In a way it’s unfair to judge a theater season by the calendar year as companies generally think in terms of September through May. Still, who are we to break with the tradition of a year-end list?
Things tend to even out in any event. That’s certainly true of the American Repertory Theater. A year ago there wasn’t anything by that company on the list though I said it wasn’t indicative of the work that A.R.T. does and, sure enough, Diane Paulus had her company’s name all over the end of last season with “Pippin” and “The Glass Menagerie” before beginning this season with a fellow named Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson in “All the Way” just as “Breaking Bad” was coming to an end on television. The first two shows transferred successfully to New York; it’s hard to imagine that “All the Way” won’t do so as well. The latest, “The Heart of Robin Hood,” could also go places, capping a pretty sensational year for A.R.T.
Harvard has what it wanted in Paulus, but much of the old A.R.T. aesthetic is alive and extremely well at Emerson where former A.R.T. managing director Rob Orchard and David Dower have, in four years, made ArtsEmerson one of the most important cultural institutions in New England.
Elsewhere, the local scene seemed to plateau in 2013, a less exciting year than the last season or two. Still, there was some excellent work done by the likes of SpeakEasy, Zeitgeist, the Lyric and Boston Playwrights Theatre while the Berkshires and Wellfleet continue to be hot summer destinations.
1. “The Glass Menagerie,” American Repertory Theater. Nothing was as jaw-droppingly transformative and revelatory as John Tiffany’s production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Black reflecting pools, a fire escape to the stars, characters emerging from sofas underscored the dreamy, non-naturalistic aspects of the play. The superb ensemble didn’t hurt, either.
2. “All The Way,” American Repertory Theater. Cambridge played a special part in The Year of the Cranston. Lyndon Johnson is one of the most tragic figures in American history and Cranston captured all of the president’s neurotic swagger, political genius and fatal flaws. Playwright Robert Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch went beyond documentary theater to make this a fully-realized investigation of a country torn by a presidential assassination and racism, while awaiting the apocalyptic war in Vietnam.
3. “Mies Julie,” ArtsEmerson. Turning a classic into a statement on modern times is always risky business, but Yaël Farber transformed Strindberg’s play about turn of the 20th century class and power into a pitch-perfect, emotionally draining drama about race, class, sex and power in turn of the 21st century post-apartheid South Africa.
4. ArtsEmerson: “Waiting for Godot,” “Metamorphosis,” “Trojan Women,” “An Iliad.” “Mies Julie” was just the tip of the iceberg for ArtsEmerson, the latest in a string of great successes. These other plays were equally representative of how AE breathes new life into the classics. And I missed what Orchard called one of the best things they’ve ever done — “Kiss & Cry.” Add the film series, the master classes, the outreach to local theaters and other parts of the program and you have to say that ArtsEmerson is a coup for the college, and the city.
5. “Punk Rock,” Zeitgeist Stage Company. If much of the rest of the scene felt a little safe, it certainly wasn’t true of Zeitgeist Stage Company’s “Punk Rock,” a chilling account of high school violence in England that seems equally applicable to Newtown and even the Marathon bombing. David Miller got excellent performances from his young ensemble.
6. “On the Town(s),” Lyric Stage Company and Barrington Stage Company. Leonard Bernstein’s score with lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden is, on the surface, fluffy entertainment, but it’s much more than that. Playing at the same time as SpeakEasy’s “In the Heights,” you could see how revolutionary it was for bringing jazz into the musical theater landscape as well as investigating the issue of assimilation for Bernstein’s generation. That came through more in the Lyric production though the beautiful Barrington staging was more fully realized in general. No one was better, though, than the Lyric’s Aimee Doherty, who had a breakout year musically and dramatically, particularly here and in “North Shore Fish” at Gloucester Stage Company.
7. “Clybourne Park,” SpeakEasy Stage Company.I didn’t love “In the Heights,” but two other SpeakEasy productions, “Clybourne Park” and “Tribes” show why the company continues to stand out locally, particularly when it comes to adapting plays that began life elsewhere. “Clybourne Park” is Bruce Norris’s play that looks at the white family who sold the house to the Youngers of “Raisin in the Sun” in the first act before moving the action forward and mashing contemporary families together in the now-gentrified neighborhood of the second act. Norris leaves all political correctness behind in this smart play and SpeakEasy was with him every step of the way.
8. “Tribes,” SpeakEasy Stage Company. Issues of hearing aren’t given the same weight in America as that of ethnicity, yet SpeakEasy’s equally fine “Tribes” not only made the main character’s deafness palpable, but captured playwright Nina Raine’s universal themes of communication.
9. “The Heart of Robin Hood,” American Repertory Theater. Sherwood Forest invaded the Loeb space for an incredibly entertaining retake of the Robin Hood myth with Marion showing Robin what it means to be a real revolutionary. Gísli Örn Gardarsson, the star and director of “Metamorphosis,” crossed into Cambridge for more acrobatic hijinx, though without the artistic import of the Kafka adaptation. Nevertheless, great music, great stagecraft. This one’s still playing, through Jan. 19.
10. “Windowmen,” Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Steven Barkhimer has established himself as one of the most entertaining actors in Boston, but also showed that he’s an accomplished playwright as well. Here he took his experiences a young man working at the Fulton Fish Market in New York and turned it into a case study of the difficulties in doing the right thing on the job. For that matter, of knowing what the right thing is. Artistic director Kate Snodgrass not only attracts the best local playwrights, but first-class directors and ensembles as well.
11. “The Seagull,” Harbor Stage Company. I haven’t been able to get down to Wellfleet the past couple of summers, so was delighted when Wellfleet came to us. Suffolk and the Modern Theatre hosted the Harbor Stage Company’s excellent production of “The Seagull” with artistic director Robert Kropf’s stripped-down (psychologically as well as scenically) version of the play, showcasing the considerable acting talents of the company. They were joined by Alex Pollock, who also shone in “Windowmen” and Gloucester Stage Company’s “This Is Our Youth.”
More ARTery/WBUR 2013 Favorites
2013 In Music From WBUR