nytheatre.com's people of the year – 2004

Here's a look at some of the most intriguing, innovative, versatile, and/or prolific theatre artists and companies who made a big impression on us during the past twelve months.  Our suggestion is that you keep your eyes and ears open for work by these folks.  In no particular order...    Martin Denton of nytheatre.com.

In addition to producing a roster of diverse and often excellent new work this year, Vital Theatre Company (Stephen Sunderlin, artistic director) moved his company uptown to new quarters at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Some of the triumphs in 2004 for this prolific group include the short play collection This Is Your Brain On..., a solid revival of Sherwood's Idiot's Delight, Mike Teele's fine family comedy/drama Cedarwood Avenue, another excellent rendition of the perennial Vital Signs new play festival, and—our personal favorite—the Republican Convention "welcome wagon" variety revue, Make Nice? My Ass!

Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker, aka the "Vampire Cowboys," started the year off with a bang with the New York premiere of their wildly irreverent trio of action comedies Vampire Cowboy Trilogy, which went on to the New York International Fringe Festival and is going to be published in NYTE's Plays and Playwrights 2005 (due out in February). Nguyen also fight directed the new musical It's Karate, Kid! and he's contributing a new short play to Metropolitan Playhouse's East Village Chronicles in January. Parker is currently starring as Victor in The Flying Machine's excellent adaptation of Frankenstein at Soho Rep.

Edgy, experimental, quirky, questing, inquisitive—these are all adjectives that describe the work of playwright Anne Washburn. She made us sit up and take notice twice this year, first with her collaboration with Anne Kauffman and The Civilians, The Ladies, and second with her insightful comedy The Internationalist. This latter piece was produced by 13P, a collective of a baker's dozen playwrights who are doing very arresting work. After a formidable debut with Washburn's show, they went on to present Winter Miller's The Penetration Play. Watch for their third show, Rob Handel's Aphrodisiac in January.

Invisible City Theatre Company (Elizabeth Horn and David Epstein, co-artistic directors) mounted no fewer than five productions at their home base, Manhattan Theatre Source. Strange Attractions, written and directed by Epstein, and Airport Hilton, written by Anthony Jaswinksi and directed by Epstein, were both terrific new plays. They capped their year with a splendid revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, proving, among other things, that it is still possible to see exceptional, challenging theatre for $15 in New York City. (We should mention that the company's associate producer Maggie Bell, who acted in all three of the aforementioned productions, also found time to serve on nytheatre.com's summer festival reviewing squad).

Young triple-threat theatre artist Adriano Shaplin cut a bit of a swath in the off-off-Broadway world this year with two splashy productions, Hell Meets Henry Halfway (which he wrote) and Pugilist Specialist (which he wrote, directed, and acted in), a stingingly sharp and spare satire of militarism that had its New York premiere at the spiffy new 59e59 theatre complex. We did a nytheatre voices cyberinterview with Shaplin earlier this season.

The Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky will be the next venue for Hazard County, the breakthrough play penned by Allison Moore. It had its New York premiere in October in a stunning production staged by Blake Lawrence for the Themantics Group. Moore also contributed an entertaining short comedy called CUTRS to TheDrillingCompaNY's evening of one-acts called HONOR, which will be published by NYTE in Plays and Playwrights 2005.

Some of the most exciting and adventurous work we saw all year was mounted in Feed the Herd Theatre Company's Stampede Festival in January, including Kevin Doyle's sophisticated absurdist piece Styrofoam and Eric Michael Kochmer's antic Chekhov parody Platonov! Platonov! Platonov! (the latter will be in Plays and Playwrights 2005). The Herd also presented Kochmer's experimental Fragments of Ricky the Superhero last summer. Look for authentically inventive fare at the next Stampede Fest at CBGB's Gallery in February.

In an election year when lots and lots of folks attempted to satirize the current administration, playwright Kevin Rice seemed to be the only one who really got it right with his hilarious comedy Amerikus Rex, in which the family of Augustus Caesar was expanded to include a wayward son named Cornelius who was banished to the western hemisphere after he invaded the wrong country.

Sam Younis won the Playwriting Award at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival for Browntown, his timely and intelligent comedy about stereotyped casting among Arab American actors in the post-9/11 world. Younis co-produced and acted in his play, too; and he also appeared in the ensemble of the excellent Pulling the Lever, a docudrama about minority political attitudes in the USA.

Was anybody more prolifically versatile than Kelly McAllister this year? In addition to serving as one of nytheatre.com's regular reviewers (so, sure, we're a little bit biased), McAllister acted (and sang) as Boxer in Synapse Productions' excellent revival of Animal Farm; directed and co-produced a musical called Die, Die, Diana at the New York International Fringe Festival, and wrote a fine new drama called Burning the Old Man, produced by Boomerang Theatre Company in September.

The intimate Williamsburg storefront occupied by the Brick Theater (Michael Gardner and Robert Honeywell, co-artistic directors) might seem like an unlikely venue for the city's zippiest summer festival, but the Hell Festival charmed our reviewers and audiences last summer. The Brick was also home to Jeffrey Lewonczyk's well-crafted revival of Witkiewicz's The Pragmatists, Assurbanipal Babilla's Assyrian Monkey Fantasy, and the parody Who Is Wilford Brimley? The Musical. They're just one reason why Williamsburg is a to-go neighborhood for up-and-coming theatre.

And speaking of the boroughs, Brian Rogers's theater et al, headquartered at the Chocolate Factory Theatre in Long Island City is another nexus for envelope-pushing, challenging work. In April, Rogers gave us a spatially virtuosic staging of Audit (with text by Ryan Vemmer); in October his stripped-down, three-person Three Sisters was part of the Chekhov Now Festival. And the Chocolate Factory played host to, among others, Ken Urban's gripping new drama The Female Terrorist Project and the NYC premiere of Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love.

Matt Freeman gave us two extraordinarily interesting plays this year: The Great Escape, an absurdist farce in which two adult children hold their mother hostage, which is quite possibly an allegory about the Bush administration; and The Americans, a monologue play about three men who are caught up in a spectacular catastrophe caused by a poem that makes its author's apartment explode. In terms of imagination, vision, and intellect, Freeman has few equals among his under-thirty playwriting peers. (Full disclosure: Freeman is one of nytheatre.com's reviewers; he recently wrote a really flattering rave about editor Martin Denton for NYFA.)

Among the dozens of avant-garde/experimental works that we saw this year, nothing stood out so profoundly as Peter Petralia's About Silence, a startling and original performance piece, written and directed by Petralia, in which three actors spontaneously react to a poetic text that they are reading, on stage, from laptop computers. More than just an exercise in interactive theatre, this was a piece that really felt alive; the directions it will take its creator in 2005 and beyond are enormously promising and exciting.

Finally, a nod to the more mainstream sector of the nonprofit theatre community. 2004 was really a banner year for the "Big Three"—the Roundabout gave us excellent revivals of Pacific Overtures, The Foreigner, and Twelve Angry Men; Manhattan Theatre Club was strongly represented by Regina Taylor's unfairly maligned Drowning Crow and John Patrick Shanley's thoughtful Doubt. But Playwrights Horizons really stretched its audiences this year, we think, with Craig Lucas's remarkable Small Tragedy last spring and Quincy Long's splendid and timely People Be Heard this fall.