For the third year in a row, New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum has refused to produce the end-of-the-year Top 10 list requested by her editors and instead offered a strongly worded argument against the annual ritual. Nussbaum writes of her “enduring emotional and philosophical opposition to Top 10 lists, which are simultaneously reductive and boring.” Nussbaum’s concerns are not without their legitimacy, and they’re often shared by readers, artists and other critics (though, in terms of being reductive and boring, it’s questionable whether three years’ worth of screeds against the practice constitutes an actual improvement).
Anyway, this round, Nussbaum argues that critics can’t legitimately pick out a “Top 10” since critics can’t possibly see every work in their field and will therefore undoubtedly leave off some worthy work that slipped under the radar. Undoubtedly true, but still: no one expects critics to see every work in their field. Critics, if they’re serious, will see more work in their field than just about anyone else and will therefore be uniquely positioned to make some judgments about what they’ve seen (i.e., they do their job). “This, not that” and “This, more than that” are judgments that can certainly be boring and reductive, but being boring and reductive is simply one risk, if not the imperative, of journalistic criticism. In other words, enough with the drama, Emily, and just tell us whether you thought “Breaking Bad” was better than “Homeland.” If it must be reductive, try not to make it boring.
With that directive in mind, we’ve moved forward to once again deliver the ArtsATL Top 10 Theater List for the year.
10. Actor’s Express’ “Equus” Actor’s Express dragged out an old war horse, and much to everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be an unexpectedly powerful beast in strong fighting form, especially in the hands of veteran Atlanta actor Chris Kayser as a psychiatrist facing a moment of existential crisis and newcomer Kyle Brumley as his troubled patient with a quasireligious obsession with horses.
9. Serenbe Playhouse’s “Sleepy Hollow Experience” Speaking of horses, there was no need for masks or metaphors to bring on the equine characters in Serenbe’s inventive production of Washington Irving’s classic, created in and around the stables at Serenbe for Halloween. A great Gothic look and inventive, interactive staging guaranteed this production provided plenty of jumps, shivers and all-around fun.
8. Actor’s Express’ “Seminar” A play about a group of young writers participating in a workshop with a famous novelist may sound like a sweet, cathartic story about the bonds of friendships and life-lessons learned from a beloved mentor. But playwright Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” given a great production at Actor’s Express, went in another direction with its back-stabbing, nasty, double-crossing characters fighting like feral cats. Andrew Benator’s masterful performance as the slimy, terrifying, foul-mouthed workshop leader was a thing of beauty (if that’s the right word).
7. Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “Swell Party” It’s exciting when an Atlanta theater commissions a new script from an Atlanta playwright, but even more so when the results are as winning as GET’s production of Topher Payne’s period murder mystery “Swell Party.” A fine group of Atlanta’s top actors jumped at the chance to deliver Payne’s signature zingers, and we’re still tee-heeing over Tess Malis Kincaid as Blanche Yurka and Jo Howarth’s delicious line about drinking whiskey in the morning.
6. True Colors’ “Two Trains Running” This production of one of August Wilson’s 10 “Century Cycle” plays from True Colors left us wanting nine more. A fantastic set by Atlanta designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay and great performances — including E. Roger Mitchell as the recently paroled Sterling and Pauletta Washington as the frustrated, put-upon waitress Risa — brought the show to sparkling, thought-provoking life.
5. Out of Hand’s “Salomé” A cup of tea served by an elegant hostess in front of a blazing fireplace in an Atlanta living room certainly sounds oh-so-civilized, but it all took on a slightly different edge in this one-woman show, inventively staged in various private homes around Atlanta over several weeks. Maia Knispel turned that sense of intimacy and refinement on its head, playing Charles Mee’s forthright and forthcoming narrator.
4. Weird Sisters Theatre Project’s “Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” Sexy, smart and funny were all doled out in equal measure in this new play by Atlanta native Lauren Gunderson, which focused on the lifelong love affair between the real-life 18th century intellectuals Émilie Du Châtelet and Voltaire. With whip-smart dialogue, an inventive production in Aurora’s black box space, and local favorites Veronika Duerr and Joe Sykes searching for the nature of fire while producing some sparks of their own, this one was hard to top.
3. Alliance Theatre’s “Good People” David Lindsay-Abaire’s contemporary drama about a woman from Boston’s hard-knock “Southie” neighborhood who, during some hard times, seeks out a successful old flame got a big-as-Broadway production at the Alliance Theatre. But it was the strong, moving performances — most notably from Kate Buddeke as the alternately tough, vulnerable, pugnacious and self-immolating Margie — that really made this show a winner.
2. Saiah’s “Moby Dick” “Out of the theater and onto the streets!” seemed to be the rallying cry of many Atlanta theater companies this year as a number of strong productions left the theater behind and headed to alternate venues: streets, barns, living rooms, creek beds, you name it, it became a place to do a show. But none of them quite outshone Saiah’s “Moby Dick,” produced in the vast Lifecycle Building Center warehouse in southwest Atlanta, for its sheer epicness, excellent performances and the irresistible pull of the born storytellers’ art.
1. Alliance Theatre’s “Choir Boy” Led by a top-notch cast of actors, this story of a young man whose flamboyant effeminacy becomes the source of trouble and conflict at his African American boys’ prep school masterfully dealt with issues of identity, spirituality and history without ever becoming preachy. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney won a MacArthur Genius Grant a couple days before the curtain went up on opening night for the Atlanta premiere of his show, and the play left no doubt that the prestigious honor had been rightly bestowed.
Beyond the Top 10, we’d also like to honor some of the year’s best in individual categories:
Best Actor: Phillip Justman as Ahab in “Moby Dick”
Best Actress: Kate Buddeke as Margie in “Good People”
Best Original World Premiere Play: 7 Stages’ “The Navigator” at the Goat Farm Arts Center
Best Musical: Serenbe Playhouse’s “Hair“
Best All-Around Season: Alliance Theatre
Best Director: Justin Anderson for Aurora Theatre’s “Les Miserables”
Best Kids Show: Serenbe Playhouse’s “Velveteen Rabbit“
Best Costume Design: Erik Teague, “The Navigator”
Best Set Design: “Two Trains Running” (or just about anything else) by Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay
Some other noteworthy productions this year included: Fabrefaction’s “Urinetown,” Alliance Theatre’s “Warrior Class,” Actor’s Express’ “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” Pinch ’n’ Ouch’s “Let’s Make It,” Essential Theatre’s “Swimming with Jellyfish,” Process Theatre’s “Trash,” Alliance Theatre’s “Whipping Man,” Theatrical Outfit’s “Harabel,” and True Colors’ “Spunk.”