Year in Revue: Our two stage junkies reveal which 2011 productions delivered the most righteous buzz

Year in Revue: Our two stage junkies reveal which 2011 productions delivered the most righteous buzz
Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Emily Dorsch, Amy Landon and Ron Bohmer in In the Next Room or the vibrator play.

Year's end is a time for lists. Not necessarily "ten best" lists, because in theater there rarely is such an animal as "best." Rather, here's a recap of the ten theater productions to which we responded most strongly over the past twelve months, presented in the order in which the shows opened.

Pericles (January) The Black Rep came out of the gate strong with this big, messy play that's partially credited to William Shakespeare. Director Andrea Frye focused the story by recasting the many ocean journeys of Pericles as a metaphor for the African diaspora, and suddenly what was confusing was crystal clear — and visually arresting, to boot. Ka'ramuu Kush led a large cast with his strong, often heroic portrayal of the tormented prince, and the ending was both beautiful and moving: exactly what you'd expect from Shakespeare.  — Paul Friswold

The Price (February) Although Arthur Miller's four-character chamber piece about the blood feud between two estranged brothers is generally regarded as one of his lesser dramas, it received an absorbing staging at Avalon Theatre Company. Bobby Miller directed with a keen and calibrated eye. The cast — Peggy Billo, John Contini, Bob Harvey — was outstanding. The fourth cast member, Peter Mayer, was even more than that. Anyone who enjoys the kind of theatrical fireworks that are ignited in an evening of purpose and passion found them here, in abundance. — Dennis Brown

John Contini, Peggy Billo, Peter Mayer and Bob Harvey in The Price.
Steve Krieckhaus
John Contini, Peggy Billo, Peter Mayer and Bob Harvey in The Price.

Ruined (February) The Black Rep maintained momentum with Lynn Nottage's searing drama about the sexual violation of refugees in the less-than Democratic Republic of the Congo. This Ron Himes-directed production probably sounded to some theatergoers like heavy sledding. But supercharged by the commanding Andrea Frye as Mama Nadi, one tough cookie who ran a gin joint brothel in no man's land, Ruined made for essential theatergoing: enthralling and unforgettable. (DB)

In the Next Room or the vibrator play (March) Sarah Ruhl delights in writing fanciful scripts that defy easy categorization. Here she combines Ibsen with Feydeau in a deliriously original account of how, in the early days of electricity, the first vibrator might have cured women of hysteria. Under the inventive direction of Stuart Carden, the Rep Studio production reminded us that some stories are better told onstage than onscreen — and this might well be one of them. Want to hold an audience's rapt attention? Have an actor turn on a vibrator. (DB)

Cyrano de Bergerac (March) Yes, yes, big-nosed Frenchman hangs out in the shadows wooing his cousin — it's a story so familiar as to be boring. In this St. Louis Shakespeare staging, Todd Gillenardo inhabited and invigorated the beaky Gascon poet with a performance that was dazzling in its fluidity. His swordsmanship was magnificent, but it was his ability to purr his lines so smoothly while fencing with foe after foe that made the show. That and his glorious death scene, as he recited one more poem to his love, Roxane (Andrea Purnell), while he slowly faded into the dark. It was an exit for the ages. (PF)

Awake and Sing! (April) Don't believe the old saw that there's no such thing as a bad audience. I went back to see New Jewish Theatre's thunderous staging of Clifford Odets' Depression-era drama in its final week. Under the jackhammer direction of Steve Woolf, the cast remained fresh, but the audience was rotten. They didn't like the play; they didn't like the air conditioning (too cold). That crowd didn't deserve this production, which transformed a 76-year-old play into an example of St. Louis theater at its most engrossing. Moral: If you want to see a production with a simpatico crowd, you might be better off going early in the run. (DB)

She Loves Me (August) I suppose I should be reluctant to include this Insight musical from last summer, because (to the objective eye) apparently it wasn't very good. But I can't be objective about She Loves Me. This nigh-perfect musical version of the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch movie The Shop Around the Corner never fails to charm. In this staging, the long and intricate opening number, "Good Morning, Good Day," was especially crisply staged, setting a sprightly tone. And though the production got a little less crisp midway through Act Two, the graceful songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick carried the evening. (DB)

Restoration (August) Peter Bond's savage excoriation of the universal class system — the haves vs. the have-nots — was an anthracite-black comedy that I enjoyed greatly as it unfolded under the direction of Milt Zoth and St. Louis Shakespeare. But then a strange thing happened: Months after it closed, I was still thinking about it. Michael Brightman's imbecilic Lord Are wormed his way into my consciousness, setting up residence in that portion of my brain that reads the newspaper. His is the detached, selfish sneer I hear every time a politician claims they're doing their best to help us, even as they're burying us. I don't know how I got along without him. (PF)

Falling (September) Jonathan Foster delivered a stunning and realistic portrayal of a young man with autism in Deanna Jent's domestic drama. There was nothing trite or sappy in this Mustard Seed production, because Jent was fearless in her commitment to the truth, in this instance the difficult, scary and rewarding task of caring for a special-needs child (all the more difficult, scary and rewarding as adulthood approaches). Michelle Hand brought all of her considerable skill to the role of Foster's mother, a woman who was as scared of failing her son as she was certain she'd already failed her daughter and husband. It was a catch-in-your-throat show that's going to catch more throats when it debuts off Broadway sometime in 2012. (PF)

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