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Best of theater 2021: ‘Come From Away’ on the Mall, Macbeth in London and a streaming movie

In a year of recovery, theater hit many high notes, onstage and on-screen

(Joanne Lee/The Washington Post; Christopher Mueller; Julieta Cervantes; Marc Brenner; iStock)
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“The best.” I’d love to retire that superlative. It feels so 2019. We’ve entered a new era of possibility, and new times, just like new paintings, demand new frames. Why do we have to rank art as if it’s college football? I’m as guilty as anyone of having blithely used that exaggerated encomium in composing year-end lists in the past. The best? What does that even mean? Closest to perfection? Measurably more enjoyable or devastating? I confess: I do not know what the best piece of theater was in 2021. But I do know what moved and tickled, dazzled and delighted me in this year of new beginnings. Here are 10 examples:

‘Come From Away’ on the National Mall

Ford’s Theatre had an inspired way to bring us back en masse, and safely, to epic live performance. Thousands spread blankets and unfolded lawn chairs in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on Sept. 10 for a free concert of “Come From Away,” a Broadway musical celebrating the spirit of a small Canadian town that sheltered stranded airline passengers on 9/11. On the eve of the 20th anniversary, this was a consoling event by virtue of the voices raised in a grandly orchestrated public convening. Paul Tetreault, artistic director of Ford’s, deserves thanks for thinking so warmly outside the box office.

How 'Come From Away' brought its story of human kindness back to Broadway

‘Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side’

Round House Theatre, in partnership with McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., found a way to burnish a sublime playwright’s reputation in the midst of a pandemic — with a world premiere, no less. As the capstone of the companies’ online festival, “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence,” they unveiled this 30-minute play, directed by Timothy Douglas and anchored by the galvanizing actress Caroline Clay. A psychological brainteaser, “Etta and Ella” gave Kennedy a vital digital platform for her lyrical, eerily seductive imagination.

‘Is This a Room’/‘Dana H.’

Here’s to the stunning performances of Emily Davis and Deirdre O’Connell, each the conveyor of extraordinary technique in this pair of short plays that ran in repertory at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. In “Is This a Room,” Davis portrayed Reality Winner, the former NSA contractor on the day of her arrest on charges of leaking classified documents; O’Connell, in “Dana H.," played a woman narrating the story of her harrowing kidnapping and captivity. The plays, taken from transcripts and recorded interviews, were apex moments for verbatim theater. They exemplified the kind of daring Broadway so badly needs more of.

‘Rent’

It pains one of advancing years to think of Jonathan Larson’s rock opera “Rent” as a golden oldie but … it’s been more than 25 years since his bohemian rhapsody opened off-Broadway, right after his sudden death. (The span of time between then and now is the same as between the Broadway openings of “Oklahoma!” and “Hair”!!) Signature Theatre’s new artistic director, Matthew Gardiner, has revived the musical as his in-person starting point. And if the production can’t bottle all the grungy desperation of East Village life in the AIDS-racked early ’90s, the voices in the Village at Shirlington supply ecstatic echoes.

Matthew Gardiner named new artistic director of Signature Theatre

‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’

On the subject of Jonathan Larson and his remarkable melody-making, there is this earlier show, newly filmed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and released last month on Netflix. The streaming version is by definition a movie, but I list it here because it is also marvelously theatrical and — that rarest of creations — a stage musical that works better on a screen. Andrew Garfield, the erstwhile Spider-Man, has been bitten again, this time by the musical-theater bug, and he proves to be magnetic as broke, neurotic, perfectionist Larson. Watch for Bradley Whitford’s splendid cameo as Larson’s mentor, the late Stephen Sondheim, and Miranda’s emotional, star-studded staging of a number in a diner, in tribute to Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”

There will never be another Stephen Sondheim

‘The Lehman Trilogy’

Three and a half hours, 180 years of financial history and a trio of actors encased in a rotating glass cube? The ingredients don’t exactly conjure Broadway deliciousness. But inordinately appetizing is indeed what comes of this impeccably mounted story of the rise and fall of Lehman Bros., the Wall Street investment house founded by German Jewish immigrants left in ruins in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. Under the endlessly inventive direction of Sam Mendes, the actors — Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester and Adam Godley — perform breathtaking narrative feats with the script by Stefano Massini and Ben Power.

‘Detroit ’67′

Digital theater is a lot like kale: You settle for it when there is nothing else to chew on. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, many theaters across the country were compelled to migrate to the Web — a platform that minimizes so many of the strengths of theatrical performance. But I’m not here to carp. Now and then, the necessity to switch to electronic programming yielded enjoyable, even estimable work. One notable success: Candis C. Jones’s direction of Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67” for Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va. Set in a Detroit basement in the turbulent summer of 1967, the play benefited from both the playwright’s probing dissection of the simmering racial issues of the time and the director’s expert use of cinematic technique.

‘Macbeth’

The most exhilaratingly rendered Shakespeare I saw all year was on a trip to London, where the director Yael Farber (“Salome”) found a compelling flammability in the bond between James McArdle’s Macbeth and Saorise Ronan’s Lady Macbeth. Farber set the tragedy in a bleak Scottish no man’s land, where a mournful cello underscores a doleful marital misalliance. Ronan is particularly effective here, as a youthfully ruthless Lady Macbeth, in way over her depraved head. To clarify the character’s descent into madness, Farber intriguingly revises a crucial scene, making Lady Macbeth a witness to a gruesome crime late in the proceedings.

In London, the shows go on — but apathy is unmasked

‘Trouble in Mind’

In the mid-1950s, Alice Childress wrote a play about a White director rehearsing a majority Black cast in a Southern drama filled with risible stereotypes. With LaChanze and Chuck Cooper in career-high central turns, “Trouble in Mind” comes across in Charles Randolph-Wright’s exemplary staging for Roundabout Theatre Company as a freshly minted masterwork. By turns sardonic and poignant, the play conjures a rehearsal room in which all the misapprehensions of White liberals and frustrations of Black artists burst bitterly out in the open, in an evening percolating with contemporary relevance.

Colonial Williamsburg gets real

The plays and playlets of Colonial Williamsburg

The dramatic discovery of 2021 occurred for me on the streets of an immaculately preserved patch of history in southeast Virginia. This quintessential destination for tourist and high school groups is, these days, a delightful staging ground for homegrown dramas about the people — free and enslaved — who lived and worked here in the 1700s. Thanks to a cadre of writers and actor-interpreters, their stories are recounted on Williamsburg’s stages and byways, in a splendidly diverse repertory of one-act productions. Applause, please, for this demonstration of how theater can be an instrument for enlightenment in unexpected surroundings.

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