First, some of my favorites from 2018, since circumstances prevented a year-end list: at Cornell, a haunting production of Wedekind’s “The Awakening of Spring” and Anne Washburn’s mesmerizing “Mr. Burns,” a post-electric play; Hangar: Kate Hamill’s zingy adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” and the exhilarating silliness of “Xanadu;” Ithaca College: an enchanting vision of Massenet’s opera “Cendrillon,” a charming “Twelfth Night,” and a brilliant staging of “Ragtime,” helmed by IC alum Eric Jordan Young; The Cherry: the highly physical “Rule of Thumb;” the Kitchen: a riveting “Ironbound,” the sweet musical “Girlfriend;” Opera Ithaca: a stunning “Carmen” at the Hangar and Thomas’s “Hamlet” in a hypnotic production by Zachary James at the Cherry. Finally, a thrilling Civic Ensemble season included the Re-Entry Project’s funny and trenchant “Streets Like This,” Saviana Stanescu’s fascinating “Bee Trapped Inside a Window,” and by far the best show of the year: the premiere of Judy Tate’s profound story of enslavement and freedom, “Fast Blood.”
Now, on to 2019. Caveat: Try as I might, I don’t see everything, so I’m sure I missed some great theatre in the last year.
Ithaca College offered an invigorating and imaginative production of Jeanine Tesori’s musical “Violet,” a blend of folk, rhythm and blues and gospel directed by Greg Bostwick; and a stunning re-imagining of the old English play “Everyman,” Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ “Everybody,” directed by Cynthia Henderson.
Cornell provided an eclectic round-up: a feast of language in Moliere’s scathing satire “Tartuffe;” a riveting docu-drama of environmental tragedy, Leigh Fondakowski’s “Spill” (helmed by Caitlin Kane); and the exhilarating celebration of adolescent girl-power, Sara DeLappe’s “The Wolves” were the highlights.
At the Hangar: a lively modern “Restoration” comedy: “Or, What She Will;” sheer delight in Cyndi Lauper’s “Kinky Boots,” and three lightly staged readings of large cast plays mostly featuring local actors in the Big Play Fest: a respectable offering of the great “Raisin in the Sun”; the effervescent wit of Kaufman & Hart’s “You Can’t Take it With You” (helmed by the irrepressible Robert Moss) and acting of great hilarity and heart-wrenching passion in “August: Osage County.” A beautifully rendered “A Christmas Carol” as imagined by adaptor Aoise Stratford and director Michael Barakiva capped a festive year.
Civic Ensemble staged the William F. Buckley & James Baldwin debate in “Faith of Our Fathers” at the State and ended the year with “The Next Storm” at Cornell.
The Cherry staged the premiere English translations of “The Shoe” (from Canada), and “Testosterone,” with a brilliant ensemble. Especially noteworthy was the trio of ‘solo’ plays featuring women: an intriguing Loza play, “The Saint;” Elizabeth Mozer’s performance piece “Asylum,” and an incandescent performance by Kathleen Mulligan as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst.”
House of Ithaqua brought Caryl Churchill’s urban fairy-horror tale “The Skriker” to life in a smart production helmed by A.J. Sage, inventively costumed by Liz Kitney and featuring shape-changer Barbara Geary in the title role.
The Ithaca Shakespeare Company moved up to a charming location in Upper Treman Park this summer, offering a warmly received “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and a stylish traversal of the rarely seen “Pericles.”
Opera Ithaca offered us a top-notch production of a new opera commissioned by OI: Kamala Sankaram’s “The Infinite Energy of Ada Lovelace,” coupled with a clever staging of the ‘first’ opera by a woman, Francesca Caccini’s “Liberation.” The fall brought a gorgeously played and sung La Boheme in conjunction with the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra (less convincing in its bare staging.)
The Kitchen continued to offer brilliant and highly diverse theatre; highlights included the nerve-wracking “The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood, about the aftermath of a nuclear disaster; a skillful revival of David Auburn’s Proof, featuring a South Asian cast; an excellent ensemble in Nina Raine’s complex and witty traversal of the differing worlds of the deaf, “Tribes.” Then there was Marco Ramirez’ “The Royale,” by far the best local theatre of 2019. The historic African-American boxer Jack Johnson becomes the first Black World Champion. Pulse-pounding drama, led by a powerful Jamal James as Johnson, a blazing Lisa Tharps, Kitchen veteran Alexander Thomas in a wry turn as Johnson’s manager, Sean Meehan and Dazmann Still, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh.
Several local performers I enjoyed following the past two years: Joshua Sedelmeyer, who went from a hearty Fred in the Hangar’s “A Christmas Carol” to a heart-wrenching Bob Cratchitt; Sedelmeyer also played a southern hot-head in Fast Blood, William F. Buckley in “Faith of Our Fathers,” and a romantic Tony Kirby in “You Can’t Take It With You.” Helen T. Clark returned to play a delightfully dizzy Essie in the latter play as well as a chilling role in “Testosterone.” Karl Gregory added his comic chops to both plays as well, but was most endearing as a troubled brother in “Tribes.” “August: Osage County” offered several plum acting moments: Kathleen Mulligan was tragically torn as the elder daughter Barbara, Jennifer Herzog was a manic denier of reality as daughter Karen; and Effie Johnson played a rueful Ivy. Jacob White’s Little Charlie Aiken was a delight; Craig Macdonald a mysterious patriarch and Jeffery Guyton a sweet Charlie Aiken. And in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Cynthia Henderson was a grounded and spirited Lena Younger.
Susannah Berryman gave a comic tour-de-force in The Roommate and followed with a sly turn in “The Children;” while Dean Robinson had great turns in “Tribes” and “The Children.”
Erica Steinhagen returned brilliantly to the stage, sailing through the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods” (amazing), followed by a tough-as-nails turn in “Kinky Boots.”
We were blessed to have Norm Johnson and Beth Milles directing for several companies this past year.
Transitions: Godfrey Simmons, Jr., co-founder of Civic Ensemble moved on to HartBeat Ensemble in Hartford, CT; Zachary James gave up the reins at Opera Ithaca to pursue a burgeoning career (including a major role at the Met in Glass’ Akhnaten); Mary Beth Bunge announced her upcoming resignation as Managing Director at the Hangar and Greg Bostwick celebrated his retirement from Ithaca College’s faculty.
And transitioning from life on our planet: at Cornell, Alison Van Dyke, beloved mentor to generations of students and faculty, and Ed Intemann, a lighting designer and master teacher. And from the local acting community: the hilarious and protean Camilla Schade. Years of laughter and brilliant acting were celebrated in “But Is It Funny?,” a celebration of her life hosted at the Hangar and led by her sister Carolyn Cadigan. Camilla gave us a tremendous gift before she left, a solo performance of her final encounter with cancer (in collaboration with Kira Lallas), “Bones,” certainly the most spiritual and loving theatre of 2019.