Best of the decade: Theater

HEART-STOPPING: Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker in
HEART-STOPPING: Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker in "Passion." (Joan Marcus)
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By Peter Marks
Sunday, December 27, 2009

This was the decade of the Great Real Estate Rush, as virtually every major theater in these parts built itself a new place to put on plays. The construction dust finally settles next fall, with the scheduled reopening of Arena Stage's waterfront campus after an astonishing $125 million facelift. In the aftermath of the building boom, the region has some lovely new playhouses.

But with the economy limping and the audience pool essentially stagnant, some companies have been adjusting better than others to the pressures created by these spaces. The next few years will reveal what effect the huge focus on bricks and mortar will have had on the ambitions to elevate theater in this town -- and how much of what's to come will be as good as the best of what we've recently seen.

The best

1. "Passion," Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration (2002). A deeply insightful reconsideration of Stephen Sondheim's psychologically nuanced musical, and a revelatory facet of the most significant theater event at the center this decade.

2. "A Streetcar Named Desire," Kennedy Center (2009). The great Cate, as in Blanchett, was one of the many eye-opening features of Liv Ullmann's devastating, Sydney Theatre Company production.

3. "Measure for Measure," Folger Theatre (2006). A hauntingly beautiful, hypnotically up-to-date handling by Aaron Posner of a difficult play that did not so much fiddle with Shakespeare as illuminate him anew.

4. "Host and Guest," Synetic Theater (2002). Synetic has offered more lyrical evenings, particularly in its series of wordless Shakespeares, but this dance play about honor and savagery in the Caucasus Mountains was the piece that put the company indelibly on the map.

5. "Frozen," Studio Theatre (2006). Under David Muse's direction, a superb ensemble of Washington veterans -- Nancy Robinette, Andrew Long, MaryBeth Wise and later, Kimberly Schraf -- showed in this exploration of the mind of a child killer why talent in this town doesn't require a label marked "imported."

6. "August Wilson's 20th Century," Kennedy Center (2008). A monthlong marathon of the plays of one of the country's most important playwrights, the staged readings of the 10 works could have developed into static acting exercises. Instead, they were positively luminous.

7. "110 in the Shade," Signature Theatre (2003). Eric Schaeffer's effort to find intimate expression for large-scale musicals reached a deeply affecting peak with his treatment of this musical adaptation of "The Rainmaker," by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.

8. "King Lear," Shakespeare Theatre Company (2009). Along with Rebecca Bayla Taichman's "Taming of the Shrew" (2007) and Mary Zimmerman's "Pericles" (2004), Robert Falls's chillingly violent updating of this majestic tragedy exposed audiences to the best kind of modern (and post-modern) Shakespeare, courtesy of the city's premier classical troupe.

9. "Scenes From the Big Picture," Solas Nua (2007). Let's hear it for the small fry. With an energetic cast and the resourceful Des Kennedy as director, the scrappy folks at tiny Solas Nua (Gaelic for "New Light") put together this deeply invigorating excursion into the lives of Belfast's hard-pressed average citizens.

10. "Next to Normal," Arena Stage (2008). After a so-so reception off-Broadway, this bristling American musical drama about a family coping with mental illness came to Arena for a major retooling, then returned to the Big Apple for an acclaimed Broadway opening.

The worst

Not a production, a trend: The Post-Show Talk Back. There was a time when you saw a play and debated its merits afterward with your friends. Now, you remain in your seat and discuss its meaning with the cast. Yes, interactivity is everything these days, and theaters are increasingly desperate to add extra value to the steep ticket prices. But can't we go back to the days when a drama simply spoke for itself?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company