Champagne! Noisemakers! Top 10 lists!
In this era of chaos and uncertainty, there is something deeply comforting about the annual tradition of year-end lists. It's a ritual this theater critic cherishes, a chance to bask in the glow of an ephemeral art form one last time before the ball drops. It's heartwarming but also wistful, because theater is so subjective that my raves may well be your bombs.
Here is my countdown of the top 10 in theater for 2012. It's not listed in any kind of order but rather in an impressionistic stream-of-consciousness that bops from Pinter to puppets in a giddy blur.
Bottom line: This was a great year for sheer theatrical magic, plays that transported us out of reality and into artistic nirvana. It was such a good year, in fact, that even "The Book of Mormon," the devilishly witty lampoon of Broadway and other religions from the creators of "South Park," didn't quite make the cut. Honorable mentions also go to George C. Wolfe's riveting "The Normal Heart" at American Conservatory Theater and Robert Kelley's tender revival of "Of Mice and Men" at TheatreWorks.
San Francisco Playhouse
Gina Gionfriddo's intoxicating comedy of bad manners was lit with explosive performances by up-and-coming actress Lauren English and stage veteran Lorri Holt in this postmodern riff on William Makepeace Thackeray's "Vanity Fair." The Pulitzer-nominated satire about a blind date from hell was as insightful as it was witty in Amy Glazer's crisp production.
"Humor Abuse" is Lorenzo Pisoni's devastatingly touching and funny memoir of growing up without going crazy in the Pickle Family Circus. A one man tour-de-farce, it revealed the tragedy of life in a family of clowns. As tender as it was hysterically funny, this show made you vow to never run off and join the circus.
San Francisco Playhouse
Annie Baker ("Circle Mirror Transformation," "Body Awareness") lived up to her reputation as one of the most exciting young playwrights in the American theater with this symphonic coming of age tale, beautifully directed by Lila Neugebauer. Chekhov meets the slacker generation in a touching stream-of-consciousness that marries bracing emotional honesty and theatrical bravado. Even the silences echo.
Harold Pinter's harrowing masterpiece was delivered with heart-pounding precision in Christopher Morahan's exquisite revival, starring Jonathan Pryce as the enigmatic drifter Davies and the terrifyingly good Alan Cox as Aston. If some revivals get lost in the haze of the Pinter pause, this British import revealed just how exhilarating this trip to the void can be in the right hands.
Not only did Jon Tracy's sublime production introduce American audiences to the shardlike postmodern poetry of Scottish playwright Linda McLean, a master of the existential, but it also reveled in searing performances by James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in one of the most touching romances in recent memory. McLean's jigsaw puzzle of a play careened between the ominous and the magical in this memorable U.S. premiere.
My kingdom for a horse! The eye-popping artistry of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company in this epic spectacle dazzled even theatergoers weaned on high-tech special effects. The genius of this Tony-winning London import was its ability to let us see the savagery of the Great War through the eyes of an innocent boy and his beloved steed, a colossal horse puppet that seemed all too human.
Director/choreographer Susan Stroman ("The Producers," "Contact") explosively deconstructs the lasting legacy of the minstrel show in this Kander and Ebb musical. The controversial musical traces the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young African-American men imprisoned for a rape they didn't commit in the Depression-era South. It's hard to think of another musical that delights and disturbs with such force in this tart theatrical riff on American history.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
"An Iliad" is a harrowing one-man reinvention of Homer's odyssey that exposed the terrifyingly topical nature of this 3,200-year-old tragedy. Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare's chilling lamentation for the dead, sensitively acted by Henry Woronicz, suggests that butchery is the fate of man across the ages.
Theatrical wizard Mary Zimmerman returned to the Rep with one of her most moving fables in years, an ancient Chinese myth that soared on existential themes and delicate puppets. Visually stunning but also quite meditative, "White Snake" is a feast for the eyes and the soul. It runs through Sunday.
Sex and death flow like wine in Mark Jackson's seductive revival of this famously fragmentary tragedy, which Georg Buchner died before completing. A seminal work that influenced the course of modern drama, this "Woyzeck" soars on its wickedly dark score by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and astute direction. It runs through Jan. 13.