Just around Christmas last year, I learned my mother had taken a turn for the worse; she died in January. The winter months became a depressed slog. I stopped running for the first time in 18 years, I drank too much, my cholesterol shot to 300 and I spent many afternoons in various medical offices. “You know, the heart is a muscle, and it needs to be exercised. I want you to start exercising on a regular basis.” (Said my heart doctor, who was pushing 300 pounds.) My beloved dog had a heart attack and died in my wife’s arms while I was away. The United States elected a child as president, which necessitated trying to comprehend how various friends and family members could have granted their approval. Fox News revealed many of those answers, which made my heart hurt more. Heartache: the guiding analogy for 2016
I forgot how to write over the past year, or maybe I lost the will to string interesting sentences together. My social media priority became self preservation; I engaged less frequently. As such, there were things I didn’t write about, which deserved to be written about. This piece will cover some of those, and if it doesn’t do them justice, the fault must lie with the year itself, which John Oliver referenced as “Oh I get it, we all died and this is hell and Satan has cursed us to live out this nightmare for all eternity 2016.”
The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway (Theater)
A week after the election, Sarah and I were invited to watch the assembly and presentation of The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. Oddly, I found the experience humiliating – for the better part of 24 hours, I could only watch and not contribute to a theatrical production. The fact that said production was a vital, timely piece of social commentary made everything better and worse – I was happy to be there, but damn, I wanted to work.
The 24 Hour Plays is the project of former classmates, who have now turned the operation over to a new generation. Six playwrights, six directors, and 24 actors gather on Sunday night, along with technical personnel and boxes of donuts and bagels. Everyone brings a prop, a costume, and an anecdote – a story, a bit, something they’ve always wanted to do on stage, or maybe hope not to do. The actors leave, the playwrights and directors divvy up the performers, and everyone goes home. The playwrights stay up all night, creating brand new pieces to be performed the next evening. On Monday morning, the actors and directors return; the new works have been copied and bound. Everyone learns the name of their play and who’s in it. They go off to rehearse.
Sarah and I sat with Zach Murphy, lighting designer and generous soul, who gamely answered every question we could think of. Each group had 90 minutes to rehearse on stage, followed by 20 minutes of tech later in the afternoon. Zach wrote lighting cues throughout the day, while Sarah and I watched the evolution of six new Works of Art.
Monday evening, a packed house, ad-hoc community, watched and participated in the one-time-only spectacle – cathartic, in many ways transcendent. Essentially, it was a collective middle finger at Trump, although each playwright, director and performer approached the task in their own way. Humor, drama, pathos – all combined into something wonderful and sublime.
It was the most serious, ballsy, committed theater I witnessed all year – nothing else came close. The 24-Hour Plays is unique because the creative process itself becomes a character – the audience is always aware that these are brand-new, off-the-cuff interpretations. I’m sure the product would have been much different if the election had gone a different way – but I’m not sure it would have been as moving, even as life-affirming. Best of the year, humiliation and all.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Players of Utica (Theater)
Or, The Play in Which My Daughter Was Raped.
The single best performance I watched in 2016 was Sarah’s, but don’t tell her. It wasn’t polished, for god’s sake, but it had an immediacy that knocked me, and lots of other people, off our feet. Susan and I were forbidden from attending, but we’d arranged a surprise 16th birthday party for Sarah on the final Saturday of the run. At curtain call, the audience sang Happy Birthday, then we had cake in the lobby. Hana Meyers directed the production. In retrospect, I wish I’d seen it a few more times.
The Gondoliers, Earlville Opera House (Theater)
Or, The Operetta Too Few People Saw.
I produced The Gondoliers, my second Gilbert & Sullivan, at The Earlville Opera House, in August 2016. I recorded and edited a video of the show, which deserves to be watched – the cast rose to the material, sometimes in spite of themselves. (At least one cast member told his friends not to come.)
I lost money, although not as much as on some productions. After the final curtain, we struck the show and loaded out; I went home and posted the video; then Susan, Sarah and I struck out on a tour of Cape Cod, to scatter my mother’s ashes. Bittersweet summer.
Four months later, I love this group and what we made.
iPad Pro (Technology)
For the past eight years, I’ve sung almost every week as cantor at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church. I thought I’d need to give it up, because my increasingly poor eyesight made it just about impossible to see the music on my stand. The iPad Pro with the forScore app allowed me to continue. The responsive, light iPad Pro also became my default reader for the NY Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, as well as most novels I read this year. It also renders a readable lighting plot – in other words, the tablet computer I’ve been waiting for. Technology that Just Works, the best kind.
Netflix wins. Constantly surprising, eye-opening drama – as addictive as Stranger Things, but for grown-ups.
The Americans (Television)
Amazon Prime provides free shipping and access to hundreds of great movies and TV shows. The Americans just finished its fourth season, but I’m just 4 episodes in – the most layered, thought-provoking drama I watched all year. Keri Russell is a post-modern badass bitch, entirely self-actualized in a way that feels historically correct, despite cultural artifacts to the contrary.
Bruce Springsteen, my favorite musical artist, wrote a book I enjoyed despite myself. It was his depiction of a family that inspired him to seek medical relief (for depression) that prompted me to schedule my own doctor appointment in the fall. I know this guy so well, I’m sick of him; but he keeps surprising me. This is a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred bio – accompanied by the official Chapter and Verse greatest-hits release, and the even-better live album HSBC Arena, Buffalo, NY 11/22/09. (Iconic saxophonist Clarence Clemmons’ last show.) I attended my ninth Springsteen show last February, my third by myself; one of the “River” shows, where that album was performed in its entirety. An emotional workout, and a continuation of the most remarkable artistic career ever. Despite where I was in my own life (then and now), I was pleased to attend; YES DESPITE the ticket price and the absurd time commitment.
Blue & Lonesome, The Rolling Stones (Music)
Turn up the volume. The Stones at their most vital – twelve tracks, 43 minutes. The closest thing to a legit time machine all year; somehow better than the originals, because who knew experience (and expertise) counts?
Literally about time machines, and pretty silly, but a great post-modern potboiler nevertheless.
That’s nine. I need ten, right? I don’t think I’ve attended a single movie in the past year, former projectionist and cinephile that I am. When my mother died, I used my non-inheritance to buy a 60-inch flat-screen TV, which allowed me to avoid the incessantly texting cellphone users that have invaded cinemas; I was also able to forego too-loud, too-soft, too-indifferent presentations. I re-watched the Star Wars, Star Trek, Godfather, and Lord of the Rings movies at home, with my own adults-only concessions and technical adjustments. Which must combine for the last item – the future of movies. Representative of these, I watched The Walk, an absurd, and absurdly hopeful, movie about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high wire walk between New York’s twin towers. God, how pointless. Also, how goddam beautiful.