In 2001 my theatre Bests came in bunches. There was the Irish Bunch, led by the very first production I saw in January of 2001: Conor McPherson's "The Weir" at the New Repertory Theatre. Rick Lombardo's staging was note perfect from the worn woodwork and earthy rituals of a pub in rural Ireland, to the evocation of back country isolation and loss and the unearthly power of a well told story, and it was performed with the exquisite mutual sensitivity of chamber music. The experience bordered on the mystical, yet the acting style was pitched well within the boundaries of naturalism. I have seen ensemble acting as good as that in Lombardo's "The Weir" on occasion, and I hope to see it again a few times more before I die -- but better? Acting doesn't get any better than what Richard McElvain, Billy Meleady, Colin Hammell, Barry M. Press, and Dee Nelson achieved at the New Rep last January. Two more contemporary plays, these from the Sugan Theatre, filled up the Irish Bunch o' Bests: the American premiere of Gary Mitchell's "Trust" and a beautifully designed production of Martin MacDonagh's "The Lonesome West" that was as good as the Irish original that I saw in Galway. Both were directed by Carmel O'Reilly. The ensemble acting in these was marvelous, too. Debra Wise was especially chilling in "Trust", Colin Hammell equally horrifying -- and hilarious as well -- in his turn in "The Lonesome West", while Billy Meleady came up with another pair of impeccable Irish characterizations, one in each of these Sugan shows. What is so bracing about these shows as a phenomenon, and the reason I've bunched them together, is that they are evidence of the accumulation of a common vocabulary in Boston-based actors. Finally, we have here a nexus of talented artists who have worked together often enough to have established the kind of trust and understanding that is the basis for world class ensemble acting.
The other Bunch of Bests was supplied by Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, where the death of the Company's old outdoor theatre at The Mount was marked by an embarrassment of riches in a culminating production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" that drew on two decades of labor and love in and around Wharton's mansion. Tina Packer's swan song at The Mount was excessive and magical and site-specific and personal and historical and athletic and bawdy and numinous and intensely moving both as Event and as Art. I made the pilgrimage to the Berkshires to see "Dream" twice, regretfully certain that once S&Co is evicted from its faery-haunted pine grove I will never look upon its like again. The company's old pros and energetic youngsters and cunning craftspeople demonstrated everything that they have learned from working together for more than twenty years in this particular place. All I can say 0about their farewell production is "You should have been there." The company made their audience a parting gift of whole worlds of possibility within Shakespeare's "Dream" that simply can't be opened up without the wealth of communal experience that a Packer production brings to bear when performing on its home and holy ground.
In new quarters down the road a way, Shakespeare and Company opened the comfortable Founders' Theatre with a re-staging of Packer's 2000 season production of "Coriolanus" starring Dan MaCleary -- a brilliant and brutal mini-epic that would make my top ten whatever season it appeared. Following that sprawling brawl into the Founders was an intense and intimate reading of Donald Margules' "Collected Stories" directed by Daniella Varon. Annette Miller as the dying writer demonstrated that the best acting, like the best writing, is simple: just open yourself up and let it bleed. "Collected Stories" is a flawed play: but it is good enough that a brave and talented actress like Miller can use it to lead us to dark places we would flee from if she weren't there ahead of us, shining light on them. This Shakespeare and Company bunch of Bests is more evidence (if more is needed) that what our theatre artists need is less time spent competing for work and more time working, together.
I was appalled to hear Packer announce that she will be fund raising rather than directing performances during whatever length of time Shakespeare and Company will be raising the multi-millions to build theatres and educational institutions on the huge new Lenox site they have undertaken to develop. Packer is the director of half the Top Ten productions on my lifetime list of "Bests". Never mind my personal sense of deprivation: how can the American theatre afford to lose a director of this caliber? Of course, if Packer turns out to be as good a full time fund raiser as she is a director, what she builds from her efforts could re-orient theatre arts from frill to the center of American education, and change our nation's culture in profound and (I believe) beneficial ways. But, leaving aside the danger full time fund raising presents (e.g. Congress), how can Packer possibly succeed in raising these huge sums to spread the gospel of Shakespeare, theatre, as the most effective tool of intelligence and tutor of empathy, when the core constituency of the party in charge of setting priorities in this time of recession and war is contemptuous of artists in general and theatre people in particular? When our righteous warriors regard intelligent empathy as heresy, and are as determined as Cromwell and his zealots to cut it off and cast it out of One Nation Under the God of Battles? Still, miracles do happen. Visionaries make them happen. Already S&C has raised enough money to make a down payment and build two indoor theatres, and the company was recently awarded a million government dollars toward a reconstruction of The Rose Theatre, "where Shakespeare likely was first staged" on the site. If S&Co. builds it, if public school teachers come to study and are converted to Shakespeare in the necessary numbers to evangelize from sea to shining sea, maybe we'll all be changed--- into something rich and strange.
Back in Boston, further Bests include two big productions by smallish theatres. "The Laramie Project" at Boston Theatre Works was a passionate but precise staging by Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis of the documentary theater piece by Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project. The 60 denizens of Wyoming portrayed by the ensemble added up to a portrait of the nation's heartland, big as all outdoors. BTW's cast was another bonded ensemble, and they bonded us to them, too. The performance of "Laramie" felt like a community's self-examination. The audience became first part of that community, and then of larger and larger circles of suffering humanity.
Spiro Veloudos' Lyric Stage Company of Boston put a conceptually huge production of the Sondheim/Lapine "Sunday in the Park with George" into a playing space whose dimensions aren't much bigger than those of the Grande Jatte painting itself. Designer Janie E. Howland worked miracle with that space, and Jon Goldberg's musical direction was wizardry of the highest order. The cast's splendid performance wasn't a miracle -- it was the result of years of patient nurture and teamwork, much of it under the tutelage of this same directorial pair. Maryann Zschau sang another of her brilliant characterizations as Dot, and almost erased my memory of Bernadette Peters. I actually preferred Chris Chew's Seurat at the Lyric to Patinkin's original. I thought Hungarian director János Szász' "Mother Courage" at the American Repertory Theatre was rather perverse, turning Bertolt Brecht's gritty and cynical anti-epic into a cornucopia of lush visuals and overripe orchestrations. But what do I know from Brecht? I'm just a provincial, in a country whose wars have been fought overseas for five generations. Brecht is produced so seldom in our neck of the woods that I have only seen eleven productions of four of his plays in forty years -- and three of those were "The Jewish Wife". "Mother" was certainly a BIG show, with choreographed battles and all, and in the busy midst of it Karen MacDonald held focus and made choices and kept on keeping on. She and the production had gumption. I think if "Mother Courage" were a staple of the American stage and I had seen as many productions of it as I have of "Salesman" I might have benefited from Szasz's fresh take on it.
Commonwealth Shakespeare finally got its Free Shakespeare on the Common act together after half a decade of good intentions, and, sparked by Richard McElvain, Karen MacDonald and Will Lebow, did a "Twelfth Night" that was a notch above the struggling Boston Publick Theatre's standard and 80% as good as the average Shakespeare staged by Tina Packer. Local companies from SpeakEasy to the Newton Country Players drew on the world class musical talent turned out by our four or five top rank conservatories to do astonishingly good premieres and revivals of challenging music theatre such as "Floyd Collins" and "Follies", and there was an unprecedented outpouring of new scripts in premiere productions, staged readings, and workshops -- far more openings than this devotee of new plays could possibly see. A very good start to a new millennium, 2001. But will 2002 confirm that Boston is at last on its way to being a Good Theatre Town? Or are all the exciting and expansive plans doomed to disappointment, because they are based on income that is supposed to trickle down from sources that have since dried up?