My Favorite Performances, 2011

Matthew Amendt – Hamlet. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with its first-ever presentation of this most famous of plays, with a kinetic, explosive production directed by Terrence O’Brien. Stripped of almost all trappings, this production was among the most compelling I have ever seen, and it was mostly due to Mr. Amendt’s compelling performance as the young Prince of Denmark. Amendt was riveting from start to finish, a towering achievement especially when you consider that he was sharing the stage with some the Festival’s best repertory players. His choices were big and bold, and made Hamlet something he rarely is: sympathetic. I don’t think I have ever heard so rapt an audience at any other Shakespeare performance I’ve attended.

Nina Arianda – Born Yesterday. I have yet to see Ms. Arianda’s breakout performance in Venus in Fur, but will rectify that this February when that show reopens at the Lyceum Theatre, but I am beyond thrilled I got to witness this star-on-the-rise reinvent a classic role (Billie Dawn, made famous by Judy Holliday on stage and to Oscar-winning effect on film). The Kanin classic, which also starred Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard, doesn’t really take off until Billie Dawn makes her entrance. From that point to the end of the play, it was impossible to look at anyone other than Ms. Arianda, a luminous, effervescent vision on or offstage. I ran out of superlatives with which to rave her performance last spring. Nina Arianda is destined for stardom, not unlike Ms. Holliday, and any chance you have to see her live onstage, you need to run, not walk.

Danny Burstein – Follies. I have been a fan of Follies for years, and usually the bulk of attention gets lavished on the leading ladies. However, in this Broadway revival imported from the Kennedy Center, Mr. Burstein makes waves as Buddy Plummer, the sad-sack salesman married to neurotic-bordering-on-psychotic Sally. Behind the smile is immense pain, expressed brilliantly in “The Right Girl” and “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” In short, in a show that features some of the best songs ever heard in a musical, it is Mr. Burstein who rips your heart out. He is a Broadway treasure and this performance is the latest in a line of personal triumphs.

Tyne Daly – Master Class. After seeing Tyne Daly’s most recent cabaret at Feinstein’s and her various characters in Love, Loss and What I Wore, I knew when I heard that Ms. Daly would be cast against type as the great opera diva Maria Callas, it was going to be a must-see performance. I was right; Ms. Daly transformed herself in look and appearance, creating a galvanizing performance that was funny, bold and fearless. As much as I laughed at the humor in Terrence McNally’s play (a highly fictionalized variation on the famed master classes Ms. Callas gave at Juilliard in the ’70s), it was the two aria-like monologues in which Daly as Callas stepped out of the classroom and into her memory. It was rapturous, and the stuff of great theatre. If you missed it here, you can catch Tyne Daly in Master Class in the West End this winter.

Jan Maxwell – Follies. Over the past few months, I have had the immense joy of seeing the Broadway revival of Follies several times including its first preview, opening night among others. Each time, Maxwell’s performance as Phyllis Rogers Stone has grown only more and more fascinating and deeper. From small nuances, like her absolute joy in the Mirror Number, or the way she clutches herself when Young Phyllis says she wants a child in the Loveland transition to the bigger moments like her killer “Could I Leave You?” and a showstopping display of confidence and elan in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” Ms. Maxwell is just staggering.

Jason O’Connell – Around the World in 80 Days. Mr. O’Connell has proven with past performances that he is one of the most versatile actors working at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. This year, he had the opportunity to express the dynamic nature of his range with a riveting portrayal of Claudius in the HVSF Hamlet, but it was his comic tour de force in this delightful farce that really stood out to me as one of the freshest, funniest turns onstage this year. In a variety of roles, Mr. O’Connell was unafraid to go the extra distance for the play and it worked like gang-busters; his fully-committed performance resulted in some of the largest laughs I’ve had all year.

Mark Rylance. Jerusalem. Every once in a while a performance comes along that just wipes me out. The sheer physicality, emotional breadth and staggering fall of Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterfield’s new play was nothing short of extroardinary, and it seems almost impossible to think that another actor could do what Mark Rylance did onstage at the Music Box Theatre. I practically had to be carried out of the theatre when it was done, I was so emotionally spent. In a good way. Rylance is a contemporary genius and continually surprises audiences with his chameleon-like way of going from role to role.

Leigh Williams – The Life and Death of King John. One of the unexpected surprises of my theatergoing this year was this fascinating adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays. But in the hands of the New York Shakespeare Exchange, and director Ross William, King John was presented with a contemporary twist that fused Shakespeare with the technology and political climate of 2011. In a mostly excellent cast, it was Ms. Williams’ towering performance as Constance in the first act that held me rapt. A pillar of strength and nuance, Ms. Williams commanded every scene in which she appeared, with dynamite results. I had never heard of Williams before this production, but I look forward to seeing whatever she does from here on out.

It would be remiss of me to recount my favorite performances of the year and leave out the entire cast of The Normal Heart. When browsing through the list of shows I’ve seen this year, I kept coming back to The Normal Heart, and the individual performances of its ensemble, all stellar. Joe Mantello’s impassed Ned was a performance of a lifetime, John Benjamin Hickey was the heart and soul of that show. Meanwhile Ellen Barkin portrayed the takes-no-guff Dr. Brookner with an unsettling bluntness, and her explosion in act 2 is one of the most genuine expressions of rage I’ve ever witnessed in live theatre. Lee Pace, Jim Parsons, Patrick Breen, Mark Harelik and the rest of the company were all so excellent, it was one of the ensemble events of the year and a haunting experience for anyone fortunate to catch this multi-Tony winning limited engagement this spring.

Honorable mentions to those I saw performing as themselves, including Marilyn Maye at Feinstein’s last June (with a terrific song list, a great banter and delicious high kicks during the Jerry Herman encore), soprano Deborah Voight singing musical theatre standards at Carnegie Hall with the Collegiate Chorale (singing some of the best of musical theatre with great fun, but her personal triumph was “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess), and of course Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway.

“Around the World in 80 Days” @ HVSF

The first time I ever heard the name Phileas Fogg was in 4th grade. Our teacher wanted to read a classic adventure to us and chose Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 Days. For several weeks, we spent the last ten minutes of the school day enraptured by the tale of this unflappable British gentleman, his somewhat inept valet and sidekick and their quest to make their way around the world in 80 days, the result of a seemingly absurd wager made between gentlemen at the Reform Club. I was transported by the story-telling experience and have been a fan of the classic ever since.

This experience came to mind as I sat in the audience for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival‘s production of Around the World in 80 Days, written by Mark Brown. Since I began attending the Festival in 2009, there appears to be a trend: one comedy, one tragedy and a metatheatrical romp. While this year the third entry branches out from the traditional Shakespearean fare with this new adaptation, it is in the same madcap spirit of the Festival’s productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and The Bomb-itty of Errors. Within minutes, I found myself once again immersed in the story, only this with the added bonus of side-splitting laughter.

Forget the film. Yes, it won 5 Oscars in 1956 but that was because it was made a boat load of money and looked really pretty on a giant Todd-AO screen. In spite of David Niven and a sea of cameos, the film adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days is something of a bloated bore and one of the least deserving Best Picture winners of all time (See? It happened long before The King’s Speech). Too much focus on serene cinematography and not enough focus on action, character and plot, plus it starts with a tedious mini-documentary.

Truth be told, Verne’s story is heavy on action and light on character development. In Brown’s adaptation, the action picks up rather quickly and only builds in tension and genuine excitement as the the story reaches his climax and Fogg’s deadline approaches. The momentum might be better served if the play were performed without an intermission, but the break doesn’t detract from the energy, and the production is far funnier than I think anyone might expect going in (and there are a few choice jokes for the grown-ups that will sail right over the kiddies’ heads).

Richard Ercole is the embodiment of stiff-upper-lip British reserve as Fogg, a character whose emotions are so tightly contained he makes the Queen of England look like a flower child. Ultimately he becomes a the straight man to the lunacy around him. Wesley Mann is on hand in a variety of roles, but makes his greatest impression as Detective Fix  who trails Fogg, convinced he’s the culprit of a high profile robbery in London. Ryan Quinn is an earnest Passeportout, Fogg’s valet with a knack of getting into trouble no matter the situation.Vaishnavi Sharma plays several roles but makes for an especially spirited and likable Aouda, the Indian widow who is rescued during the voyage. Susanna Stahlmann, decked out as a 19th century assistant, is responsible for all the “special effects” and executes them all perfectly (I’m being purposefully vague here, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of her function in the show).

The entire ensemble is stellar, but the secret weapon of this production is the unbelievably versatile Jason O’Connell. The actor, whom I last left me breathless in the HVSF production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Unabridged) plays a slew of characters, constantly changing costumes, personas and accents. His willingness to go the extra distance with his comedy is where his performance pays off the most. There were moments when the comedy got the better of his co-stars. Normally I’m not a big fan of folks breaking up onstage; however, this was like watching Tim Conway get the best of Harvey Korman.

The credit must go to the director, Christopher V. Edwards, whose gift for comedy has been put to excellent use as both an actor and director for the Festival. He’s especially adept at creating an onstage involvement that requires the audience to become active participants with minimalist scenery, effective use of props and the actors creating the effect of being on a speeding train or a ship being tossed around in a typhoon. His work is extremely inventive, and I find myself constantly surprised by elements of his direction. I would love to see what Edwards would do with Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps. (Hint, hint).

Around the World in 80 Days runs in repertory with The Comedy of Errors and Hamlet through Labor Day on the beautiful grounds of Boscobel through Labor Day. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival provides an affordable way for parents to introduce kids to Shakespeare and theatre – their full price tickets are a 1/3 of an orchestra seat on Broadway. The grounds open two hours before each show for picnicking on the grounds and the Festival has concessions available.