Seen In Boston Area Theatres
January to December 2004

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Despite economic pressures and the election, it's been a busy year for theatre in the Boston area. The few smaller theatre groups fading into hiatus have been replaced by other up and coming attempts. The big downtown venues housed mostly musicals, the most interesting being an under-appreciated Urinetown early in the year. The two large "companies" housed at B.U. and Harvard offered their usual fare. The Huntington's most successful import was locally-known playwright Theresa Rebeck's monodrama "Bad Dates" also early in the year. Across the river, the ART had an generally effective revival last March of Pinter's "The Birthday Party" giving veteran actor Thomas Derrah one of his best parts in years. His Bottom in an otherwise dismal "Midsummer..." just before was also solid.

North Shore Music Theatre's North American premiere of a revised version of George Stiles & Paul Leigh's "Tom Jones", based on Henry Fielding's classic novel was the most interesting effort in that genre of the year. The show still has a ways to go, but might just reappear one of these days, though both Stiles and Leigh have other irons in the fire. Early in the season, the New Rep's "Threepenny Opera", essentially an adaptation of an adaptation also pushed the envelope and was successful more than half the time, thanks to a stellar cast including IRNE winners Leigh Barrett as Pirate Jenny and Nancy E. Carroll as Mrs. Peachum. Over at the Footlight Club, this historical community theatre did an expansive production of Ahrens & Flaherty's "Ragtime" which was impressive in all aspects, drawing from surrounding communities. Both "Tom Jones" and "Ragtime", however, would be better served by a three act structure. In May, William Finn's song-cycle "Elegies", with a strong cast including Barrett confirmed Speakeasy's skill at presenting current musical theatre.

This fall both the Lyric Stage Company and Speakeasy opened with modern classics by Stephen Sondheim. Lyric did a musically impeccable "A Little Night Music" with Christopher Chew and Irne winner Maryann Zschau as the lead couple, plus Barrett and her compatriot from last season's success "Jacques Brel", Drew Poling right behind, and IRNE winner Bobbie Steinbach as Mme. Arnfelt. Speakeasy inaugurated the Robert's Studio in the Calderwood Pavilion, the BCA's expanded theatre space, with that icon of urban angst, "Company". This strong revival featured Michael Mendiola as commitment-phobic Bobby, plus Carroll toasting "The Ladies Who Lunch"--while the originator of that role was doing her one-woman show down the block--and strong cast of Speakeasy hands including Sarah Chase, "Bat Boy"'s love interest, Kerry Dowling "Bat Boy"'s mother, Julie Jirousek seen in "Passion", regular Will McGarrahan, IRNE winnerSean McGuirk from "A Man of No Importance", Merle Perkinsnominated for "The Wild Party" , and Elaine Theodore , seen last season in "Our Lady of 121st St."

New plays continue to appear, many associated with B.U.'s Graduate Playwriting Program headquartered at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. "The Gigolo Confessions of Baile Breag", the third and most ambitious part of Ronan Noone's trilogy, premiered under Carmel O'Reilly's direction for Sugan at the BCA. The small cast with Miguel Cervantes in his second Irish role, intense Judith McIntyre in her first strong role of the season and IRNE-winner Billy Meleady to hold the action together gave a powerful rendition of this difficult script which mixes the past and the present while including poetry and song. Noone's award-winning first play, "The Lepers of Baile Baiste", has been produced in L.A. & Chicago, and well-received Off-Broadway for a limited run. This fall, the larger theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, the Wimberley, was inaugurated by the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Sonia Flew", Melinda Lopez's unique drama about children sent away from Castro's Cuba in the early days of that regime. The show ran successfully at least twice as long as most BCA offerings. "Sonia Flew" has been nominated for American Theatre Critics Association's annual ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award. And in the middle of Boston Playwright's own three play fall season, artistic director Kate Snodgrass presented a revised version of "The Glider", an tightly-focused family drama featuring Birgit Huppuch now working in New York, Norton winner Laura Latreille on a quick visit from Canada, and Kimberley Parker Green, a B.U. grad working in D.C. All three appeared at Boston Playwrights' last season.

Interesting productions of a variety of established works showed up downtown and elsewhere. Sugan did Owen McCaffrey's "Mojo Mickeybo" with Colin Hamell and Billy Meleady as two young friends from the opposing sides in Belfast at the BCA. Boston Theatre Works presented a strong production of locally-born David LIndsay-Abaire's "Kimberly Akimbo" with Judith McIntyre in the title role in Boston Playwrights Studio A. The JCC in Newton imported Oregon's Tears of Joy Theatre with their puppet production of Mark Levenson's version of S.Ansky's "The Dybbuk - Between Two Worlds". The adaptation is a prime example of how effective contemporary direct-contact puppet manipulation can be in extending the range of theatrical possibility. Over in Chelsea, TheatreZone, in their handsome space adapted from an old Oddfellows hall, revived Sam Shepherd's quasi-autobiographical "The Curse of the Starving Class". Early this fall, the Nora Theatre continued working at Boston Playwrights' presenting Richard McElvain's modern-dress adaptation of Sophocles' "Antigone" with award-winner McElvain as Creon, again in Studio A.

Out in the suburbs in their antique jewelbox theatre, the Vokes Players did very effective productions of both Steve Martin's absurdist "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and Michael Hollinger's blithely bawdy religious farce "Incorruptible" using regulars and friends. Last winter the Wellesley Summer Theatre did the American premiere of Polly Teale's "After Mrs. Rochester" with Lisa Foley as the older Jean Rhys and company stalwart Alicia Kahn as her younger self. At the end of the spring, this professional company revived the play to run in repertory with Teale's adaptation of Jane Eyre which they'd done two seasons ago with Kahn again in the title role. Adventurous theatre goers found a wealth of unique productions around the area, such as Stoneham Theatre's area premiere of Richard Goldberg's "The Dazzle", which was only somewhat less successful than their production this fall, the first after its NY opening last season, of Goldberg's "The Violet Hour." Neil Casey appeared in both, IRNE winner Anne Gottlieb was in former, Nathaniel McIntyre and Stacy Fischer appropriately enough, played the couple at the center of the latter.

Many Shakespeare productions this year took place in the summer and were duly noted. The event of the fall was The Actor's Shakespeare Project's inaugural production of "Richard the Third" with John Kuntz as the homicidal king. Planning to be peripetatic, the group under founder Benjamin Evett's direction used historical Old South Meeting House quite effectively for a modern-dress interpretation, which included Marya Lowry playing Buckingham, Paula Plum in Chanel as Margaret, and a hand-to-hand fight to the death between Richard and the director playing Richmond at the end. Last spring there were several versions of "Romeo and Juliet". The most interesting were Mill6's four man--or boy--version of Joe Calarco's adaptation directed by Barlow Adamson. Mention should be made of Elizabeth Wightman's August production in the coffeehouse at MIT using University staffers with less than a dozen actor's doubling and tripling. The most winning effort of the summer was Trinity Rep's outdoor touring production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona", a slapstick family-oriented show that actually made this under-produced early effort from the Bard work.

Some of the show's listed above are obviously contenders for local awards this coming spring. For one reason or another, elements of these remain more vivid in memory among the hundred or so performances seen this year, and in some way will serve as a measure of those to come.

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