Politics played a role in Houston’s best theatrical productions of 2016

Relevance defined the stories we saw on stage this year. In 2016, the stakes felt higher, the act of theatergoing more urgent and art became an escape hatch from the turmoil of the world as much as way to make sense of it all.

Nearly everything we saw this year could be interpreted as responding to or reflecting the country’s current state, from the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry V,” which dealt with nationalism, and 4th Wall Theatre Company’s “True West,” which explored white male fragility, to even Broadway at the Hobby Center’s “Wicked,” which tackled discrimination in the vein of the anti-racism film “Zootopia.” Take look at Main Street Theater’s slate this year (“RFK,” “The Revolutionists,” “Red Hot Patriot,” “Wolf Hall”) and tell me it’s a coincidence every play was, essentially, political.

That’s why the best theater of 2016 was also the most culturally pertinent to 2016. Sure, a play’s quality shouldn’t depend only on its timeliness or topicality – leave that easy categorization to the marketers and pundits. And relevance is as subjective a rubric for art as any. But what is the point of art if it has nothing to add to the human conversation?

So, in the eyes of a critic and recent Houston transplant who has seen as much as he could from July to December, here are my votes for the best productions and performances of 2016 in Houston:

1. “Buried Child,” Catastrophic Theatre: During a year that felt strangely disconnected from a coherent sense of reality, “Buried Child,” with its brutal secrets and hints at magical realism, served as both tonic and sweet poison for these times. With Geoffrey Muller’s superbly unsettling score and Jeff Miller’s direction, this brown-hued portrait of family decay came to life like corn out of a barren field.

2. “In the Heights,” Theatre Under the Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical was also part of artistic advisor Sheldon Epps’ attempt to rejigger TUTS for 2016 (replacing “Grease”). With soaring melodies and an interweaving story about young Latinos in a neighborhood facing gentrification, “In the Heights” was the perfect indicator of a more relevant company.

3. “Hand to God,” Alley Theatre: Though the acting in “Hand to God” wasn’t perfect, the play itself remains one of the best cocktails of drama, comedy and commentary this year. And the ultimate legacy of the play about a Satanic puppet might be the Alley Theatre cementing its relationship with Texas playwright Rob Askins, who writes quintessentially-Texas plays like none other currently working in the field.

4. “Song About Himself,” Catastrophic Theatre: Mickle Maher’s minimalist ode to poetry and intimacy in a post-apocalyptic wasteland was as cryptic as the world in which it took place. One of the more challenging pieces of the year, “Song About Himself” was “Black Mirror” meets “Waiting for Godot,” a supremely unique vision of technology delivered through a minimalist approach.

5. “Mother****** with the Hat,” Obsidian Theater: One of the most underrated shows of 2016 was Obsidian Theater’s “Mother,” by Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis, a daring exploration of alcoholism. Nearly everyone’s lives, including mine, have been touched by alcoholism by way of family, friends or romantic partners. The story seemed to have been written – and acted – by people who knew the disease intimately. Oh, it was also one of the funniest shows of the year.

6. “Remote Houston,” Alley Theatre

Ponder life and death in a East Houston cemetery. Explore social dynamics by dancing on the METRO. Applaud a group of strangers on Main Street, blurring the lines between theater and reality. See an otherwise-inaccessible view of Houston at the Chase Tower’s 60th floor Sky Lobby. These were just some of the unforgettable moments of “Remote Houston,” an interactive tour of the city led by a sentient robot who speaks to you through a headset. The Alley Theatre excelled in helping deliver a live theater experience that also promoted the city’s walkable neighborhoods.

7. Plays tackling race

Both 14 Pews’ “Dialogues on Grace” and the Landing Theatre’s “The Redemption Series” were nontraditional concepts centered around pushing forward our national conversation on race. Each explored pain and featured vignettes based on real-life events. Though the shows lacked the polish and spectacle of, say, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Alley, they offered something else: truly contemporary theater. Props to 14 Pews’ Cressandra Thibodeaux and the Landing Theatre’s David Rainey for pushing for this kind of programming.

Houston’s Best Theatrical Performances 2016

Greg Dean as Tilden in “Buried Child”

Dean’s sputtering Tilden reminded me of two other silent-but-knowing characters in theater: The senile Momo from “The Humans” and the mute Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” outcasts who blended into the scenery while still actively participating in each moment, waiting for their time to explode to the surface. Dean did this with a mastery of body language and the eerie cadence of a prophet.

Emily Skinner as the Witch in “Into the Woods”

Skinner didn’t need to fill the shoes of Bernadette Peters, who played the Witch in the original Broadway run. She brought her own pair. Skinner’s elegance, humor and vigor only blossomed when she sang “Children Will Listen,” in the most potent musical showcase of the year.

Joel Sandel as Robert Kennedy in “RFK”

Sandel’s portrayal of RFK gave this one-man show a sense of gravitas and charm fit for America’s best-known family. Rather than caricature of a political figure, Sandel turned the play into an examination of grief, self-doubt and the clash between idealism and pragmatism.

Bree Welch as Marie Antoinette in “The Revolutionists”

Welch took a broad approach to farce and turned Lauren Gunderson’s play about feminist French revolutionists into a rip-roaring affair. Welch’s big hair and bigger voice made Main Street Theater’s production a triumph.

Luis Galindo as Jackie in “The Mother****** with the Hat”

What a challenge it must have been to play a broken man who tries, fails and tries again to be a good man. Galindo leapt from mournful quietude to explosive rage in his raw portrayal of an alcoholic.

Joel Grothe as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”

It takes an actor of unusual stamina and dedication to star in a six-hour play. Grothe anchored Hilary Mantel’s lush drama about royal intrigue with a steady yet kinetic presence.

Candice D’Meza as Shelly in “Buried Child”

D’Meza’s ferocity as an outsider thrown into a troubled family was tempered by a looming sense of fear. Her presence made the play relatable and modern, as well as highlighting the true violence of “Buried Child.”