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The year in local theater

For local theatergoers, was it the best or worst of years? Memorable or better forgotten? Our reviewing tandem takes stock of 2005.

How would you define the year that's just ended?

Dennis Brown: In a word: transitional. Some theater companies have dissolved, yet interesting new companies have emerged. The city lost a gifted scenic designer when Christopher Pickart moved on from Washington U.; at the same time, Robin Weatherall has emerged as a viable director of Shakespeare. Perhaps the year's most significant, yet least noted, transition came when John Roslevich, who was the property master at the Rep for 29 years, chose to enter the St. Louis Abbey. John was a true friend to all St. Louis theaters. The absence of his warm presence leaves a real void, but of course everyone wishes him well in his new vocation.

Deanna Jent: The transitions of Pickart and Roslevich do mark significant changes, but several other local scenic designers seem poised to fill the void Pickart has left. Mark Wilson created imaginative sets (Trojan Women at Saint Louis U. and Act Inc.'s Servant of Two Masters), as did Dunsi Dai (New Jewish Theatre's I'm Not Rappaport and Merchant of Venice, HotCity's Valhalla) and Jim Burwinkle (The House of Bernarda Alba at SLU). The year was also transitional in venues: Stray Dog Theatre found a home at Clayton High, while St. Louis Shakespeare seems to be on the move, performing at both the History Museum and the Regional Arts Center. The Soulard Theatre lost all four of the companies it had last year. While the Rep moved midtown with its new Off-Ramp series at the Grandel, Stages began its westward journey, opening its Performing Arts Academy in Chesterfield.

What plays stood out?

Brown: If you chose carefully, there was a range of good drama. Stones in His Pockets at the Rep and Intimate Apparel at the Black Rep both arrived in town having garnered great acclaim in New York, so one went to the theater with high expectations that in both instances were met. On the other hand, a play like Going to See the Elephant, the inaugural offering by Orange Girls, was an unknown quantity that delivered a completely absorbing evening. Then there were the university productions, which often need no apology for being student-acted. Certainly The House of Bernarda Alba at SLU and A Piece of My Heart at Webster were on a par with any theater to be seen anywhere all year.

Jent: Two classics and two new (to St. Louis) plays: First, St. Louis Shakespeare brought the wit and valor of Henry V to life. Then the almost unbearable grief of Electra was given a heart-wrenching production by the West End Players Guild. Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, a sly comedy about baseball and identity, opened the Rep's Off-Ramp series with an undeniable hit. And then there was Wicked — what can I say? I wanted to be cynical and find fault (and I did find some), but I ended up falling in love with it.

What individual performances stood out?

Brown: So many. Among local actors Colleen Backer was charming in Sylvia, Donna Weinsting was a disarmingly sane Madwoman of Chaillot, Rory Lipede was wildly bizarre in Valhalla, Charlie Barron was remarkably deft in The Servant of Two Masters, Eddie Webb was redwood solid in Cryin' Shame, and Nancy Lewis, Liz Hopefl, Teresa Doggett and John Harrington Smith made for a wonderfully authentic bunch of seaside hotel occupants in Separate Tables. In Forest Park Kate Baldwin was a knockout Maria in The Sound of Music, Jeffry Denman danced Singin' in the Rain with breathtaking dexterity and William Metzo was a commanding Prospero in The Tempest. At the Rep Arnie Burton was chillingly effective as the pedophile in Frozen, Tarah Flanagan was dazzlingly vulnerable in Lobby Hero, and Kristina Valada-Viars brought amazing believability to This Is Our Youth. Among student actors Chelsea Jo Pattison at Webster was the sassiest Little Red Riding Hood I've seen since the original on Broadway nearly twenty years ago.

Jent: I'd add Denise Thimes, regal in Crowns; Jerry Vogel as a dog and someone treated like a dog (Chesapeake, The Merchant of Venice); and Andrew Michael Nieman, who created a stunning Elephant Man and a compelling Henry V. Lauren Dunagan and Kevin Beyer also stood out in that St. Louis Shakespeare production of Henry V. Ben Nordstrom, Bill Lynch and Kari Ely found surprising depth in Footloose; Linda Kennedy and Alan Knoll were fascinating in Intimate Apparel; Kelly Maier sparkled on the SIU Edwardsville stage as the silly Sister Mary Paul in Nunsense II and as Laurie in Oklahoma, while Lavonne Byers was sharp as diamonds in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Tamara Kenny brightened Skylight, and the entire cast of Crossin' Over taught a haunting musical lesson.

What was the most encouraging event of the year?

Brown: I will long remember the opening-night performance of Helen's Necklace by the new Upstream Theatre. They had lost their initial home; they were working in a temporary space at New City School. But from the moment I walked in the front door, the evening was galvanized by energy. I was especially struck by the fact that I did not see one person I knew. None of the "usual suspects" were there. Which is not to denigrate those repeaters who are the backbone of area theater. But here was a new company that succeeded in going out and finding an all-new audience. That's very encouraging for everyone who cares about theater in St. Louis.

Jent: For me there wasn't a single event, but I was encouraged by a series of collaborations that took place throughout the year. It began at the end of 2004 with HotCity's production of The Exonerated, which featured many of the city's finest actors, including Ron Himes, the artistic director of the Black Rep. Actors ventured outside their typical homes, with Stages regular Steve Isom appearing in Bug for the Rep and Alan Knoll, a longtime member of the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company, appearing in the Black Rep's production of Intimate Apparel. Linda Kennedy moved from her usual onstage role at the Black Rep to directing I'm Not Rappaport at New Jewish, while Stages managing director Ron Gibbs directed Jesus Christ Superstar at the Muny. This intercompany collaboration is set to continue in this month as the Black Rep and HotCity Theatre co-produce Caroline, Or Change.

The most discouraging event?

Brown: Perhaps not a specific event, but rather the fact that HotCity did not follow up its auspicious beginning in 2004 — The Exonerated — with a more substantive season. There were any number of reasons for this, but surely one was that the Rep's new Off-Ramp series seemed to deprive HotCity of titles that were right up their alley. At some point someone might want to ask, just how many plays does the Rep need to do in a given season? And when does growth become greed?

Jent: The most discouraging event was the abrupt closing of Historyonics Theatre. Whether you liked the format or not, it was a company with a history, a loyal subscriber base and a positive economic impact on St. Louis theater artists. In a season with some of their most promising productions to date (Eagle and Child and Dancing on Air), the clandestine termination of the company was the stuff of government conspiracy movies. The silence of the board left the arts community with nothing but questions: If the company was in financial trouble, why didn't the board appeal to the public for help? Why close the company just before its final production, a baseball play that was sure to be a success? In a town that is sorely lacking theatrical spaces, the stage in the History Museum sits dark. Who would dare to venture in?

Any New Year's resolutions for 2006?

Brown: I'd like to be able to resolve to not read any more playbill biographies that tell me how "thrilled, delighted, excited, thrilled, pleased, happy and thrilled" actors are to be working in St. Louis. But that probably won't happen.

Jent: I resolve to finally see a play at the Muny. Maybe Urinetown?

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