Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Best Shows of 2011

As the New Year approaches, it’s only natural to take a few moments to reflect on the year that was, with all its attendant highs and lows.  So every day starting today, I plan on writing about some of the year’s best (and worst) shows.  I should note that this is not meant to be a definitive “Best of Broadway” list, as it will be limited to only those shows I have personally seen.  So don’t expect to see critically praised works like Good People or Other Desert Cities make the cut, as I haven’t actually seen them.  (Jerusalem, however, is being purposely excluded, as I found the British import to be vastly overrated despite a strong central performance by Mark Rylance.)

I should also mention that I was originally intending to list the year’s 10 best productions, but have only come up with 8.  This isn’t because 2011 was any worse than past years.  There was a lot of competent theatre produced this year, and in general 2011 was a much stronger year artistically than 2010.  But if we are talking about truly great theatre, the kind that sticks with you long after the final curtain has fallen, there are only 8 productions I personally saw that merit inclusion on this list (and at least one of those comes with a caveat).

So let’s get this party started.  My number 8 pick for Best Show of 2011 is:

War Horse

It should be noted that I struggled about whether or not to include this show.  As you may have noticed, the British hit received an enormous number of accolades following its American premiere, including the Tony Award for Best Play.  I have a problem with this, because as a play, the show is decidedly average.  The script is simplistic and emotionally manipulative, belying its roots as a children’s novel.  The “war is bad” sentiment is exceptionally trite, the characters are drawn in broad strokes, and the titular war horse makes so many improbable escapes from near death that it pushes the limits of suspended disbelief.

I also find it interesting that not a single one of the human deaths in a show supposedly about the horrors of war causes much distress among viewers, but even the suggestion that equine protagonist Joey might die elicits collective gasps of shock and horror.  In short, this is a simplistic show that I believe will have very little life after the current Broadway and West End productions close.

So why is it on my list?  Because the way in which Joey and his fellow horses are realized onstage is sheer genius.  Rather than attempt to train live animals (which would likely make for a disgusting and smelly backstage) or manufacture realistic-looking puppets, the creators of War Horse have taken a page from Julie Taymor’s Lion King and made the stagecraft involved readily apparent.  You can see the inner workings of the horse puppets, and the three operators it takes to bring them to life are always visible.  Yet within a minute of Joey’s first appearance, you completely forget that he is a puppet and instead invest in him as a living, breathing animal, all because of the enormous skill of the puppeteers who play him.  His ears twitch.  His tail flicks.  He whinnies, neighs, rears up on his hind legs, and gallops across the stage (sometimes with an actual human rider on top).  And at every moment you know exactly what Joey is feeling, making him the most compelling and fully realized character on the stage.  And for that feat of theatre magic along, War Horse is one of the best shows from 2011.

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