It seems just about every critic has put up a "Best of 2009" list already - and all of them, frankly, have struck me as strange. Many include some of the shows I'm including - but most are also studded with productions I wanted to walk out of. Were "friends and family," as it were, involved? Or is this a case of "there's no accounting for taste"? I do wonder if many local critics simply did not attend the productions I'd put at the top of the heap - I notice a full half of my selections appear on none of the print critics' lists (all of them slightly out of town, or at the smaller theatres). My guess is that as print coverage shrinks, theatregoers should expect to see more and more of the best shows in Boston receiving little or no coverage at all.
The Globe's Don Aucoin also offered a few ruminations on the trends of the past year - although to my mind, he missed the actual trends entirely; his main point was that Boston's theatrical life now depends on its mid-sized theatres, a critical observation made perhaps ten years too late. (To be fair, Aucoin's been out of town for longer than that.) Some startling trends, of course, did emerge in 2009, but you won't read about them in print, trust me - simply naming them could be considered "controversial." Chief among these was the seismic shift in our college-based regional theatres: both the Huntington and the A.R.T. began to style themselves as straightforward commercial producers. Other events of interest included the rising artistic quality of our "peripheral" regional theatres, the Merrimack and Gloucester Stage, both of which had stronger years than any theatre in town. In these trying economic times, our theatrical "fringe" actually seemed to get stronger, too, with entertaining productions fielded by Whistler in the Dark, Bad Habit Productions, and Metro Stage. And a new director - M. Bevin O'Gara - emerged on the local circuit, which has been coasting on the likes of Scott Edmiston and Spiro Veloudos for years. These points are, of course, all fodder for future posts; in the meantime I should note that my own list has one eccentricity: it's a "top 8" rather than a "top 10" list. But really, why should we stick to that magic "10" when it doesn't quite fit? Instead, I've included a number of honorable mentions which struck me as highly enjoyable, but still slightly more flawed in one way or another than my favored octet.
So let's call these the very best Boston productions of 2009 - and without further ado:
Dark Play, or Stories for Boys (above) - Apollinaire Theatre. Carlos Murillo's script didn't quite deliver on its intriguing, true-crime premise (of a spurned gay boy who engineered his own murder on the Internet), but with an expert cast drawn largely from Emerson College (Mark Vashro and Erez Rose, above), director Danielle Fauteux Jacques put her off-the-grid theatre on the map with one of the most disturbing, yet smoothly entertaining, productions of the year.
Humble Boy - Publick Theatre. British playwright Charlotte Jones did riffs on Stoppard that proved of higher quality than the old boy has been able to manage himself in recent years. A large ensemble - sparked by Nigel Gore and Nancy E. Carroll, under the direction of Diego Arciniegas - made this highly literate sex comedy a witty, if meandering, pleasure.
The Corn is Green - Huntington Theatre. This was Nicholas Martin's swan song at his former theatre. And boy, do we miss him. Corn wasn't quite top-flight Martin, but it still bore his imprint in its intelligence, precision casting, and complex orchestration of mood. In his heyday he had no local peer, and he still doesn't.
Photo by Meghan Moore.
A Moon for the Misbegotten (above) and The Seafarer - Merrimack Rep scored twice this season (and a lesser play, Heroes, almost made my honorable mention list), with two bittersweet Irish plays of damnation and redemption. Director Edward Morgan did the honors with Moon, while the Merrimack's own artistic director, Charles Towers, helmed The Seafarer. Both productions, however, showcased performances by the man who may be the region's best comic actor, Gordon Joseph Weiss (above, with Kate Udall).
Sins of the Mother - Gloucester Stage. This summer Israel Horovitz came back with a roar to Gloucester Stage, which had already been enjoying a season that would have been the envy of most local theatres (two other productions, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Goat, made my Honorable Mentions list). The piece was classic Horovitz, with local Gloucester color camouflaging a cold tale of vengeance, but a strong cast (with Robert Walsh, below) brought fresh blood to the telling.
The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame LeMonde - Tennessee Williams Festival, at Charlestown Working Theater. Director Davis Robinson and a crack cast (largely drawn from the little-seen Beau Jest Moving Theatre) found the perfect tone for this sick little one-act - a world premiere! - in which Williams stripped away all his straight affectations and crafted a sexually explicit, still-shocking piece of gay theatre of the absurd.
The Savannah Disputation - SpeakEasy Stage. The two leading ladies of Boston theatre, Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum (below), were in top form in Evan Smith's sweetly savage battle royale between Catholics and "Christians." Director Paul Daigneault kept things sardonic but sympathetic, and the supporting cast of Carolyn Charpie and Timothy Crowe proved almost as sparkling as the stars. I saw this one twice, and loved it even more the second time around.
So there you have it - my "very best" list of 2009. Tomorrow - the year's Honorable Mentions.