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Top Ten

The Year in Stage

Uli Loskot

Top Ten 2006

The Year in News Republican rule was supposed to be good for Maryland, tightening up the fiscal scene and challenging... | By Van Smith

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The Year in Stage There's no denying the pleasures of maximalist theater. A large-cast, elaborate-set production such ...

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Posted 12/13/2006

There's no denying the pleasures of maximalist theater. A large-cast, elaborate-set production such as The School for Scandal and The Cripple of Innishmaan at Everyman Theatre, or Murder of Isaac and Radio Golf at Center Stage, can create a whole world that you can get lost in. And there are those who can't get enough of the Hippodrome (motto: "if the tourists can't come to New York, we'll bring New York to the tourists").

But minimalist theater can provide different pleasures, just as sharp and satisfying. Nothing proved that better than Baltimore's stages in 2006. Two of the year's three best productions and four of the Top 10 were bare-bones affairs--each consisted of two or three actors and little more than a few sticks of furniture for a set. Performance Workshop Theatre's Faith Healer, Run of the Mill Theatre's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Everyman Theatre's A Number, and Rep Stage's Stones in His Pockets all proved that you can create a whole world from the flimsiest of resources if the writing, staging, and acting are strong enough.

That's good news for the city's perennially struggling small theaters. Here is proof that you don't need the budget of Center Stage, or even of Everyman, to create exciting theater. In fact, Baltimore has the potential to become a center for minimalist theater. After all, it has much cheaper real estate than Washington or New York, and it has a John Waters-inspired aesthetic of off-the-street actors and cheap, homemade sets.

This year there were two signals that such a renaissance may be in the offing. Everyman (which provided two of our Top 10 shows) announced that it will be moving to a larger space on downtown's west side in 2009. Not only is this good for Everyman, which will be able to do more ambitious work for bigger audiences, but it also proves to other small companies that it is possible to start small here and grow into a professional company.

Run of the Mill (which provided two of our top four shows) seemed likely to shut down when its founder and dominating personality, Jim Knipple, decided to move to California for graduate school. That would be the usual story, but instead Knipple managed to turn over the reins to a new artistic director, Jenny Tibbels, and a new managing director, David Mitchell. The new team promptly cemented a working relationship with Theatre Project and launched an impressive South African Play Festival.

To have a great Baltimore theater scene, however, the city needs a great theater audience. City Paper reviews for both Faith Healer and Icarus mentioned that there were less than a dozen paying customers on each opening night, a not uncommon occurrence. Sure, there is a good deal of bad theater in town, but anyone who refused to venture beyond Center Stage, Everyman, the movies, or the couch missed Faith Healer and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, two of the year's artistic highlights. (Geoffrey Himes)

1
Faith Healer, Performance Workshop Theatre This Irish play was structured oddly: In four long monologues, the three characters--Marc Horwitz as a faith healer, Katherine Lyons as his lover, and Ben Lovell as his manager--described their years of traveling through Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. But something unexpected happens: Because Brian Friel's writing is so vivid, because the three actors are so compelling, and because each character disputes the memories and perceptions of the others, the monologues become a kind of dialogue. In the intimacy of this Federal Hill basement theater, you become a fourth member of the troupe, piecing together a kind of truth from the distorted stories. (GH)

2
Cyberpunk Opera, Grindlebone Theatre With Cyberpunk Opera, Don Elwell came up with one of the year's most fascinating, topical productions. Populated with superprogrammers and neuromancers, this retro-futuristic mind-blower brought us a step closer to mythologizing the pioneers of virtual reality. It feels a little less exciting now that we practically live in it, but this production focuses on the energy of the era, and despite the limitations of the Hamilton Arts Collective facility--a large, modified living room--the Grindlebone company offered a professional, original production. Paul Meyd, as John Delacroix, gave one of the year's most memorable performances as a young, strung-out computer whiz working against inhuman deadlines. The score, by James Henrique, and a number of other fine performances completed this panoramic excursion into a binary no man's land. (John Barry)

3
Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Run of the Mill Theater Sammie Real III and the one-named performer Mawk were the only two actors onstage during this show, but they not only played several different characters apiece but also presented each of those characters in several guises. Mawk, for example, gave us Styles the deferential employee at a South African Ford auto plant, Styles the swaggering owner of a township photo shop, and Styles the wily psychologist who coaxes his customers into revealing poses. One of those customers was Sizwe Bansi, portrayed by Real as a cringing police suspect, a drunken fool, and a beaming husband. Of course, there was no auto plant, police station, nor photo shop on the almost bare stage at Theatre Project, but the two actors summoned those environments out of thin air. (GH)

4
Icarus, Run of the Mill Theater The cavernous, stripped interior of St. John's Church is any set designer's nightmare, but with its production of Edwin Shanchez's Icarus, Run of the Mill managed to turn it into an asset. This environmentally striking production left you on an empty, dilapidated beach along with a set of characters who appeared to be lost in their respective dreams. The small cast--Jerry Brown, James Caran, Marisol Chacin, Chris Graybill, Janel Miley --added to the experience with a symbiotic and skillful ensemble performance. Fortunately, Run of the Mill's dislocation was temporary, but its temporary homelessness didn't stop it from putting together one of the year's most absorbing productions. (JB)

5
The Cripple of Innishmaan, Everyman Theatre Two of this year's Top 10 plays (this one and Stones in His Pockets) involved the interaction between Irish village locals and an out-of-town film crew. Cripple was set in 1932, during Robert Flaherty's shooting of Man of Aran, but it was really about the way a suddenly altered environment can wipe out old assumptions and open up new possibilities--for good and ill. At Everyman, director Donald Hicken revealed both through terrific performances by Rosemary Knower, Wil Love, Meg Anderson, and James Flanagan. (GH)

6
Murder of Isaac, Center Stage Murder of Isaac was occasionally shocking--offensive to some, depressing to most--and it lacked closure. It was also one of those plays that, after eight months, you can't stop thinking about. Motti Lerner's Brechtian, in-your-face look at the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination doesn't hide its political sympathies, but neither did Brecht himself. Unlike Mother Courage, this play isn't likely to get a production in Central Park starring Meryl Streep. By giving it a home for its premier, Center Stage gave Lerner, and a powerful acting team, a chance to remind us how post-traumatic our politically charged era has become. And the archetypal characters that populate Murder of Isaac delivered an intensely human message: If we can't use theater to stare contemporary politics in the face in a way that may make us cringe a little, we're losing out. (JB)

7
A Number, Everyman Theatre Human cloning may not yet be possible, and it may not be ethical, but it has already done valuable work as a metaphor, not only in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, but also in Caryl Churchill's play A Number. At Everyman, Bill Hamlin played the father, while Kyle Prue played the son and the son's two clones. As the actors sat in two chairs and poured out recriminations, the audience soon forgot the sci-fi angle and grew entranced by a father-son relationship as tangled as those in our own clone-free histories. (GH)

8
Candida, Everyman Theatre A century can do strange things to George Bernard Shaw, but Everyman's interpretation of Candida retained the immediacy of the original. Deborah Hazlett turned in a finely turned performance as a central character who wavers between being an innocent object of attraction and a slightly cynical puppeteer. That Hazlett's Candida is a little older than the one in Shaw's original added an intriguing quality to a play wherein her two infatuated male admirers--the poet Marchbanks and her husband, Morell--descend into childhood. (JB)

9
Radio Golf, Center Stage The same career arc--brief apprenticeship, sudden flowering of genius, and long denouement of diminishing returns--has been true of all of America's great playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, and August Wilson. Radio Golf is the last play Wilson wrote before he died, and while it falls short of his masterworks, it still brims with vitality, and this story about political and real-estate hustlers in the Pittsburgh slums of 1997 enjoyed a lively production at Center Stage. (GH)

10
Stones in His Pockets, Rep Stage In Stones in His Pockets, Rep Stage's Michael Stebbins and Bruce Nelson offered what was undoubtedly the year's best ensemble performance. There were only two actors in this comedy, but within about 15 minutes these two actors managed to morph into about a dozen memorable, well-rounded characters. Marie Jones' script gave them the chance to juggle roles, but more significantly, these two actors made a great team; by the end, they effectively claimed this play--and the audience--as their own. This strange, somewhat postmodern comedy about Hollywood and the Emerald Isle has a labyrinthine quality on the page; Stebbins and Nelson emerged fully intact. More importantly, they seemed to have fun doing it. (JB)

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
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The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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