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ARTery critics Ed Siegel, Carolyn Clay, Kilian Melloy and Jeremy D. Goodwin share their favorite local productions of the year.
The Boston theater community was delivered several body blows this year as within a month Citibank withdrew its funding of the Wang and Shubert theaters, Boston University decided to part ways with the Huntington Theatre Company, the Boston Lyric Opera announced it was leaving the Shubert; and — unkindest cut of all — Emerson College threatened to turn the glorious Colonial Theatre into a dining hall. But with all the uncertainty, it was a rich theatrical year locally.
As you can see from The ARTery theater critics' lists, four theaters in particular had noteworthy years.
The American Repertory Theater bookended the year with two sensational productions — Suzan-Lori Parks' provocative "Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3" at the beginning of the year and the jaw-dropping "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812." The latter is Broadway-bound as is another fine musical, "Waitress." The A.R.T.'s second space, Oberon, continues to enhance Diane Paulus' vision of extending the boundaries of theater and, as it has turned out, classical music.
ArtsEmerson: If Emerson deserves a pie in the face for not trying hard enough to keep the Colonial afloat as a functioning theater, the local arts community has the college to thank for providing the wherewithal for ArtsEmerson to thrive. There's new leadership this year and a slightly different mission, but productions like the Isango Ensemble's two productions (see Carolyn Clay's list below) and Daniel Beaty's "Mr. Joy" show the commitment to excellence is undiminished. They have also demonstrated a commitment to the ecology of the local scene; notably hosting Israeli Stage's "Ulysses on Bottles."
Company One: Perhaps the hottest theater in Boston, Company One also demonstrates that pursuing a policy of inclusiveness can go hand in hand with artistic excellence particularly with productions of "Shockheaded Peter" and "Dry Land." "Peter" could have been an exercise in nihilism, but instead was a cautionary tale of parental repression of the joys of childhood. "Dry Land" capped a run of three fine productions about the way teenagers live their lives now (without a hint of Afterschool Special moralism).
Gloucester Stage Company: Robert Walsh breathed new life into the theater that Israel Horovitz built. Walsh mounted one acclaimed production after another this past summer, all of which reflected Horovitz's commitment to new plays (including one of his own, "Gloucester Blue.") Walsh was rewarded with the job of artistic director toward the end of the season and the news only got better when it was announced that Jeff Zinn, who put the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre on the map (and on Route 6), will join him.
"Bedlam’s Saint Joan," Bedlam, presented by Underground Railway Theater: Bedlam’s three-hour staging of George Bernard Shaw’s play was totally thrilling: a brainy, blabby historical drama married to a thoroughly modern and riveting experience. Andrus Nichols was the athletic Joan, abetted by just three actors, including director Eric Tucker, playing 23 roles as the stripped-down production shifted around the theater, changing the audience’s perspective and turning Joan’s earthly accusers into a whole separate set of “voices.”
"Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3," American Repertory Theater: The first third of an anticipated nine-play cycle by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks, this world premiere was a co-production of A.R.T. and New York’s Public Theater, helmed by Jo Bonney. Built on the "Odyssey" and set during the American Civil War (further installments will bring the generational drama up to the present), Parks’ lyrical contemplation of human worth dared to mix history, tragedy and whimsy, its Greek-tinged formalism capped by the antic appearance of a talking dog. Musical director and sideline singer Steven Bargonetti rendered the haunting songs, also by Parks, on banjo and guitar.
"Shockheaded Peter" and "Dry Land," Company One: Steven Bogart helmed both of these audacious productions. Collaborating with Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys, Company One buoyed the imaginative grotesquerie of the 1998 “Shockheaded Peter,” built on German author Heinrich Hoffman’s cautionary tales for misbehaving children, with the steampunk weirdness of Sickert’s seven-piece band, putting its rumbling stamp on the perverse ditties originated by The Tiger Lillies. The New England premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land,” written when she was still in college, proved a rawer nightmare. An unflinching account of snarky teen angst and do-it-yourself abortion set in a high-school locker room, the play was performed with searing naturalism by Stephanie Recio and Eva Hughes and was more disturbing than anything lurking under the 19th-century floorboards.
"Come Back, Little Sheba," Huntington Theatre Company: Obie winner David Cromer returned to the Calderwood Pavilion to direct a production of William Inge’s 1950 play that was not only painstakingly realistic but also existential. “Sheba” is not a towering drama, but Cromer’s staging was beautifully realized, neither corny nor quaint but both merciless and sympathetic. As frowsy housewife Lola, whose dog and looks have flown, Adrianne Krstansky inhabited a life of chatty desperation while Derek Hasenstab, as mild-mannered husband Doc, turned absolutely terrifying when alcohol blew the cork on his long-bottled-up rage.
"Ulysses on Bottles," Israeli Stage, co-produced by ArtsEmerson: Artistic director Guy Ben-Aharon was at the helm of Gilad Evron’s play, winner of the 2012 Israeli Theater Prize for Best Original Play. Both a tense topical juggernaut and an allegorical meditation on freedom and art, the play takes its name from a quixotic
Israeli-Arab teacher jailed for sailing into the blockaded Gaza Strip on a raft of bottles, bearing the gift of Russian literature. “Ulysses” doesn’t have an agenda, but conversations between his lawyer and a representative of the Israeli defense ministry get to the difficult heart of Middle Eastern politics. And a terrific ensemble of Jeremiah Kissel, Karen MacDonald, Will Lyman, Daniel Berger-Jones and Ken Cheeseman ably iterated both hard facts and murky emotions.
"King Lear," Commonwealth Shakespeare Company: Last summer’s offering of free Shakespeare on Boston Common was the monumental “King Lear.” The production didn’t fully encompass the play’s existential element; when you’re playing to large amplifiers and thousands of people, the Beckett-esque aspects of the Bard’s tragedy are bound to suffer. But Steven Maler’s production was a considerable achievement, featuring an impressively raging storm and, in Will Lyman, an impressively raging, increasingly touching Lear possessed of the pipes, the smarts and the stamina for this supreme thespian challenge.
"The New Electric Ballroom," Gloucester Stage: Robert Walsh, recently named artistic director of Gloucester Stage, proved he deserves the job with this fine production of Irish writer Enda Walsh’s dancehall parable set on the wild Celtic coast of nowhere. Winner of an Edinburgh Fringe First and a 2010 Obie, the play’s a lyrical mash-up of “Waiting for Godot” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” centered on three spinster sisters whose stunted lives are ruled by long-ago events at the 1950s edifice of the title. Walsh’s deliberately bleak production was lent color by Walsh’s rhythmic, evocative language and four performers with the chops to handle it: Nancy E. Carroll, Marya Lowry, Adrianne Krstansky and Derry Woodhouse.
"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and "uCarmen," Isango Ensemble, presented by ArtsEmerson: South Africa’s acclaimed Isango Ensemble returned to town with its highly physical, family-friendly “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and raucous yet austere “uCarmen.” The productions, both helmed by artistic director Mark Dornford-May, removed Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera based on the Bard’s comedy and Bizet’s 1875 “Carmen” to the townships outside Cape Town, where the classic works were interspersed with South African dance, chant and folk tradition. Both scores were transposed for orchestras made up of marimbas. Musical director Mandisi Dyantyis was himself something to watch, his conducting as much dance as direction.
"Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," American Repertory Theater: Rachel Chavkin’s spectacular production of Dave Malloy’s “electropop opera,” based on a small slice of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” was the theater event of the year. For the immersive production, the Loeb Drama Center’s playing space was transformed into a fabulous cocoon of red velvet drapes, framed period paintings and plush sunken banquettes, in which various Russian aristos circle each other in an urgent melee of romantic entanglement as Napoleon’s army fights its way toward Moscow. The Obie-winning production originated in 2012 in an 80-seat house; here it was expanded into a ravishing, thrillingly performed theater experience that will take Tolstoy’s tempestuous sentiment and questing morality, along with Malloy’s propulsive, eclectic score, to Broadway in the fall of 2016.
"The Submission," Zeitgeist Stage Company: Thorny questions of race, overweening ambition, near-miraculous inspiration, and good old-fashioned egos collide in what might be 2015’s most complex, emotionally searing production on the Boston stage. David Miller directed a strong cast, including Victor Shopov as a “lily white” playwright who has written a brilliant piece about black characters, and Aina Adler, the African-American woman he convinces to pose as the play’s author. The production’s steadily mounting tension peaked in an unforgettable showdown that still gives me chills to recall. In Zeitgeist’s hands, this Jeff Talbott-authored drama proved to be 70 minutes of shock, sadness and humor. “The Submission” premiered in 2011, but it will feel topical for years to come.
"The Farnsworth Invention," Flat Earth Theater: Aaron Sorkin doesn’t just write TV shows and movies; he’s also a gifted playwright. This play, about the invention of television, is based in fact but dares deliberate, dramatic departures from actual history. The play also celebrates science, and probes the ways in which the quests for profit and knowledge can run counter to each other — or propel each other along. Sarah Gazdowicz directed a stellar cast, with Chris Larson and Michael Fisher playing two core characters, each of them brilliant in his own specific way. Scenic designer Rebecca Lehrhoff’s work was almost a character in itself.
"Dry Land," Company One: The ever-bold Company One kicked off its current season with a Boston premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land,” a story that tackles abortion from the perspective of a contemporary teen who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Spiegel’s script refuses to let politics or empty sentiment take over; “Dry Land” is tender, funny and poignant, but at the same time it’s hard-edged, brave and honest. Spiegel has been compared to Lena Dunham; this play stands as an argument that it should be the other way around. Steven Bogart’s direction honored Spiegel’s story, and the duo at the center of the production — a pair of close friends on a high school swim team, one Caucasian and the other African American — more than proved their acting chops with performances that cut through polemics and right to the bone.
"Albatross," The Poets' Theatre: The resurrected The Poets’ Theatre breathed hot new life into Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with a tale that’s part prequel, part adaptation, part re-invention and nothing short of sensational. The one-man play starred Benjamin Evett in a pitch-perfect turn that had audiences in stitches, only to then douse them with spine-prickling intimations of the supernatural. Evett and Matthew Spangler authored the adaptation; Rick Lombardo directed; no one who saw the production will soon forget it.
"Red Velvet," Shakespeare & Company: When John Douglas Thompson played the Moor in a stunning “Othello” at Shakespeare & Company in 2008, it marked a high point of recent history for that troupe, and sparked a hot streak for Thompson that would soon see The New York Times hurling loving verbal bouquets deeming him the best classical actor of his generation. So there was great resonance in seeing Thompson on the very same stage this summer in “Red Velvet,” Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play about Ira Aldridge (1807-'67), the first black actor ever to play Othello on the London stage. Director Daniela Varon led a sharp ensemble, mainly portraying English thespians whose casual racism seemed fed less by passion than by a patronizing sense of propriety. As always, Thompson brought great humanity to his role, portraying a supremely dignified man whose artistic courage ultimately required of him (as Chakrabarti has it) a heartbreaking compromise.
"Mr. Joy," ArtsEmerson: Tangela Large delivered a virtuoso performance, showing not merely the technical chops to convincingly portray nine characters, but the artistic sensitivity to wring essential truths about the human condition from each. Daniel Beaty’s very strong script examines the impact of the titular shoe-shop proprietor on a Harlem neighborhood, through the lens of racial identity. ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower created a beautifully sensitive production, showcasing Large’s gifts as well as the understated poetry of Josh Lehrer’s projections.
"Appropriate," SpeakEasy Stage Company: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 Obie-winner for best play received a vigorous examination in a production directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. The play is an examination of the power of place — the decrepit Lafayette family manse, rendered in meticulous detail by Cristina Todesco’s set design, is a creaking, wheezing manifestation of the casually white supremacist culture in which the family once prospered — and the lingering power of family secrets, both fresh and long-buried. A strong ensemble did justice to the material, avoiding melodrama even as sweeping historical issues came into play. The playwright’s even more provocative “An Octaroon” will be at ArtsEmerson next month, in a Company One production.
"Sweet and Sad," Gloucester Stage Company: I walked out of this play thinking: "This is why we go to the theater." Director Weylin Symes crafted a masterful production from Richard Nelson’s ambitious, literate script, the second in a four-part series of plays catching up with one family on occasions of great national moment. In this piece, that would be the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and a subtle intermingling of the personal and the political shines light on how families — and nations, perhaps — learn how best to grieve.