The top 10 plays of the decade: Wild Party, Cloud Nine and more

3. ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (Jobsite Theater, 2008). Tom Stoppard’s famous comedy, about Hamlet as experienced by two minor characters, was brilliantly presented by a Jobsite troupe led by David M. Jenkins and Shawn Paonessa as the titular R. and G. Jenkins was the sillier one, finding humor in existential angst, but Paonessa was the crucial other side of the coin, sorely troubled by his inability to know the meaning of his suffering. Challenging them both was the incomparable Paul Potenza as the depraved, flamboyant head Player, an expert at performing death. A production to savor.

[image-1]4. THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? (Jobsite Theater, 2006). Martin Gray is happily married, gets on well with his gay adolescent son, is a celebrated architect — and is having an affair with a goat. Yes, a sexual affair (though he loves his furry friend, too). Is he insane? Are we free to judge? As infatuated, misunderstood Martin, Steven Clark Pachosa (in photo) gave the performance of a lifetime, and as his outraged wife Stevie, Monica Merryman (also pictured) was impeccable. Karla Hartley directed with the utmost seriousness — thus bringing out the comedy — and made sure that Edward Albee’s play provoked a review of our deepest principles. What’s at the core of things: law or anarchy? If you didn’t ask yourself, you weren’t watching.

5. PROOF (American Stage, 2005). There’s a beauty in ensemble acting, when each performer shines but the collective shines even more brightly. And this was the great virtue of American Stage’s Proof, a drama about mathematics, madness and trust. Four dazzlingly inspired actors — Katherine Michelle Tanner, Brian Shea, Julie Rowe and Tom Nowicki — worked together seamlessly, illuminating David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning text, and reminding us that our most dangerous prejudices are the ones we don’t know we have. The play was intelligent — but the acting was genius.

[image-2]6. ANNA IN THE TROPICS (American Stage, 2004). Artistic Director Todd Olson had been at American Stage little more than a year when he brought Anna, set in Ybor City, to the stage with an astonishing realism. Cuban-American author Nilo Cruz may have been writing about the 1920s, but Olson’s staging was so immediate, you could smell the tobacco (in Jeff Dean’s set of a small cigar factory), the sweat and the lust. An Ybor love triangle, a novel by Tolstoy, the sultry Tampa climate … We might have been on Seventh Avenue 80 steamy years ago. (Photo: Karen Garcia and Joe Masi)

7. A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN (American Stage, 2003). Eugene O’Neill’s classic play, about the doomed and haunted James Tyrone and the woman who loves him, Josie Hogan, was wonderfully performed by Ned Averill-Snell and the amazingly versatile Julie Rowe. What Hogan wanted, we saw, was love, spiritual and sexual; what Tyrone needed instead was forgiveness, and to spend the night in the arms of a virgin Madonna. With Averill-Snell’s and Hogan’s help, we watched these two characters clumsily struggle for their desires, and we witnessed Hogan’s self-sacrificing decision to grant Tyrone his desperate wish. What a duet! The theater doesn’t get more poignant.

8. SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (Gorilla Theatre, 2008). The real subject of John Guare’s beautiful play is the need for human connection — to belong, to be respected, appreciated, loved. When the character Paul comes into the lives of Louisa and Flanders Kittredge, they rush to his assistance because he’s a friend of their children and a son of Sidney Poitier. Then they find out that he’s scammed them; but instead of being insulted, Louisa realizes that Paul’s case requires empathy and pity. Nancy Cole directed brilliantly, and Ami Sallee Corley stood out in a large and talented cast.

9. SHINING CITY (Stageworks, 2009). In Conor McPherson’s deeply moving work, Richard Coppinger was superb as a middle-aged man drowning in a sea of quiet desperation. As played by the fearless Coppinger, John was Everyman and -woman, every confused, uncertain human who ever fumbled a grand occasion, failed to accomplish a dream, aimed for satisfaction but only managed foolishness. Working with him were the skillful Glenn Gover, Dahlia Legault and Slake Counts. But even with their help, this was Coppinger’s show — and further evidence of his capacious talent.

10. THE CHAIRS (Stageworks/Gorilla Theatre, 2005). “The theme of the play,” said Ionesco in a letter, “is nothingness.” And in fact, The Chairs is the ultimate modernist drama, all about the impossibility of speaking, of listening, and therefore of theater. Anna Brennen incisively directed her actors to show an almost microscopic command of detail, and R. T. Williams’ cockeyed set could have been conceived by Picasso. Seldom has an artist been so skeptical about art as was Ionesco; and too seldom have local theaters brought us work by the Head Absurdist. This show was masterful.

And that’s it for the decade. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that the next ten years will be even better. Support local theater! And I’ll see you inside.

The fact is, there have been 40 or 50 terrific productions in the Tampa Bay area over the last decade, some of which will stay in memory for decades to come. But if I have to pick 10, then I think they’re these:

1. THE WILD PARTY (freeFall Theatre, 2008). Eric Davis’ freeFall Theatre announced its arrival with a pageant so stunning, it marked an epoch in Bay area theater history. At St. Petersburg’s [email protected], the freeFall troupe brought us a mile-a-minute parable of sex and race, bathtub gin and cocaine, desire and aggression. Director Davis’ superbly talented cast sang Michael John LaChiusa’s jazzy anthems with Broadway assurance, and acted LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s script as if their hedonistic, thrill-seeking lives depended on it. Call it Theatre of the Overwhelming. (Photo, right: Wild Party's Lee Anne Matthews and David Foley.)

2. CLOUD NINE (Jobsite Theater, 2003). It was with Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine that Jobsite burst from its erratic past into a splendid future, repeatedly marked by top-notch productions. This dizzying examination of gender roles started off in Victorian-era Africa, then moved on to London a century later. But the characters who figured in both acts only aged 25 years, and a man played a woman, an adult played a child, a white man played a black man, straight and gay couples proliferated, and everyone tried vainly to hold on to a life that refused to be grasped. It was also hilarious.

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