Favorite Things: SpeakEasy Rules The Roost

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Gus Curry (center) heads the cast of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" at SpeakEasy Stage Company. (Perspective Photo/Craig Bailey)

I have mixed feelings about my favorite theater things of 2012. This was an overwhelmingly great year for SpeakEasy Stage Company. I'm not sure I can remember such a high level of consistency from one Boston theater;  every one of its productions was superb. Even the two that didn't make the list — "Xanadu" and "Next to Normal" — were beautifully realized productions. On the other hand, the American Repertory Theater doesn't have anything on the list, which is hardly an accurate reflection of how I feel about that theater under Diane Paulus this past year.

Here's what I think is going on. Boston has done a great job in creating a theater community that can take work that's done in New York and transform the material into productions that do full justice to the material. Which is great — New York is still the theatrical capital of the country.

1: Nobody did that better this year than SpeakEasy and nobody deserves more credit than Paul Daigneault and his staff for building such a premiere company, beginning with "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," an intense, humorous, pointed musical centering on populism in American politics — the good, the bad and the ugly .

At the same time, it seems as if Boston theater companies are spending an inordinate amount of time trolling for New York's greatest hits when they should also be a) going further afield and b) developing work of their own. SpeakEasy has actually been on a remarkable run for two or three seasons and one of my favorite pieces in that time was "Blackbird," a very daring drama about a twisted relationship from Scotland by the aptly named David Harrower. I'd love to see more work like this at SpeakEasy — and other theaters — even if it isn't what audiences most want to see.

So even though I didn't love anything at ART this calendar year, I think Paulus deserves credit for going beyond what's hot in New York and, in some cases, developing new work herself. "Wild Swans," "Marie Antoinette" and "The Lily's Revenge" left something(s) to be desired, but I love her ambition and the sweep of her theatrical vision.

2: But it was one of Paulus's predecessors at ART, Rob Orchard, who put both daring and consistency together at ArtsEmerson, searching the world, really, for the best theater available and in many cases developing it at Emerson. As the foremost example this year, Robert Lepage, who directed both "The Ring" and "The Tempest" at the Metropolitan Opera, brought "The Andersen Project," his breathtaking examination of contemporary alienation from Canada here, as fine a combination of visual art and live theater as you could hope to see.

From left: Chris Leon as Chad Deity and Peter Brown as EKO in 'The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.' (Courtesy)
Chris Leon and Peter Brown in 'The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.' (Photo courtesy of Company One/Liza Voll)

3: "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" also used video art effectively, but the Company One production was a triumph of the imaginative use of simple stagecraft. Well, maybe not so simple as the actors were throwing each other around the stage, made up to be a wrestling ring. Shawn LaCount did a masterful job directing a fine cast in Kristoffer Diaz's entertaining exploration into celebrity culture, as seen through the eyes of starry-eyed wrestlers and their cynical promoter.

Jackie and Ralph
Jaime Carrillo faces off against Maurice Emmanuel Parent in "The Motherf**ker With The Hat" at SpeakEasy Stage Company.

4: Both Company One and SpeakEasy, in Stephen Adly Guirgis's "The Motherf**ker With The Hat," did a great job in throwing open the  Boston Center for the Arts to economic and ethnic groups who aren't represented all that well in the theater. Guirgis also walks on the wild side with characters whose pursuit of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll often clashes with a pursuit of the American Dream. Sometimes that pursuit is an escape from the perception that there's no room at the table for them in 21st century America.

Thomas Derrah as Mark Rothko in "Red." (Perspective Photo/Craig Bailey)
Thomas Derrah as Mark Rothko in "Red." (Perspective Photo/Craig Bailey)

5: Which doesn't mean there's no room at the theatrical table for us pasty-faced white boys, as SpeakEasy and Thomas Derrah proved with a dazzling production of John Logan's "Red," a meditation on Mark Rothko and the nature of art. Derrah as Rothko was one of the great acting jobs of the year.

6: When it comes to getting the rights to plays in New York or elsewhere, the Huntington Theatre Company has first dibs because of the seating capacity at the BU Theatre and it got The Natural for Boston — "Good People," David Lindsay-Abaire's thoughtful dissection about the haves and have-nots in his native South Boston. Kate Whoriskey directed a strong production, even if some of the accents were have-nots.

All of the above represent an incredibly narrow geographical space, which in part is a testament to the Boston Center for the Arts and the Huntington in establishing the BCA's area of Tremont street as a theatrical mecca. (And the Lyric — see below — is right around the corner.)

7: But it was also great to get outside  of that comfort zone and watch the Apollinaire Theatre Company open up the many rooms of the Chelsea Theatre Works to a superb, semi-immersive "Uncle Vanya." Danielle Fauteux Jacques did an excellent job of walking  Anton Chekhov around the grand old building.

A Behanding in Spokane
Jeff Gill interrogates Greg Maraio in Theatre on Fire's production of "A Behanding in Spokane." (Photo courtesy of Theatre on Fire/Darren Evans)

8: And it was also rewarding, as it usually is, to visit the Charlestown Working Theater and one of the area's more adventurous companies, Theatre on Fire. When I saw "A Behanding in Spokane" with Christopher Walken in New York I wondered if it would be possible to be able to pull this play off with anyone but him. A lot of local theater companies must have felt the same and passed on the latest by one of the world's most interesting playwrights, Martin McDonagh. Congratulations to director Darren Evans and Walken stand-in Jeff Gill for proving everybody wrong.

"War Horse"
Joey and Topthorn, the "stars" of "War Horse."

9: OK, back to downtown Boston. It's easy to take Broadway in Boston for granted as there's less room for straight plays and experimentation than there used to be in the commercial touring universe. That said, Broadway in Boston has been doing a good job of getting the cream of the crop to the area. "Memphis" was a real triumph, but one of the most enduring images of the year were those magnificent equine creations for "War Horse," an effective if sentimental look at the hellishness of war.

10: And if the Lyric Stage Company of Boston doesn't get quite the buzz that SpeakEasy does with its New York titles, it still brings some of the more provocative plays to town, such as Tracy Letts's "Superior Donuts," Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," centered on a pair of war-zone journalists, and its latest production, David Henry Hwang's  "Chinglish," featuring several excellent local Asian actors in an East meets West story with all kinds of contemporary twists.

All in all, a very good year for bringing New York to Boston. But it's time to get beyond that.

This program aired on December 26, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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