12/31/2020     The Buzz Looks Back on 2020 (With Only a Little Horror)

For the past {Mumble Mumble} years, I have spent New Year’s Eve recapping the year in Atlanta Theatre.  It is with not a little dread that I anticipate that task for this year.  But traditions are traditions, so, for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, let’s dive into the mixed bag of tricks and treats that defined theatre in 2020.

 

We all know the bad news.  The reality of life in a pandemic is that indoor theatrical events became restricted after March; they were, in fact, in spite of our obsessions and careers and wishes, a bad idea.  So, we can start this recap by saying the year can be divided into “Before” and “After.”  Because our sense of time is sequential, I suppose I must start with “Before.”

 

Between January 2 and March 14, I was lucky enough to see 27 productions.  If I had known the “well would soon run dry,” I would have seen more, or at least appreciated more those I saw.  The truth is I didn’t actually dislike any of them, and most of them engendered a great deal of praise from me, beginning with Georgia Ensemble’s Tara Vaughan’s She Rocks: The Women of Rock.  This proved to be a veritable wallow in Boomer pop music nostalgia, with Ms. Vaughan and her band literally getting the audience (myself included) dancing in the aisles.

 

If I had to pick favorites among the musicals of Quarter One 2020, I would boil it down to three very different equally excellent productions – Fun Home at Actor’s Express, Once at Horizon Theatre, and On Your Feet at Aurora Theatre.  These three shows moved me, excited me in very different ways and for very different reasons.  (Please don’t ask me to choose a favorite from amongst the three.) .  Once was (IMHO) the best-directed (by Heidi Cline McKerley) musical of the year with its skillful in-the-round staging, its juggling of multiple dialects, its integration of music and character, and its most excellent ensemble.  Fun Home had its own assets, with particularly dynamic performances by a trio of actors playing the same character at different ages (often at the same time): Rhyn McLemore Saver, Marcia Cumming, and the astounding Eden Mew, with the always-dependable Jeff McKerley giving the Father enough charm to make what’s basically a very unpleasant character actually palatable.  And the joy of On Your Feet was “discovering” Gloria Estefan who had previously flown under my limited post-1980 Pop Music Radar; it didn’t hurt that Aurora’s “Gloria,” Maria Bilbao, gave my favorite musical performance of the year, and Chani Maisonet’s choreography had all the energy of a hydro-powered turbine dynamo, excellently performed by an ensemble of oversize talent, youth and (apparent) stamina.

 

Which is not to say that non-musical plays were slighted.  My favorites included the Aurora’s remounting of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Out of Box’s We Are a Masterpiece, Stage Door Players’ The Glass Menagerie, Synchronicity’s The Hobbit, Theatrical Outfit’s Indecent, and Actor’s Express’ The Brothers Size.  My favorite performances were found in all these shows, especially Brandon Michael Mayes (Curious Incident), Jonathan Horne and Shelley McCook (Glass Menagerie), and the entre ensembles of The Hobbit, Indecent, and The Brothers Size.

 

Of course, with the inevitability of a constant stream of election flyers invading our December Snail-Mail receptacles, “After” fell upon us.  It engendered an expansion of The Buzz’s focus to include national and international on-demand events available to us all.  “After” was characterized by a scramble of local theatres adapting to the idea of “Zoom Theatre,” of a new focus on rehearsed readings, and of a new appreciation of recorded events and movies/videos with a theatre pedigree.  It was also characterized by too many smaller theatres going on total hiatus or even closing their doors for good.

 

As for the Buzz, we started publishing on a daily basis due to the plethora of events with limited availability happening on literally every day of the week.  There were no “dark” days for our long list of virtual events.  Of, course, that’s the public reason. The real reason for daily updates is to allay the demands of the editor who lives in my brain and needs to occupy all time available in an extended quarantine

 

We found theatres scrambling to learn video and editing skills, sometimes making film 101 student errors, most quickly adapting to the form with subsequent offerings (more often than not) improving in skill exponentially.  I’ve also had to dredge up all my own student film class skills when writing about them.  I think the “most improved” was Aurora Theatre, as technical skills shown in This Wonderful Life were miles ahead of their first forays into the format.

 

A discussion of the new technology would not be complete without a shout out to Amy L. Levin, whose considerable prowess made all of Horizon’s “Live Streams ”  (and On-Demand Videos) almost Network-TV-ready.  It would also be incomplete without acknowledging the “fuzzy” definitions of “Live Stream” which carries a hint of live (and perhaps even interactive) performance, and “On-Demand Video,” which is often merely a recording of the opening “Live Stream.” 

 

One of the most apparent trends is the increase in monologues and monologue-centric productions.  Shows such as Merely Players’ Un Lugar Para Suenos and Spoon River Anthology showed just how good a monologue show can get. And with Horizon Theatre’s season-ending Love, M. it was raised to the level of the sublime.  (Shout Out also to Horizon for giving the talented Suehyla El-Attar a platform to workshop her new pay, Nope That’s Just my First Name which showcased her amazing writing, acting, and improvisation skills, a series, which, unfortunately, I never got around to writing about.)

 

Other outstanding local productions available on your home screen included Horizon’s Completeness, Aurora’s 2 The Left: A Tribute to the Life of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, GET’s Blues for Johnny Raven, the Alliance Theatre’s A Very Terry Christmas, and Soul-stice Repertory 2.0’s (Welcome Back!) readings of Three Sisters, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Raisin in the Sun.  And two productions, 7 Stages’ TiT and G.E.T.’s The Passion of Frankenstein showed how video ideas can be stretched “outside the box” with style and creative vision creating new narrative tropes and emotional appeals.

 

On national (and international) platforms such as BroadwayHD, Broadway on Demand, Play-PerView, and Thespie, (not to mention Netflix) gave instant access to filmed stage performances as well as new movies based on plays.  I was especially impressed with productions of Bandstand, The Last Five Years, and What the Constitution Means to Me.  Netflix releases of films of The Boys in the Band, The Prom, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also filled my sequestered life with more than a few moments of joy and transformation.  But my favorites were (as often happens), original and compelling forays into the works of Shakespeare: The Bridge Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Donmar Warehouse’s remarkable all-female repertory of Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest.  These productions all highlighted the power the Bard can have when in the hands of startlingly original directors and concepts, not to mention immensely talented casts.

 

So, did this summary make you think a little more fondly of the year in theatre?  Perhaps not.  No matter how good a video, a movie, or a Live Stream may be, it will never, to my mind, create that exchange of energy that can only exist in the close quarters of a live theatre, that surge of joy when a crowd connects in unison to the excitement of a perfect performance, or conversely, that sense of surprise and dismay when your own reaction does NOT mesh with the rest of the audience, when disappointment and joy happen in equal measure within the same audience. 

 

That is what I miss.

 

Community.

 

Family.  

 

For good or ill. 

 

That is what I hope 2021 brings us sooner rather than later.

 

My plan is to keep the Buzz publishing every day even after the theaters reopen, and to keep promoting national/international on-demand events.  Starting Monday, just for my sanity’s sake, I’ll start ramping down “extended run” promos, letting them fade out after a month or two.  I’ll keep writing about events I like and not writing about those I don’t like.  I am here for you, to promote you, and to give you as many opportunities as possible to enjoy each other’s’ talents and work.  So if you have any suggestions on how I can better accomplish that goal, don’t hesitate to let me know. 

 

Here’s to the promise of 2021!  May we soon see each live and in person!  Until then, stay safe, healthy, and, if at all possible, sane!

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy   #2020InReview)

 

For a deeper dive, here are links to the reviews of the shows I cited.  To get back to this page, go to “2020 Reviews” and click on the title of this essay.

 

(Before)

 

Tara Vaughan’s She Rocks: The Women of Rock

Fun Home

Once

On Your Feet

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

We Are a Masterpiece

The Glass Menagerie

The Hobbit

Indecent

The Brothers Size

 

(After)

 

This Wonderful Life

Un Lugar Para Suenos

Spoon River Anthology

Love, M.

Completeness

2 The Left: A Tribute to the Life of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes

Blues for Johnny Raven

A Very Terry Christmas

Soul-stice Repertory 2.0

TiT

The Passion of Frankenstein

Bandstand

The Last Five Years

What the Constitution Means to Me

The Boys in the Band

The Prom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest. 

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