(Jesse Green’s, Laura Collins-Hughes’s, Scott Heller’s, Maya Phillips’s, Alexis Soloski’s, and Elisabeth Vincentelli’s article appeared in the New York Times, 12/1; Photograph: Ruth Negga, left, in the title role of “Hamlet.”Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; via Pam 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.