Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 was an extraordinary year, probably the best for Boston theatre in my memory, and as I looked back over its most remarkable shows, I realized I couldn't limit myself to a "Top 10" list this time around (sorry, Art!). I tried to, believe me I did; but first I had to go to a dozen ("The Top 12!") then a baker's dozen, and then (speaking of bakers), I realized I just couldn't ignore the superbly-produced Annie Baker festival, even if I had some doubts about its playwright; that brought me to a "Top 15!" and even then I found I was slighting some exemplary shows.

So this year there are twenty, count' em, twenty Best-of-Boston picks from the Hub Review. And as you survey the list, I think a few trends will be apparent. First, this was the year the Huntington re-asserted itself as the greatest theatre in the region (four of my top picks are Huntington shows), and the ART continued its decline into irrelevance. (I know they sell lots of tickets, but so does Blue Man Group.) And in the meantime, ArtsEmerson has snatched away their highbrow artistic mantle and demonstrated that challenging theatre can be popularly engaging, too (a trick that even in its heyday the ART never really pulled off).

2010 was also the year that Boston demonstrated once again, (but this time conclusively), that the scene had matured to such an extent that it's no longer dominated by these two (or perhaps now three) behemoths. There was great work everywhere this year - indeed, I think there were more high-quality productions in 2010 than in any single year of the past quarter century. Yet a surprising number of productions on this list depended on a single playwright and a single performer - the playwright was Alan Ayckbourn (not Annie Baker), with sterling productions of his best plays up at Gloucester and down at Trinity; and the performer was the great Karen MacDonald, who appeared in three of my Top 20, totally dominated one, and was the sole actress in another. I think that's a Boston first.

Well, enough preamble! Without further ado, here are Boston's Theatrical Top 20 for 2010:

1. All My Sons - Huntington Theatre. Probably the most emotionally charged evening of theatre I've seen in years. A powerhouse cast, led by the riveting Karen MacDonald in the performance of a lifetime, brought Arthur Miller's American tragedy to hair-raising life.

2. Stick Fly - Huntington Theatre. Once Lydia Diamond stopped pretending she was a slave girl and began writing what she actually knew, she penned one of the most accomplished plays of the past several years. Big and smart and audience-friendly, Stick Fly turned a magnifying glass on the intersection of race and class in this country, and with the help of a sterling cast led by Nikkole Salter, demonstrated that the "traditional" well-made play is probably still the best way to probe the way we live now.

3. Bus Stop - Huntington Theatre. Nicky Martin back in form, conducting William Inge's brilliant set of variations on loneliness in a snowbound diner. Simply a classic version of a classic play. Plus, of course, Karen MacDonald.

4. Adding Machine - SpeakEasy Stage offered a striking version of this flawed musical - so striking that much of its imagery (and many of its performances) linger in my mind months after the curtain fell. This production marked a significantly darker turn than usual for this company. More, please.

5. The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead - Merrimack Rep. This is the third Best-of-Boston production that featured Ms. MacDonald - although this time, under the sensitive direction of Melia Bensussen, she was the whole show - so how could it go wrong?

6. Into the Woods - Reagle Music Theatre. This production marked a leap in sophistication for the former Reagle Players, and showcased an astonishing turn by Broadway vet Rachel York. But bizarrely, amid its triumph, Reagle fired its director, Stacey Stephens! The organization then endured another blow with the sudden death of its longtime PR maven, Frank Roberts. The company has soldiered on, although 2011 may prove a pivotal year for it.

7. 4:48 Psychosis - Gamm Theatre. Casey Seymour (at right) proved a revelation in this haunting, harrowing production of Sarah Kane's last play, a frighteningly honest look at one woman's losing battle with suicidal depression. 

8. Table Manners - Gloucester Stage. Practically perfect in every way. A superb cast, under the nuanced direction of Eric Engel, made an eloquent case for Alan Ayckbourn as a major playwright.

9. Absurd Person Singular - Trinity Rep. More Ayckbourn; this time broader and bordering on caricature - but caricature cut with a scalpel. Featuring the best work in years from Trinity stalwart Anne Scurria.

10. Tales from Ovid - Whistler in the Dark. The Whistlers took to the air - literally dangling from the rafters of the Factory Theater in aerial silks - in what may be the most poetically thrilling production I've ever seen on the fringe. Director Meg Taintor and a fearless cast conjured one memorable image after another. There are rumors this production may have a second life at a larger local venue; let's hope so.

11. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune - New Rep. Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton found every rueful emotional note in Terrence McNally's famous two-hander. It's been a particularly strong year for Gottlieb, who also delivered eloquent performances in Not Enough Air and In the Next Room.

12. Nicholas Nickleby - Lyric Stage. Spiro Veloudos pulled off his biggest logistical challenge yet in this two-part, six-hour-plus version of David Edgar's translation of the Dickens classic. Perhaps somewhat uneven, it nevertheless caught the spirit of the sprawling novel, and in these days of shorter and shorter new scripts, basically delivered four shows for the price of two.

13. Aftermath - ArtsEmerson. This visiting production was not for those Americans who can't stand a good long look in the mirror. A quietly devastating depiction of the wreckage we have made of Iraq, this script never raised its voice, because it didn't have to. A reminder of what theatre is supposed to do - that is, bring us the news about ourselves, however troubling it may be.

The Annie Baker Festival -

14. Circle Mirror Transformation - Huntington Theatre.

15. Body Awareness - SpeakEasy Stage.

16. The Aliens - Company One (at left). 

Even the New York Times, bless its provincial little heart, was impressed by the high quality of these three productions. Alas, together they kind of disproved their own thesis, I'm afraid - they demonstrated that Annie Baker is a very promising young playwright who has yet to pen a major play. But doesn't that kind of accuracy constitute its own form of success? I think it does, and I look forward to hearing more from Ms. Baker.

17. The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later - Arts Emerson. A thought-provoking and beautifully-acted follow-up to the most important piece of political theatre of the last generation.

18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - North Shore Music Theatre. Not one of my favorite musicals, but if you're going to be cleverly crass, you'd better kick some serious ass, and this amazing cast certainly did, in a surprise hit for the reborn North Shore.

19. 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Lyric Stage. Did we need another version of this quirky perennial? Probably not. But the Lyric production's top-notch cast and slick direction made you forget all about that.

20. Timon of Athens - Bill Barclay's broad but clever take on Shakespeare's most fragmentary tragedy delivered the best production the Actors' Shakespeare Project has done in some time. Featuring a remarkable turn from Allyn Burrows as the Bard's bitter anti-hero.

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