Annual “10 bests” lists are traditional but, to me, they imply winners and losers. Although I reviewed 56 Triangle theater productions in 2015 (and attended many more), making any real comparative judgments are impossible with about 150 shows staged by more than 50 presenters. So, rather than “bests,” I want to acknowledge some special achievements by individuals and theaters this year, as well as note some trends.
J. Alphonse Nicholson’s increasingly impressive Triangle performances over the last six years culminated in January with StreetSigns’ “Freight,” in which he powerfully portrayed five versions of the same African-American man in different eras. After taking this breakout performance off-Broadway in August, garnering strong reviews from The New York Times and Village Voice, Nicholson has been kept busy with steady theater work across the country. Look for a planned local encore next season.
Carly Prentis Jones had a busy year, emerging as another candidate for bigger things. She delivered distinctive characterizations in five productions: the wily witch in “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” and a shell-shocked apocalypse survivor in “Mr. Burns” (both at Manbites Dog); Celie’s sister Nettie in “The Color Purple” (Justice Theater Project); another Nettie, singing a heart-felt “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in “Carousel” (Theatre Raleigh); and a spunky Dorothy in “The Wiz” (Burning Coal.)
Long-established Triangle performers did some of their best work in 2015. Ray Dooley’s bitter, has-been novelist in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s “Seminar” was its own seminar on establishing layers of character and making a flawed figure sympathetic. David Henderson’s broken-down poet in Honest Pint’s “Annapurna” gave expert instruction on exposing human nature’s downside though the lens of understanding. Rebecca Blum’s Shakespearian leads for Bare Theatre vividly communicated her characters’ depths, whether Isabella’s intense grief in “Measure for Measure” or the title role’s madness in “Titus Andronicus.”
This year, a number of inventive productions enveloped audiences into completely separate worlds, conjured by visionary designers and directors. Memorable examples include South Stream’s “The Caretaker,” whose claustrophobic, junk-filled rooms extended from the front row on into the backstage area; Deep Dish’s WWI bunker in “Journey’s End,” convincingly thrusting viewers underground with the soldiers; Burning Coal’s nightmarish cocoons and swaddling cradles in “Asylum”; and Little Green Pig’s multimedia-enhanced framework of East German apartments in “The Emotions of Normal People.”
Triangle theater companies examined important issues of the day, providing trenchant insights along with entertainment. Mortall Coile’s “The Pride” and Raleigh Little Theatre’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” poignantly addressed gay repression; PlayMakers’ “Disgraced” and Black Ops Theatre/Little Green Pig’s “The Shipment” starkly exposed how deeply entrenched religious and racial discrimination still is.
The deleterious effect of U.S. military culture was grippingly staged in Sonorous Road’s “Grounded” and Theatre Raleigh’s “A Few Good Men.”
Big Broadway musicals can be immensely entertaining when experienced with 2,000-plus audiences at Durham Performing Arts Center and Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. But several Triangle theater companies made their marks reworking big musicals for their under-100-seat spaces. Burning Coal’s “Sunday in the Park with George” and “The Wiz,” North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s “Rent” and Theatre Raleigh’s “Dreamgirls” focused on characters and music, making the experience completely different from seeing productions in larger venues.
In 2015, there was significant progress in presenting plays either written or directed by women. Among the shows I reviewed, women authored 12 (about 20 per cent) and directed 15 (about 25 per cent). While not yet full parity, the numbers are encouraging, as they are on par with national averages that are at all-time highs.
The vibrancy and variety of local theater was on full display in 2015, providing not just entertainment but thought-provoking life lessons, made visceral by the immediacy of live performance. 2016 should prove even more engaging as Triangle theaters assess their functions and obligations to the community.