As a teacher of drama, I sometimes find it difficult to get off my academic high-horse and separate the elements of a play — themes, symbols, motifs, etc. — and ask myself if a play I’m seeing is a really good show. Does the production cohere? Does it grab the audience? Does it, above all, entertain?
This past season left nothing to be desired. In consultation with fellow theater reviewers Paul Lamar and Matthew G. Moross, I have compiled this list of the best of the best for the past year. Matthew put it best: “2011 proved a great year for local theater, leaving many productions to admire and celebrate.”
Here, in alphabetical order by theater, are our picks.
Albany Civic Theater neatly bookended 2011 with a well-done “Proof” last winter and heartfelt and touching production of Brian Friel’s masterwork, “Faith Healer” last month.
Barrington Stage Co.’s gripping production of Lee Blessing’s seldom-seen two-hander, “Going to St. Ives,” showcased two actresses, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Gretchen Egolf, at the top of their game. This seemingly innocent conversation of two women from different worlds touching on issues both urgent and universal, carefully and stealthily unfolded into a horrific and shocking climax that continues to chill many months later.
Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Greg Keller’s startling new drama, “Dutch Masters,” was a highlight of the year. Keller’s modern riff of Albee’s “Zoo Story” crackled and sparked with an organic edge that is hard to manufacture. Creating a shocking and memorable piece of theater, Keller brilliantly explores what we lose, what we bury, how well we hide it.
Capital Repertory Theatre’s “Uptown Downtown,” satisfied completely. Leslie Uggams was in the house — and how! There were no musical compromises even after decades in the business. And can she act.
Mac-Haydn Theatre served up its usual array of well-done musicals this past summer, but its production of “The King and I” was a true theatrical thrill. The set carried the audience from the pastoral splendor of Chatham’s countryside to the colorful environs of exotic Siam. Performances by Andrew Hasegawa, Lisa Franklin and the dancers in the endearing ballet “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” better known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” stole the show.
The Schenectady Civic Players must get a mention with their production of “Leading Ladies.” Much of the credit for the success of the production must go to the “leading ladies” of the title. Jimmy Cupp as Jack and Paul Dederick as Leo are spectacularly talented as both actors and as female impersonators.
They delight as they argue comically about who is the more attractive female.
Schenectady Light Opera Company’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.” This Tony winner was SLOC’s debut in their new home on Franklin St., with a large and talented cast. It is a funny and endearing paean to the musical itself.
The Theater Barn in New Lebanon had a powerhouse production of “Stones in His Pockets.” This memorable play tells the story of a Hollywood troupe that comes to a rural Irish village to film a movie and decides the town and the cottagers who inhabit it just aren’t Irish enough. The play is funny and touching and offers the enticing conceit of two actors playing all 15 roles, including a zaftig Hollywood diva and “the last surviving extra from ‘The Quiet Man.’ ” Trey Compton and Matthew Daly give all-out, star-turn performances.
Williamstown Theatre Festival offered a rare viewing of Oliver Goldsmith’s sassy 18th century comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer.” Mistaken identities and zany characterizations fuel this still-stylish show. Director Nicholas Martin allowed his actors to play their parts as broadly as the text demands while inserting nuances that appeal to 20th century theatrical taste. It is a priceless combination of style and symmetry.
Williamstown must get another nod with its production of “Three Hotels.” Not only was the acting superb but the set, by Thomas Lynch, was a masterpiece of design and engineering. It was quite simply, astounding!
— Gazette theater reviewer Carol King