It's time to look at the old year, and just as Janus looked behind and ahead, to look forward toward the new.
Actually, Beverly Creasey sent The Mirror a citation of her ten best-remembered productions before I thought of telling you of my own, but the idea of telling each other about the Ten Best Plays we saw last year is a great one! But why restrict it to people who review plays every week? Please, add YOUR list of the ten best plays you've seen last year to the ones below. We'll print every one we get. Here's mine:
The annual attempt to choose ten "best shows" is a rewarding experience of remembering --- and an impossible task. More than a third of the 44 shows I saw in 1996 elbow for places on such a list, every one of them for good and unique reasons. The simple task of balancing the experiences of the little BCA theatres and the North Shore Music Theatre against one another, the Lyric Stage against the Colonial, defines part of the problem. Every theatre is unique; hell, every play is unique!
So any "ten best plays" list doesn't ever reflect the state of theater --- it reflects the tastes of the critic making up the list! Your list will always be different from mine, not merely because we'll probably have seen different things, but because we're different people. But I really hope everyone will send us their "Ten Best" lists --- not just in Boston; not just in New England. Wherever you are: tell us ten great shows you saw this year! We'll print every list that comes in.
Here's mine, in the order I saw them:
1. TRIANGLE THEATRE'S "The Last Shaker"
This was a new play, a dense, serious, profoundly complicated play --- quite unlike the same company's neatly turned situation- comedy "Seating And Other Arrangements". Both had their points, both proved that when the theater company lost its space, Boston lost something very precious indeed.
2. InSTAGES' "Curley, The Musical"
I saw this in an upstairs banquet-room at The Black Rose pub near Quincy Market, and was thrilled when it moved to an upstairs bar above Dominick's Lounge in The Theater District. It seemed as uppity and as unabashedly rough as James Michael himself, and I loved it, warts and all.
3. LYRIC STAGE'S "Not About Heroes"
This two-actor play about the healing necessity of poetry pitted against the senselessness of war was my first re-acquaintance with Ron Ritchell's and Polly Hogan's Bostonian theatrical institution. For different reasons, their three-actor "Speed-The-Plow" or their four-and-a-fraction actor "A Child's Christmas in Wales" might stand in this spot. The Lyric is a monument to determined, clear-eyed dedication to theatrical excellence with whatever means come to hand, and I always think it a privilege to attend their productions.
4. THE COLONIAL THEATRE'S "Death of A Salesman"
What a magnificent Willy Loman Hal Holbrook made, and how perfectly matched to his performance were the three other members of that salesman's family. This production re-created Arthur Miller's classic, and I am astonished it never found a home even for moments on Broadway. And, again, this slot is shared by the equally amazing re-creation of "Carousel" that Lee VanderLaan and I saw at THE SHUBERT --- not the one in Boston, but the one in New Haven. We drove down through snow-flurries, and drove back through a blizzard that kept us on the road till 5:30 a m --- and every inch and every minute of that grueling journey was worth it to see a classic American musical so brilliantly reinterpreted. When "big-barn" theater is done this well nothing can compare.
5. THE ASIAN-AMERICAN FESTIVAL'S "Going to Seed"
I went to this play, honestly, to see E. Grace Noonan --- The Theater Mirror's "ActEr In Residence" --- and got a serious new play as a bonus. The problems of Asian minorities hoping to assimilate into American society were the subject here, one I had never seen so seriously, humanly examined.
6. SPEAKESY STAGE COMPANY'S "Love! Valour! Compassion!"
The Speakeasy company does its smaller works at the BCA, but did this and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" at the Lyric --- both plays by Terrence McNally, and both outstanding. I told a friend that "Love! Valour! Compassion!" would make him proud to be gay if he were, or proud to be human if he weren't. I'm not gay myself, but I was definitely proud to see this play.
7. THE FOOTLIGHTERS CLUB'S "Six Degrees of Separation"
This is a play I had seen at the Shubert Theatre, in a big professional production directed by Jerry Zachs. In every way, the Footlighters' community theater production was infinitely better. They made the play into a piece of theater, instead of trying to make it into a piece of "live" movie-making. Hurrah!
8. VOKES THEATRE'S "Assassins"
On the tiny Beatrice Herford's Theatre stage, this chamber- musical about the people who took a shot --- many successfully --- at American presidents was another vindication of the serious dedication of community theater to excellence despite limited means. I knew and loved Stephen Sondheim's score, but it took the Vokes company to make me adore the entire show.
9. THE NEW REPERTORY THEATRE'S "The Scarlet Letter"
Though Rick Lombardo became an old friend moments after I first met him, it was the obvious hand of The Rep's new artistic director shaping every moment of this quirky play that had me spellbound. That, and the in-your-face intimacy of the Rep's thrust-stage performance space. Lombardo pushed as much of the action as possible right into the laps of the audience, and played the cast and the space like an accomplished cellist.
10. NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE'S "A Christmas Carol"
When I saw this traditional remake of a chestnut, I realized that this company is the local equivalent of England's heavily subsidized Shakespeare Company --- a big, full-out, serious company dedicated to the best national stage product: the American musical. In this case, the stage-effects and spectacle recreated Dickens' classic -- in a way that it invigorated but couldn't save the new musical "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" since the problems were not in the production but in the book and the songs. Still, the Dickens and their "Crazy for You" ought to be part of anybody's ten-best list this year.
Okay. I showed you mine. Now you show me yours!
Pinnocchio: a tour de force by Chile's leading theater company, La Troppa, in all too brief residence at the Villa Victoria in the South End.
Freedom of the City: performed by the Sugan Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, featuring a gripping portrayal by Carmel O'Reilly of an Irish housewife caught in the crossfire.
Candida: presented by the Lyric Stage with a silken performance from Donna Sorbello as Shaw's saintly matriarch.
Iolanthe: The Huntington Theater's dazzling take on a G&S offered the hilarious antics of Patti Allison as the Queen of the Fairies and a magical set by James Joy.
A Hat Trick from Reagle Players: Three astonishing musicals back to back this past summer, all masterminded by Bob Eagle: Annie, Crazy For You, and Me and My Girl, which mixed Broadway stars with talented locals on the Waltham stage to maximum effect. All singin' ...all dancin' ...all wonderful.
Angels in America: Trinity Rep brought the goods home to Providence. Oscar Eustis delivered an intimate, luminescent production of Tony Kusher's visionary work with stellar performances from Ed Shea as Louis and Allen Oliver as Belize.
The Road: Randy Farias' mesmerizing, terrifying performance as a serial killer puts this one on the map. Presented by Theater At Large in the Centastage space at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Love! Valour! Compassion!: Paul Daignault continues to prove that a small company can produce a product which not only compares with, but outshines the big money productions. At the Boston Center for the Arts.
Footnote: Although Master Class and Forbidden Broadway were terrific shows, pound for pound the smaller companies win out...and you could see any of the above shows for under twenty dollars, most of them for under fifteen.