Year in Theater: Staged right

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  December 22, 2008

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.

SpeakEasy does it
SpeakEasy Stage Company has come a long way since its low-budget beginnings, branching into musicals and scoring area premieres of decorated imports — which this season included Alan Bennett's Tony-winning THE HISTORY BOYS and Conor McPherson's Tony-nominated THE SEAFARER. Scott Edmiston was at the helm of an ace production of Bennett's grammar-school-set teachers' duel between knowledge for its own sake and teaching to the test. And jack-of-all-things-Celtic Carmel O'Reilly directed McPherson's booze-saturated, Dublin-set Christmas Eve poker game with the Devil.

Who's afraid of Edward Albee?
Not Spiro Veloudos or Charles Towers, artistic directors of, respectively, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston and Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Veloudos helmed an elegant yet tender revival of Albee's 1994 Pulitzer-winning THREE TALL WOMEN, a tall order based on one tall woman: the playwright's imperious adoptive mother. Towers harked back to a previous Pulitzer winner, Albee's 1967 existential drawing-room comedy A DELICATE BALANCE, which he directed in a perfectly cast and calibrated production.

AIDS as inspiration
It's been 15 years since the Broadway triumph of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning 1980s-set "gay fantasia on national themes," ANGELS IN AMERICA, and five years since Mike Nichols's star-studded HBO mini-series. But co-directors Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis proved with this Boston Theatre Works revival — low on apocalyptic effects but high on fine acting by young unknowns — that Angels can dance on the head of a pin. AIDS also raises its head in the 2005 IN THE CONTINUUM, in which a Zimbabwean newscaster and an LA teen inflicted with the disease share similar challenges in disparate circumstances. Akiba Abaka directed the explosive Up You Mighty Race rendering of the melded monologues by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter.

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