Top Ten in Theater, 2012 Edition

December 7, 2012

The top 10 productions, trends and events in the full and hectic life of Washington theater in 2012:

1. “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”,

Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

The year’s most ingenious theater piece. Playwright Anne Washburn (“The Internationalists”), in concert with director Steven Cosson, turned “The Simpsons” into the stuff of post-apocalyptic mythology. In the years after a nuclear cataclysm, survivors of an America in ashes recounted from memory the “Cape Fear” episode of the TV cartoon series; over time, a game of cultural “telephone” began muddying details of the story. But it did so in ways that sneakily and scintillatingly illuminated the values of American society, in a disturbingly and brilliantly conceived future.

2. “Astro Boy and the God of Comics”,

Studio Theatre.

A feat of exhilarating imagineering, the performance piece heralded the emergence of director/writer/technical whiz Natsu Onoda Power as a captivating force in Washington theater. Almost as much ingenuity was apparent in this 70-minute exploration of the work and life of “Astro Boy’s” visionary animator Osamu Tezuka as is displayed in the design of a Mars rover. Having actors sketch onstage, as others interacted with animated movies and 3-D cartoon figures, transformed the theater from a Studio in name only to one where experimental breakthroughs truly can happen.


A scene from “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.” (Scott Suchman/ Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
3. “Beertown”,

Dog & Pony DC.

The planting of a time capsule may rank among the most prosaic of civic events. But the audience-participation advocates at tiny Dog & Pony DC — one of the smartest young companies in the city —made it their mission to show how a Midwestern town meeting convened for a public vote on the contents of a capsule (shaped like a beer barrel), could be a profound, highly entertaining lesson in democracy’s group dynamics. The success of the piece, produced in a Woolly Mammoth rehearsal space on a budget that wouldn’t pay the monthly electric bill for some bigger theaters, renewed one’s faith that ingenuity knows no price point.

4. “Really Really”,

Signature Theatre.

Here, in the region’s leading musical factory was built the world-premiere production of a sharp new play by Paul Downs Colaizzo that looked at college- age members of Generation Me, curled its upper lip and uttered a persuasive “Yuck.” A smashing cast under Matthew Gardiner’s direction skillfully navigated Colaizzo’s clever narrative maze of misleading intersections and blind alleys, in a provocative tale of sexual violence and ruthless self-advancement among our nation’s overly entitled youth. (David Cromer directs it in its off-Broadway premiere at MCC Theater in January.)

5. “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”,

Shakespeare Theatre Company.

It’s difficult to overstate the debt D.C. playgoers owe to this classical company with a healthy appetite for sealing deals in Europe. This hunger has led the troupe to regularly supplement the local theater diet with vital pieces from across the sea, among them: “Black Watch,” Helen Mirren in “Phedre,” John Hurt in “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” Now to that roster it added “Prudencia Hart,” a site-specific play from the National Theatre of Scotland, set in a Scottish bar. For the run here, Shakespeare turned the Bier Baron Tavern near Dupont Circle into a temporary playhouse. The results were joyous for spectators, who watched and listened as five actors roved among them, spinning a tall tale with music about a researcher into Scottish border ballads and her date with the devil.

6. “The Normal Heart”,

Arena Stage.

Larry Kramer’s devastating 1985 AIDS play received the marvelous Broadway treatment it always deserved in 2011, thanks to a flawless revival by director George C. Wolfe that rewardingly wrung audiences out. He restaged that version for Arena in June, with a couple of actors from the New York production and many new recruits. In all aspects its wrenching impact remained intact. Patrick Breen, Luke Macfarlane and Patricia Wettig played the central roles, all with the passion Kramer infused the piece, and with the effect of confirming it as one of the great American plays of the late 20th Century.

7. Haute Puppetry.

Felt was the fabric of the year in the most fashionable theater salons in town. And the wearers of it had no idea they were causing such a stir. Puppets never do. But in “War Horse” at the Kennedy Center, and in the four productions around the city that comprised the Basil Twist Festival, unseen (or barely seen) actors and puppeteers made it seem as if it was inanimate materials that deserved the ovation. The goal might have been, as in “War Horse,” to give lifelike characteristics to life-size equine puppets, or in Twist’s “Petrushka,” to have chickens dance and Russian onion domes sway to the music of Igor Stravinsky. But beyond the dazzling images was the convincing case made for puppet masters as artistic virtuosos.

8. Locally Grown Theater.

No organizations have committed themselves so ardently to the cause of playwrights who make a life in Washington as Theater J and the Capital Fringe Festival, the latter an annual summer showcase of 100-plus shoestring productions, many of them laced together by local theater people. This year, that dedication rooted itself in city soil with especially impressive results. At the Fringe, for example, the scrappy D.C. merrymakers of Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue unveiled “The Brontes,” their saucy, raucous and witty rock concert-as-literary satire. Under Rick Hammerly’s direction, the sharp songs of Steve McWilliams and Debra Buonaccorsi found an enjoyably cheeky outlet. One can only hope that their talents will be supported by larger institutions, for more shows and longer runs. At Theater J, meanwhile, intrepid Artistic Director Ari Roth launched the Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Festival, featuring staged readings of plays by Washington playwrights and a fully staged run of Renee Calarco’s “The Religion Thing.” It was no chink in the achievement that some dramaturgical work was left to be done; the important element was the establishment of a pipeline for output from a diverse region brimming with stories and writers who want to tell them.

9. “The Servant of Two Masters”,

Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Giving a good name to the extravagant exertions of commedia dell’arte is a mission very much in vogue these days, due to the efforts of local companies like commedia-focused Faction of Fools — and offerings like the version of this Carlo Goldoni play that lightened hearts in the Lansburgh Theatre. A priceless Steven Epp, as the addled aide of the title, held comic court in the production, originally staged with a few cast variations at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Christopher Bayes’s direction showed that to enjoy broad physical comedy, one needn’t check one’s brain at the door.

10. Fine Old Musicals, Finely Packaged.

Two musicals tied to history — one involving the real people of the American Revolution (“1776”) and the other, fictitious denizens of the pop music industry of the ’60s and ’70s (“Dreamgirls”) — were so skillfully revived on local stages this year, they did special honor to this indigenous American theater form. The “1776” at Ford’s Theatre gratifyingly marshaled the abilities of a huge cast, serenading us with the frisky tunes of Sherman Edwards and revealing the ripe directorial talents of Peter Flynn. At Signature Theatre, success arrived in the form of Matthew Gardiner’s revival of “Dreamgirls”.Nova Y. Payton’s Effie White reminded audiences of the gangbusters wallop of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” And Cedric Neal, as the fading R&B star Jimmy Early, introduced Signature fans in the Christmas season to yet another performer bearing star-kissed gifts.

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Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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