(Jesse Green’s, Maya Phillips’s, Laura Collins-Hughes’s, Scott Heller’s, Alexis Soloski’s, and Elisabeth Vincentelli’s article appeared 12/3 in The New York Times; via Pam Green; Photo: From left, Sharon D Clarke in “Caroline, or Change,” Adrianna Hicks in “Six” and Deirdre O’Connell in “Dana H.” Their shows are among the year’s best.Credit…Photographs by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)
Digital innovation continued this year, but experiencing plays in isolation grew tiring. Then came an in-person season as exciting as a child’s first fireworks.
Months of Streaming, Then the Pleasures of Live Theater
Until the pandemic, I had never seen a play with my shoes off. Nor had I been able to see so many from all over the world at the click of an icon. Yet by the beginning of 2021, I was tiring of those novelties. Watching shows by myself, at my desk — or, more often, lolling on a sofa — no longer seemed liberating but its opposite. I began to feel imprisoned in my own experience, a sensation that was one of the reasons I gravitated to the theater in the first place.
Despite a few timid outings earlier in the year, two-thirds of 2021 would go by before I fully felt the pleasure of live theater again. Starting in August, and accelerating through the rest of the year, the world reopened, or should I say the worlds: not just the strange buildings dedicated to communal storytelling but also the stories being told inside them. Urgent ideas that had been pent up, in some cases not just for months but for years, were now released, making the fall season as exciting as a child’s first fireworks.
Looking back, I find many reasons to hope streamed theater survives — and I tip my hat below to 10 of the best productions I experienced in that medium in 2021. But I’m otherwise filling my list with 10 live events that came later. Even if seeing them meant putting on shoes (and a series of itchy masks that fogged up my glasses), the eight plays and two musicals listed chronologically after the streaming highlights were more than worth the discomfort. If theater matters differently than television and film it’s not just because you have to leave your home to be part of it, but also because you have to enter someone else’s.
10 Streaming Highlights
“Hymn,” a look at Black British manhood by Lolita Chakrabarti (Almeida Theater); “Myths and Hymns,” the Adam Guettel song cycle, trippily reimagined for MasterVoices; Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander “The Last Five Years,” beautifully rendered by Black hands; “What If If Only,” a new play by the indispensable Caryl Churchill, perfectly realized by the National Asian American Theater Company; “Honestly Sincere,” a sweet adolescent comedy by Liza Birkenmeier that got the play-in-a-closet Theater in Quarantine treatment; a radically foreshortened “Romeo and Juliet” for Britain’s National Theater, starring the chemically explosive combo of Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley; “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’s Southern barbecue “Hamlet” filmed by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater; two dystopian diatribes by Wallace Shawn (“The Designated Mourner” and “Grasses of a Thousand Colors”) retuned for the ear alone; and “Three Short Plays by Tracy Letts,” in which Steppenwolf Theater served up the acidulous playwright in potent doses of 15 minutes or less.
‘Merry Wives’ by Jocelyn Bioh
In early August, two years since we last gathered at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Bioh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” directed for the Public Theater by Saheem Ali, opened with a joyful noise of welcome. Set in an African diasporic community in Harlem, the comedy underlined the human qualities of foolishness and forgiveness we know from our own households — or would like to know from others’. After all, whether from Ghana or Zimbabwe or Harlem or Stratford-upon-Avon, we are all, if you look back far enough, an African diasporic community. (Read our review of “Merry Wives” and our interview with Bioh and Ali.)