewed by The New York Times and made it into New York magazine’s approval matrix (lowbrow brilliant). The Honeycomb Trilogy is the story of a family in Florida who are at the center of a truly cosmic revolution. Astronaut Bill Cooke, recently returned from an exploratory mission to Mars to ascertain the possibility of terraforming the red planet, has a terrible secret that will nearly destroy the human race. It will also pit his children, brother against sister, in a civil war over the proper attitude humans should take to Nature. Though these plays garnered the most attention for their science fiction conceits and elaborate plot twists, the essence of their appeal are the big fish you see darkly swimming beneath the surface. Mac takes an ambiguous, if not libertarian-leaning, political view of environmentalism and the personalities that comprise its partisans, which you might miss if you assume that all New York artists are granola crunching liberals. The middle play in the trilogy Blast Radius, the weakest of the three installments (though still much better than your average geek theater fare), dramatizes the period of human resistance after an alien invasion has subdued us to serfs working in a paleo-technological agrarian economy. The excellent work of the entire crew set off Becky Byers’s truly spectacular performance as Ronnie, Earth’s doughty heroine, who finds the aliens’ secret weakness and leads the successful human insurrection.
6. Menders by Heather Cohn and Flux Theatre Ensemble. The title of this play is taken from Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall.” Sometime in the dystopian future, after the collapse of the American Republic and the rise of totalitarian city states, crews of guardians patrol the society’s boundaries literalized in the walls that surround the city. Two young cadets are assigned to training duty with Drew, an older guard who is one rotation away from retirement. The text of Menders is an admirable, if not superlative, piece of science fiction theater. But the production values Flux Theater Ensemble brings to this and every production put them in the top rank of indie theater companies in the city. Regular cast members like Isaiah Tanenbaum give top notch performances in show after show. If see Flux is producing a show, you know it will be good.
5. Advance Man by Mac Rogers and Gideon Productions. Advance Man is the first play in The Honeycomb Trilogy, and as such, it trembles with nervous energy and leaves a metallic taste of expectation in your mouth. Bill Cooke, all-American astronaut lately returned from a mission to Mars, is now on a mission to save the Earth. He and his crew saw how fragile our world is from outer space, what with peak oil, peak fish, arsenic in the rice, Frankenstorms and all. What’s worse, as a member of the science elite, he also got an inside view of the political battles and legislative deadlock that will surely lead to environmental collapse, war, famine and death. So Bill does what any enlightened scientist would do: he invites an alien race to invade Earth in order to protect it from ourselves. Abbie, his son, is a sensitive artist who empathizes with the aliens and fantasizes about a new world order without human greed, envy or ego. His sister Ronnie is the exact opposite. Fiercely protective of her brother, those aliens are going to have to pry her gun from her cold, dead fingers.
4. Hearts Like Fists by Adam Szymkowicz and The Flux Theater Ensemble. You would be hard pressed to find a more professional Off-Broadway theater company than Flux Theater Ensemble. Their performances are always well designed, well directed, and professionally acted. August Schulenburg, the Flux Ensemble Artistic Director has a talent for bringing great scripts to his actors, even if he has to write them himself. Mr. Schulenburg and Flux also host a playwriting workshop on Sundays, which is where Mr. Szymkowicz developed Hearts Like Fists, for Flux. Hearts Like Fists is a charming, light-hearted comedy about love, gallantry, and the endless human propensity to fall for the wrong person. Szymkowicz goes to great lengths to twist and torture the heart metaphor in conventional comedy, contorting it between merely mechanical tool and the flaccid symbol of every strong emotion. The result is a gently absurdist send up of the romantic calculus that informs most of the present day mythology of love and dating.
3. Occupied by J. Holtham and Red Fern Theatre Company. Theater and politics are like bread and butter, love and marriage, the internet and memes, crazy and pants, awesome and sauce. Being an election year, 2012 sweated politics like a fat man eating cheese cake, and a group of playwrights in association with the Red Fern theater company took up the challenge of writing an evening of political one acts that looked at the tragic, the comedic, the ironic and the macabre faces of Our Political Life. The best of the bunch was Occupied by J. Holtham, in which a group of Occupy Wall Street activists form a guerrilla theater company to subvert The Man and topple his corrupt regime with their genius agit prop “intervention.” Unfortunately the group begins to fall out when the actors start to accuse each other of being crypto-fascist, racist, misogynistic, drama queens. The rest, as they say, is history.
2. Initium / Finis by Kristin Arnesen and Theater Reverb. One of the best Sci-Fi offerings this year played at HERE theater in SoHo. Kristen Arnesen has been a respected member of the burlesque and circus community for many years, performing as Empress Olga and emceeing the Floating Kabarette at Galapagos. She brought those performance skills to a show that is one third video mash-up, one third classic noir, and one third religious meditation. The play opens with Ms. Arnesen singing Sanskrit verses from the Vedas that tell of the goddess Kali who is about to destroy the world with fire until confronted by her lover in baby form. In the final scene Arnesen as Kali stops to suckle the babe and the universe is saved. Between these two mythic moments Ms. Arnesen tells a noir Sci-Fi story of two android women who represent both technologically enhanced humanity and the destructive female power of the femme fatale using video mash-ups taken from Blade Runner and Metropolis, strip tease, and a light sushi snack served on her own trembling, vulnerable body. Ultimately initium / finis is an allegory of the perpetual return of the unsettling, extra-rational power of mythic femininity into an arid, techno-masculine modern world, always on the edge of impotence and extinction. And the sushi was delicious.
1. Sovereign by Mac Rogers and Gideon Productions. I was a little surprised when Justin Timberlake said he was bringing sexy back. When did it go out of style, I asked myself? Watching Sovereign, the last play in The Honeycomb Trilogy by Mac Rogers was like witnessing the return of sexy when you had no idea it had gone in the first place. Sovereign is a reminder that theater is one of the most venerable art forms we humans practice because it gives us purpose and perspective. All too often in our modern world we have traded these things for convenience and security. We live so much in the now that it is hard for us to contemplate what the world might be like without us — and why we must fight against our complacency if we want to leave something more equal to the centuries than flesh and bone. When the lights go up we see that Ronnie and her intrepid band of humans has overthrown our alien overlords, and now the survivors must rediscover and recreate The Human from the ashes of our destroyed culture. The first step is to give free laws to humans who have grown up as slaves, and Ronnie, the great lawgiver and judge must preside over the reconstruction. The wheels of tragedy are set in motion when soldiers bring in Abbie, Ronnie’s brother and leader of the human collaborators. Ronnie must act as judge in Abbie’s capital trial for treason against the human race. Sovereign is, by far, the best play I saw in New York this year.
Will Kenton is a critic and teacher, and the founder of the theater site Cultural Capitol.He lives, thinks, and writes in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.