12 Standout Shows of 2016 From Across America
TheaterMania's regional critics weigh in on their favorites of the year.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) — Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum
"What's most important about a work as monumental, daring, and engaging as Park's...is that it even exists in the modern world. Thus, Jo Bonney's exciting restaging of this Public Theater/American Repertory Theater production at the Mark Taper Forum is a gift. From its opening beats, in which a group of "less than desirable slaves" wager over the fateful decision of a would-be soldier, to the reappearance of that soldier's lost dog nearly three hours (and two plays) later, Bonney's production grabs its audience and refuses to set it free."
Barbecue — Geffen Playhouse
"From its opening scene in a run-down park to its cynically starry-eyed conclusion two hours later, [Robert] O'Hara's play...is a force to be reckoned with. With director Colman Domingo at the helm, this wickedly delightful production is as ripe for attention as the bound-for-stardom diva at its center. O'Hara's raunchy, slang-infused dialogue is as rich as his plot, and Domingo's actors…seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. A sly and cynical play, Barbecue also happens to be hilarious."
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum
"Center Theatre Group's vibrant production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom fills the Mark Taper Forum stage with powerhouse performances. Lillias White brings down the house with her rendition of the title song, but it is the four band members, played by Keith David, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, and Jason Dirden, who take center stage with electricity and chemistry…[Phylicia] Rashad's direction is confident. She stalwartly manages the clashing tones, keeping the tension appropriately understated until it rears its ugly head…This production proves that the story still resonates today as a snapshot of how the African-American experience has both evolved and remained stagnant."
The Scottsboro Boys — SpeakEasy Stage Company
The Scottsboro Boys is an effective and affecting piece of theater that is not only to the credit of creators, Kander, Ebb, and Thompson, but to Paul Daigneault's sharp-edged direction, Robbins' multistyled choreography, Matthew Stern's music direction, and the splendid cast as well. All of their forces combined result in a truthful and brave production of a show that feels like anything but a timepiece."
1984 — American Repertory Theater
"Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan's adaptation of 1984, George Orwell's bleak, dystopian novel, is one of the finest page-to-stage adaptations in recent memory…This 1984 is a marvel of theatricality and intense vision. The play is directed with electrifying precision by Icke and Macmillan, who have also managed to coax vivid, visceral performances from this top-shelf cast."
Show Boat — Fiddlehead Theatre Company
"Who would have believed that Fiddlehead Theatre Company, a formerly small-scale troupe based in a suburb of Boston, could mount such a heartfelt revival of Show Boat at the Shubert Theatre? The show is stuffed with the best talents and stage decor that money can buy. This past season, Fiddlehead has grown into the proverbial "mouse that roared" on the theatrical scene with a string of musical productions enhanced by the smarts of codirectors Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens…[Their] faith in Show Boat's old-fashioned sentimentality…feels like a balm in our cynical times."
District Merchants — Folger Shakespeare Theatre
"There's no simple way to describe Aaron Posner's intelligent, provocative world premiere, District Merchants, at the Folger Theatre. It is more than an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, though much of its plot and many of its characters are inspired by that play…It's a well-balanced play, as hopeful and joyous as it is revealing of bankrupt moral systems…While Posner doesn't offer easy answers, the sturdy balance among his characters does create something that feels very truthful, worthwhile, and profound."
Freaky Friday — Signature Theatre
"Freaky Friday is both touching and hilarious, true-to-life despite its insistence that we suspend our disbelief while two people "swap" bodies for two hours and 10 minutes. But during that time, it shows how easily people of utterly different views can come to understand one another. And that's a lesson we can all take with us."
Carousel — Arena Stage
"[Molly] Smith directs her third Rodgers and Hammerstein show, Carousel, in a brilliant and vigorous new in-the-round staging, where everything from the score to the choreography has been refreshed…Nicholas Rodriguez turns in an impressive, muscular performance as Billy Bigelow, an impulsive young man who is as charming as he is physically strong…Betsy Morgan is excellent as Julie, self-assured, determined, and unafraid of her own desire for an obvious bad boy…The musical ends on a note of hope, admitting that reality is messy and gritty, while also suggesting that there may be a possibility for grace and redemption after all." —Barbara Mackay
Mary Page Marlowe — Steppenwolf Theatre
"Steppenwolf's world premiere of ensemble member Tracy Letts' play, directed by artistic director Anna D. Shapiro, is a melancholy exploration of one woman's life… Letts' script never gets bogged down in exposition, allowing each scene to reveal part of Mary Page's story at a natural pace. Director Shapiro creates powerful moments bookended by lovely transitions through time, aided by her excellent design team… Mary Page Marlowe is an elegantly constructed puzzle, and watching its pieces come together to reveal a portrait is a delight."
The Adding Machine — The Hypocrites
"Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine, inspired heavily by the Expressionist movement of Weimar Germany, does not outwardly seem like an obvious foundation for a musical. However, when a jarringly beautiful score by Joshua Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith are layered in, along with the take-no-prisoners aesthetic of the Hypocrites, you get a one-act production well worth seeing."
King Charles III — Chicago Shakespeare Theater
"The premise of King Charles III is unlikely, perhaps, but it resonates particularly well in 2016, a year when polls completely failed to predict outcomes like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump…Mike Bartlett's script, written in blank verse, is a wonderful union of the contemporary and the classical. Characters soliloquize about duty and honor, but the language is crisp and modern…If we've learned one thing from 2016, it's that we cannot easily predict the future. Luckily for Chicago Shakespeare Theater, their production of King Charles III is so gripping and clever that accuracy is entirely beside the point."