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Sweeping the stage

'Tis the season to be jolly, with all of the downtown theaters lit for the first time in years. Moreover, the American Repertory Theatre is at the top of its game, with a repertory of The Wild Duck, The King Stag, and (to avoid sounding like a zoo) Six Characters in Search of an Author. From Iolanthe to Arcadia, the Huntington Theatre Company has had a sparkling year. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre and SpeakEasy Stage Company both won Boston Theatre Awards, as did ART éminence Alvin Epstein for Sustained Excellence. The New Repertory acquired an apparently adventurous new artistic director in Rick Lombardo. And the Boston Globe acquired responsibility for critic Bill (Mad Dog) Marx. So what's to be a Scrooge about? There are enough of them on local stages (including perhaps the first transsexual Dickens miser in Trinity Rep's Anne Scurria). Instead, let's replace the Ten Best with a Baker's Dozen plus a list of performers who get kudos, not coal, in their stockings.

[All in the Timing]

All in the Timing (Merrimack Repertory Theatre)

David Zoffoli directed a crack comic ensemble -- Jeremiah Kissel, Bonnie Black, Phillip Patrone, Chloë Leamon, and Michael Poisson -- in the regional premiere of David Ives's six-play display of linguistic gymnastics whose balance beam stretched between Tom Stoppard and Monty Python.

[Angels in America]

Angels in America (Trinity Repertory Company)

Trinity Rep artistic director Oskar Eustis, who commissioned Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning "gay fantasia on national themes," finally got to do it his way, presenting first Part 1: Millennium Approaches and then Part 2: Perestroika in urgent, stripped down, strongly acted renditions that wound the various plot threads tighter than arch-villain Ray Cohn's political sphincter.

Arcadia (Huntington Theatre Company)

Tom Stoppard's dazzling swirl of gardening, physics, thermodynamics, sexual dynamics, literary sleuthing, and academic dueling was handsomely mounted, and director Jacques Cartier managed to marry its almost impossible articulateness to the tenderness that flows through it like Time itself.

Carousel (Shubert Theatre)

At last Brit director Nicholas Hytner's splendidly noir staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein's tuneful ode to battering and redemption reached us -- and it was worth the wait: sweet as cotton candy, dark as licorice, and dispensed by beautiful, mercifully uncranked voices.

Freedom of the City (Súgán Theatre Company)

Súgán, which specializes in contemporary Irish drama, turned in a simple but effective staging (by Carmel O'Reilly, who also gave a lilting performance) of this poignant, polemical effort by Dancing at Lughnasa author Brian Friel, a reminder than political plays can be written on something deeper than a placard.

Iolanthe (Huntington Theatre Company)

In Larry Carpenter's chamber staging, with choreography by Daniel Pelzig, Gilbert & Sullivan's romp for Peers and fairies proved to be as delightful in 1995 as it was in 1882.

Measure for Measure (Shakespeare & Company)

Tina Packer directed this steamy, intelligent Bare Bard staging, which featured just seven actors to watch "corruption boil and bubble/Till it o'errun the stew" in Shakespeare's fascinating dark comedy of sexual blackmail in Vienna.

Six Characters in Search of an Author (American Repertory Theatre)

The first at-home revival since its 1984 inception of Robert Brustein's haunting production of his own adaptation of Luigi Pirandello's influential 1921 riff on truth and artifice is a triumph for dramatic art, the ART, and plexiglass. (In repertory through January 14.)

Slaughter City (ART New Stages)

Ron Daniels helmed the American premiere of Kentucky poet Naomi Wallace's poetical/political drama set in a meat-packing plant. Literally and figuratively gutsy, the play may create more vegetarians than any work since The Jungle, but there's a lyrical surrealism ground into the sausage of its docudrama. And Daniels's spare, blood-spattered production captured the eerie, edgy atmosphere of a place where issues of sex and power drip along with the carcasses.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Huntington Theatre Company)

Charles Towers's im-Peckable staging of Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation of Harper Lee's novel succeeded marvelously not just at telling a story but as an evocation of time and place and childhood. And Tom Stechschulte was an Atticus whose terse comic timing matched his ethics.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (Colonial Theatre)

The Huntington Theatre Company, as part of its 15th-anniversary celebration, sponsored this touchdown by historian, actress, and mimic extraordinaire Anna Deavere Smith. The Obie-winning theater piece, culled from some 200 interviews with people connected to or expressing views on the LA riots that followed the acquittal of the four policemen who beat Rodney King, forms a Rubik's cube of racism in America -- dazzling, painful, funny, poetic, and profound.

Venus (Yale Repertory Theatre)

Suzan-Lori Parks blows another provocative riff on history in this carny meditation on sexuality, race, exploitation, exhibitionism, and beauty rooted in the true story of a South African woman displayed in the early 1800s in Europe as a combination freak and love goddess called "the Venus Hottentot" -- her claim to fame, buttocks "like hot-air balloons." Richard Foreman directed the production, which featured strong performances by Adina Porter, as our lady of the Brobdingnagian buns, and Boston's own Sandra Shipley as a nasty barker.

The Wild Duck (American Repertory Theatre)

Adapter Robert Brustein and director François Rochaix team up to balance the tragedy and comedy, 19th-century naturalism and poetic symbolism, of Henrik Ibsen's tricky masterwork in support of "the life lie." (In repertory through January 16.)

Class Actors

Barbara Blossom and Geraldine Librandi in 'night, Mother; Bill Camp and Michael Stuhlbarg in Long Day's Journey into Night; Gretchen Cleevely in Arcadia; David Cromwell in Hamlet; Faye Dunaway in Master Class; Jonathan Epstein in The Merry Wives of Windsor; Elizabeth Franz in Death of a Salesman; Will LeBow in The Wild Duck; Will Lyman and Stephen Largay in Equus; Brian McEleney and Timothy Crowe in Angels in America; Annette Miller in Mercy; Dee Nelson in The Scarlet Letter; Alice Playten in Punch & Judy Get Divorced; Mary Beth Peil in The Naked Eye; Marina Re in The Sisters Rosensweig; Jack Willis in Buried Child and The Wild Duck.

-- Carolyn Clay

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