Is socially distanced performance real theater? This question has been asked of virtually all stage efforts since the outbreak of COVID-19. Given the challenges of presenting split-screen and Zoom productions, a best of the year list is regrettably but unavoidably brief. Still, 2020 boasted some notable initial pre-COVID efforts and several following well-conceived presentations that provided online audiences with provocative fare until the reopening of area theaters.
In January 2020, SpeakEasy Stage Company presented the Hub premiere of the tough-talking yet thoughtful street corner-set off-Broadway drama, “Pass Over.” Antoinette Nwandu’s timely play riffs on Beckett and Exodus in a resonant look at the frustrations and difficulties of two young Black men. Hubens “Bobby” Cius was forceful as Kitch, and Kadahj Bennett commanding as Moses. SpeakEasy has since tackled LGBTQ issues with an audio presentation of Jewish dramatist MJ Halberstadt’s bookstore-set play, “The Usual Unusual,” one the company is likely to stage fully post-COVID.
Also before the pandemic, the American Repertory Theater paid tribute to 86-year-old Jewish activist Gloria Steinem with an exuberant Boston premiere of the Emily Mann off-Broadway play, “Gloria: A Life.” Audience members sat on pillows and bean-bag chairs as well as regular Loeb Drama Center seats for this involving and informative if overly busy portrait of the Ms. Magazine founder, supporter of women’s rights, and inspiring contemporary of Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug. Patricia Kalember powerfully captured Steinem’s fire and feeling.
Spring found the Hub Theatre Company of Boston bringing new zest to “Much Ado about Nothing” in a lively split-screen virtual revival. Producer-actress Lauren Elias brought a breezy approach to smart talking Beatrice, while Jon Vellante was a standout as her quip-rich match Benedick in a solid ensemble. Veteran actor Arthur Waldstein – wearing a tallit and a yarmulke – proved very affecting as Rabbi Francis (originally, of course, Friar Francis) in director Bryn Boice’s clever and persuasive adaptation.
New Repertory Theatre began a project called the Showstopper Virtual Play Series with back-to-back online one-person, one-act plays. Colombian-American Jewish playwright Alexis Scheer’s “A Very Herrera Holiday” impressed with a disarming Martha Stewart-like crafts show that eventually darkens via the host’s suspicions about her husband’s fidelity. The second work, Miranda Austen ADEkoje’s Instagram-employing “[keyp-ing],” builds on the worries of a Black producer concerning her director husband and fellow Black film crew members testing for COVID in a virtually all-white community. This smart Zoom duo bodes well for New Rep’s commitment to diversity.
Arlekin Players continued to be an envelope-pushing troupe. If its one-woman, trial-focused drama, “State vs. Natasha Banina,” needed stronger development and fuller back story, director Igor Golyak and his Needham-based company nevertheless deserve kudos for a well-acted, technically imaginative online effort.
Three pioneering playwrights were lost to America and the world in 2020: Mart Crowley, 84; Terrence McNally, 81; and Larry Kramer, 84.
Crowley’s pre-Stonewall “The Boys in the Band” (1968) broke ground for dramatists seeking to focus on the fortunes of gay characters. The play centers on a New York get-together of friends to celebrate the birthday of Jewish gadfly Harold. Theatergoers can catch a film version of the Tony Award-winning 2018 revival (complete with the entire Broadway cast) on Netflix.
McNally, who died of complications of COVID-19, was rightly known as “the bard of American theater.” The multitalented playwright won Tonys for dramas – “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” – as well as the books for musicals, including “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.”
Kramer, a Jewish activist, proved to be an inspired writing talent as well as a kind of modern day prophet, railing against homophobia and warning about governmental shortcomings in dealing with AIDS. He rightly received an Oscar nomination for his vivid screenplay for the D.H. Lawrence novel-based film, “Women in Love.” His moving 1985 play, “The Normal Heart,” combines a touching romance in the age of AIDS, insights about activists like the playwright himself, and timely comment about politicians favoring opportunism over courage and caring. One of Kramer’s most significant works was “Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist,” a collection of his impassioned essays. In the provocative title essay, he referred to the Holocaust as “the Supreme Horror.” At the same time, he wrote thoughtfully about the similarities between the admittedly different struggles of Jews and gays for dignity and respect in the face of hate. Kramer’s heart and forceful ideas are a resonant blessing for humanity.