Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Best of Boston Theatre, 2013

Wait, wait - before we forget all about the year that's gone!

Sigh. Can it really be 2014?

Well - yes, it can, so it's time to take a last minute look in the rear-view, and throw a few critical bouquets to the best of the theatrical year that's gone.

But before I do, I wanted to note that a small kerfuffle has arisen over somebody's else's "Best-Of" list - i.e., Don Aucoin's snarky dismissal of the theatrical year in the Globe. This has shocked many, as Aucoin always seemed like such a regular guy - and then, alone among the Globe reviewers, he dissed the entire annual output of his art form!  Now the Globe staff of course writes for the sports crowd and the suburbs (as well as those suburbanites who happen to live in town), and they share with their audience a foolish prejudice against local theatre (which Aucoin's piece played to).

But at the same time, theatre folks - even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I'm afraid Aucoin actually had a point.  2013 was not the best of theatrical times (and unfortunately it followed 2012, which was a banner year).  True, perhaps 2013 wasn't the worst of times, but it was certainly a weaker year than average - indeed, this fall I basically didn't review anything for a while; part of that time I was traveling, but even those shows I caught I simply didn't care to drag myself through the chore of savaging.

The Jungle Book at the Huntington
If I had to name the causes behind these many failures, I'd cite the usual suspects: the lure of filthy lucre, the damaging effects of insider networks, and the low artistic standards of the politically correct. One mid-sized company clearly tried to palm off a problematic vanity production, for instance, as a premiere in order to capitalize on the box office appeal of its famous author's name. In another case, audiences had to face the fact that a new play about a major civil rights figure, which had made it to Broadway and been wildly lauded in the New Yorker, was simply embarrassingly bad. Elsewhere major names who were friends-of-friends went belly-up in parts they couldn't handle, while certain local presenters carted in a parade of second-rate acts from New York's Soho/boho circuit.  It was that kind of year.

But fear not - there were a few candles flickering in all this artistic dark, most of which Aucoin missed because he doesn't often make it to the fringe. Even I don't make it to everything, of course, so my list is necessarily incomplete.  But here is my catalog of what I felt was truly memorable in 2013:

The Jungle Book, Huntington Theatre - sorry, Don, you may have been right about the year in general, but you're wrong about this one.  No, The Jungle Book wasn't Candide, and Mary Zimmerman never quite figured out how to square the overlapping circles of Kipling's colonialism and Disney's commercialism with her own gentle New Age predilections. Which led to much gnashing of teeth from the HowlRound types, yes I know, but let's be honest - much of the show was wonderful.

Social Creatures at Trinity Rep
Social Creatures, Trinity Rep - The last real professional acting company in the nation scored twice (and maybe three times) this year, first with this sardonic take on the zombie craze from Jackie Sibblies Drury (who just might be the brilliant new playwright we've all been waiting for). Drury's zombies were libertarian consumers who had been driven mad by Obama, while her ragtag band of survivors were desperate dreamers hoping to hang onto the remnants of society in a boarded-up basement. And weirdly, the whole thing was horrifyingly hilarious, and boasted as many gushing arteries as a slasher flick.

House and Garden, Trinity Rep - Providence's finest then delivered a generally superb rendition of Alan Ayckbourn's orbiting farces (under the direction of Ayckbourn vet Brian McEleny), played out simultaneously in the company's upstairs and downstairs houses.  House proved more compelling than Garden, but their complex thematic (not to mention logistical) relationship made a strong case for pushing Ayckbourn's rising intellectual star a little higher.

Metamorphosis, ArtsEmerson - Amazingly, this evocation of the Kafka classic (which premiered in Iceland) actually conveyed something of Herr K's famous disorientation and dread, thanks to a brilliantly skewed set design by Börkur Jónsson, and a gymnastic lead performance from Gísli Örn Gardarsson as the most famous cockroach in history.

Glengarry Glen Ross, Merrimack Rep - Director Charles Towers and a dynamic cast delivered a gripping version of Mamet's masterpiece - his last masterpiece, in fact.  There wasn't much in the way of innovative interpretation in this version, true; but it had a surprisingly poignant atmosphere, as watching it reminded you how great this Great American Playwright once was.

Seminar at Stoneham
Seminar, Stoneham Theatre - Another case of a play simply being done up right, and triumphing as a result.  Theresa Rebeck's ode to her own rise through careerist lit-crit circles isn't, I suppose, great drama; it's not even quite great soap opera.  But Rebeck knows her territory, and she's honest about it, and director Weylin Symes and his talented cast delivered a smooth, sophisticated production that crackled with a worldly sexual wit you rarely see at this earnest suburban outpost (or indeed anywhere in Boston).

Driving Miss Daisy, Gloucester Stage - Yes, it is literally a vehicle, and yes, its political edge is sanded down to a smooth nub. But with Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport driving it (under the direction of Benny Sato Ambush) Miss Daisy remains reliably touching.

Windowmen, Boston Playwrights Theatre - The big news this fall was the smashing success of local actor Steven Barkhimer's first major play. His premise was much indebted to Mamet - but his development transcended his source in thematic complexity, and somehow one felt his own voice coming through.  And under the direction of Brett Marks, the cast of this Boston Playwrights premiere was nearly note-perfect - particularly brilliant newcomer Brandon Whitehead.

Lebensraum, Hub Theatre Company - Two exciting new companies set up shop on the fringe this year. The first was a group of local thesps who debuted with a scrappy production of Israel Horowitz's meditation on an unspoken cultural question: can the Jews ever forgive the Germans for the Holocaust?  Under the direction of John Geoffrion (full disclosure, an acquaintance and sometime commenter on the Hub Review) the Hub cast pulled few punches in what may have been the most satisfying political theatre of the season.

The Libertine, Bridge Repertory of Boston/Playhouse Creatures - The second piece of good news on the fringe was the arrival of Bridge Rep, whose first offering, The Libertine, proved that you can be virtuosic on a shoestring. Indeed, Eric Tucker's design and direction, and a dazzling ensemble led by Joseph W. Rodriguez, were good enough to make you almost forget about the limits of Stephen Jeffreys' play.

The cast of Dog Sees God at Happy Medium


Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, Happy Medium Theatre - This utterly committed (if sometimes overly loud) sweet-and-sour satire of the Peanuts gang showcased sterling performances from fringe stalwarts Michael Underhill, Kiki Samko, and Joey C. Pelletier.

Hairy Tales, Imaginary Beasts - Always visually intriguing, this company's take on two Angela Carter tales ranked among their most dazzling efforts, with convincingly stylized acting to match the haunting visions of director Matthew Woods and his brilliant designers.

Vinegar Tom, Whistler in the Dark - You go to Whistler in the Dark to see three things: smart acting and direction, and more often than not, Caryl Churchill. This production featured all three, as well as credible versions of the cabaret songs the playwright penned as ironic counterpoint to her "play about witches with no witches in it." Director Mac Young also contributed the rawly brilliant set design.

Pacific Overtures at BU
Pacific Overtures, Boston University School of Theatre - I rarely cite student work in this list, but this was probably the most entertaining version of this Sondheim rarity I've ever seen.  True, director Jim Petosa ruffled local feathers by casting white kids in Japanese roles.  But as this was a student version, it elided the economic and political issues that drive racial consciousness in casting (and indeed raised the question of how students would ever have the opportunity to do this show outside Japan); what's more, the sight of Americans in kabuki make-up (not "yellow face" - come off it, PC zombies) doing Sondheim's bonsai-on-Broadway mash-up threw the whole piece into a strange new light.  Kicky comic performances, and dazzling design, were just the icing on the cake.

Well, that's fifteen outstanding productions right there, in a year where Don Aucoin found little to praise; and if I had endless time to ponder the rest of the year, I might also toss the following strong productions a few roses:

Mies Julie, ArtsEmerson; Camelot, New Rep; Stones in His Pockets, Lyric Stage; On the Town, Lyric Stage; Shakespeare's Will, Merrimack Rep; and Proof, Merrimack Rep

And with that - hail and farewell, 2013!

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