Hearts and souls (and laughs too)

The 10 best theater productions of 2009
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 22, 2009

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IN CHARACTER Shea in I Am My Own Wife.

It's been a good year for theater around here — an ingeniously roasted dramatic chestnut here, a new and safely landed flight of fancy there. Below are 10 productions that particularly stood out.

Of course, that's an arbitrary number and leaves out other memorable evenings. Reviews on these pages called Gamm's Grace a "thunderously rapturous production" and concluded that Center Stage did an "absorbing rendition" of Doubt. A play at 2nd Story Theatre is noted below, but their You Can't Take It With You and Harvey tentatively also got on the list. Trinity Rep? A Raisin In the Sun and Cabaret arguably should be below. Nevertheless, among the best accomplishments, chosen for variety and venue, are the following, in order of appearance.

Inventive theatricality caught our attention at the beginning of the year with Elemental Theatre's wild and whimsical Deca*go*go at Perishable Theatre. The deal was for playwrights Dave Rabinow and Alexander Platt to pull five random elements (mice, a disease, a dirty joke, a mask, and torture) out of a hat and use one in each of 10 short plays, writing each within three days. In Rabinow's retelling, Greek seer Tiresius isn't sure whether Hera blinded him for seeing her naked or for telling an especially bad joke. Bada-bing.

An old warhorse put through nifty new paces, Trinity Rep's The Importance of Being Earnest was an authoritative rendition, as directed by Beth F. Milles. It might have been déjà vu all over again, but it had clever nuances, such as Angela Brazil presenting Edwardian-era Gwendolen as, well, horny.

Instead of herding cats, as it could have come across, Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian's The Other Shore was clear and affecting in Brown University's Sock & Buskin production. The modern Buddhist parable gave us an Everyman searching for the meaning of life. Director Kym Moore had three actors playing him, reminding us that we grow into virtually different people as we morph along our paths. Similarly, she had the 13 actors of the cast in a lengthy pre-show hanging out together, just being themselves before turning to another social task at hand: playing their roles.

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LIFE-AND-DEATH AND DIGNITY Budd (bottom) in Brain.

Finessing our compassion fatigue with humor and lack of self-pity, the Perishable Theatre world premiere of Amy Lynn Budd's long-worked-on autobiographical The Thing That Ate My Brain was brisk, brief, and informative. We learned about brain tumors, but more significantly we also were shown how life-and-death personal matters can be shared with dignity. Budd played herself and kept her fear all the more resonant for being unstated, presenting the history of the disease tongue-in-cheek, as directed by 1950s schlockmeister Ed Wood.

A similarly dangerous venture into territory that could get overwrought with unconvincing emotion, Sam Shepard's Fool for Love got as honest and affecting a presentation as I've seen, at Roger Williams University. Obsessive love should come with an surgeon general's warning. Directed by Dorisa Boggs, Kevin Killavey and Ruth Sullivan gave understated performances that came through loud and clear.

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