By Bill Hirschman
Any list of top tens or don’t-miss events are fatally subjective and doomed to ridicule in retrospect. Read Entertainment Weekly cover stories of two years ago and see their blowout feature predicting that the can’t-miss box office blockbuster of summer 2011 will be the Bruce Willis/Jason Stathem flick Willie Shakespeare And The Vampire Killers (with Anne Hathaway as Anne Hathaway). So this is just a baker’s dozen that I personally rate as the most intriguing, promising or unarguably important opportunities to be entertained or moved by in the coming 2013-2014 season. But no refunds. No razzing a year from now, “What were you thinking?”
Fear Up Harsh (Zoetic Stage, Nov. 7-24): Top of my list is Christopher Demos-Brown’s world premiere that peels back fear, obfuscation, pride and bureaucracy to find the truth behind an Iraq War incident that led to a Marine being recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor. A staged reading of this work-in-progress last winter wrenched both hearts and minds. The superb cast featured Clive Cholerton as the square-jawed nominee trying to restart his life stateside as a middle-class businessman and Karen Stephens as a deeply disturbed veteran who shows up on the protagonist’s doorstep. With compassion but brutal honesty, the draft script excavated past our need for heroes and governmental duplicity to investigate human weakness. Don’t let me down, fellas. No pressure.
Antony and Cleopatra (GableStage, Jan. 11-Feb.9): It’s the Bard’s oft-ignored love-and-lust play with lush pageantry and battlefield bloodshed. Add in a script edited by and directed by Miami’s Tarrell Alvin McCraney who sets it in colonial Haiti in the late 1700s. Toss in the resources and imprimatur of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theatre for an undeniably intriguing venture. McCraney’s highly stylized vision is not to everyone’s taste, but the odds are strongly in his favor.
Ruthless! The Musical (Actors’ Playhouse, Oct. 11-Nov. 3): One of the spoofiest musicals ever written with a mercilessly hilarious script and a score whose lyrics skewer a hundred tropes, memes and clichés about theater and movies. Director David Arisco knows precisely how to nail this kind of material. A key issue will be how effective the casting will be, including a young actress who has never had a professional role in an adult theater company before.
Gidion’s Knot (New Theatre, May 30-June 22): This is one of the two shows I most want to see. It’s a major challenge for any company anywhere, so praise is due New Theatre for taking it on, Johnna Adams’ prize-winning script premiered a little more than a year ago, but it has been snapped up by at least dozen theaters. The premise is that the mother of a fifth-grader who committed suicide confronts his teacher to try to figure out what might have caused the tragedy. But profound secrets on both sides tumble out. It contains some deeply upsetting material (trust me on this); it requires the audience to shift their perception of the situation several times, and it relies heavily on long pauses that the actresses must fill with clearly comprehensible meaning. My advice is to find the two best actresses in the state and get them one hell of a director.
Rags (The Plaza Theatre, Feb. 20-March 16): I’ve never seen it. Only a handful of people I know did see it on Broadway. But this 1986 musical about Jews searching for the American Dream only to find sweatshops speaks to the heritage of succeeding generations of every ethnicity and every century. It’s basically what happened to Tevye and Yentl when they got here. Joseph Stein’s book was criticized although he rewrote it more than once, including a version at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1999. But the show does have a glorious (but also rewritten) score by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz memorialized on CD. It was penned when a string of box office flops was driving Schwartz to work for Disney. It should be worth it just to hear that score live, especially the soul-stirring anthem “Children of the Wind.”
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (The Women’s Theatre Project, Feb. 28–March 16): Like Joe Adler says in curtain speeches, “Now, I’m not gonna talk about politics….” But no one spoke for a proud bleeding heart liberal like me with as much wit, intelligence, sass and insight as the brilliant columnist Molly Ivins. So this one-woman tour-de-force made up of the late columnist’s writing, starring Barbara Bradshaw no less, is a must-see for me personally. Even rock-ribbed conservatives appreciate her verve if not her message. Tea Party members have no opinion of her because they don’t read. Sorry, I don’t mean to get political….
next to normal (Slow Burn Theatre Company, Oct. 18–Nov. 2): For Palm Beachers who balked at driving to Coral Gables to see Actors’ Playhouse edition, here’s another chance to savor one of the finest modern musicals to date in the current century. Don’t let the description about bipolar disorder put you off, nor the plot facet about electro-shock therapy nor the song about pharmacology. This is funny and moving theater. It’s got a terrific cast including Sharyn Peoples, Matthew Korinko and Anne Chamberlain. And if you live in Miami-Dade, you can catch it for one weekend at the Aventura Arts & Culture Center.
The Whale (GableStage, July 19-Aug. 17) Can you wait nearly a year? You better. Barely a handful of locals have seen or read Samuel Hunter’s play, but I saw its premiere at the Denver Center. Once again, it’s a work with a premise not likely to attract theatergoers: A morbidly obese writing teacher tries to reconnect with the family he abandoned before he succumbs to a fatal illness. But it is a darkly funny and deeply touching journey because the characters are just so human and because Hunter’s script is imbued with compassion for the frailties we all share.
The Lion In Winter (Palm Beach Dramaworks, Dec. 6-Jan. 5) You think your family has problems around the holidays? Join the Plantagenets as they slice and dice each other for control of western Europe and the judgment of history. Their yuletide greeting is a cheery, “What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” This has been one of my favorite play scripts for decades, even before the film version. Inexplicably, it is extremely difficult to pull off, but Dramaworks’ track record give us more than a little hope.
Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (Outré Theatre Company, Sept. 20-22) The odds are long, but we’re rooting for this acid-tinged musical satire of politics, celebrity, corruption, power and xenophobic arrogance as exemplified by Manifest Destiny. Those failings’ unfortunate persistence is underscored by Jackson’s life story being retold as a rock opera. This major success in New York as a phantasmagorical fever dream is being stripped down here to a one-weekend staged reading.
Other Desert Cities (Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Feb. 6-March 2) Once again, traffic congestion on I-95 dissuaded many people from seeing Actors’ Playhouse fine version this past season. But the Maltz’s reputation for quality makes it worth even a second look, let alone a first one. Besides, you’ve seen Hamlet more than once. Jon Robin Baitz’s script might not be Shakespeare, but it skillfully rips away the perfect veneer of a patrician family and examines the true strength of familial bonds. Dysfunction erupts at the prospect of the revelation of secrets that maimed the family. Kudos to the Maltz for continuing to nudge at their audience’s musical theater comfort zone by slipping in some of the best contemporary dramas of recent Broadway seasons such as Red.
Assassins (Zoetic Stage, Jan. 30-Feb. 24) Any Sondheim well done is worth a trip anywhere. This adult musical focuses on the fallout when people realize the shortcomings of the pie-in-the-sky promise of the American Dream. When you see a mob of homicidally-enabled armed malcontents marching toward you singing “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” it’s pretty frightening because you know what’s going to happen when they find out that pledge is hollow. Zoetic has never done a musical, but they’re always awash in talent. And, of course, it’s Sondheim.
Rose and the Rime (Arsht Theater Up Close and The House Theatre of Chicago, April 23-May 18) You had me from the words “House Theatre.” Even when their raw material isn’t as strong, such as last season’s The Nutcracker, the House’s stylized, imaginative and witty stagecraft are a guarantee of breathtaking theatricality such as its Death and Harry Houdini. When it has a solid script like The Sparrow, it’s must-see theater.