Year In Review: The Beat’s top 10 plays of 2017

“Fucking A” / Photo by Rob Clatterbuck / Courtesy Iron Crow Theatre.

1. “Fucking A,” Iron Crow Theatre: All our critics agreed that the best fucking play of 2017 was “Fucking A,” which by no coincidence was also the fucking darkest and therefore the most fucking relevant. In Iron Crow’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ take on “The Scarlet Letter,” Jessica Bennett killed it as the shamed heroine Hester—not a capital-A Adulterer like her literary model, but a capital-A Abortionist trying to get by and free her incarcerated son in some dustland America, where the gulf between the powerful and the powerless is even wider than in Trump’s Amerikkka. This world was strange enough to shake us, but familiar enough to resemble both where we’ve been and where we seem dead set on going. (Maura Callahan)

2. “The Last Five Years,” Stillpointe Theatre: Musicals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t argue with the beautiful storytelling on display in “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown. What could be a simple tale of two artists finding (and losing) one another was made gut-wrenching by the acting chops of Danny Bertaux and Jessica Bennett (again in a winning role). The play’s ghostly structure, with the characters passing in and out of each other’s timelines, added to the melancholy atmosphere, as did the innovative staging in Stillpointe’s narrow bowling alley of a space. With lyrics like “I will not fail so you can be comfortable,” “Five Years” cut deep. (The Bad Oracle aka Annie Montone)

3. “Sally McCoy,” Cohesion Theatre Company: Local playwright and Cohesion co-founder Alice Stanley’s new drama is an old-fashioned gabfest that feels as vital as social media activism. “Sally McCoy” imagines a single night in the life of the very real titular woman (an exquisite Katharine Vary), the wife to one-half of the manly American men responsible for the bloody Hatfield-McCoy feud. She spends this entire play arguing with a series of Hatfields to spare three of her sons, who they plan to murder in retaliation for killing one their own. “McCoy’s” devastating oomph slowly builds as she adamantly refuses to stand by in silence while men decide the fate of her children. (Bret McCabe)

4. “Promenade: Baltimore,” Single Carrot Theatre: Part podcast, part tourism, part happening, “Promenade: Baltimore,” was a sweeping theatrical event made of small parts, each seen from a bus that meandered through the city in clever ways, crossing socioeconomic boundaries that separate neighborhoods such Sandtown-Winchester from Bolton Hill, or Remington present from Remington past. An audio story (collected from interviews done by SC artistic director Genevieve de Mahy with Baltimoreans) deftly weaved together little moments of city life into a sum greater than the “quirky Baltimore” trope. Together with the scenes viewed out the bus window, sound and image create a film-like experience—a guided audiovisual meditation on Baltimore itself. (Brandon Block)

5. “That Face,” Baltimore Center Stage: Baltimore’s biggest professional theater inaugurated its DIY-sized third space with Polly Stenham’s feral descent into class strife and desperate family dysfunction. Mia (Emily Juliette Murphy) and her friend Izzy (Sarah Nicole Deaver) get expelled from their posh boarding school after a hazing prank goes too far, and they retreat to Mia’s cramped home where her brother Henry (Josh Tobin) has become uncomfortably close with their alcoholic mother (Leenya Rideout). This is kitchen-sink British realism that opens in cruel Harold Pinter territory and then proceeds to get truly unpleasant. (Bret McCabe)

6. “Voices in the Rubble”/“Endgame,” Rapid Lemon Productions at Motor House: The reality of 2017 was absurd enough for most of us, so Rapid Lemon’s trip down the rabbit hole of theatrical genres with their spring pairing of Darren Donohue’s “Voices in the Rubble” and Samuel Beckett’s classic “Endgame,” felt startlingly familiar. Rapid Lemon may be small, but their production of these two hard-to-pull-off pieces had surprising bite. From Donohue’s housewife of horrors to Beckett’s apocalyptic whistling in the dark, director Lance Bankerd nailed the style, giving audiences an intense peek into some weird, hilarious landscapes. “Stranger Things” has nothing on these upside-downs. (The Bad Oracle, Annie Montone)

7. “H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum Presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere,” Submersive Productions at the Peale Center: If you missed “H.T. Darling” you probably suffered major FOMO, because it was the show that everyone was talking about all season long. Submersive Productions (the folks behind 2015’s “The Mesmeric Revelations! of Edgar Allan Poe”), along with the astonishingly accommodating former Peale Museum, presented one of the wildest, most immersive pieces of theater Baltimore has ever seen. A Victorian cabinet of curiosities combined with an epic sci-fi odyssey, “H.T. Darling” managed to fully dazzle the senses and slip in some sneaky critiques of cultural appropriation along the way. I’ll never look at a museum the same again—and I think that’s a good thing. (The Bad Oracle, Annie Montone)

8. “Yellowman,” Arena Players: In Arena Player’s 64th season, Dael Orlandersmith’s monologue-driven exploration of colorism drew force from its two sole actors Rosey Young and George Oliver Buntin, who not only played the protagonists—two old friends divided by their skin tone and resentful parents—from childhood into adulthood, but also their families and friends along the way. Director Rosiland Cauthen gave Young and Buntin the space necessary to stretch the nuance of their roles and pull apart the ways in which nurture can wedge itself into a relationship, all while allowing Orlandersmith’s lush prose to illuminate the scope of experiences in South Carolina Gullah society. (Maura Callahan)

9. “Los Otros,” Everyman Theatre: Philip Hernández and Judy McLane anchored this chamber piece that musically and narratively coils two life stories into an unlikely duet. McLane’s Lillian is a Southern California girl grown into a divorced mother who initially harbors casually racist ideas about Mexicans. Hernández’ Carlos is a migrant worker who becomes a “gay septuagenarian Latino accountant” who remembers what such bigotry feels like. “Los Otros” recounts their stories in parallel, and it’s only toward the end that their songs reveal how, in 20th-century America, such different “others” could be on a lifelong collision course. Exploring identity politics rarely finds such a touching minor key. (Bret McCabe)

10. “The Goodies,” Iron Crow Theatre at Baltimore Theatre Project

Iron Crow’s first fully-devised piece transported the Salem Witch Trials to a modern-day high school, where racism runs rampant to the point that its female students of color become physically debilitated by its toxicity. The “witch hunt” here was not the girls’ efforts to squash the palpable harm thrown their way, but the school’s appearances-only attempt to clean up the problem at its surface—and the demonization of the girls for speaking up and merely existing. An original production this precarious was not without flaws, but the all-women-of-color cast (each member performed in multiple roles and contributed to the play’s development) brought raw clarity to the often abstruse sensation of being repeatedly invalidated and dehumanized while still young. (Maura Callahan)

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