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Year in Theater: Staged right

Changing of the local guard
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  December 22, 2008

ANGELS IN AMERICA: Boston Theatre Works’ blisteringly natural revival couldn’t keep the company solvent.

It's been a Buckingham Palace season on the local rialto, with a changing of the guard at both the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theatre and another under way at New Repertory Theatre, whose artistic director, Rick Lombardo, heads for California to lead San Diego Rep. There's no word on Lombardo's successor, but Peter DuBois took over in July for HTC honcho Nicholas Martin (who moved to the helm of the Williamstown Theatre Festival before suffering a stroke in September, from which he is expected to make a full recovery).

Across the river at the ART, Obie winner Diane Paulus took over in October, after a protracted search for a successor to Harvard-ousted visionary Robert Woodruff. The acclaimed director of theater and opera is currently manning the moving van that will transport her hit Public Theater revival of Hair from Central Park to Broadway. She has yet to announce her first ART season, which will commence in the fall of 2009. But there is hope that the downtown New York theater star will reprise — or add to — the genre-busting crossover works that have made her name, among them The Donkey Show, a 1970s disco riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream that ran for six years Off Broadway. Roll over, Shakespeare; tell Donna Summer the news.

On a more frustrating note: the 10-year-old Boston Theatre Works followed its blisteringly natural revival of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning Angels in America by . . . going out of business. In financial straits, the feisty troupe cancelled the rest of its season, and artistic director Jason Southerland has moved to Chicago's Next Theatre Company. But lest we get either pissed off or maudlin, the beat does go on. Among the bangs and whistles were these.

Regards from Broadway
If the street where you live is Washington, on which the Opera House resides, February brightened it with the Trevor Nunn–directed National Theatre of Great Britain revival of the sparkling Shavian musical MY FAIR LADY. Pygmalion couldn't have asked for better than Lerner & Loewe, whose 1956 classic was elegantly reproduced right down to the towering architecture of Covent Garden. More obscure but just as charming is Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick's evanescent 1963 show SHE LOVES ME, which Nicholas Martin made his warm, lavish swan song at the Huntington. And Broadway shows don't get more iconic than the 1927 SHOW BOAT, which Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II built on Edna Ferber's novel. Like the Mississippi, the gorgeous score just keeps rolling along, and the North Shore Music Theatre made the full-throated most of it.

Acting Shakespeare
Hamlet had some things to say about the thespian art, and works by the Bard are a great place to show it off. The highlight of Shakespeare & Company's season was a powerful OTHELLO manned by John Douglas Thompson's breaking heart of a Moor, Michael Hammond's hail-fellow Iago, and Merritt Janson's fatally naive Desdemona. Melia Bensussen directed Actors' Shakespeare Project's money-mad THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, which was dominated by Jeremiah Kissel's Shylock — in the beginning a crafty kibitzer you might meet at a bar mitzvah, later an avenger you might meet in a nightmare.

Recorded history
British eminence Tom Stoppard crammed not just his record library but Sapphic poetry, human passion, Cold War espionage, and 22 years of Czech history filtered through a lens of disappointed English Marxism into ROCK 'N' ROLL. And the Huntington Theatre Company, in a co-production with American Conservatory Theater, located the heart as well as the cerebrum of this emotionally and politically complex play punctuated by exhilarating bursts of the title commodity. On a smaller scale, playwright Lydia R. Diamond visited African, continental, and interior shores in VOYEURS DE VENUS, a theatrical amalgam of history, spectacle, nightmare, minstrelsy, and the search for racial identity built on the story of Saartjie Baartman, the 19th-century South African woman exploited as the Hottentot Venus. Company One gave the complex work a credible treatment, complete with stereotype-twisting song and dance.

Crossover hits
The title character of Sarah Ruhl's EURYDICE crosses over to a limbo where memory evaporates and the shade of her dead father sets out to teach our heroine a new language. Rick Lombardo's New Repertory Theatre production captured the quirky, otherworldly charm — as well as the deeper yearnings — of Ruhl's magical journey. Also sticking a toe in the Styx was Obie-winning writer/performer/professor Anna Deavere Smith, whose LET ME DOWN EASY was presented by the American Repertory Theatre. More diffuse than Smith's earlier exemplars of interview-based theater, the work began as an exploration of the resilience and the vulnerability of the human body. But the human spirit proved impossible to ignore as Smith sleuthed for that ineffable something that gets us to the other side. Not all encounters with the occult are serious, of course, as Trinity Repertory Company proved with artistic director Curt Columbus's elegantly pithy revival of Noël Coward's sûance-induced mûnage-a-troisBLITHE SPIRIT.

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Related: Primary colors, Best on the boards, Best on the boards, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Anna Deavere Smith, BLITHE SPIRIT, Broadway,  More more >
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