Best Theater of 2020 – The New York Times

jesse green

A Top 10 list in a Worst 10 year is a strange undertaking. But as I looked back at 2020, even considering the disaster that divided it into before and after, I found that theater was still doing what it does at its best: showing us how we live right now, and how we might live better.

That’s not always the case. Typical seasons offer a selection of titles planned years in advance and sorted by happenstance. But once the stages were locked down in March, throwing thousands out of work, 2020 turned into a year in which theater was of necessity purpose-built, in real time, from scratch. There was some irony in that; it was, after all, the vanishing of the dinosaurs — the corporate Broadway musicals, the 16-week movie-star vehicles — that allowed the smaller, better adapted new works to poke their heads out.

Those shows, however makeshift and mediated by a screen, matched the moment better than most seasons’ shows match theirs. If you follow the calendar (my list is basically chronological), you can see how the online productions I highlight, as well as a few that came before the shutdown, trace a compelling passage through the pandemic year. Together, they helped us move from premonitions through panic toward a new — and often exciting — abnormal.

Only one American had yet died of Covid-19 when the Gate Theater production of “Hamlet,” starring the Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga, opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on February 9. Yet in Yaël Farber’s staging, whose spookiest bits were set in the midst of the audience, the usual ghosts and corpses came off as more than whispery premonitions. They were heart-stopping warnings — and Negga, as an unusually quicksilver prince, had to decide along with us what it might mean to avenge the dead.

What seemed at first like paranoia but turned out to be prescience entered the theatrical season with the opening of Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” at the Vineyard Theater. It wasn’t just the haunting true story, about the abduction of Hnath’s mother by a violent psychopath, that had audiences hunting for the panic button. The play’s peculiar method, in which Deirdre O’Connell brilliantly lip-synced her role, gave the drama an almost unbearable aura of dissociation, matching a moment when it was beginning to feel as if we, too, were about to be abducted.

Who would have guessed that of all the shows to open before the theaters closed, the most moving would be a jukebox musical? But “Girl From the North Country,” which arrived on Broadway on March 5, after productions in London and at the Public Theater, was like no jukebox ever, with tunes (by Bob Dylan) that, instead of simplistically illustrating the story of Depression-era poverty, contextualized it in cloud of sorrow and hope. Conor McPherson’s script and direction made it clear that the harm people do to one another is always new, if never news.

The United States death count was still just 107 on March 12, but it was enough to shut down the industry. Nevertheless, within a few weeks, the first signs of new theatrical life — online — emerged in the form of benefits: Rosie O’Donnell’s variety show in March and then, in April, “Take Me to the World,” a 90th birthday celebration of Stephen Sondheim. Glitchy, audio-challenged and not much to look at, they were nevertheless stuffed with beautifully timely hymns to hope (Kelli O’Hara with a Sondheim song that seemed to have been written for the shutdown) and raucously dazzling outbursts (Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski going full blitz with “The Ladies Who Lunch”). Between them, the shows raised more than $1 million for the Actors Fund and Artists Striving to End Poverty.

By May, we knew that theater people would find ways to produce new work one way or another, but would we ever have permission to laugh at it again? “Mama Got a Cough,” a 14-minute film by the playwright Jordan E. Cooper, didn’t just give us that permission, but insisted on it, even in the midst of tragedy. The story of five dysfunctional siblings (one played by Danielle Brooks) negotiating a Zoom call with their ill but hilariously feisty mother (Juanita Jennings), it pointed the way toward a kind of theater-in-exile that instead of circumventing the headlines incorporated them.

On a visit to Atlanta just before the shutdown, I learned about local theater dinners at which community members came together over potluck to watch a play about a pressing issue and discuss it afterward. By April, Out of Hand theater had taken the “dinners” online — opening them up to larger and more diverse audiences. In June, three weeks after the killing of George Floyd, I caught one about economic discrimination, including a searing 10-minute monologue by the playwright Avery Sharpe. That dinner (there have been six more since) did what I always hope theater can do: not close wounds but open them, challenge the moral imagination and model ways toward the future.

By the end of the summer, theater artists, working with better technology, had their online act together, producing streamed plays that were sometimes as slick as movies. “Three Kings,” from London’s Old Vic, could have been merely that, with multicamera magic courtesy of the director, Matthew Warchus. But Andrew Scott, making a three-course meal out of Stephen Beresford’s story of a man coming to terms with his father’s emotional cruelty, proved that a great stage performance is different from a great film one because, even at an electronic remove, it somehow encompasses its audience.

In October, after more than 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, the creators of “The Great Work Begins,” subtitled “Scenes From ‘Angels in America,’” could not ignore the parallels between the current pandemic and AIDS, which over the course of four decades has killed millions worldwide. In five brilliantly imaginative excerpts, distilling Tony Kushner’s seven-hour epic to 50 minutes, the director, Ellie Heyman, and a cast both starry (Glenn Close as Roy Cohn) and multifarious (three Priors, three Belizes, all excellent) showed how classic plays speak not only to their time but also predict their own futures — often, as here, with fury and regret.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, theater-makers had to face the fact that repurposing existing stage works was not going to produce vibrant new ones for our changed world. Just in time, “Russian Troll Farm,” by Sarah Gancher, showed that digital-native productions could make the medium maximally expressive — in this case by exploring the world of online Russian election disrupters using an online aesthetic. It took two directors (Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson) and three companies (TheaterWorks Hartford, Theater Squared in Arkansas and the Brooklyn-based Civilians) to pull it off, but it was a key step forward and a wicked-smart ride.

As it had with “Dana H.” in February, the Vineyard Theater closed out the fall with work that had actors channeling voices coming into their ears from recordings. But in “Lessons in Survival,” an online series with eight episodes so far, the recordings, made between 1964 and 2008, captured the voices of leading Black thinkers, including James Baldwin and Angela Davis, dissecting the state of American democracy. At the end of a brutal year, it was bracing to hear them (joining a wave of other newly political plays) speak truth to power; they put the words right into our mouths.

“Gray skies are gonna clear up/Put on a happy face,” goes that irrepressible lyric from “Bye Bye Birdie.” Not quite the 2020 vibe. But like the troupers who insist that the show must go on, theater fans who looked hard could find the pleasures of the stage without squeezing into a middle (or any) seat. Much came through screens, of course, but joy, ingenuity and pathos arrived in other packages, too — igniting new forms and minting new stars along the way. SCOTT HELLER

Many of us were shellshocked back in March, when swaths of the country were in lockdown. Luckily, Mary Neely took action. Quarantining alone in her Los Angeles home, the young actress started tweeting short videos in which she lip-synced, with eerie accuracy, songs from classic musicals. Overflowing with humor, ingenuity and unabashed nerdiness, the videos grew increasingly elaborate, culminating in a multipart re-enactment of “Beauty and the Beast” in which Neely played all the roles. For a few heroic weeks, she was a one-woman incarnation of musical theater itself. ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

A love letter to theater written in sweat equity, and an unrepentant indictment of a white-run theater that thrives on Black pain, Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version” debuted on Netflix in October. Blank, a former playwright, includes a zinger about a multiracial revival of “Fences” and a gloomier story line about a new play workshopped into subscriber-pleasing nonsense. The movie’s most cathartic moment? An unctuous white producer (in a brilliant turn by theater stalwart Reed Birney) suggests that Blank’s character write the book for his Harriet Tubman musical. She chokes him. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

The cover of Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet” calls it “A Novel of the Plague,” but don’t let that put you off. This superbly imagined book, which won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, is bursting with life. Named for Shakespeare’s son, who died at 11, it twines the child’s brief illness with his parents’ long coupledom. Shadows of Shakespeare’s plays flicker through this novel, yet its indelible figure is his wife, Agnes — kind seer, herbal healer, Stratford rebel extraordinaire. If her mother was a forest sprite, what of it? LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

The Hulu comedy “Pen15” is theatrical to begin with, its premise demanding suspension of disbelief: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, actresses in their 30s, star as 13-year-old best friends Maya and Anna, alongside actual kids as their fellow seventh graders. So it is maybe unsurprising that the show’s detour into the realm of the school play, with Maya landing a lead role and Anna working backstage, was not merely knowing but also sublime. In the last two episodes released in 2020, characters suffused with adolescent awkwardness found, on the stage, an aching, bittersweet grace. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES

Broadway has been closed for most of the year, yet new musicals keep coming — in bite-size segments. After the composer-arranger Daniel Mertzlufft riffed off two lines from the Louisa Melcher song “New York Summer,” fellow TikTok devotees made use of the duet function to add refrains from new characters — including a produce water mister and a can of soup — to fill out “Grocery Store.” Mertzlufft also had a finger in what became a true TikTok blockbuster, “Ratatouille: The Musical,” based on the 2007 Pixar movie. It began with a retooled song for the rat Remy by the young New Yorker Emily Jacobsen. A crowdsourced virtual show followed, with original numbers, sets and costumes, choreography, even a mock Playbill. Could a Tony Award be that far-off? ELISABETH VINCENTELLI

If you’ve been lucky enough to see Taylor Mac live, it’s hard to argue with The New Yorker’s claim that his costume designer Machine Dazzle is a “genius.” And during a lockdown summer in which spectacle was in short order, Dazzle’s Instagram feed delivered a burst of brilliance — sequin-free. Fleeing to Maui without his usual supplies, he turned palm fronds and other tropical vegetation into masks, headpieces and other disguises. As I learned later, they were all perishable, so the deadpan photos are all that remains of this triumph of make-do inspiration. SCOTT HELLER

“Katy Keene,” a story of young strivers and piano bar habitués, lasted only a season. But in March, as most states entered lockdown, it gifted viewers with a musical episode, a tribute to Kander and Ebb’s “Kiss of the Spider-Woman.” (Stage a musical about torture and forbidden love in an Argentine prison? Those crazy kids.) In April, over on its sibling series, “Riverdale,” the teens also put on a show, a high-school version of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” giving strange rock and rollers and musical theater fans a way to hold on. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Stages became smaller this year. So small you could shove one into your pocket. The closure of most conventional theaters has created mini surge of plays and musicals produced for your phone. In the surpassingly lovely “Cairns,” the composer and musicologist Gelsey Bell guided you, earbuds first, on a sound walk through Green-Wood Cemetery, asking you to contemplate the natural world and human interventions within it. (If you preferred to contemplate mortality without leaving your home, Darkfield Radio offered “Visitors,” a sound experience for two participants recorded in eerie binaural audio.) ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Ah, pompous thespians, how we’ve missed you! Thank Hulu (and the BBC) for this zippy six-episode series, which finds David Tennant and Michael Sheen in lockdown, Zoom-dueling their way through fraught rehearsals for (yeesh) a Pirandello play. Sheen, a shaggy Welshman, and Tennant, a stringy Scot, offer a wonderful visual contrast. Then they open their mouths: bickering over billing, accents, Shakespearean triumphs and Samuel L. Jackson. “Just because you’re mumbling,” Tennant snarls in the fourth and funniest episode, “doesn’t mean it’s good.” SCOTT HELLER

“Acting is about leaving everything behind and becoming something completely new,” the narcissistic former Hollywood star declares to the mirror as the second half of the show’s masterly final season begins. Teaching Intermediate Scene Study to undergraduate hacks at Wesleyan University offers BoJack yet another avenue to redemption (he’s a decent director of these Olivier wannabes) and provides the animated Netflix series a funny yet heartbreaking last arc. But the real treats for stage stans were the cute animal-pun theater references throughout: I, for one, would love seats to Sam German Shepard’s “Real America” and “A Bleatcar Named Desire.” MAYA PHILLIPS

When Robin Frohardt’s “The Plastic Bag Store” opened this fall in Times Square, it was much modified from her pre-pandemic vision. There were no live performances of her immersive puppet play, no passers-by admitted between shows to see her art installation: an intricate replica of a grocery store, made from plastic waste. Instead, tiny, distanced audiences entered to watch a gorgeously filmed version of the play. Yet one live actor still popped up; set changes revealed hidden scenery. This was almost-theater — a vital, intoxicating dose. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES