The Year's Best

Theater that engaged, provoked and entertained

It's New Year's Week 2004 and time for a look back at the 10 best theater productions of 2003. As always, only homegrown shows are eligible — no Broadway touring companies or other carpetbaggers need apply. So, without further ado:

1. Cloud Nine (Jobsite Theater). With this play, Jobsite Theater finally justified its existence. Caryl Churchill's complicated comedy is about patriarchy and matriarchy, race, gender and life's refusal to be tamed. In it a male character is played by a woman, a female by a man, a black servant by a white, and a 5-year-old girl by an adult male. Churchill wants us to examine everything we thought we knew about male and female, black and white, gay and straight, child and adult. And thanks to Ami Sallee Corley's inspired, utterly precise direction, the Jobsite team made the experience hilarious and revelatory.

2. A Moon for the Misbegotten (American Stage). As brilliantly played by Julie Rowe, Moon's Josie Hogan was crude, uncultured and almost desperate to believe she wasn't such "an ugly overgrown lump of a woman" that a man of quality couldn't love her. As her prospective lover James Tyrone, the excellent Ned Averill-Snell was drunken, self-pitying and badly in need not of sex but of forgiveness. Director Todd Olson staged the resulting dance with remarkable tenderness and made this Eugene O'Neill offering a moving experience.

3. The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Jobsite Theater and the Center Theater Company). This was a slugfest between two equally dazzling actresses: Colleen McDonnell as angry, mentally troubled Maureen and Diana Rogers as her 70-year-old mother, the ogress Mag. It was hard to guess who would get the upper hand here, even when a suitor seemed to improve Maureen's standing in the combat. But with actresses this accomplished, and Martin McDonagh's impressive script, the mother-daughter contest was riveting from the first moment. You want dysfunctional? You got dysfunctional. A word to the wise: Stay away from the hot stove.

4. The Turn of the Screw (Stageworks). Area newcomer Linda Slade (Cambridge U. and BBC-TV) and area veteran Eric Davis made Henry James' classic tale (in Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation) just about as frightening as live theater gets. As the young Governess called upon to look after two not-so-innocent children, Slade was not only a prim maiden of the 19th century but also a needy and aggressive woman, possibly unbalanced from too much isolation. And in four separate roles — the Narrator, the Master, the female Housekeeper and young Miles — Davis managed the difficult task of making each part discrete while wrapping them all in a suggestion of depravity. Nice work all round — and roundly chilling.

5. Bloody Poetry (Jobsite Theater). Howard Brenton's play is a tribute to four English Romantics: the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, the novelist Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairemont. The play might be subtitled Hope and Tragedy, because it illustrates the utopian ambitions of these rebels and then shows the human wreckage that resulted. In the Jobsite Theater production, a script that might at first have seemed too intellectual turned out to be both passionate and resonant. Kudos to director Katrina Stevenson for making these four intrepid, misguided, ultimately doomed spirits come to life.

6. Stones In His Pockets (American Stage). New American Stage artistic director Todd Olson made his local directing debut with this tour-de-force about some poor Irishmen employed as extras on a high-budget American film. With the help of top-notch actors Brian Webb Russell and Christopher Swan (playing a total of 15 parts), Stones gave us a whole society, entranced by the opportunity to appear in a film and then devastated by the suicide of one of their own. This was a rousing ride among the high and the low, and a showcase for two virtuoso performers — not to mention newcomer Olson.

7. The Floridians (LiveArts and American Stage). In their continuing project of finding the drama in Florida, the LiveArts Peninsula Foundation brought us three evenings of characters drawn from the real history of the Sunshine State. Best of the bunch was Harry T. Moore: The Most Hated Man in Florida, written by Larry Parr and featuring Bob Devin Jones as one of the first civil rights heroes of the 20th century. But also admirable were Bill Leavengood's tribute to special education teacher Mary Tilford and Lila Donnolo's dissection of skinhead Benjamin Clayton Lee. At its best, The Floridians demonstrated that art — and life — are in our own backyard. Thanks are due to LiveArts for these contributions to our self-knowledge.

8. Slap & Tickle (Gypsy Productions). As its first offering at St. Petersburg's Suncoast Theatre, the gay-themed Gypsy Productions brought us a daringly explicit play about gay sex in all its particulars. The six actors couldn't have been more convincing as they made their confessions, cruised one another and wandered off in couples. Trevor Keller's fine direction created a kaleidoscope effect, and Bill Booth's lighting helpfully isolated particular confessions. Theater doesn't get much more candid than this — a bold introduction to the area's newest theater.

9. The Piano Lesson (Center Theater Company). August Wilson's beautiful play is about the meaning of the past: Is it a burden that keeps us from moving ahead or a source of strength that we surrender at our peril? Thanks to the luminous acting of "ranney" and Ize Ofrika, we felt this dilemma as if it were intimately personal.

10. The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) (Jobsite Theater). In an era when people mostly keep quiet about their religion, it was refreshing to see this raucous satire on Biblical subjects. Actors David Jenkins, Jason Evans and Shawn Paonessa poked fun at the Old Testament and the New and found humor in everything from Noah's ark to Armageddon. All right, often the show was more silly than funny. But it was a winner nonetheless, and strangely respectful for all its irreverence.

That's it for 2003. See you next year. And may all your dramas be comedies.

Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at 813-248-8888, ext. 305, or [email protected].

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