• Gillian Russo

2019 In Review

The best of the best of this year's theater-going, and what I've learned from it

This has been a calendar year of theater-going of epic proportions. I have seen - can you guess how many shows? I'll give you a moment. Okay. Drumroll, please...


For reference, that's about as many as I've seen in the past 19 years of my life combined.

If I had to sum up this year in theatre in one word, it would be educational. The experience has taught me that one catch comes with seeing so much theatre: it becomes a lot less spectacular.

That's not to say it's become boring; on the contrary, every show is a new experience and a new story that I thoroughly look forward to. It's just that it's no longer a twice-a-year novelty, so merely seeing a show isn't enough to utterly thrill me. I walk out of a lot of shows having enjoyed the experience but feeling lukewarm, unaffected save for a standout line or singular show-stealing character. That said, when a truly excellent show does come along, it's all the more special.

And 2019 had its share of excellence. Each show educated me in its own way, on topics ranging from slaves’ connection with modern gynecology to the history of a (former) New York landmark to Santería. Among them all, I present my top 10 shows of the year. Of course, there's surely much more where this came from; I haven't seen everything, after all, as much as I wish I could. If you saw something noteworthy this year, leave a comment and tell me about it!

10. The Glass Menagerie (Wild Project, October 3-20)

By Tennessee Williams

This production of Williams' iconic work was given a haunting edge this October. In the vein of the Oklahoma! revival, directors Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch exposed the darkness of the story without changing a single word of the script. When their work met the haunted mansion-esque set and the foreboding piano music, the result was a masterful and arresting production all around.

9. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (Fordham Theatre, October 29-31)

By Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield

If you ever find yourself near a staging of this show, go. Yes, they really do cram Shakespeare's entire canon into 90 minutes, and yes, it's as chaotic and hilarious as you might think. Nicholas Catapano, John Alexander Hatcher, and Spenser Valentine had fantastic comic timing and embraced the ridiculousness of their many parts (think cross-dressing and playing both sides of a conversation) to the fullest. I think it's what Shakespeare would have wanted.

8. Sea Wall/A Life (Hudson Theater, August 8-September 29)

By Simon Stephens and Nick Payne

This show's an admittedly tough pitch for the notoriously opulent Broadway scene: two men each stand up onstage alone with next to no set, spectacle, or music and simply talk about life and death for an hour straight. Yet when Carrie Cracknell's sharp directing met the expertise of the two actors, it was done, and it offered perhaps the most intimate experience I've had in a Broadway theater.

I just remember it dawning on me during Tom Sturridge's monologue that the sea is a god figure in Sea Wall - a symbol of love and possibility and moments of joy that are also godlike to Alex, in his reliance on them. Then the sea takes his daughter from him, and his whole relationship with God and love shifts. Words can't adequately describe the collective heart-shattering that rippled through the theater, nor even through me.

Jake Gyllenhaal, then, put my heart back together again as Abe, who witnesses his own father's death concurrently with his daughter's birth. He delivered a clear and visceral fear of becoming a father without overshadowing his many memorably, and unexpectedly, funny bits - frantically shouting at Siri onstage, for one. And he delivered a line I won't soon forget: "We all die three deaths: when we die, when we're buried or burned, and when someone says our name aloud for the last time."

7. Trick or Treat (59E59 Theaters, January 12-February 24)

By Jack Neary

Some of the best theatre I saw this year was some of the first theatre I saw this year. Trick or Treat set up a sitcom-like living room and filled it with tragic heros of ancient Greek proportions (with Boston accents). A man kills his ailing wife before she divulges a dark secret from their family's past to their adult children, and watching the tension unravel was riveting the entire time. And I mean it. I don't think there was a single slow moment or one where I felt I could breathe or check out for a second.

6. The Prom (Longacre Theatre, closed August 11)

Music by Matthew Sklar, Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, Concept by Jack Viertel

Another one of my first forays into a theater in 2019, The Prom takes the prize for most unequivocally joyous experience I've had at a show this year. Any homophobia, bigotry, or skepticism that could have been present among its audience was drowned out by the majority of overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm for the events unfolding onstage. The Prom wasn't just a show; it was a buoyant celebration of acceptance that, as a young queer woman, could not have made me happier to join in on. Plus, seeing my Fordham friend, Juice Mackins, kill it up on a Broadway stage was also incredibly cool.

5. Oklahoma! (Circle in the Square Theater, through January 19, 2020)

Everything you may have read about the sultry, shocking, and superb nature of Daniel Fish's directing is true. Sitting in the Circle in the Square in complete darkness, listening to Curly (Damon Daunno) goad Jud (Patrick Vaill) on to suicide leading up to "Pore Jud Is Daid" was purely, truly frightening. I'll never forget that moment. Damon Daunno deserves another mention for his caramel-smooth voice, which is even more delicious live. If you haven't listened to "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," do it. You'll want to do it again.

4. Behind the Sheet (Ensemble Studio Theatre, January 9-March 10)

By Charly Evon Simpson

Thrilled to see that this one made this year’s Kilroy’s List; Charly Evon Simpson’s reframing of the origins of modern gynecology fully deserves the nod. She fictionally re-examines James Marion Sims' surgeries - which aimed to find a treatment for fistulas - from the perspective of the slave women who (often unwillingly, or at least painfully) underwent these procedures. It was the history lesson I didn’t know I needed. She paints a searing portrait of gender politics and the power, yet difficulty, of sisterhood in a traumatizing environment where having it better often comes at the expense of someone having it worse - yet ending up under the knife either way.

3. After (59E59 Theaters, March 12-April 14)

By Michael McKeever

After is a lot like Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage: two sets of parents meet to discuss an incident where one of their children hurt the other, each couple gets defensive, tensions get high, and their conflict devolves far beyond the inciting incident. But McKeever takes it a step further than Reza and makes the injury not one child hitting the other with a stick, but instead shooting the other with a gun.

In a world all too glutted with school shootings, After sears with painful relevance. It's a reminder that the sorrow of losing someone to gun violence doesn't end when the news coverage does, and as someone who has seen people cope with such loss firsthand, the message struck a chord. It's hard to find the words, but the best I can say is that I was drained, but I was moved.

2. Little Women (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre, May 15-June 29)

By Kate Hamill

You can read my blog post linked above to hear me pontificate about how Jo March has been my hero for 10 years and how I ended up growing up to be like her and all that jazz. Watching Kristolyn Lloyd bring her to life from the front row soared beyond my greatest expectations. All the actors were equally stellar, and I think I like Hamill's version of their story just as much as Louisa May Alcott's. Hamill matches Alcott in heart and fidelity to the characters even as they were adapted for today's stage. Jo's queerness still isn't explicitly canon, but Hamill's production got closer with butch-esque attire and musings with Laurie about gender. Good enough for me.

1. Our Dear Dead Drug Lord (WP Theater, through January 5, 2020)

By Alexis Scheer

(Yeah, this shouldn't surprise anyone.) Another worthy Kilroy honoree. I attend many shows I would see again. All the shows on this list, I would want to see them again if I could. But ODDDL is the only show in a long time, if not ever, where I immediately thought: I need to see this again. (And I did. Eight times.) It included all the best parts of the rest of the shows on this list: the richness, the unrelenting pace, the visceral fear, the pitch-perfect comedy, and the coolest movement sequence ever.

I cannot say enough about how every moment of this show arrested me and made me feel so deeply that I have not been able to quiet my mind since I've seen it. I've talked about it, written about it, and thought about it extensively, in an ever-elusive attempt to give this rich work the amount of time and attention it deserves. Every time I went, I discovered something new. I still don't feel like I know every nuance and, now that my time with ODDDL is over (until I can buy the script), I don't think I ever will.

One thing I understand clearly, though, is that its manifesto of female power is just as empowering as it is horrifying. Intención, control y poder lie at its heart, and it's difficult to get on board with what the girls do to get it. But that fine line between claiming your strength and crossing a line is what makes this show so intriguing. It transforms a seemingly simple girl gang in a treehouse into complex, expertly-written characters who, to borrow a phrase with which my acting professor described the characters in A Streetcar Named Desire, "want on epic levels." And they want, and they seize, and they utterly possess. Things and audiences. Como magia.

Honorable Mentions:

Best Opening Number: Beetlejuice (Winter Garden Theatre, through June 6, 2020)

With the eerie "Daylight come and me wanna go home" in Beetlejuice's first moments, I was immediately enraptured. And then following it up with the show's undisputed highlight, "The Whole Being Dead Thing"? Beetlejuice wins the award for best initial hook, and it was fortunately followed up with two hours of nearly constant laughter from my mom and me (and everyone in the audience, for that matter).

Speaking of awards, all I have to say is that Alex Brightman has a Tony for this in my mind. He was fully, consistently on, attuned to the audience and adept with every quip, every trip and every dip his character gets. And although I will have an eternal affinity for Winona Ryder's Lydia, I have to give Sophia Anne Caruso her rightful due. She performed the difficult feat of getting tears out of me with her heart-wrenching performance of "Home." Maybe it's because my mom was sitting right next to me, but still.

Overall, I enjoyed the musical more than the movie, so there's something to be said for that. I am so excited for The Music Man, but I do hope Beetlejuice secures another venue. This show about death still has a lot of life in it.

Best Onstage Chemistry: Breaking the Shakespeare Code (440 Studios, May 23-June 2)

Shakespeare Code also ties with Complete Works for my "Best Contemporary/Classical Collision" award. To quote myself in the review linked above: "If Shakespeare himself were alive today, he may have written something a little like this." On its face, Breaking the Shakespeare Code is simpler than a Shakespeare work: two characters bantered in an unadorned black box. But their banter was complex, witty - epic compared to the austere visual construction. They raised questions about the nature of acting, love, and how they feed into each other.

And oh yes, the award I actually mentioned: Tim Weinert and Miranda Jonte's chemistry was positively electric. I'll quote myself one more time: "Their own passion is an acknowledgment of the power of Shakespeare’s words to move both the actors and the audience into something real."

Most Unique Execution: Novenas for a Lost Hospital (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, September 15-October 3)

This show was a performance, a concert, a museum, a dance, and a walking tour all in one, dedicated to preserving the legacy of the now-demolished St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. Another history lesson I didn't know I needed, presented in a way no other history play or class will truly be able to replicate. Example: the lines between performer and audience blurred as we all paraded down the street with shakers and other instruments, turning heads on the sidewalk with our numbers and our song. Only in New York.

Most Unexpected Tears: #DateMe: An OkCupid Experiment (Westside Theatre, June 20-September 15)

You can read all about the comedy in this roller coaster ride through the online dating world elsewhere on my blog. But one thing I've said there that I'll say again here: I never expected a musical about OkCupid to make me cry.

And then there's the missed connections: Head Over Heels, Ain't No Mo', Betrayal, White Noise, Much Ado About Nothing, Soft Power, Fairview, who knows what else I simply never heard much I wish I could have seen, which I hope I will somewhere, someday. And then there are shows like The Inheritance and Slave Play, products of 2019 that I will be sure to get to in 2020 while they're on. Here's to another year of stellar shows, and here's to the power of theatre to thrive for another decade. Long live it! Happy New Year - I can't wait to see what 2020 has in store.

A year's worth of playbills (and if you account for the shows that didn't distribute them and the few I lost to the city streets, this isn't even all of them).

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