NEW YORK CITY: Once I had committed to the idea that Being Harold Pinter, Flipzoids, Anything Goes and Cries and Whispers — all of which had premiered prior to 2011 — truly belong in the company of the best of world theater I had seen in 2011, then it made no sense to put up a false front. Why should I restrict myself with shows I’ve seen only in New York? I had no choice but to go all out.
Ten-best lists are by necessity artificial markings. In the rabidly capitalist U.S. and British theater, we fetishize “world premieres” to the point of marginalizing and excluding most everything else. We have been duped by pop-culture’s fascistic obsession of the new; we are blind to the fact that even the best theater productions (precisely because they center on liveness) often need time to travel to new and different places so that they can be seen or better appreciated. Or we would have to travel to see them.
Not every production in the international circuit is a “world premiere” (a strictly marketing coinage). As passionate world theatergoers, we are lucky to catch a great work of theater from Europe or Asia were it not for the existence of theater festivals that cater to international works. Short of actually going there, how could a critic without a travel budget note an important show from Africa if it were not produced outside that continent?
Interestingly every critic will allow for revivals of old plays and old musicals to creep into such lists on the argument that, say, their librettos have been re-furbished or that this new production is superior to some original one from eons ago. Those arguments are just so much justification of taste and orientation — pure whimsy. The Broadway revival of Anything Goes, for example, is fresh, zesty, exciting, and unerringly zingy, because it received an expert re-tinkering, and because the Roundabout Theatre Company gave it a kick-ass lush production that you will not likely ever see again in a long while if you don’t go to see it now. But you know what? It’s a great musical, because Cole Porter wrote such immortal standards as “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Anything Goes.”
And then there is the issue of the critic’s sense of adventure. All 10-best lists mark the intellectual and theatrical journeys of the specific critics who concoct them. Have you noticed how the same goddamn Broadway shows keep turning up on the same lists of our New York critics? That’s not because they have seen every show in the New York City; they haven’t (it would be literally impossible). That’s because they are birds of the same feather who flock together. I have greater respect for the likes of, say, Tom Murrin of Paper Magazine, Richard Zoglin of Time Magazine and Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times, because their top-10 lists are more truthful about their own idiosyncratic journeys in life, more revealing about their sense of theater politics, and ultimately more democratic in stating that the great theater exists beyond the Times Square district.
A final note: The following list reflects my own travels in 2011 and is therefore deeply personal. And it is political. It is entirely possible I could have come up with an entirely different list had I been invited by a different festival of another country — had I gone elsewhere, to a nonprofit theater in a U.S. city outside of New York instead of the countries to which I did go. I was also limited by my budget. Despite appearances, I live hand-to-mouth. I never travel for leisure; I travel for work reasons; frequently, I organize events abroad or lecture at conferences. More to the point: I don’t have the resources to travel to cities across the U.S. to see shows in our nonprofit resident theaters. And there are excellent international festivals such as the biennial one in Bogota that did not offer a festival in 2011 but will do so in 2012.
I was fortunate to serve as the USA jury member of the International Theatre Festival MESS Sarajevo where I saw the haunting Radio Muezzin. A documentary theater work that chronicles and laments the changing role of muezzins – the men who call the city to prayer from the thousands of mosques across Egypt – Radio Muezzin originally premiered in Berlin in 2009. It has traveled around the world. In 2011, it reached as far as Sydney. Performed in Arabic with English subtitles, this beautiful show briefly performed in Cairo as well, where it was too politically incorrect to be received positively.
Stefan Kaegi, a member of Germany’s influential theatre collective Rimini Protokoll, works with real people and situations, smashing boundaries between journalism, performance and political action. In Radio Muezzin, four real-life Egyptian muezzins from the mosques in Cairo recount their rituals and practices, and they explain how their livelihood of singing the daily call to prayer has been threatened by the Egyptian government‘s decision to replace them with a centralized radio version.
Unfortunately, the most uppity of these four muezzins refused to perform in Sarajevo. He abandoned the show for political reasons; he did not wish to be associated anymore with the other muezzins in the show (he felt he was too good a performer and too important an artist to be seen cheek-by-jowl with his cohorts).
His decision impacted Kaegi’s elegant production in a major way. Kaegi had to replace the muezzin who left with a real actor. The result was unexpectedly rich. The impact of introducing a professional actor greatly reinforced the uniqueness of this poignant performance; Kaegi was smart and honest enough to weave the recent developments into the show’s plot. Radio Muezzin confronts the impact of technology on the lives and religious identities of the muezzins. This show explores the political silencing or the collapse of richly diverse voices. And before it traveled to Sarajevo, it was threatened by one man’s out-sized ego.
You might say that Radio Muezzin stages a Western country’s (Germany’s) attempt to promote diverse Egyptian voices abroad. It is also about the Egyptian government’s decision to use technology to silence individual voices. In Sarajevo there was yet another layer: It was about the triumph of a group of passionate muezzins to perform the story of their lives despite the decision of one of their own to almost sabotage Kaegi’s outstanding show. — RG
MY PICKS FOR THE WORLDS’ BEST THEATER OF 2011
1. Radio Muezzin (Germany/Egypt)
written and performed by Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous, Mohamed Ali Mahmoud Farag, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Himdaw, Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy and Sayed Abdellatif Mohamed Hammad of Egypt
produced by HAU Berlin and Goethe-Institute Egypt, with Festival d’Avignon, Bonlieu Scène Nationale Annecy, Festival d’Athènes et Épidaure, Steirischer Herbst Festivalom, and the Graz and Zürcher Theater Spektakel
presented at the International Theater Festival MESS Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina
2. Macbeth After Shakespeare (Slovenia/Croatia)
Stunning. Quite simply, a revelation.
written by Heiner Muller, directed by Ivica Buljan
produced by Mini Teater Ljubljana of Slovenia and Novokazalište Zagreb of Croatia
presented at Ellen Stewart Theater of La MaMa E.T.C. New York City
3. Chinglish (USA)
The best American play of 2011
written by David Henry Hwang
directed by Leigh Silverman
produced by the Goodman Theatre of Chicago, Jeffrey Richards & Associates, et. al.
presented at Broadway’s Longacre Theater in New York City
4. Faust (Romania)
Overwhelming. The greatest Romanian production of this decade.
written by Goethe
adapted and directed by by Silviu Purcarete
produced by National Theatre “Radu Stanca”
presented at 2011 edition of Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Romania
and at the National Theatre of the Walloon-Brussels community in Belgium
originally presented in 2007.
5. Being Harold Pinter (Belarus)
Forget the politics. This production is a landmark in the history of Pinter productions.
adapted and directed by directed by Vladimir Shcherban from the plays and speeches of Harold Pinter
by the Belarus Free Theater
presented by La MaMa E.T.C. and Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York City and then later by the Goodman Theatre of Chicago.
6. When Father Was Away on Business (Serbia)
A memorable production, announcing the arrival of an extraordinary young director.
written by Abdulah Sidran
directed by Oliver Frljić
performed by Atelier 212 of Belgrade, co-produced by BITEF
presented by the International Theater Festival MESS Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
7. more…more…more…future (Democratic Republic of Congo)
The poems of Antonie Vumilia Muhindo, a political prisoner and Faustin Linyekula’s friend, were set in song by music director Flamme Kapaya, an exceptional guitarist, performed by his five-member onstage band, and then danced by Linyekula (one of the Congo’s brightest artistic lights) and company. The result moves and sounds like nothing anyone has ever heard or seen before.
choreography by Faustin Linyekula/Studio Kabakos
produced by MAPP International Productions with the Africa Contemporary Arts Symposium
co-presented with French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line Festival
at the Kitchen in New York City
8. Blood and Gifts (USA)
Perhaps the world’s greatest example of a political drama that hits the heart and mind. Stunningly constructed, the play is worth re-visiting and savoring.
written by J.T. Rogers,
directed by Bartlett Sher
produced by Lincoln Center Theater at Off-Broadway’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in New York City
9. Sleep No More (U.K./USA)
This show will go down in history as the classic example of a site-specific theater masterpiece.
directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle
design by Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns
choreography by Doyle; sound by Stephen Dobbie
lighting by Barrett and Euan Maybank
costumes by David Israel Reynoso.
a Punchdrunk production at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City
10. Cries and Whispers (Netherlands/Sweden)
The greatest production among Ivo van Hove’s stagings of 1960s auteur films: a masterly blend of installation and stage adaptation.
written by Ingmar Bergman
directed by Ivo van Hove
performed by Toneelgroep Amsterdam
presented at BAM Harvey Theater as part of 2011 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City.
made possible with the cooperation of Auteursrechtenbureau ALMO, in association with Josef Weinberger Ltd, London and the Ingmar Bergman Foundation.
co-produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam / deSingel Antwerpen / Ingmar Bergman International Theatre Festival 2009
It’s tough to make up a 10-best list of the world so I confess that I also liked these shows:
11. The Telling Orchestra (Norway)
Unquestionably the best theatrical performance by a pavilion at the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space
by Asle Nilsen and Verdensteatret
presented at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space in the Czech Republic
“The Telling Orchestra” was an electromechanical object theatre, an installation and a performance of moving objects that is impossible to place within the borders of artistic categories. This work is sometimes presented as a performance of an arctic landscape with actors and entitled “Concert for Greenland,” because the concept and choice of materials originated from a journey to Greenland in 2003.
12. Flipzoids (USA)
Arcenas’s first-rate production confirms this play’s status in the canon of American drama
written by Ralph Pena
directed and designed by Loy Arcenas
produced Off-Broadway by Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York City
12. The Book of Mormon (USA)
At the end of this show, I turned to my companion and said, “That, my friend, is how you write a great musical.”
book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez
directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
presented at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City
13. Septimus and Clarissa (USA)
One of the best stagings of Virginia Woolf’s work I’ve seen, and I’ve seen practically all of them and even once wrote/directed my own.
adapted by Ellen McLaughlin from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway
directed by Rachel Dickstein
presented at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City
14. Correspondances (Haiti/Mali/South Africa/France)
created by Kettly Noël (Haiti/Mali) and Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa)
Witty, explosive, spiky and ultra-sophisticated, this dance-theater work unveils a pen-pal relationship. Noël lives in Mali, Nelisiwe Xaba in South Africa. After a meeting in 2005 in Johannesburg and some working meetings (“21 hours in Paris and in Johannesburg, 19 hours in Bamako and 13 hours in Port-au-Prince”), their correspondences blossom into a dangerous yet audaciously generous give-and-take.
produced by MAP International Productions
presented by the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater in New York City
originally created on May 10, 2007 in France at Espace 1789 in Saint-Ouen, during the Rencontres
chorégraphiques internationales de Seine Saint-Denis festival
15. The Normal Heart (USA)
written by Larry Kramer
directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe
presented at Broadway’s Golden Theater in New York City
16. Anything Goes (Broadway)
A joy from start to finish, with Sutton Foster.
music and lyrics by Cole Porter
original Book by P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman
directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York City
17. Prometheus Landscape II (Belgium)
Hyper-poetic, sadomasochistic, apocalyptic
by Troubleyn/Jan Fabre of Antwerp, Belgium
concept, direction and set design by Jan Fabre
production Troubleyn/Jan Fabre (Antwerp, Belgium)
produced with the support of the Flemish Government
presented by the Peak Performances@Montclair State University (Montclair, New Jersey, USA), Théâtre de la Ville (Paris, France), Malta Festival (Poznan, Poland), Tanzhaus NRW (Düsseldorf, Germany), Zagreb Youth Theatre (Zagreb, Croatia), Exodos Ljubljana (Ljubljana, Slovenia) and in co-production with La Biennale di Venezia (Venice, Italy) and Bitef Theatre Belgrade (Belgrade, Serbia)
18. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (USA)
A rich, delicious comedy from the author of “Ruined” — this year’s best comic work.
written by Lynn Nottage
directed by Jo Bonney
produced by the Second Stage Theater in New York City
19. En el Tiempo de las Mariposas (In the Times of the Butterflies) – (USA)
Another triumph for the team of Caridad Svich and Jose Zayas.
adapted by Caridad Svich from the novel by Julia Álvarez
directed by Jose Zayas
produced by Repertorio Español at Gramercy Arts Theatre in New York City
20. Silenciados (Spain)
by la compañía Sudhum Teatro
directed by Gustavo del Río Prieto
presented in 2011 at DT Espacio Escénico in Madrid and at Cinema São Jorge as part of Queer Lisboa in Portugal
Special Mentions (in no particular order):
Honey Brown Eyes, written by Stephanie Zadravec and directed by Erica Schmidt (USA)
Invasion! by Jonas Hassen Khemiri and directed by Erica Schmidt (Play Company, USA);
Kom Ta Min Hand (Come, Take my Hand) at the Swedish Theatre Biennial, Sweden;
Arcadia written by Tom Stoppard and directed by David Leaveaux (Broadway);
Hypermnesia (Serbia/BITEF), written by Serbian and Bosnian actors, and staged by Bosnian director Selma Spahic at MESS International Theatre Festival Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina);
Venus in Fur written by David Ives (Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway, USA);
Queen of the Mist, Off-Broadway musical by Michael John LaChiusa (Transport Group, New York, USA);
Go Back to Where You Are by David Greenspan (Playwrights Horizons, USA);
Heaven on Earth by Charles F. Mee and directed/choreographed by Dan Safer (produced by Witness Relocation, USA);
Angel of Swedenborg by Ping Chong and the Great Jones Repertory (La MaMa E.T.C., USA);
Unnatural Acts by Plastic Theatre Company, directed by Tony Speciale (Classic Stage Company, USA);
Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth By Day written and directed by Sharon Fogarty (Mabou Mines, New York, USA)
Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway, USA);
Broadway revival of Follies by Stephen Sondheim (USA); and
Gardenia by Alain Platel & Frank van Laecke, Les Ballet C de la B (Belgium).
- Germany’s Rimini Protokoll seizes grand prize of MESS Sarajevo International Theater Festival (theaterofoneworld.org)
- Report from Sarajevo: An inspiring international festival rises above a “catastrophic state of culture” in Bosnia and Herzegovina (theaterofoneworld.org)
- Remembering the Words of Vaclav Havel (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Randy Gener produces (and co-writes) all-Filipino Broadway concert in an international musical festival in Europe (theaterofoneworld.org)