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Best on the boards
The best in theater for 2003

1) As You Like It (Wilbur Theatre)

Broadway in Boston and the Huntington Theatre Company teamed to bring us the eminent British director Sir Peter Hallís Theatre Royal Bath staging of Shakespeareís cavalcade of the varieties of love set in the Forest of Arden. Elegantly yet naturally spoken, the fleet production did not stint on either the elemental adversity of the Bardís bitter Arcadia or the somber currents running beneath the romantic comedy. And in her manís shirt and trilby, the directorís 21-year-old daughter, Rebecca Hall, gave the cross-dressed Rosalind an uncanny reading, gawky and giddy but as swamped in melancholy as Jaques.

2) Betrayal (Nora Theatre Company)

Scott Edmiston helmed a stylish 25th-anniversary revival of Harold Pinterís 1978 dissection of an extramarital affair that heads backward to an inception thatís little more halcyon than the autopsy. Janie Howlandís gallery-like set featured a photographic triptych of a recurring image from the play. Gail Astrid Buckleyís costumes ran backward from black and white to wine-red. And the acting, by Jason Asprey, Joe Pacheco, and Anne Gottlieb, summoned all the spite-edged ache of the deception-poisoned affair.

3) Butley (Huntington Theatre Company)

Director Nicholas Martinís coup for the year was procuring two-time Tony winner Nathan Lane for the title role in Britisher Simon Grayís 1971 play about a dissipated university professor for whom one-upmanship is a blood sport. Butley is less a perfect play than a brilliant character sketch; itís seldom revived because the role is so identified with Alan Bates, who played the middle-aged, alcoholic, acerb academic in full flame-out in the original production and the 1974 movie. But 30 years after Bates squatted on the role, it found another worthy tenant in the multi-faceted Lane, whose portrayal was less acid, more antic, his mean streak laced with an insouciant, childish charm.

4) La Dispute (American Repertory Theatre)

Adapted and directed by Anne Bogart and cohabited by her SITI Company and the ART, this boldly choreographed, vibrantly acted production made a fluid, absurdist vaudeville of French playwright Marivauxís 1744 comedy about a social experiment intended to gauge the relative fidelity of the sexes. Like some egghead Susan Stroman, Bogart opened with a witty and daring dance prologue: a Latin-tinged contact hovering between Louis XV and the Enlightenment. The play proper hovered between A Midsummer Nightís Dream and I Love Lucy, with the physically adept quartet of SITI actors at its core navigating an 18th-century Skinner Box of a Garden of Eden with a perfect mix of goofiness and grace.

5) 8 by Tenn (Hartford Stage Company)

Director Michael Wilson has proved particularly adept at Tennessee Williams, and this insightful two-evening sampler comprising eight of the Streetcar driverís one-act plays and spanning his career from 1937 to 1983 was no exception. A wild and valiant journey, it showed the poetical dramatist both formulating and breaking out of his identifiable mold to try out those of Ionesco and Beckett. And it featured indelible performances by Tony winners Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer and, especially, Hartford Stage vet Annalee Jefferies.

6) Hairspray and The Producers (Colonial Theatre)

Although short on profundity, these touring productions of big-time Tony winners did not leave us hankering for Broadway. Both the lavish, polished rendering of Mel Brooksís Ziegfeld-meets-Borscht-Belt gloss on his 1968 film about a couple of guys trying to make a fortune by overcapitalizing a sure-to-flop Broadway paean to Hitler and that of the high-energy musical (with book by Mark OíDonnell and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) based on the 1988 John Waters movie about a hefty teen out to integrate a Baltimore television show represented the Great White Way at its frivolous heights ó with some self-reflexive irony thrown in to keep things from seeming too retro.

7) Highway Ulysses (American Repertory Theatre)

The ART under artistic director Robert Woodruff isnít just out to reinvent the classics; itís out to create new work in a classical context. Woodruff helmed the multi-layered world premiere of this bleakly compelling music/theater piece written and composed by Rinde Eckert. A contemporary American riff on the Odyssey, it cast Homerís epic account of Odysseusís long trip home from the Trojan War in the equally long shadow of Vietnam and a musical idiom that mixed jazz, blues, rock, and new opera. Thomas Derrah was the post-traumatic-stress-disordered veteran slinking across a surreal America bearing a violent and troubling legacy to his son.

8) Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (Gloucester Stage Company) and Sweeney Todd (New Repertory Theatre)

True, the Belgian troubadour and the demon barber have little in common, but both of these musical revivals on intimate stages were outstanding. Scott Edmiston framed Brelís mix of songs melancholy and ebullient in a lonely Paris boîte, with Leigh Barrett, Drew Poling, Caroline deLima, and Eric Rubbe making small, exquisite dramas of each one. And Rick Lombardo bit off a huge mouthful in what many consider Stephen Sondheimís masterpiece, the through-sung 1979 "musical thriller" about a vengeful barber, cramming 24 singers-actors led by the full-throated Todd Alan Johnson and daintily murderous Nancy E. Carroll onto a stage roughly the size of a citizen-stuffed meat pie.

9) The Long Christmas Ride Home (Trinity Repertory Company)

For her first play since the Pulitzer-winning How I Learned To Drive, Paula Vogel mixed Thornton Wilder and Japanese noh to create an exquisite if flawed contemplation of the childhood roots of personality, dysfunction, and heartbreak in which past and future, East and West, actors and puppets shared the stage. In Oskar Eustisís world-premiere production of the play, which centers on the ride home from a particularly ugly family Christmas, the three puppet children of the first act, beautifully designed by Basil Twist, were manipulated by the actors who would later play their troubled adult selves; if anything, the puppets seemed more sorrowfully real than the people (whose stories are ultimately melodramatic). And the play was, like the best of Vogel, both ingenious and haunting.

10) Pacific Overtures (North Shore Music Theatre)

North Shore Music Theatre went way beyond Oklahoma! with this rare, resplendent revival of Stephen Sondheim & John Weidmanís audacious 1975 musical ó originally directed by Harold Prince and helmed here by Kent Gash ó about the opening of Japan to Western trade and culture. The book remains stiff, but the Japanese-tinged score is among Sondheimís most melodious, and it was well rendered by an all-Asian, mostly male cast sumptuously costumed by Paul Tazewell.

Issue Date: December 26, 2003 - January 1, 2004
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