National tours of major plays are rare, and it was a treat to see Stephen Karam’s first-class drama of one family’s working-class angst in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Also worth remembering, for one night only, singer-provocateur Taylor Mac, with a magnificent band, glamming up the Kennedy Center with three hours’ worth of his 24-hour “A 24 Decade History of Popular Music.” It meandered, but also soared, and was utterly unlike anything else.
Created and performed by South African university students, this 90-minute protest docudrama perpetually surprised. The impassioned, cerebral arguments about resistance and political empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa grew complicated in ways American audiences could easily relate to.
"An Inspector Calls"
Still an exquisite display of intellectual melodrama a quarter-century after Stephen Daldry’s landmark production premiered. Daldry put an arch Brechtian edge on J.B. Priestley’s conscience-pricking 1946 detective tale, and this British import — now making a U.S. tour stop at the Shakespeare Theatre Company — melds dark-and-stormy-night suspense with grim (and still timely) political repercussions.
Musicals trying out in Washington this year included the movie-derived political comedy “Dave” at Arena Stage and “Beetlejuice” at the National Theatre. The best of the new shows was the Temptations jukebox show “Ain’t Too Proud,” which played the Kennedy Center in the summer and heads to Broadway in the spring. It was slick as ice in Des McAnuff’s staging, yet wearying in its punch-the-numbers book chronicling the Motown group’s rocky history. So, yes, “Waitress”: Check yourself if you can’t find a soft spot for the bittersweet comedy with the score by Sara Bareilles.
A delectable trifecta from last winter’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival. “Handbagged,” Moira Buffini’s comedy about Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth II, set records at Round House Theatre. Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” a deeply knowing comedy of Zimbabwean Minnesotans, was surprisingly warmhearted at Woolly Mammoth. And at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Heather Raffo wrote and starred in “Noura,” the blistering Iraqi American update on Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
Marti Lyons’s balanced cast at Studio Theatre deftly handled emotions and precisely kicked soccer balls in Sarah DeLappe’s insightful drama of variably competitive high school girls.
"The Frederick Douglass Project"
This fruitful experiment from the Irish-themed troupe Solas Nua was staged on a pier at the Capitol Riverfront’s Yards Park. The show mashed up “An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland,” by D.C.’s Psalmeyene 24, and “Wild Notes,” by Ireland’s Deirdre Kinahan. The well-acted drama’s intriguing cultural crosswinds augur well for director Raymond O. Caldwell, who in January takes over as artistic director of Anacostia’s Theater Alliance.
Michael Urie turned out to be an uncommonly liquid-tongued speaker of Shakespeare. In Michael Kahn’s production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Urie was haunted and memorably quick-witted as a Hamlet ensnared in a surveillance state Elsinore.
There were no genuine slam-dunks among locally produced musicals this year, so, mainly for the daring and flamboyance, take Kent Gash’s delirious “The Wiz” at Ford’s Theatre by a nose over Matthew Gardiner’s solid “Billy Elliot” at Signature Theatre.
"Every Brilliant Thing"
Several shows at the Olney Theatre Center were a cut above: the ferociously acted “The Crucible”; James Graham’s political comedy, “Labour of Love,” with Julia Coffey delivering one of the year’s most dashing performances as a career political operative; and Ayad Akhtar’s political thriller, “The Invisible Hand.” “Every Brilliant Thing” was a solo show about grief that was joyfully, poignantly performed by Alexander Strain, who engagingly spearheaded something rare: inspired audience participation.
A blanket pick. The most vital of the city’s small troupes this year, the bracingly swaggering Taffety Punk operates in the intimate Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and provides a modest but carefully chosen flow of smart, usually topical works. This year’s harvest: Madeline Joey Rose’s exploration of abortion opponents in “Mom Baby God,” an all-female “Don Juan” and Sadie Hasler’s two-actor British drama about motherhood, “Pramkicker.”
Washington had a remarkably timed #MeToo moment this fall. Thanks to an imaginative performance by Kimberly Gilbert as Billie Dawn, “Born Yesterday” at Ford’s Theatre sounded unexpectedly resonant notes about abuse, and at Round House, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer winner “How I Learned to Drive” reasserted its power in dramatizing a sexual predator. Anna Zeigler’s “Actually,” produced by Theater J at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, streamlined the issue with clinical precision, as two adroit young actors, Jaysen Wright and Sylvia Kates, played college students trying to be honest and fair after a drunken night spurs a “he said/she said” case.
"See Rock City"
Unassuming and well-wrought: The second part in Arlene Hutton’s “Nibroc Trilogy,” about a mid-20th-century Southern guy and gal who fall in love, examines their newlywed days. Nothing much — shelve this with the late Horton Foote’s closely observed character studies — yet the understated performances by Lexi Langs and Wood Van Meter (for the Washington Stage Guild) had good old-fashioned chemistry.
Affecting work at Arena Stage. Paula Vogel’s script, Tony Award-nominated for best play last year, shimmers in this fleet saga of anti-Semitism, homophobia and the disturbing power of art, drawn from the history around Sholem Asch’s controversial 1907 play “God of Vengeance.”