It had bangs and whimpering sounds, bullies and victims, politics and personal issues. It ended with a chef serving appetizers to the audience.
Yes, with the world premiere of "Raging Skillet" at TheaterWorks, the 2016-17 Connecticut theater season is officially over.
Please note that the 2017-18 season is already upon us, with "Finding Neverland" at The Bushnell earlier this month and "Small Mouth Sounds" opening its national tour at the Long Wharf Theatre Aug. 30. Then there are the theaters that operate only in summertime, or on a spring to fall timeline. Let's deal with those in our year-end wrap-up a few months from now.
Shows can rise and fall on their own merits, but a season —especially at theaters that cater to a subscriber base — is a special unit. How it holds together, how its elements balance and complement, deserves attention and respect.
The season just past began with the promise of deep sociopolitical discourse. The regional theaters had planned and announced their 2016-17 programming plans while the national election was heating up. Many titles directly addressed concepts of leadership. Sarah Ruhl's mysteriously meditative "Scenes from Court Life," at the Yale Repertory Theatre analyzed the rise of the Bush boys George and Jeb. The Long Wharf gamely staged "Other People's Money," a mainstream corporate-takeover melodrama that Trump publicly praised back in the '80s. Hartford Stage at first announced that it was going to do George Bernard Shaw's "Joan of Arc," which doubtless would have had people thinking about Hillary Clinton, then did Shaw's "Heartbreak House" instead, dressing up the show's stereotypical businessman villain to look just like our new president.
The election also caused a dive in attendance in October and November as people were glued to their TV sets, podcasts and who's-winning statistics. It's unfortunate that two of the shows that were hardest hit — "The Piano Lesson" at Hartford Stage and "Seven Guitars" at Yale Rep — were by August Wilson, whose rhythmic and affectionate real-world insights into the human condition (including how we react to stress and greed) might have helped a few people get through the winter. The Wilson plays had been smartly programmed — or so it seemed — so as to presage the release of the film version of "Fences."
"Smart People" at Long Wharf was considered a cutting-edge contemporary drama just months before the Long Wharf decided to stage it. But its depictions of how racism had (and mostly hadn't) changed following the election of Barack Obama felt already dated, overtaken by more recent current events. On the other hand, "Sunset Baby" at TheaterWorks hit a sweet spot with its talk of confusion, self-reliance and revolution.
Hartford Stage's season was a nice mix of large-cast, small-cast, funny, sad, traditional and modern. Elizabeth Williamson, putting on her director hat for the first time since joining the theater five years ago, took Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9" to places it hasn't been, staging it as a sort of '70s music hall fantasia.
Yale Rep's 50th anniversary season was smart and tough. On paper, I would say that Long Wharf threatened to have the most exciting, challenging season. But two world premieres — the family drama "Napoli, Brooklyn" and the Adam Gopnik/David Shire musical "The Most Beautiful Room in New York" arrived uncertain and unready, and the aforementioned "Smart People" fell rather flat. Steve Martin's "Meteor Shower" was a popular hit that showed bright promise (and is indeed Broadway-bound) despite its inability to match its expressionistic tendencies to its onslaught of feuding-couple gags.
When looking back at where expectations were largely met, the small, scrappy Playhouse on Park springs to mind. The West Hartford theater did musicals that were within the reach of its modest resources — "Little Shop of Horrors" and "[title of show] (though I didn't care for the latter)." It also introduced audiences to plays that had become popular around the country but hadn't hit Connecticut yet, whether it was the purposely dumb door-slamming delight "Unnecessary Farce" or the tender romance "Last Train to Nibroc."
Seven Angels Theatre helped two newish shows, Charles Messina's "A Room of My Own" and the jaunty J.C. Johnson-scored musical "Trav'lin," continue to find themselves, and also offered Seven Angels founder Semina DeLaurentis daffily impersonating Gracie Allen.
This was the season when Bill Raymond gave his final performances as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol." Long Wharf offered Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey in an "Endgame" that gave Beckett purists pause but had its intended impact nonetheless. Name stars also flocked to TheaterWorks, where Richard Dreyfuss played a whimsical, weary Albert Einstein in Mark St. Germain's "Relativity," followed by the gruff Tony Todd in "Sunset Baby."
Among the state's presentation houses, The Bushnell gets high marks for bringing excellent tours of the sensitive musicals "If/Then" and "Fun Home" to Hartford. These shows will soon be easily found at small theaters and college stages, but not on this scale. The "American in Paris" tour was dazzling, too. The Waterbury Palace was the first in the state to host Jack O'Brien's colorful new production of "The Sound of Music." Foxwoods Resort Casino offered a Broadway season for the first time.
There are some theaters where the fall to spring season is the same thing as their academic school year. I was impressed with some of the versatile student performers at UConn's Connecticut Repertory Theatre, especially in the timely revival of "Waiting for Lefty" (coupled with a contemporary corporate drama by UConn alum Levi Alpert) and the musical "Shrek," which CT Rep made timely by having Lord Farquaad resemble a certain orange-haired commander in chief.
Wesleyan faculty (namely Ron Jenkins and Neely Bruce) and students created a modernist theatrical pageant with Indonesian clowning about injustices delivered upon the spice islands of the East Indies. For me, the most visceral and affecting theater experiences of the season may have been at the Yale School of Drama, where "Blood Wedding" gave me recurring nightmares about demons on swings, and "Bulgaria! Revolt!" activated my hay fever and caused me to flee the theater red-faced and wheezing.
When the 2016-17 season began, it was primed to investigate head-on some specific social causes and historic figures. Yet the shows that really stayed with me this from this wild, varied season were not the ones that tried to explain Trump or Bush or Albert Einstein or the American military. They were the human-sized productions like "Sunset Baby," TheaterWorks' triumphant production of the musical "Next to Normal" or Amy Herzog's riveting Yale Rep premiere "Mary Jane" — and sure, let's throw "Endgame" in there — which all just showed anxious people coping.