Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Boston Productions of 2011

Candide at the Huntington

2011.  To be perfectly honest - it wasn't all that great a year (and I'm not talking about just the weather).  In 2010, my "best of" list ran to 20 productions.  This year - well, I've got a solid top 10, with maybe 7 more honorable mentions - but after that the pickings get slim.  This is partly due to the fact that many of our mid-size houses, like SpeakEasy and New Rep (neither of which saw an easy year in the back office), seemed to be struggling against a pretty-good-but-not-great glass ceiling in terms of artistic quality.  And of course the ART remained a vast, revenue-driven wasteland, as I assume it will remain for the remaining years of Diane Paulus's contract (that is if it's not extended!).  We just have to get on with the culture without Harvard, I suppose.

On the plus side, however, the best productions of 2011 were the best we've seen in years - we saw one re-thinking of a classic-that-never-quite-came-together that seemed to work out every "problem" this famously troubled musical was ever diagnosed with.  And we saw the Arab Spring reflected in an up-to-the-minute production of Shakespeare that seemed to embody everything classical and political theatre should be.   These moments were absolutely thrilling - if they were the only highlights of the year, 2011 would still have been a year to remember.

Beyond those twin peaks of achievement (both basically imported, I think it's worth mentioning) there was a wealth of great musical productions this year - some familiar, some obscure,  some that amounted to radical re-thinkings, and at least one that was a precise historical reproduction.  And for the first time ever, I felt a company engage with questions of race in classic theatre in a productive way - no, not at Company One, but instead down at Trinity Rep, which mounted a renovation of His Girl Friday that had been cleverly cleansed (by John Guare) of its reactionary politics, as well as a brilliantly-acted production of Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, a script which wasn't quite up to the standard of the production devoted to it.  Which, as I think more about it, probably counts as a trend this year; I can't recall a new script I've seen recently that was compromised by the acting of its presentation - instead, I saw a lot of troubled plays elevated and energized by first-rate performances (although sometimes, as with Lynn Nottage's Ruined, even a first-rate cast couldn't quite lift a second-rate play into the Hub Review pantheon).

Elsewhere in the list you'll find productions by both the local and the Polish fringe, a bit of British frat-boy Shakespeare, and at least one new play by a prickly local author who once spent several installments of his blog ridiculing yours truly.  But then stranger things have happened.  So without further do, on to the best of 2011 -

The Top 10

Candide - Huntington Theatre

Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Candide (above) may well prove to be the production of the decade - it was up there with the likes of the original Nicholas Nickleby, or the current hit War Horse - that is to say, among the greatest theatre productions I've ever seen.   It was practically perfect in every way: great cast, great direction, great design - it was all there.  What was most startling was how director/adaptor Zimmerman, by discarding the various books that had been devised for the show over the years, and going back to Voltaire's original book, was able to weave a perfect theatrical frame for this legendary score, which included not only some of Leonard Bernstein's greatest music, but lyrics by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, and Richard Wilbur (some of them devised for a series of revivals). Thus it's not too much to claim the production was the culmination of over fifty years of theatrical effort; and the show's seeming inability to find a berth in New York provided yet another testament to how far quality standards have slipped in the Big Apple.

The Speaker's Progress
The Speaker's Progress - SABAB Theatre at Arts Emerson

It isn't often you realize you're watching the local debut of a global theatrical talent.  But that's what happened this fall, when Sulayman al-Bassam took the stage in his own  adaptation of Twelfth Night at ArtsEmerson. What ensued was an evening of challenging theatrical and political magic, enacted by a cast imbued with a superbly casual mastery of their craft.  Watching The Speaker's Progress, you could feel its political subtext shifting minute-to-minute, just as its creators must have felt as they developed its text during the Arab Spring.  I left the show with an undeniable feeling that the brilliant al-Bassam might be a theatrical conjurer on the level of Peter Brook.  But alas, from the reviews it was clear that our local elites - which generally under-covered, or misunderstood, the show - are going to have a little trouble with a democratic Arab consciousness emerging on our cultural stage.  So stay tuned for more on that front!

The Cripple of Inishmaan  - Druid Theatre at Arts Emerson

A number of highly-praised ArtsEmerson offerings proved either slightly disappointing (The Merchant of Venice, Angel Reapers) or downright disastrous (Dollhouse).  In between these high-concept misfires, however, you might have caught this brilliant production by the Druid Theatre (where Martin McDonagh got his start) which polished every facet of this cold little gem from that famously misanthropic author to a gleaming finish.  And for good measure, nestled in the midst of the pitch-perfect cast was our own Nancy E. Carroll  - so who could complain?

Clybourne Park - Trinity Rep

Bruce Norris's acidic Pulitzer Prize-winner turned out to be a recycled mix of Albee and Chappelle's Show (believe it or not) - but the cast at Trinity, under the subtle direction of Brian Mertes, proved so strong that they put the used goods over anyway.  Unfortunately you could still tell that there was little new here, save a concept that it seemed the author hoped might, all by itself, conjure something coherent out of received hip attitudes.  And its success represents yet another troubling example of the falling standards of the print critics - while the Trinity production, by way of contrast, represented yet another case of actors staving off the collective realization that our playwrights are rarely holding up their end of the dramatic bargain these days.

Oklahoma! - Reagle Music Theatre

Reagle proudly claims that it presents classic Broadway in its original form - and with this production of Oklahoma! it more than made good on that promise.  The physical production was drawn from a University of North Carolina research project which all but replicated the original costumes and sets; a long-time associate of choreographer Agnes de Mille was brought in to set her dances on the Reagle company; and top-notch Broadway talent was signed to sing the delightful score.  The results were unforgettable.

The Most Happy Fella - Gloucester Stage

The summer stage up in Gloucester isn't known for its musicals - but Eric Engel's remarkable production of The Most Happy Fella might have begun to change people's minds about that.  It didn't hurt that the musical itself is a lost treasure - a cornucopia of ravishing melody from one of Broadway's legends, Frank Loesser.  But Engel's nuanced chamber production - which featured many of our best local voices - seemed both perfectly scaled to the Gloucester space, and surprisingly true to Loesser's lyrical vision.

The Hotel Nepenthe

The Hotel Nepenthe - Actors' Shakespeare Project

Local luminary John Kuntz's best work in some time, this spooky mood piece toed an ever-shifting line between menace, mystery, and world-weary bemusement.  Under the direction of David R. Gammons, Kuntz himself led a sterling cast in a Twilight-Zone-style ramble over multiple pasts, presents and futures; the vignettes were individually tightly plotted, but only loosely connected - which somehow gave Kuntz just enough structure and just enough freedom, it seems, to hang onto his morbid focus without losing his wry sense of humor.

Caesarean Section - Teatr Czar at Charlestown Working Theater

Evocative.  Raw.  Haunting.  In this strangely compelling, often wordless mix of theatre and music, Poland's Teatr Czar seemed to revive before our eyes the exploratory spirit of Grotowski and his kindred spirits - and won another small coup for the scrappy, reliably-challenging Charlestown Working Theater.

Arabian Nights - Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater

The two resident companies at the Central Square Theater combined their talents for this new adaptation of the traditional tales by Dominic Cooke, and came up with a mesmerizing winner.  Designed by muralist David Fichter in splashy, saturated colors, and directed by Daniel Gidron with an eye to both comedy and suspense, this production was so strong you wished it could last a thousand nights and then some.

Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth - Whistler in the Dark

After a number of daring but not-quite-fully-realized productions, Whistler was back in form with this double bill from Stoppard (and finally began to get some serious attention from the print critics, too).  Smart performances and sharp (if lean) production design together made clear all the clever ramifications of "Dogg," the anarchic language the author invented to embody political (and generational) struggle. As long as Whistler is around, theatre for thinking people will still be found in Boston.

Living Together
And Seven More Honorable Mentions

His Girl Friday - Trinity Rep

This bright, broad re-invention of the classic movie (and its source, The Front Page) didn't have quite the razor-sharp ensemble that cut through Clybourne Park.  Yet it still managed to provide an object lesson in how to approach the vexed question of racist attitudes in vintage texts.

Living Together - Gloucester Stage

The second part of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests, featuring the same superb cast that lit up Table Manners, left everyone praying the same terrific team would be back next summer to pull off the final installment of the trilogy.

Comedy of Errors - Propeller at Huntington Theatre

Propeller's central gimmick - all-male Shakespeare, just as it was first performed - proved much less interesting than anticipated.  But their gonzo, frat-boy antics, groundling sexual obsessions, and (literally) bare-assed bravado definitely made for a lot of comedy, even if their conception of the Bard is basically in error.

The Exceptionals - Merrimack Rep

A disturbing social trend.  A calm, cool perspective on it.  If playwright Bob Clyman didn't quite seal the deal in his sly, sardonic take on what looks increasingly like modern eugenics, then Charles Towers's polished production almost convinced you he had.

The King and I and My Fair Lady - North Shore Music Theatre

Both these charming productions, like Oklahoma! (and in a way Candide), were a balm to those of us who love musical theatre as it was meant to be.  But alas, while both showcased divine leading ladies, and talented supporting casts, both were slightly compromised by adequate, but not glittering, turns from their marquee-name male stars.  Sigh. They were still intensely pleasurable, believe me.  And someday the North Shore will find a male TV star who can sing as well as dance - and then, watch out!

Three Viewings - New Rep

This occasionally smug but always damned clever trio of monologues (all set in a mortuary!) was elevated and electrified (like so much of this season) by its acting - particularly a stellar turn from local light Adrianne Krstansky.

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