There are few more daunting high-wire acts in the theater than a solo performance.
No one there to catch you when you fall, no scene partner to jog your memory with a snatch of dialogue when you drop a line: At moments like that, one truly is the loneliest number.
Yet plenty of ambitious actors chose to go it alone on Boston-area stages in 2022, and the result was some of the year’s most bracing and memorable performances.
Indeed, the year had barely started when a highlight of 2022 emerged: Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s autobiographical “Mr. Parent.”
Conceived with and directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and scripted by Melinda Lopez with Parent, “Mr. Parent” chronicled his experiences as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools for five years at the same time he was trying to build an acting career.
Parent spoke from deep in the heart, and he was relentlessly honest about the personal and professional tradeoffs required. There were tears in his eyes near the end of his performance as he confessed his feelings of guilt about leaving his students, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. Rather than focus on his triumphs — he’s one of Boston’s best and busiest actors — Parent reproached himself for stepping away from “a space where I could do so much good to dress up in costumes and play pretend for money.”
There is a certain freedom to the solo form, illustrated near the end of this year by two outstanding, and very different, productions.
Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett,” a production by Octopus Theatricals presented by ArtsEmerson, covered some complex terrain, befitting his subject, the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett.
But “On Beckett” was the furthest thing from an exercise in eat-your-spinach esoterica. Irwin explored his own “love and hate” relationship to Beckett as an actor and a reader, his own struggles, while trying to untangle some of the riddles of Beckett’s plays and prose works for the audience. When humor was needed to elucidate the matter, Irwin unfurled some of his own matchless clowning skills.
(Irwin is not done with Beckett. Starting next month, he and John Douglas Thompson will star in an off-Broadway production of “Endgame” at the Irish Repertory Theatre.)
At Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” adapted by John Minigan from Washington Irving’s story and directed by Weylin Symes, served as a sturdy vehicle for good old-fashioned storytelling
It also served as a showcase for the indefatigable Paul Melendy. As he nimbly transitioned among 15 different characters, prominently including ill-fated schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, Melendy endowed each of them with a distinctive personality.
Theater is a collaborative art, and of course directors often play significant roles in solo productions. But it’s the actor up there on the stage who has to take that leap into the unknown. For the audience, there can be a slight holding of the breath, a slight tingle of tension and excitement. Can he or she pull it off? When a performer does so, it’s exhilarating. When they can’t, there’s no one else to blame.
Trans playwright-actor Travis Alabanza built a useful tension in “Burgerz,” at ArtsEmerson.
Inspired by an attack on Alabanza on Waterloo Bridge in London — a hamburger was thrown at them while someone shouted a transphobic slur, and more than 100 onlookers did nothing — “Burgerz” became an exploration of anti-trans violence and the wider societal indifference that essentially gives permission for that violence. Alabanza did not let the audience off the hook. At the end of “Burgerz,” they challenged an audience member to throw food at them.
Other solo shows also combined personal experience with an examination of social issues in 2022. At the Emerson Paramount Center in May, ArtsEmerson presented “Sea Sick,” science journalist Alanna Mitchell’s one-woman show. Mitchell recounted her explorations of the ocean — including a deep dive on a small vessel — while sustaining the destructive impact of climate change on the world’s oceans as a narrative through-line.
Comedian Phoebe Potts recounted her struggles to adopt a baby, finding room for humor in her “comic look at the agony of adoption” while also shedding light on flaws in the adoption process, in “Too Fat for China.” The one-woman show, which had a workshop performance at Gloucester Stage Company in 2019, was presented in April at Boston’s Modern Theatre and Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts.
Chazz Palminteri’s eventful youth in New York City was the subject of “A Bronx Tale,” which Palminteri performed solo at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in October. At Great Barrington Public Theater in June, longtime Boston favorite Will LeBow premiered “The Bard The Beat The Blues,” a solo play about LeBow’s journey to a career on the stage, including his immigrant roots and his experiences in Greenwich Village. LeBow told his story with music and Beat poetry.
Whatever the approach, a solo work must be compelling enough to sustain interest on its own, because the genre seldom contains elaborate sets or other theatrical bells and whistles. When I saw the Broadway production of Gabriel Byrne’s “Walking with Ghosts,” about Byrne’s upbringing in Ireland and the early stages of his acting career, I was nagged by that “Is that all there is?” feeling. (Apparently others reacted in similar fashion: “Walking with Ghosts” struggled at the box office and closed more than a month before its scheduled end date.)
Early practitioners of solo performance built their shows around historical figures: Hal Holbrook as the title figure in “Mark Twain Tonight!” Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” James Whitmore as Harry Truman in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!”
In a similar vein, Sharon Lawrence (”NYPD Blue”) portrayed Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in Robin Gerber’s “The Shot” in June at Great Barrington Public Theater. Gerber’s solo drama sought to paint a fuller picture of Graham by focusing not just on the journalistic triumphs she is known for, such as the Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal, but on what she had to overcome, particularly her abusive marriage to Phil Graham.
Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater flipped the script, providing the unusual spectacle of a famous solo piece transformed into an ensemble piece.
In the theatrical equivalent of reverse engineering, playwright-actress Anna Deavere Smith revised her landmark “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″ from a one-woman show in which Smith played dozens of characters into a play for five actors.
So the ART’s “Twilight” offered not just a multiplicity of voices but a multiplicity of faces. In a way, forsaking the solo form served as further proof of its flexibility.