Whether you hoped to make sense of a reeling world, or to just dodge it for a couple of hours, this year’s theater scene delivered thrills, chills — and a few choice indictments. From glitzy musicals to head-wrecking dramas to arch comedies, Charleston stages sparked tears and sneers, laughs and gasps, sighs, and sometimes simply stricken silence. Here are some standout theatrical moments of 2016.
Best Use of a Black Box
At PURE this fall, Richard Heffner’s deftly executed set for The Christians demonstrated to striking effect just what can be done in a 99-seat theater. A massive stained-glass cross thrust into the house above our heads, helping to create the illusion that audience members were in the front-row seats of a mega-church. This allowed for intimate, soulful moments of on-stage reflection, while suspending disbelief, and imagining that an outsize congregation was at our backs.
Best He-Man Woman-Hater
Right in line with a new administration that is publicly wary of nasty women, Josh Wilhoit served up matter-of-fact misogyny in his chillingly glib portrayal of Max Garrett in Threshold Repertory’s Becky Shaw. Anyone who then questioned whether or not there are really guys like that in New York City may now see there are plenty still holding onto the Big Apple, and holding forth on women as commodities.
Best I’ll-Have-What-He’s-Having Monologue
Over at the Footlight Players, Jimmy Flannery in Bakersfield Mist showed us just how wild and wooly the artistic process can be. As an art appraiser charged with determining the authenticity of a work possibly by Jackson Pollock, he demonstrated this point in one momentous, mounting, hot-and-bothered monologue, during which he reached an artistic catharsis that slyly, hilariously called to mind some of life’s other similarly climactic times.
Best Heads-Up on a Brave, New World
If at first you scratched your head over Village Rep’s choice to open its fall season with 1984 — a show based on a Cold War era throwback — you likely now look back and get it. The Russians are, in fact, coming. Between talk of building walls, not to mention Brexit across the pond, take-no-prisoners nationalism is also making a comeback. So those who missed Village Rep’s sobering, resonant show would do well to crack open Orwell’s perennially prescient classic — and read it and weep.
Bloodiest Good Fun
With a splatter zone for fake blood, a goofy, talking moosehead, and amped-to-11, made-for-mayhem musical numbers, Evil Dead: The Musical served up a deliriously hot mess of a Halloween offering from What If? Productions, in partnership with Threshold Rep. This ever-so-silly send up of the B horror movie was full-tilt, unapologetic fun. Is that so wrong?
Best Reason to Mend Things With Your Mother
Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be psycho. In PURE Theatre’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Sharon Graci gave us a gripping and slippery view of one daughter trapped with her mother in a small cottage in the West Coast of Ireland, who takes matters into her own twisted, tea-stained hands. Okay, maybe her character went just a little too far, but everyone knows how Mom can push those buttons …
Best Feat of Modern Technology
This year’s Spoleto USA Festival brought us another production by the London-based 1927 theater company. Golem not only offered technology-powered production values that created a stunning, inventive phantasm of a world taken over by technology, it cast a cold, astute eye on our increasing enslavement by our own handheld devices.
Best Talk Amongst Ourselves
When it comes to meaningful dialogue on race and social justice, I’m calling this one a tie. First, Charleston Stage presented Julian Wiles’ rigorously researched Seat of Justice, the civil rights era look at the Lowcountry’s own fraught past, by way of a South Carolina case that led to the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Once we stared that down, PURE gave us Citizen: An American Lyric, the stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s illuminating prose/poetry book that explores our present-day exchanges that serve to hurt, or to slight — or that simply just don’t get it.
Best Reason Not To Take LGBT for Granted
After I saw Bent, the harrowing, deeply moving account of Nazi camp detainees rounded up for being homosexual, I recall reflecting that those days are mercifully far behind us. Scratch that. As the world tips ominously in another direction, thanks again to Threshold Rep for taking on this tough, timely work.
Best Mess With Your Head
I have to call another toss-up for this one. What If? Productions’ fourth-wall smashing Roger & Tom took aim at its own black box form, and had a high old time doing so. Over at PURE, Constellations went astral on us, breaking through our own dimension in a barrage of alternate universes, which offered strange, transcendent comfort as it exploded my head.
Best Gender Bender
Village Repertory Company gamely gave a gender-neutral twist to My Fair Lady, with members of its trimmed-down cast playing roles of both sexes. A special nod goes to Robin Burke for his savvy Lady Higgins, who suffered no fools.