By Keith Waits, with contributions from Kate Barry, Annette Skaggs, and others.
Entire contents copyright © 2016
Arts-Louisville.com. All rights reserved.
2016 is taking a lot of knocks in its waning days, but a year-end review of performing arts in Louisville reminds us we had much to be grateful for in the last 12 months.
Titus Andronicus in Butchertown. Photo courtesy Kentucky Shakespeare.
It was the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birthday, and Louisville celebrated by hosting the First Folio at Frazier History Museum and local theatre companies provided an abundance of productions of his plays. Beginning with a new initiative from Kentucky Shakespeare for indoor productions that placed Twelfth Night on the Bomhard stage, and ending with some of its company in the Whitney with the Louisville Orchestra just before Thanksgiving, the venerable oldest free outdoor Shakespeare in America framed the year-long Will in the ‘Ville celebration.
Walden Theatre, now Commonwealth Theatre Center following their merger with Blue Apple Players, has hosted their own spring Shakespeare festival throughout their history, this year boldly staging the three parts of the rarely produced Henry VI. Each production boasted a different cast and director but still delivered a rich and unified narrative that belied the conventional wisdom that this trilogy stand as some of the weaker entries in the canon. And not for nothing, in 2017, CTC will finally realize being one of the few North American companies to have produced all 37 of the Bard of Avon’s plays.
Kentucky Shakespeare’s regular summer run included a musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, a mercurial Winter’s Tale, and a Romeo and Juliet with a bold second act that took unusual risk with its audience by playing fast and loose with period and staging its final scenes in near darkness.
Perhaps the most interesting moment for Will in the ‘Ville was the opportunity afforded Louisville theatregoers to experience two – count ’em, TWO productions of the always controversial, Titus Andronicus. The Grand Guignol masterpiece was mounted first by Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company as a radio drama cleverly adapted by director Kelly Moore, and then by Kentucky Shakes as an edgy, horror comedy in a Butcher town warehouse. The productions shared a few actors as well as a delight in macabre humor.
The horror aesthetic also found a place in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s September production of Macbeth. Eli Keel reviewed it for Arts-Louisville: “I loved this production, but the vision of the play didn’t seem to sit well with some of the older members of the audience, some of who could be overheard at intermission complaining about the sometimes-jarring use of sound. Then again, perhaps this production wasn’t aimed at them; that empty seat pass line was filed with twenty somethings, and stretched around the rotunda outside the Pamela Brown Auditorium. If you hear somebody asking why young people don’t go to the theatre, tell them those young people are showing up for this visceral and blood drenched take on Macbeth.”
The Bard even got mixed up with a resurgent pop culture phenomenon in William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. Joey Arena’s production at The Alley Theater was a nimble return to top form for this company, exemplifying their “other side of the tracks” status in Louisville theatre with a scrappy but confident entertainment. Almost as good was Sean Keller’s virtuoso turn in his one-person Episodes I-VI. Keller carried the burden of being alone onstage with tremendous energy and supple technique.The work of contemporary American playwrights found distinction in a superlative Qualities of Starlight (March) from Theatre . Director Mike Brooks provided yet another example, as if we needed one, that this company always affords local talent the opportunity to shine their brightest, as illustrated by Michael Drury and Jennifer Pennington’s vivid portrayal of white-trash, trailer-park, meth addicts. For my money, Ms. Pennington gave the year’s strongest performance.
Besides the annual Ten-Tucky Festival for short plays, The Bard’s Town delivered a solid roster of contemporary American plays, perhaps most notably in Samuel D. Hunter’s A Permanent Image, which boasted strong work from Susan McNeese Lynch and Megan Adair, and Chis Hutchinson’s This Is Not The Play, which broke dramatically from the company’s living room setting for a post-modernist deconstruction of theatre conventions.
In July, Derby City Playwright’s New Play Festival realized founder Brian Walker’s vision of the development of full-length plays by local writers with six new productions performed in three weeks at The Bard’s Town. Work of quality from David Clark, Eli Keel, Taj Whitesell, Rachel White, Ben Unwin, and Walker himself, made this inaugural presentation one of the most important local theatre events of this, or any other, year.
The University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program, in its second year under the direction of Baron Kelly, in Fences, brought another August Wilson play to palpable life, following last year’s The Piano Lesson. I, for one. hope Mr. Kelly is encouraged to run through the remainder of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Another crucial educational initiative was born at the Louisville Central Community Center, where Erica Bledsaw mounted two children’s productions under the banner of the Youth Repertory Theatre Troupe of Louisville, The Wiz, and Langston Hughe’s Black Nativity.
Brian Kennedy: “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Derby Dinner Playhouse was exactly that – a beauty, thanks to the mostly all-around great performances,
Clarksville Little Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – wonderful humor, interesting character choices, and a couple of outstanding vocal performances fueled this musical.”
Kate Barry: “Theater in Louisville has been full of crowd pleasers, risks and pay offs this year. The Chamber Theater’s Modernist premiere Chek-Mate, was a welcome and much need addition to Louisville’s rich classic companies. Louisville Repertory Company’s black comedy, Behanding in Spokane, and Liminal Playhouse’s kinky Venus in Fur, were full of surprises. Local companies brought out strong musicals that we don’t see too often: the intimate and heart breaking Last Five Years from Acting Against Cancer, The Alley Theater’s Bat Boy and Heathers musicals were hilarious and fun, while Jesus Christ Superstar at RiverPops in Southern Indiana rocked hard.
But this was a year for the ladies for sure. Pandora’s The Children’s Hour and Swingtime Canteen were strong, poignant reminders of female relationships and how far we’ve come. Resident Kentucky Shakespeare director, Amy Attaway proved just how versatile her acting talents are in StageOne’s And Then They Came For Me. Laura Ellis and Samantha Watzek as Arlie provide the complicated, beautiful, and tender tapestry to incarcerated women re-entering society from all walks of life in Looking for Lilith’s Getting Out. Lily Hernandez was a force to be reckoned with as concept artist Ana Mendieta under Jay Padilla’s passionate direction in Teatro Tercera Llamada’s Silueta. And Jessica Harris Stiller’s powerful belting as Veronica in The Alley Theater’s Heathers was ‘So Very’.”
Looking for Lilith had a milestone moment in their 15-year history when they realized a long-held dream by transferring their production of Robin Rice’s Alice in Black & White for a highly successful run in New York City. It was a triumphant return to home base for the company, which moved from NYC to Louisville more than a decade ago. Back in Louisville, Lilith mounted a powerful rendition of Karen Zacarías’ Legacy of Light built around a magnificent performance from Karole Spengler as French mathematician and philosopher Emilie du Châtelet.
For sheer entertainment value, Wayward Actors Company and director/choreographer Valerie Canon probably had more fun in Unhindered and Ungendered: A Killer Show (January), than any other company in any other show in 2016. The third installment of their musical theatre revues was the strongest entry yet, and another vivid cocktail of macabre humor on the 2016 calendar.
From Kay Grubola’s review of the Spring Collaboration between the Louisville Ballet and the Louisville Orchestra: “What will be Robert Curran’s legacy? If this program is an indicator perhaps he is the explorer many of us have been waiting to arrive. – The time was ripe for Louisville’s version of the classic theater triple threat, Adam Houghland, Teddy Abrams, and Curran, to begin a new dialogue. So (this) performance was like a public service announcement. Attention! The artists are breaking out! We Will Collaborate!”
A huge sigh of relief was heard throughout the city when the Louisville Orchestra announced that maestro Teddy Abrams had signed a new, three-year contract. Mr. Abrams’ tenure here thus far has not only rejuvenated the once-ailing orchestra, but is a clear example of sound but creative leadership for all arts groups, both from Abrams, Executive Director Andrew Kipe and the LO board of directors as well. Still, there is work that remains to be done, and it seems that Louisville is not through with Mr. Abrams.
Annette Skaggs: “This year Louisville audiences have been graced with superstars like Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming and Yo-Yo Ma. The Louisville Ballet, under the brilliant direction of Robert Curran, continues to delight and excite. Now under the new administration of Ian Derrer, the Kentucky Opera is beginning to show why it is celebrating 60 years in Louisville. I have been wowed by all artistic mediums this 2016. Some that stand out in my mind include: Bunbury Theater’s Gone Astray, Pink Martini with the Louisville Orchestra, Acting Against Cancer’s Legally Blonde, Louisville Ballet’s Stars and Stripes, Kentucky Opera’s Madame Butterfly, Pandora Productions’ Mothers and Sons. Of course there are many others that I could include, but that is just scratching the surface.”
Scratching the surface indeed. In the end, that is all that we can do, for any summation courts folly and myopia. We know we missed things, but this is enough to make the point. The calendar for the next few months is already bursting with the promise of another tremendous year, but, for now, we can all be grateful for an exceptional year gone by.
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.