Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The year's best in theatre

Wait a minute! We haven't said good-bye to 2007 yet!

These are the days when "10 best" lists roam the earth - and as usual, most represent a weird effort at audience-segment-spanning. Said lists are strange beasts for a second reason - their limit at (or expansion to) a headline-friendly "ten" makes for weird judgment calls at the cut-off. Lastly, they tend to award favors to the well-connected (does anyone really think King of the Jews was any good?). So I'm going to ignore the custom of the country, and just cite what I thought were the best productions I saw in 2007, however many that may be.

But first, a few thoughts on some of the year's major stories -

The Changing of the Guard - the ART, Huntington, and North Shore all lost their artistic leadership this year. The North Shore was the first to announce a replacement - Barry Ivan - with the Huntington recently following suit by appointing Peter Dubois, late of New York's Public Theater. Both seemed solid choices grounded in the culture and tradition of each theatre (although Ivan's inaugural production as A.D. at North Shore, Les Miserables, proved a disappointment), so it seems unlikely the change of the guard will lead to much disruption in the status quo. The ART search, however, drags on as the one possible wild card - although with the elimination of avant entrepreneuress Anne Bogart from the running, there's a sense that a more conservative choice may be in the offing; certainly Woodruff's vision of Artistic Director as rock-and-roll impresario seems kaput (but fear not, Dresden Dolls, the ICA seems ready to take up the mantle). Meanwhile new Harvard prez Drew Faust has announced a re-assessment of the role of theatre at Harvard. Stay tuned.

Our Edifice Complex - 2007 was a year for new theatres - there's a gleaming new glass box at the ICA and a po-mo auditorium at Harvard's renovated New College Theatre (formerly the Hasty Pudding, at left). Both, however, are slight disappointments. The ICA is fine for its roster of World Music concerts (despite so-so acoustics), but dance there has proved a little problematic (Mark Morris practically stormed out in a huff during his group's performances there), and when the shades are drawn and you can't see the skyline, you realize how banal the space really is. The New College Theatre at Harvard is actually even more boring, despite its blood-red palette; tall as a canyon, with strange vents above serving as pseudo-decor, the space seems unable to make up its mind whether it's a theatre or a lecture hall.

The Conversation - Blogging on Boston culture seemed to take at least one step back with every step forward. We lost the acerbic, erudite Will Stackman to cancer at the end of last spring, and no new blogger has emerged to fill the gap. Larry Stark still keeps the home fires burning over at Theater Mirror, where he occasionally publishes new writers, but elsewhere fresh faces were few and far between. A new theatre blog, Word on the Street, started strong but then sputtered to a halt, while The Arts Fuse, featuring former WGBH poobah Bill Marx, all but went haywire, yammering away about the Matter Pollocks in between ponderous assessments of such up-to-the-minute figures as Edmund Wilson and John Coltrane. Meanwhile the print media moved into the space aggressively; you can't really call The Exhibitionist a blog, for example - it's too obviously a brand projection of the Globe, Geoff Edgers may be a nice guy, but he's not much of a critic, and too often it's simply a forum for press releases - but it's probably the biggest "blog" around, and I suppose in some ways makes up for the creeping loss of arts coverage in the Globe itself. So much for the promise of the Internet - it seems sometimes to boil down to just me and trusty Art Hennessey!

(And outside of theatre, Beantown cultural blogging seemed even more anemic. Not counting the sites connected with the print media, or presenters like Celebrity Series, for instance, I can't really think of a blog devoted to dance or classical music. If anybody knows of one, please clue me in!)

It's a Scandal, Such a Scandal - The shenanigans over at the Wang - sorry, the CitiCenter - finally caught up with its administration in a series of Globe articles. The Attorney General has let it be known that nothing illegal has actually gone down - still, the picture of outrageous executive pay, insiders getting plum jobs, and declining programming is not a pretty one. A shake-up is still in order, and potential donors should keep their checkbooks in their pockets until one is announced.

Have I left anything out? Probably. The Wilbur is in a kind of limbo, the Boston Foundation wants small arts organizations to close, and I'm sure there's something else I've forgotten entirely. But tempus fidgets, okay? So, without further ado -

There were six, not ten, great productions in Boston last year, and for the first time in awhile, none of them was by a small or mid-size theatre (except a benefit not on the regular season schedule). The ART had one striking success in Robert Woodruff's swan song, Britannicus, which was probably the most intellectually challenging (and rewarding) production of the year. When it comes to pure stagecraft, however, the laurels would have to be divided between the tour of Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Cherry Jones, and the revival of Present Laughter, featuring Victor Garber, under Nicholas Martin's direction at the Huntington. The Re-Invention Award would have to go to the tour of John Doyle's thrillingly stripped-down Sweeney Todd (left), which was strong enough to survive a weak turn by its lead (luckily he had Judy Kaye to back him up). The Huntington also staged a powerful production of a play which many people seemed to want to pretend was dated, David Rabe's Streamers (yeah, I'm sticking by it). Finally, SpeakEasy Stage offered the best time I had all year (in a theatre) with their benefit evening, "Sorry, Wrong Number."

There were at least five more local productions which were almost as good. The Lyric had a winner in Scott Edmiston's clever production of Miss Witherspoon, a rather thin pastiche from Christopher Durang (and Edmiston scored again at the ART, with the Noël Coward pastiche A Marvelous Party). Company One made the most of Noah Haidle's sweet-n-sour Mr. Marmalade, and the striking design choices of David R. Gammons put over the Actors' Shakespeare Project's all-male Titus Andronicus. And I'll throw in the energetically hokey Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the North Shore, just because I'm a sucker for cartwheels.

And whaddya know, that makes 10 shows. Oops, no - 11. But wait, there's more - tomorrow I'll take a look back at 2007 in art, music and dance.


  1. Thanks for the shout out.

    I'll second the prod for Mr. Word on the Street to continue.

    I didn't get to see "Doubt" or "Sweeney Todd." (Although I did once get to see Forbidden Broadway's little skewering of the spare Sweeney staging, before it was apparently cut for the rest of the Boston run!)

  2. No worries- for every time you've been wishing i'd update, i've been scolding myself twice for not. my life has been taken over by school (dumb, i know, but people tell me to stick with it, or something), but my only new year's resolution is to KEEP UP. i have a handful of drafts of shows i've seen while on my (pitiful) leave of abscence (including LCT's Cymbeline), and will hopefully keep ye olde blog updated with the unrelenting january theater calendar. I'll start will the current stuff (ART's Copenhagen and Huntington's Third, which I saw yesterday), and fill in my backlog when I find the time. prod received.

    ps- has anyone heard ANYTHING about BTW Angels in America (besides their September casting of Susan Nitter as Mama Pitt)? they haven't put up a press release, and there's been no pre-show features on it- i'm starting to think it doesn't exist...