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The best and worst of 2009: Theater

By Peter Marks
Sunday, December 20, 2009; E06

Best

1. "A Streetcar Named Desire," Kennedy Center.

Cate Blanchett's astonishing performance set a modern standard for a seminal American role.

2. "First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb," Signature Theatre.

The world premiere of a satiny revue directed by Eric Schaeffer that gave fresh relevance to a major pair of Broadway tunesmiths.

3. "King Lear," Shakespeare Theatre.

Transplanting the tragic king (Stacy Keach) to a disintegrating communist realm triggered a searing consideration of both a towering play and contemporary tribal violence.

4. "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," Forum Theatre.

Little company. Bold undertaking. Superior acting and direction.

5. "Eclipsed," Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Danai Gurira's original play about plucky women forced to live as concubines in an African rebel camp shed absorbing light on a subject rarely addressed on American stages.

6. "Jersey Boys," National Theatre.

The Tony-winning jukebox musical rocked the capital's underused Broadway-caliber house.

7. "Ragtime," Kennedy Center.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge stripped away the distracting froufrou of the 1998 original production and found a melodic show with an exhilarating, beating heart.

8. "Adding Machine: A Musical," Studio Theatre.

An on-target, off-center musical adaptation by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt that preserved the tense crosscurrents of Elmer Rice's expressionistic classic.

9. "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Synetic Theater.

The company's ongoing series of wordless versions of Shakespeare was advanced in mesmerizing fashion by this visually arresting movement piece.

10. "Ph├Ędre," Shakespeare Theatre.

A world-class star, Helen Mirren, was the catalyst for a breathtaking treatment of Racine and an important visit to the city by the National Theatre of Great Britain.

SPECIAL CITATION: the staged readings of "Seven Jewish Children," Theater J & Forum Theatre.

Theater J's artistic director, Ari Roth, put Caryl Churchill's provocative one-act play under the microscope, yielding up the year's most illuminating examination of the juncture of art and propaganda.

Worst

1. "Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano," Arena Stage.

A benchmark low point for the touring show-tune revue.

2. "[Expletive] A," Studio 2ndStage.

Suzan-Lori Parks's Brechtian mishmash was a drag on every level.

3. "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Round House Theatre.

A hyperventilating modern-day take that was a lot less than Wilde.

4. "King of the Jews," Olney Theatre Center.

This disturbingly tin-eared Holocaust drama turned a sobering subject into hokum.

5. "As You Like It," Shakespeare Theatre.

Blinded by love of Hollywood imagery, the imaginative director Maria Aitken veered chaotically off track.

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