To continue my survey of the best of the year, I've once more singled out those local productions that I'd happily have squeezed into my top 10, if only there was room. So in no particular order, here are the Top 20 of 2012 -
Hamlet - The Shakespeare's Globe production (above) of this warhorse (which cantered through ArtsEmerson) hardly counted as a full account of Hamlet; but then it had clearly been trimmed to the dimensions of what you might have seen at the play's premiere, before any scholarly exegesis had built up around the text. Thus the actors didn't realize they were in the central classic of the Western canon, and so their performances were swift, funny, a bit hammy, and always wicked-smart - and pitched to the crowd, not the critics. Buoyed by a zippy lead performance from Michael Benz, this production did something unusual for Hamlet - it charmed.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - The first of a trio of quality productions from the Huntington, this moving version of August Wilson's breakout play showcased a breakout performance from local actor Jason Bowen (right). And the rest of the sterling cast - despite a few questionable flourishes by director Liesl Tommy - reminded us again and again of Wilson's greatness. As the production wrapped the Huntington's long commitment to this playwright's "Century Cycle," there was also a bittersweet edge to its final bow.
The Luck of the Irish - Kristen Greenidge's evocation of the lingering effects of Boston apartheid was a landmark, if only because it was the first play staged by a major company to cover this central fact of life in the Athens of America (somehow everybody else missed it!). Greenidge's text proved bumpy here and there, but the strong cast at the Huntington put it over, and at her best the playwright turned a harrowing mirror on our hometown's cruel codes of class as well as race - and served notice that yes, Boston theatre can actually be about Boston.
Good People - Once more the Huntington turned its sights on questions of race and class in the Hub (what are they thinking?), and delivered a bittersweet valentine to the good people of Southie in David Lindsay-Abaire's Broadway hit. More polished than Luck, its power was somewhat muted by a key miscasting; but homegirls Karen MacDonald and Nancy E. Carroll were peerless in their evocation of the Southie sisterhood.
Art - The New Rep is always at its best when it's at its most intimate. I was surprised, therefore, that the company presented Yasmina Reza's cerebral comedy of manners on their sweeping mainstage - but luckily Antonio Ocampo-Guzman's production still had the subtle appeal you'd expect in their downstairs space. And the cast - local stalwarts Doug Lockwood, Robert Walsh, and Robert Pemberton - were all at the top of their respective games.
Guys and Dolls - The North Shore Music Theatre produced a big, bold, satisfying version (above) of this enduring classic last fall. No new interpretation, no experimentation - just Frank Loesser served straight up, no chaser. Which is just how we like it.
The Voice of the Turtle - Merrimack Rep has long been committed to reviving small-scale American classics, and the results have been reliably strong. This one was exquisite. You may have heard of Voice of the Turtle as one of the longest-running productions in Broadway history; this gently luminous version, directed by Carl Forsman, made the reasons for that success quietly clear.
Fen - Whistler in the Dark found its way through Caryl Churchill's strange bog of a play, in which past and present mix in a dark meditation on personal freedom in a world circumscribed by history. Director Meg Taintor coaxed a surprising level of subtlety from a stable of Whistler's best talent in this haunting production.
Polaroid Stories - The fringe came together (in this joint effort from Heart&Dagger, Happy Medium, and Boston Actors' Theater) to make the most of Naomi Iizuka's mean-streets version of The Metamorphoses (I know, Ovid again - what's up with that?). Under the joint direction of Joey Pelletier and Elise Weiner Wulff, an enormous cast of fringe players gave their most committed performances to date in a production of astonishing maturity.
Floyd Collins - The other big news on the fringe was the rise of Moonbox Productions, which made a splash with their second production, Adam Guettel's early musical Floyd Collins. The earnest confidence and high quality of the show put Moonbox on the map, and did the same for its star, Phil Tayler (left), who demonstrated astonishing versatility across the season in productions of Avenue Q and Of Mice and Men.
Well, that makes a full twenty, which means it's a wrap for 2012. But who knows - perhaps I will see one of the best productions of 2013 in just a week or two!