Though 2016 will probably not make many people’s list of great years, for Houston theater these 12 months brought some stellar drama and comedy, while many companies settled down after all the venue and name changes of the past few years. Instead of looking for that one absolute best play or performance, I’d like to take a backward glance at some of the trends and changes in Houston theater as well offering a few of my own–completely made up–awards for some of the quirkiest fun we enjoyed of staged (and mostly) intentional drama of 2016.
The Playing with Your Theater Award
While Houston might not readily dive into the kind of immersive theater so popular in New York that requires audience members to don masks and follow Lady Macbeth into her bathroom, we do dip our toes into the immersive theater tub now and then.
One of my favorite audience participation pieces came from the visiting Big Dance Theater and their work, This Page Left Intentionally Blank, at the Menil Collection during the CounterCurrent Festival. Turning the traditional docent tour into a part wacky-docent characters study, part art history lecture, and topping in off with an participation dance performance, This Page allowed audiences to discover the comedy and the theatricality of a walk through any museum.
Best Real and Reimagined History on Stage
For their 2016 seasons, many Houston artistic directors picked plays chronicling the real lives large and small that created history, and many Houston actors gave their best performances playing those kings, queens, presidents, saints, martyrs and philosophers. I can’t recount them all, but also can’t think back on all the extraordinary performances this year without remembering Shawn Hamilton’s radiant Martin Luther King Jr in All the Way (Alley Theatre), Bree Welch’s dizzy but strangely wise 21st century version of Marie Antoinette in The Revolutionists (Main Street Theater) and Carolyn Johnson’s portrayal of Judy Garland as an almost Shakespearean tragic hero in The End of the Rainbow (Stages Theatre).
Best: Maybe We Should Have Called Each Other to Compare Outfits
When Catastrophic Theatre and 4th Wall proved they were fools for Sam Shepard love by scheduling Buried Child (Catastrophic) and True West (4th Wall) last fall and even opening within a day of each other, it could have become Shepard overkill, but their unique visions of such different plays instead gave Houston audiences a chance to savor Shepard’s range as an American master.
Worst: Maybe We Should Have Called Each Other to Compare Outfits
On the other hand, even Shakespeare himself might have found three separate, major productions of Much Ado About Nothing in five months not as we like it. I love Benedict and Beatrice as much as the next arts writer, but there’s such a thing as too much ado.
The Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” Award for age-blind casting
Not even the wondrous, foul-mouthed, demonically possessed hand puppet and fascinating comic exploration on the nature of good, evil and teen angst could distract from the distraction of 30-something-looking actors playing seventeen-year-olds in Hand to God at the Alley Theatre. And it’s not like Houston is devoid of young actors who look like teens. (Case in point: the heart-wrenching performances from Melissa Molano and Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott in Stages’ production of I and You.)
The Working It Super Model Acting Award
2016 theater had its share of crazy costumes, but I’d say in my very unscientific survey no one had to wear his share of them more than Kyle Sturdivant. Whether he was playing a horny Thanksgiving turkey, one-legged man who lost his artificial leg, the good witch of Oztin or Panto Dorothy’s Auntie Ann Richards (eat your heart out Holland Taylor), no one worked a costume across a stage like Sturdivant.
If you feel like 2016 was one for the wretched record books you weren’t alone, and several theatrical tales of the future perhaps reflected the pessimism some feel for the present. Among the bleakest yet most beautiful, was the Alley’s production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether. Told like a noir detective story, The Nether depicted a dark, colorless future reality where people escape to a seductive virtual world that turns the search for love into horror. Let’s hope Nether is but a warning not a foretelling.
Best Out of Town Guests
Local theaters have had quite a few successes bringing in other companies to inhabit their stages for a time, and this year was no exception as 4th Wall hosted New York’s Bedlam Theatre in their production of Shaw’s Saint Joan. With only four actors playing all the roles and times in the play that required the audience to move into different rooms and different seats, this Saint Joan became theater raw and concentrated. Bedlam took Shaw’s play and illustrated how its questions of leadership, faith and fame are just as relevant today, all the while giving audiences a new perspective on their role as silent witnesses.
Most Mysterious Backstage Drama
Theatre Under the Stars certainly had some upheaval behind the curtain as its CEO John Breckenridge retired in the spring and soon after artistic director Bruce Lumpkin seemed to disappear from the TUTS team with no notice. Then, a special position of artistic advisor was created for Sheldon Epps who came on board and quickly changed half of the already announce 2016-2017 season. And while whatever was going on backstage might have enough fodder for a fine musical in a decade, so far the onstage changes have produced some mighty fine shows, including In the Heights and a gorgeous holiday rendering of Into the Woods. Now, if TUTS will only make some definite announcement about the series formally known as TUTS Underground.
Best Musical You Should Absolutely Not Take Your Mom To See
Standing Room Only production of Silence! The Musical, the musical version of The Silence of the Lambs with a singing lamb chorus and a showstopper from Hannibal about smelling Clarice’s (let’s say) flower, was the don’t-miss musical of the year that should not be mentioned in polite company, ever.
Saddest Ending and One Happy Second Chance
Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye in 2016 to Texas Repertory Theatre Company after 11 years of bringing quality shows to audiences not wanting to make the trip inside the Loop. On a happier note, after one last curtain call at the Kaleidoscope Theater in central downtown, several members of that creative team moved a bit east and just this month opened the EaDo Playhouse.
Here’s hoping in 2017 we’ll be living in interesting theatrical times not as a curse but a blessing.