Our critic's choice: The best local theater of 2016

Theater in and around the Berkshires had a lot on its mind this year — race relations in America; sexism; anti-Semitism; fear of the "other"; health care; mortality; functioning with physical challenges in the world of the physically unchallenged; school bullying; the traumatic effects— physical and emotional — of war on the men and women combatants who survive; the dynamics of integrity, principle and expediency in the political system; God's own angst over a world that seems to have gotten out of God's control; the moral responsibility for and consequences of words that have been spoken, actions that have been taken that come back and bite us.

Indeed, the world outside came rushing in on our stages with a vengeance. And yet, even with the weaker productions — and there were many — there was little if any, posturing. This was not a year of theater as screed. These plays dealt in a variety of ways with how broader social issues played out in daily lives; how personality and relationships are shaped; what survival means in a society that often cripples the very people it means to help.

It was a theater year that asked a lot of audiences and of theatermakers. Below my choices of the productions that were the most successful; most rewarding, most accomplished, in order of preference. My look at the men and women whose own accomplishments had impact on stage follows on Monday.

1. AMERICAN SON (Barrington Stage Company)

A powerful, deeply illuminating production of a play about an estranged interracial couple's worst nightmare concerning their18-year-old son was flawlessly directed and performed by an expert cast with compassion, insight and wrenching emotional authenticity. A shattering, unforgettable 90 minutes of theater.

2. CONSTELLATIONS (Berkshire Theatre Group)

Time, space, mortality, love, how our lives turn on the smallest changes in language or expression formed the fabric of this haunting production of a play that challenges our perceptions about art, theater and humankind's finite place in an infinite universe.

3. COST OF LIVING (Williamstown Theatre Festival)

Another brilliantly acted, superbly crafted production of a play in which broad social issues played out within the contexts of intricately layered relationships.

4. RELATIVITY (TheaterWorks)

Under Rob Ruggiero's seamless direction, Mark St. Germain's compelling three-character play about a rendezvous with destiny between Albert Einstein and his past had an impressive world premiere production that starred Richard Dreyfuss in a richly shaped performance that never lost sight of character.

5. BIG RIVER (Oldcastle Theatre)

I'm not sure why this engaging musical adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" isn't seen more often. especially given this robust, richly entertaining, folksy production that didn't shy away from the dark reality of race relations in America that is an undercurrent in Mark Twain's book. Bravo Oldcastle!

6. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare & Company)

There were moments when this production came perilously close to shooting itself in the foot. And yet, its uncommon strengths — not the least of them Jonathan Epstein's subtly shaped Shylock; Tina Packer's tight, focused direction; and the design elements — made this production throb with currency and theatricality.

7. CRY, 'HAVOC!' (Shakespeare & Company)

Rarely have the ways in which art — Shakespeare, in particular — and life intersect been more compellingly drawn than in this autobiographical one-man show, written and performed with bold, go-for-broke mastery by Stephan Wolfert.

8. OR, (Shakespeare & Company) / THE BAKELITE MASTERPIECE (WAM Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Group)

Art and life; what is real and what is not; the nature of authenticity and pretense, are themes that played out in different ways in these tonally different, sublimely acted, bracingly theatrical pieces.

9. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Berkshire Theatre Group)

In subtle ways, director Ethan Heard has a way of looking at familiar material in fresh ways, no less here in turning an appealing musical into a consideration of narcissism in the extreme, bullying and heroism, all without getting on a platform. As affecting as it was sly, charming, sassy and oh, so smart.

10. PIRATES OF PENZANCE (Barrington Stage Company)

In a year filled with plays about SOMETHING, how refreshing to have been offered this inspired, buoyant treatment of a Gilbert and Sullivan classic that had nothing on its mind but sheer entertainment. Nothing wrong with that as long as it's done smartly and well and this was.

BEST NEW WORK FOR THE STAGE: "American Son" by Christopher Demos-Brown

Quite apart from the penetrating world premiere production his play was given at Barrington Stage, Demos-Brown crafted an extraordinary, delicately balanced, literate script that tackles big important themes without once losing sight of the human dimension which is at the heart of the play. "American Son" is as much about relationships and the various roles each of us plays within family and community as it is about the broader concern about police violence against blacks. Not one character in "American Son" is unaffected by a system that has taken on a life of its own. What is truly remarkable here is that Demos-Brown has given us full-blooded characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, rather than flat two-dimensional mouthpieces for varying positions.


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