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The Year in Stage

Center Stage's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with (from left) Deborah Hedwall, Erik Heger, Leah Curney, and Andrew Weems.

Top Ten 2008

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Posted 12/10/2008

As this list attests, Center Stage had a banner year. From its spry production of an Edward Albee standby to its intimate adaptation of Stephen Sondheim, Baltimore's premiere theater company really earned its marketing tag this year by proving just how smart, bold, and alive it, and the theater, can be. But these productions were two of many vital onstage events in 2008, and the year's real story has been the activities--and the overall high quality--of the smaller, emerging theaters sprouting up around the city. The below Top 10 list was hammered out by City Paper theater critics John Barry and Geoffrey Himes with Bret McCabe sitting in to keep score.

1 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Center Stage

This one didn't take long at all. Every once in a while, even in Baltimore's somewhat fragmented theater community, there's a jaw-dropping performance that starts the whole town talking. With Center Stage's production of Edward Albee's warhorse, there were two. As George, the long suffering professor of history, Andrew Weems injected a manic charisma into a role that usually stands in the shadows; for his wife Martha, Deborah Hedwall brilliantly navigated a performance that transformed her from a screeching harlot to a frightened child. And director Ethan McSweeny gave this constantly warring couple a weird synchronicity. (John Barry)

2 Gem of the Ocean, Everyman Theatre

This is the first in August Wilson's cycle of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, but the next-to-last script he finished. It's also one of the strongest entries in the series. Set in 1904 Pittsburgh, the show presents a daunting challenge with its multiple major characters and its mix of social realism and magic realism, but Everyman was up to the challenge in this Baltimore premiere. Jennifer Nelson's direction was so sure-handed and Lizan Mitchell was so mesmerizing as Aunt Ester that you were almost willing to believe that the latter was 285 years old, as the script claims, and that she could cast a spell upon the other characters till they believed they were walking into the ocean and discovering a city of bones built from the casualties of the slave trade. Best of all was Dawn Ursula as the brooding, glowering cook Black Mary. (Geoffrey Himes)

3 Oedipus, Performance Workshop Theatre

Despite the title, the spotlight in this translation of Aeschylus' Oedipus was clearly on the mother. And Cheri Weinert delivered a regal and emotionally intense performance that provided some idea of what the kid was up against. Sure, we all know the plot: Oedipus (Marc Horwitz) starts to snoop around his situation while his mom tries to keep the box locked and the key hidden. Director Marlyn Robinson and playwright Ellen McLaughlin, along with an excellent cast, managed to make this encounter with the play feel like the first time. (JB)

4 A Little Night Music, Center Stage

As Center Stage proved with its terrific 2004 production of Sweeney Todd--and as Tim Burton proved by counterexample with his over-produced movie version of the same--Stephen Sondheim's musicals work best on a reduced, intimate scale. For A Little Night Music, Sondheim's adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman's 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, Center Stage used a chamber octet for the band, its smaller upstairs stage for a theater, and a cast of actors who also sang rather than a bunch of singers who also acted. The result was a true delight, where the lyrics' bite registered as fully as the music's intoxication. Even if you had hoped never to hear the song "Send in the Clowns" again, you were glad to hear it in this context, where it picked nuances from the story around it and was delivered with understated charm. (GH)

5 Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted, Rep Stage

Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo sounds more like material for an extended lecture on free speech, but this Rep Stage production never lost control of the father-son story at the core of this play. In the title role, Nigel Reed offered a characteristically sharp performance as a writer who appears to be half hero and half misanthrope. Jonathan Watkins played Trumbo's son--the play's narrator--who, even while singing his dad's praises, is a little ambivalent about who his father actually was. That tension, and Milagros Ponce de León's jailhouse set, stripped away the more grandiose and didactic readings of the Hollywood blacklists to reveal a man who is a hero in his own right, but who is also just as bitter, petty, self-absorbed, and overbearing as most of us. (JB)

6 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Center Stage

In this funny, but slightly creepy, production of Tom Stoppard's early comedy, the two principals achieved a chatty, subdued symbiosis, which provided a perfect backdrop for the playwright's post-modern wit. Michael Dozier's Rosencrantz played a clumsy ingénue with flashes of unintentional wit, and Howard Overshown's Guildenstern was the dreadlocked, somewhat pedantic alpha of the relationship--affectionate to, but also visibly contemptuous of, his friend. With the help of Paul Steinberg's chessboard-inspired set, this production moved beyond the surface of Stoppard's wit and drew the audience into the strange world in which the two principal characters had been transported. (JB)

7 A Time to Speak, Performance Workshop Theatre

Just when you think there's nothing more to learn from one more memoir of a concentration-camp survivor, along comes the story of Helen Lewis, a Prague modern dancer who got caught up in the Final Solution. Lewis' story is both the usual one of the slide from a normal life into hell as the right-wing party in power kept chipping away at minority rights and the more rare tale of an artist who struggles to maintain a balance between her aesthetic pursuits and her personal trauma. Every artist must find a balance between the work and the life; Lewis' experience merely throws those choices into starker relief. The full measure of those choices was captured in director Sam McCready's smart adaptation of Lewis' memoir for the stage and in his wife Joan McCready's terrifically understated performance in this one-woman show. The fact that the McCreadys were both close friends of Lewis for many years only added to the production's vividness. (GH)

8 In the Heart of America, Rep Stage

This Naomi Wallace play doesn't provide closure or much of a plot--but neither did the Gulf War. Instead, she offers a dreamscape for the nightmare of American military adventurism, and not by way of preaching. In the Heart of America is ultimately an uncovering of a strange breed of cruelty and resentment that has lodged itself in the middle of the sunny American psyche. It's not necessarily what sells subscriptions--at least not according to conventional wisdom--but it is what makes people think twice. Rep Stage remains the most edgy, provocative professional venue in the area, and this skillfully acted production, directed by Kasi Campbell, reminds us why. (JB)

9 Richard III, Single Carrot Theatre

How to make people prick up their ears: 1) Take five members of a small, young, new theater company. 2) Toss them into the 27 parts of a murderous, politically serpentine, and sinisterly comic Shakespeare tragedy. 3) Shove it all into the intimately intimidating confines of Single Carrot Theatre's Load of Fun Studios in-the-round performance space. 4) Pressure cook entire contents under Brendan Ragan's shifty performance as the titular manipulator, a power hungry social climber who plots homicidal treachery with a soft-shoe grace. Yield: One ambitious re-imaging of an ornery classic. (Bret McCabe)

10 Hatful of Rain, Vagabond Players

When Michael Gazzo's play first appeared on Broadway in 1955, it was acclaimed for its rare, frank discussion of heroin. Half a century later, drug addiction is a show-biz cliché and what's most interesting about the play is not the taboo drugs but the taboo hugs--not the opiates in Johnny's bloodstream but the hormones racing through his neglected wife Celia and his frustrated brother Polo every time they see each other. This radical shift in the play's emphasis was accomplished by director Steve Yeager, who smartly used the cramped quarters at the Vagabond to amplify the cramped quarters of the Lower East Side apartment where all three live in uneasy proximity. As the wife and brother-in-law, Gina Dipeppe and Todd Krickler brilliantly captured that awkward territory where sexual desire pushes and guilty consciences pull. It was a reminder of the sparks that can be struck even in the city's old-line community theaters. (GH)

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The Year in News (12/9/2009)

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