Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Best Play of the Year

By Sharon Eberson and Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Looking back, 2012 isn’t as remarkable for individual, soaring achievements as for its high plateaus — solid exciting work from many theaters. This makes picking the year’s top 10 difficult because our list of the best theater evenings could go on past the 20 honored below; excellence was well spread.

But that’s why they pay us the big bucks.

In choosing the year’s top theatrical experiences, we’ve taken into account the plays themselves and the productions that brought them to life. Our selections draw on everything the Post-Gazette reviewed, whether by us or by Bob Hoover and several other critics.

The Post-Gazette has been making this list annually for some 40 years or more, and the settled tradition is that we consider the whole array of the theatrical year, including national tours as well as the local range, from professional to semi-pro to the occasional community or college show.

But this year we’re faced, right off, with a bottleneck at No. 1. It’s a matter of definition.

In the traditional sense, the play of the year was “August: Osage County” at Playhouse Rep, an epic in more than three hours. But in a more expansive sense, there was “STRATA,” an “immersive urban adventure” by Bricolage, comprising dozens of interactive scenes spread over several floors, such that you could return and experience a different theatrical mix several times. And beyond that, there was the Chekhov Festival at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, four productions over five weeks, sharing a playwright, an ensemble cast and two theaters.

So we have decided to expand on our tradition and name all three No. 1.

Top 10

1. Chekhov Festival, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. “Three Sisters” lived up to its reputation as one of the Russian’s four masterpieces — it would have been high in this top 10 all by itself. But much of the festival’s interest was the inclusion of rarely seen pieces, such as the early “Ivanov” and a program of five one-act pieces grouped as “Funny Chekhov,” led by robustly played versions of two quasi-farces, “The Bear” and “The Proposal.” A large company including Leo Marks, Nike Doukas and David Whalen moved from play to play in perfect harmony with diverse roles. Brian Friel’s tribute to Chekhov, “Afterplay,” was a fitting coda to an unusual five-week feast.

“STRATA,” Bricolage (Gab Cody et al.). In an entertaining hour and a half, you wound your way through an imaginative playground spread over several floors, encountering a selection of 20-some actors playing various coaches, teachers and therapists, conducted with crisp efficiency from one experience to another: sensual, irrational, lightly physical, titillating, funny, confusing and more. It was something like a dream and something like Lewis Carroll with a cheery touch of “Brave New World.”

“August: Osage County,” Playhouse Rep (Tracy Letts). The big squabbling three-generation family from hell — or from the American Midwest — gathers in a rambling Oklahoma household to support a grasping, shrewd matriarch in the aftermath of the mysterious death of her husband. This is gothic comedy on a grand scale, but deeply moving as well, with a fine cast led by Mary Rawson.

4. “The Monster in the Hall,” City Theatre (David Grieg). An inventive family drama from Scotland, told through the eyes of a feisty girl of 16 (the wide-eyed Melinda Helfrich, channeling her inner teenager) who has to take care of her haunted father as well as that monster, a powerful motorcycle. It was a pell-mell melange of realism, romanticism, games, TV show, songs, pop culture references, repetition, disaster, escape and hope, controlled by Tracy Brigden’s smart, funny, lickety-split direction.

5. “The Electric Baby,” Quantum Theatre (Stefanie Zadravec). Another astonishing story about a “family,” this one created out of two couples and some others by an automobile crash and illuminated by the unearthly glow of a magic baby. A fable or even myth, staged in a magical room in the Waldorf School in Bloomfield, and described by one audience member as an adult pop-up book.

6. “Private Lives,” Pittsburgh Public Theater (Noel Coward). A stylish backstage look at marriage, which accelerates into a classic slam-bang comedy, proving that if you can’t live with spouses, you can’t live without ’em, either. Ted Pappas directed, whipping up the froth and helping shape Coward’s brittle wit on a gorgeous James Noone set, while also honoring the play’s deeper vein of regret.

7. “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” barebones (Stephen Adly Guirgis). There was nothing bare about this barebones production of a dark, disturbing play, set in a clanking jail where two killers savagely and profanely debate the meaning, if not existence, of God. The result was wrenching theater that excelled in directing, acting and presentation.

8. “South Side Stories,” City Theatre (Tami Dixon). Triple-threat Dixon did the research, interviewing dozens of South Siders for material, then wrote the play and starred in it, solo. The result is a dramatic tapestry of voices, with her own added, drawing from her time as a transplant to the South Side. David Pohl contributed inventive projections, both moving and still.

9. “Sunset Boulevard,” Pittsburgh CLO (Andrew Lloyd Webber et al.). Some of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s most romantic schmaltz, served up by a 22-piece orchestra, asking who’s to be blamed more, the idolizer or the idolized? As the deluded star, Liz Callaway brought a diva’s desperation and a voice that soars to this swelling melodrama at the junction of dream factory, ambition and art.

10. “Dutchman,” Bricolage (LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka). The 1964 confrontation, just 50 minutes long, between a white woman (Ms. Dixon) and a black man (Jonathan Berry) in a Manhattan subway car has lost little of its incendiary impact. Bricolage set the play in an alley design, putting our seats right there in the subway — if we represent society, what is our share in the violence the play dramatizes? The company invited a nightly post-show discussion, which served as the second act in a theater of personal justification.

Runner-up 10

Listed alphabetically by play:

• “Ainadamar,” Quantum Theatre (Osvaldo Golijov et al.).

• “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” Carnegie Mellon University (Tony Kushner).

• “As You Like It,” Pittsburgh Public Theater (Shakespeare).

• “Fiddler on the Roof,” Pittsburgh CLO (Stein, Harnick & Bock).

• “Good People,” Public (David Lindsay-Abaire).

• “POP!,” City Theatre (Maggie-Kate Coleman & Anna K. Jacobs).

• “The Producers,” Point Park Conservatory (Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan).

• “School for Lies,” PICT (David Ives after Moliere).

• “Spring Awakening,” Pittsburgh Musical Theater (Steven Sater & Duncan Sheik after Frank Wedekind).

• “War Horse,” PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh (Nick Stafford after Michael Morpurgo).

Special Mention

Not exactly plays, but important documentaries: Dustin Lance Black, “8” (in a reading at CMU), about the challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex unions; and Attilio Favorini, “The Gammage Project” (University of Pittsburgh), the Jonny Gammage case revisited.

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