2009: The year in theater

Stage worthies
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  December 21, 2009

THE SALT GIRL You couldn’t take your eyes off John Kuntz’s obsessive-compulsive loner — and that was before he put on the panda suit.

After an engagement of some 15 months (and a Best Revival Tony Award for her Broadway reprise of Hair), downtown New York theater star Diane Paulus finally became the bride of American Repertory Theater. And if the honeymoon dubbed "Shakespeare Exploded!" is any indication, it's a consummation devoutly to be wished. On the other side of the river, the divorce of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Citi Performing Arts Center became final, with CSC independently producing a plucky Comedy of Errors on Boston Common that was seen, free of charge, by 80,000 persons. Not all beleaguered theaters survive economic freefall and the vigorous knotting of the arts purse strings, however. Last spring saw the near-death experience of North Shore Music Theatre, which canceled its 2009 season, stiffed its subscribers, and got put on the auction block, only to be purchased by mortgage-holding Citizens Bank for a song (if not a dance). That drama may yet have a happy ending: William Hanney, proprietor of Rhode Island's Theatre by the Sea, has the 1500-seat venue under agreement and hopes to be back in show business by spring. A quick look at this past year proves he'll be in good company.

• Blowing up the Bard
From the druggy energy of The Donkey Show to the joyful noise of Best of Both Worlds to the shadowy, sensual assault of Sleep No More, the "SHAKESPEARE EXPLODED!" festival that introduced ART artistic director Paulus (and is still up and running) proved a triple shot of immersive excitement. Paulus and writer spouse Randy Weiner started us off with a '70s-disco riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream before transforming The Winter's Tale into a furious, oft-funny funk opera with an R&B/gospel score by Diedre Murray. Most intriguing, though, is Sleep No More, the site-specific art installation spread over four floors of Brookline's Old Lincoln School by the ART and the British troupe Punchdrunk. The show dips Macbeth into the sinister atmospherics of Alfred Hitchcock; experiencing it is like walking through a series of life-sized Joseph Cornell boxes, some exquisite in their own right, some filled with feverish, mostly wordless outcroppings of Shakespeare's Scottish play.

• The old regime
"No More Masterpieces" is the name of a much-invoked manifesto by ART founding artistic director Robert Brustein. One thought of that as, in a swan-song season for the old ART, Hungarian director János Szász detonated Chekhov with a production of THE SEAGULL that re-envisioned that compassionate 1896 tragicomedy as an angry, angst-ridden flashback by mama's boy and frustrated theater experimenter Treplev. There are, of course, exceptions to the no-more-masterpieces rule, and these include instances when the Beckett estate is looking over your shoulder. Hence Marcus Stern's scrupulously precise rendering of the master's bleak end-of-the-world vaudeville, ENDGAME. Plaintively, corrosively, insouciantly acted by Will LeBow, Thomas Derrah, Karen MacDonald, and Remo Airaldi, the production took only one liberty, supplying a final visual metaphor for that inevitable shove-off toward Hamlet's undiscovered country.

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