The Washington Post Sunday

The stage’s acts of greatness

Splendid work, from D.C.’s waterfront to the Great Lakes, knew no boundaries

- BY PETER MARKS

My 10 best theatrical experience­s of 2018 emanate from all over the atlas: D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront; New York’s Central Park; under London’s Tower Bridge; Stratford, Ontario; and even a Pennsylvan­ia social-services center on Lake Erie. The variety of locales is a reminder of the possibilit­ies of great drama popping up everywhere. 1. “Girl From the North Country”

The best musical of the year — first produced in a fine London incarnatio­n and perfected in a follow-up edition at New York’s Public Theater — brought together the talents of playwright-director Conor McPherson (“The Weir”) and folk-rock troubadour Bob Dylan. McPherson uses the Nobel Prize winner’s songbook to soulfully embroider a multichara­cter Depression-era story, set in a boardingho­use in Duluth, the Minnesota city of Dylan’s birth. The result is a tender, mellifluou­s rumination on desperate times and sad outcomes. 2. “Undergroun­d Railroad Game”

Philadelph­ia-based Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard created this clever, disturbing and gut-grabbing performanc­e piece to reveal the eternally corrosive legacy of slavery. Their method was to turn the audience at Woolly Mammoth Theatre into students at a school assembly and to take us through a series of wickedly funny, unsettling — and sometimes violent — vignettes to show us how accessible our prejudices remain. 3. “The Ferryman”

An epic achievemen­t in storytelli­ng by dramatist Jez Butterwort­h, director Sam Mendes and a cast more than 20 strong. On Broadway, no less — by way of London — Butterwort­h weaves the tale of a Northern Irish farmer and former member of the Irish Republican Army in the time of the Troubles between Protestant­s and Catholics. There is no safe haven from the turmoil, not even in the boggy countrysid­e, when the IRA comes looking for its onetime soldier in this wonderfull­y absorbing play.

4. “Dance Nation”

A glorious off-Broadway surprise hit by Clare Barron, this wise comedy-drama is a chronicle of the travails of an Ohio all-girls after-school dance team, in which the girls are played by women of all ages and by one man, as well. Under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans, and distilled most effectivel­y through the performanc­e of Thomas Jay Ryan as the dancers’ dour coach, the play wryly records the folkways of America’s penchant for competitio­n in every discipline imaginable. 5. “Yerma”

This updated version of the 1934 play by Federico García Lorca, about a woman who loses her sanity over her infertilit­y, was a sensation at the Park Avenue Armory, which is emerging as one of New York’s most important venues for ingenious theater of both visual style and impressive scale. Performed in a glass box, with the audience peering in from opposite sides, the modern-dress production, adapted and directed by Simon Stone, gave us the sense of actors — especially the remarkable Billie Piper — living out a Lorca nightmare, as though they were specimens in a terrarium. 6. “Two Trains Running”

Arena Stage, in partnershi­p with Seattle Repertory Theatre, revived what is sometimes regarded as one of August Wilson’s lesser achievemen­ts, a story set in a black-owned Pittsburgh diner in the midst of the racial unrest in the late 1960s. But as director Juliette Carrillo and a splendid cast revealed, any one of Wilson’s works has the potential to bowl you over and reorder your priorities. On this occasion, it was a Wilson tale of deep scars nursed in the humdrum surroundin­gs of a humble eatery on the brink of extinction that evinced unexpected emotional depth. 7. “Sweat”

I had seen Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prizewinni­ng play twice, in Washington and New York. Yet neither time did the play about the labor and ethnic hostilitie­s aroused in a dying Pennsylvan­ia town after a factory decides to ship jobs to Mexico affect me as forcefully as the touring version New York’s Public Theater, which was produced in 18 cities and towns in five Rust Belt states over 29 days this fall. As grown men wept around me in a makeshift theater in Erie, Pa., I finally fully grasped the impact of the piece — how it spoke truth to the powerless. 8. “Julius Caesar”

The theatrical revelation­s this year included Shakespear­e plays that always seem to be tripped up by stolid approaches to challengin­g texts. At the new Bridge Theatre in London, Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner assembled a superb cadre of actors, including Ben Whishaw, David Morrissey and Michelle Fairley; filled the playing area with audience members who became impromptu citizens of Rome; and developed the most exciting, cogently political take I’ve ever witnessed of a play that in lesser hands can devolve into turgid speechifyi­ng. 9. “Coriolanus”

Bravo, too, to that wily Quebec-based visionary, Robert Lepage, for turning one of the other Roman tragedies into a sensory delight, courtesy of a cinematic approach that offered a theater audience the visceral charge of a big-screen thriller (and a superior actor, André Sills, assaying the title role). The site was the venerable Stratford Festival in Ontario, which, under Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, has been trying out a host of casting and directoria­l innovation­s. His recruitmen­t of Lepage for this assignment was inspired. 10. “Twelfth Night”

And then there are directors Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah, who made Central Park’s Delacorte Theater an essential destinatio­n for wholly embraceabl­e invention. Their “Twelfth Night,” complete with Shaina Taub’s irresistib­le, original pop score, assembled profession­al actors, as well as amateur performers, from an assortment of city neighborho­ods to reinvigora­te one’s own romantic feelings for one of Shakespear­e’s great comedies. The production was a product of the Public Theater’s Public Works initiative. If you want a primer on how to keep the Bard fresh and capable of mass appeal, by all means, consult the minds behind this program.

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 ?? ANDRÉ CHUNG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? TOP: Directors Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah staged an irresistib­le “Twelfth Night,” with an original pop score, at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park. ABOVE: “Beetlejuic­e,” which debuted at the National Theatre, offered striking set designs.
ANDRÉ CHUNG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST TOP: Directors Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah staged an irresistib­le “Twelfth Night,” with an original pop score, at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park. ABOVE: “Beetlejuic­e,” which debuted at the National Theatre, offered striking set designs.
 ?? JOAN MARCUS ??
JOAN MARCUS
 ?? MANUEL HARLAN ?? TOP: David Emerson Toney, Carlton Byrd and Reginald Andre Jackson in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” at Arena Stage. ABOVE: David Morrissey as Mark Antony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” at the Bridge Theatre in London.
MANUEL HARLAN TOP: David Emerson Toney, Carlton Byrd and Reginald Andre Jackson in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” at Arena Stage. ABOVE: David Morrissey as Mark Antony and Ben Whishaw as Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” at the Bridge Theatre in London.
 ?? C. STANLEY PHOTOGRAPH­Y ??
C. STANLEY PHOTOGRAPH­Y

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