Time again to look back over the year in Tampa Bay area theater and choose the best homegrown productions. My Top 10 list for 2014 looks like this:
1. The Normal Heart, freeFall Theatre. Larry Kramer’s courageous cri de coeur is about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when President Reagan and Mayor Koch wouldn’t mention it, the New York Times wouldn’t publicize it, and gay New Yorkers wouldn’t protect themselves from it. In freeFall’s scorching production, Eric Davis was a furious Ned Weeks, striving vociferously to warn the world about the new plague and being obstructed at every turn by indifferent politicians and closeted friends. Call it the Theater of Outrage.
2. Two Trains Running, American Stage. On the surface, Two Trains is about Memphis, who owns a diner, and the men and women who eat and work there. But August Wilson’s real subject is the mysterious beauty of his African-American characters, their luminous spirits and their stubborn endurance. Lovingly directed by Bob Devin Jones, actors Kim Sullivan, Alan Bomar Jones and others brought the late author’s vision to us with an artistry that was apropos of everything.
3. An Iliad, Gorilla Theatre. This near-perfect stage monologue isn’t just about Achilles and Patroclus and Hector and that crew; it’s about the strange animal aggression that we carry in our blood and that has made war a staple of human history for the last 4000 years. Playing everyone from Homer himself to Andromache and her son Astyanax, Brendan Ragan was tender, livid, grief-stricken, insane, plaintive, vicious — in short, brilliantly multifarious. Ami Sallee directed with shattering success.
4. Return to the Forbidden Planet, Jobsite Theater and the Straz Center. This raucously silly sci-fi musical had a host of Bay area theater regulars acting their hearts out while singing “Great Balls of Fire,” “Good Vibrations” and “A Teenager in Love.” It also offered a slew of Shakespeare misquotes, including “To beep or not to beep.” Deep down, Return was really a celebration of local theater’s continuing vitality. What a party!
5. God of Carnage, American Stage. Yasmina Reza’s hilarious comedy is about two couples who meet to discuss a fight between their 11-year-old boys. Problem is, these adults are less civilized than their children, and before the evening ends, they grant us a picture of malice and chaos that the kids couldn’t have dreamed. With Bay area favorites Katherine Michelle Tanner and Brian Shea playing along with Billy Edwards and Cathy Schenkelberg, this was an uproarious treat.
6. The Chosen, American Stage. It’s not many plays that deliver as much as does Aaron Posner’s intelligent adaptation of Chaim Potok’s beloved novel. In two short acts, we get two Jewish youths’ friendship, their rebellions against their fathers, the study of Talmud, the conflict between types of psychology, and the founding of Israel in the shadow of the Holocaust. T. Scott Wooten’s direction was superb and, as the two boys, David Friedman and Justin LeVine were first-rate.
7. The Divine Sister, Stageworks. Matthew McGee is the Bay area’s reigning comic (and cross-dresser), and as the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s Convent and School, he couldn’t have been funnier. Charles Busch’s script brought us respectful parodies of every nun who ever crossed a stage or screen, and Karla Hartley’s direction was a hyper-campy tribute not only to the text but to McGee’s talent. Add Frank Chavez’s stunningly churchy set and you get an
8. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Tampa Repertory Theatre. The main story here was simmering Dahlia Legault as Maggie the Cat and rising star Nathan Jokela as alcoholic Brick in Tennessee Williams’s classic look at Mendacity and Mortality in the Mean Modern South. Can indefatigable Maggie get her contemptuous husband back to bed? Yes — if she can only find a 100-proof quid pro quo. Jim Wicker and Jeanne M. Adams provided talented support.
9. The Mikado, freeFall Theatre. It was director Eric Davis’s bright idea to present this classic Gilbert and Sullivan romp with an all-male cast, and the gambit worked swimmingly. Glenn Gover and Patrick Ryan Sullivan were terrific playing male Ko-Ko and the title character, but so were Emanuel Carrero as everyone’s favorite girl Yum-Yum, and Matthew McGee as nightmare bride Katisha. G&S would have been proud.
10. Disenchanted!, Straz Center. The real point of this visit with famous Disney women was its protest against the ghettoization of female potential. So in this delightful musical (book, music, and lyrics by Dennis T. Glacino) we watched Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas and others explain why “Happily ever after can be a royal pain in the ass.” Can catchy music and intelligent lyrics get sexist Prince Charming off his pedestal? Yes they can: Disenchanted! was bold feminist theater.