If there is anything connecting the productions on my best 10 list this year it has more to do with theater artistry and craftsmanship than with anything thematic.
Some years it's the performances that stand out; some years it's the writing.
What stood out most to me in 2015 was the directorial vision; the thoroughness and thoughtfulness behind these productions and how they each held together in clear, cohesive ways that bound all the elements of production together in ways they should but so often don't. In the process, directors exceeded the high bar they already have set by virtue of previous achievements.
I missed a fair number of shows due to a broken leg that kept me at home for close to four months. Still, 2015 produced some of the most creative, imaginative work I've seen in some time.
Off the stages, 2015 was a year of modest change. Mandy Greenfield made her debut as artistic director at Williamstown Theatre Festival with a season that contained only one play with a track record. The rest were all new. The festival stumbled out of the starting gate in its first three productions — "Off the Main Road," "Legacy" and "Kinship." Then came "Paradise Blue," "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and the haunting "Unknown Soldier," a new musical that accomplished just about as much as it dared, which was considerable.
The year also marked Byam Stevens' final season as artistic director of Chester Theatre Company. It was a middling season at best but Stevens accomplishments in his 17 years were, to say the least, extraordinary. He changed not only the theater's name but also its temperament and personality. He created a thinking man's theater that, at its best, exhilarated us and, even at its least successful moments, challenged us to think about the world and our place in it.
Stevens understands that theater is about how we see what is happening on stage and, by extension, what is happening all around us.
Stevens caught something at Chester that British actor Mark String talked about in a recent interview on NPR. The value of theater, Strong said, is that "we need to see in the live experience, I think, something that makes us ask ourselves what it means to be human the choices we make in our lives." With humor and with drama, with flights of magical realism, Stevens posed that kind of question over and over again at Chester. His successor, Daniel Elihu Kramer, who has worked closely with Stevens over the past few years, has big shoes to fill.
So, here goes, the best of 2015. I'll make a nod to the worst of 2015 and acknowledge some individual accomplishment in acting, directing and design on Tuesday.
1. "The Homecoming" (Berkshire Theatre Group)
Director Eric Hill saw Harold Pinter's intricate and challenging play against the background of a broader social and political context in post-war Britain, circa the 1960s. But he also tapped into something I'd never seen in this play before and that is the hard, painful, sad, human context at its core.
With mordant humor and insight, Hill and his remarkable cast surveyed the devastating effects of the choices Pinter's characters make and have made. The how and the why of those choices matter less to Pinter than the effect. That dynamic played out here in a profoundly unsettling, theatrically exhilarating production; an ensemble achievement in the fullest sense of the term — a tight construct between and among actors and designers.
A nasty play. A haunting and indelible experience.
2. "Red Velvet" (Shakespeare & Company)
Talk about raising a directorial bar! Daniela Varon did that, and more, with this richly layered, brilliantly conceived and executed production of Lolita Chakrabarti's play about a stranger in a strange land — a black American actor trying to forge a career in mid-19th century England who became the first black actor to play Othello on a major London stage. From the telling choreography of the opening to the shattering final image, this production used theater as a metaphor for the deceit and masquerades in life. The play's examination of fear of The Other has unsettling resonance in Donald Trump's America.
3. "The How and the Why" (Shakespeare & Company)
Tod Randolph was in top form and newcomer Bridget Saracino gave as good as she got in this story of a mother-daughter reunion that, in its telling and writing, demonstrated once again just how much more less can be.
4. "Unknown Soldier" (Williamstown Theatre Festival)
This new musical by Daniel Goldstein (book and lyrics) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) occasionally reached for more than it could grasp but under Trip Cullum's inventive and insightful direction remained a haunting, deeply affecting love story.
5. "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (Williamstown Theatre Festival)
With Audra McDonald in the lead, director Gordon Edelstein gave Eugene O'Neill's scrappy and lyrical drama a fresh viewpoint. The result was compelling and fierce in its heartfelt, often agonizing, intensity.
6."Babylon Revisited" (Ark Theatre Company)
No risk, no gain. This wonderfully creative, imaginative and inventive stage treatment of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald production was all risk and thoroughly rewarding gain.
7. "A Little More Alive" (Barrington Stage Company)
It would have been easy for this unassuming new musical by Nick Blaemire (book, music and lyrics) about two brothers' determination to confirm some inconvenient family truths to run amok with pathos, sentiment and soap opera artificiality. It didn't. This show was, by turns, charming, funny, poignant, endearing.
8. "Bells Are Ringing" (Berkshire Theatre Group)
With Kate Baldwin in the lead and her real-life husband Graham Rowatt turning a thankless role into someone with charm and dimension, director Ethan Heard tuned into the breezy charm and whimsy in this tuneful, slyly witty 1956 musical from Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
9. "Man of La Mancha" (Barrington Stage Company)
Together with Jeff McCarthy in a leading role that seems to have been created for him and a fine ensemble around him, director Julianne Boyd crafted a solidly entertaining evening in the theater.
10. "Paradise Blue" (Williamstown Theatre Festival)
With riveting performances from Blair Underwod and De'adre Azizxa, Dominique Morisseau's uneven, problematic play was given a compelling, beautifully acted production under the sure-handed direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
"Nexus" (Hubbard Hall).
Simplicity was the essence of this two-hander about making meaningful connection in the age of social media. This spare little gem was part of Hubbard Hall's first Winter Carnival of New Plays.
Waiting in the wings (in order of being seen) —
"Time Stands Still" (Oldcastle Theatre Company); "Butler" (Barrington Stage Company); "Deathtrap" (Berkshire Theatre Group); "Blink" (Chester Theatre Company); "Black Comedy" (Oldcastle Theatre Company); "God of Carnage" (The Theater Barn); "An Opening in Time" (Hartford Stage)
Best new work for the stage
"Unknown Soldier" (Williamstown Theatre Festival)