Saturday, December 29, 2012

The best of Boston theatre in 2012

Well, what can I say . . . 2012 wasn't the end of the world.  So that was disappointing!

On the upside, it did prove a solid year for local theatre and performance art.  There were no big game-changers over the course of the past twelve months, various trends in the local scene simply continued . . . But a surprising number of sterling shows surfaced nonetheless - many of them at the Huntington, which by now has moved so far ahead of the local pack that it's in a class by itself (even as the ART, its former rival, was all but entirely eclipsed in intellectual terms by ArtsEmerson). There were also a clutch of stunning visiting productions, even as our larger theatres (again the Huntington and ArtsEmerson) began to showcase local talent more and more - and for the first time, I think, the fringe proved more artistically fertile than our mid-sized houses.

The great gap in the season (as usual) was its lack of engagement with our fraught political times. Theatre, which should be our most political art, is generally now our least political art.  I'm not sure what to do about that; but while I think about it, here are ten bouquets presented to those who created my best theatrical memories from the past year:

The  Andersen Project - easily the most intriguing and intellectually challenging work of the year, Robert Lepage's touring production was also among the most ravishing shows the Hub has ever seen (above).  In essence, Lepage has taken the pretentious kind of tableau vivant that we used to endure from the likes of Robert Wilson and turned it into actual drama - his cascades of visuals build with the depth and rhythm of a great text; indeed, The Andersen Project was probably the best new play of 2012.

War Horse - the global phenomenon came to Boston in a worthy touring model that obliterated any memory of the misbegotten Spielberg movie, and reminded people again of what theatre and theatre alone can do.  Unforgettable.

Private Lives and Betrayal -  The Huntington presented a half-dozen shows this year that would have made it onto the ten-best list of many a previous season (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Private Lives, Good People, Betrayal, and Our Town, for the record, with Luck of the Irish also a worthy contender).  Of these, I felt three had a slight edge - noting that two of them, Private Lives and Betrayal, shared a director, Maria Aitken.  Ms. Aitken specializes in plays with central roles she has played herself (in an earlier season she gave us Educating Rita, another of her starring vehicles); which I think makes her a kind of living argument for the ongoing relevance of the actor-director.

Our Town (above) - David Cromer finally brought his famously innovative staging of the familiar classic to the Huntington this winter - with a largely-local cast - and the results were both illuminating and devastating.  Indeed, I think in future it will be hard to imagine Our Town without Cromer's brilliant re-imagining of its final act. (There may still be a few tickets available, btw, as the production was extended through January).

Avenue Q - The Lyric struck gold with their take on this millennial stage perennial.  Director Spiro Veloudos had just the right comic sensibility for the material, the set was all but perfect, and the cast, anchored by Erica Spyres, John Ambrosino, and Phil Tayler, was just right.  No wonder it became one of the biggest hits in this theatre's history.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde - The fringe company Bad Habit Productions proved its award-winning staging of Arcadia was no fluke with a startlingly subtle version of this Moisés Kaufman historical pastiche.  Nothing really "new" here, just the finest large ensemble of the year, under the delicately firm direction of Liz Fenstermaker.

Tales from Ovid - Whistler in the Dark once more took to the air in its classic production of Ted Hughes' "translation" of Ovid - this time on the larger stage of ArtsEmerson, to wide acclaim and packed houses.  (Now all they need to do is tour this baby.)  It capped a solid year for this leading light of the fringe, which also presented a memorable production of Caryl Churchill's Fen last spring.

The Full Monty - It's unorthodox to include a student production in a 10-Best list, I know, but I simply couldn't ignore this infectiously energetic production (above) from the Boston Conservatory musical theatre program.  As directed by Laura Marie Duncan (who had been in the cast of the Broadway version, and clearly knew this show inside and out), it was simply the best musical I saw this year.

Daddy Long Legs - And the second best musical I saw was this charming entry from Merrimack Rep, illuminated by the delightful Megan McGinnis, and directed to simple perfection by the famous John Caird.  I make no claims for it as "art," but as an evening out it was pure delight.

Well, that's ten, right there - but wait, there's more; I'll continue with the 2012 "Top Twenty" in a later post.

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