Year-End Review: The top 10 plays in the Berkshires

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Editor's note: This article was updated on Monday, Dec. 29, 2014 to correct the list of top 10 plays, which originally omitted  the Chester Theatre Co.'s “Madagascar” 

To borrow from Charles Dickens, it was neither the best of times nor the worst of times on the region's stages in 2014.

The season began for me in February with Katori Hall's metaphysical Martin Luther King Jr. drama, "The Mountaintop," at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y. and ended 60 reviews later in mid-November with "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y.

The Berkshires on Broadway phenomenon continued with "Bridges of Madison County" and "The Elephant Man," both from Williamstown; and a sparkling, expanded remounting of the Barrington Stage Company-originated "On the Town," while Off-Broadway Tina Packer had a successful run of "Women of Will" with her acting partner Nigel Gore. This spring, in April, "Living on Love" with Renee Fleming, from this year's WTF season, arrives on Broadway.

Back in the Berkshires, 2014 was a year of transition. At Williamstown, producer Stephen M. Kaus deftly guided the festival through a season sandwiched between Jenny Gersten's departure as artistic director after the 2013 season and the arrival of her successor, Mandy Greenfield, at the end of the 2014 season, which Gersten helped shape.

In Cambridge, N.Y, the arrival of David Snider as Hubbard Hall's new executive director and artistic director of the theater company brought with it a new sense of mission, some changes in the way of doing things, and a thoroughly appealing fall production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." .

At Shakespeare & Company Rick Dildine became the theater company's executive director in September and Tony Simotes, the company's artistic director since 2009, left abruptly in the fall, bringing to a head what had been a tumultuous year behind the scenes. Just as troubling, however, was what went on in front of the scenes — an artistically chaotic, at best uninspired, 2014 season that, sandwiched between the illuminating "Shakespeare's Will" in May and the return of the beguiling "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" in December, was marked by maddening inconsistencies and concepts that outran ability and accomplishment. A fair measure of the acting load was turned over to the next generation of actors at Shakespeare & Company who were given responsibilities that were more than their skill sets — emotional and technical — could handle. Too often this felt like a young conservatory company with master actors blended in.

To be sure, there were bright spots this year. Chief among them was Barrington Stage Company whose 20th season was one worth celebrating, from its exuberant Mainstage summer opener, "Kiss Me, Kate," to its Mainstage summer season closer, Mark St. Germain's sweet "Dancing Lessons" and, between them, "Breaking the Code," with a career performance by Mark Dold — an absolute revelation. In terms of reviewable shows, BSC's second stage also offered an interesting mix of new plays and new voices.

The other bright spot was Chester Theatre Company, which set a high bar with an impressive and provocative season that provided the most dramatically invigorating, intellectually stimulating theater in the region.

So, here they are, my choices of the year's 10 best productions:

1. "Breaking the Code" (Barrington Stage Company)

In collaboration with a remarkable design team and an even more remarkable ensemble of actors, led by Mark Dold as Alan Turing, the man who broke Germany's Enigma code in World War II, director Joe Calarco delivered as satisfying an evening of theater as you could want — and then some.

2. "Other Desert Cities" (Capital Repertory Theatre)

Jon Robin Baitz' stunningly crafted piece about a long overdue reckoning in a family got the expert treatment this richly-textured, intricately layered work deserves. Perfectly pitched in every way.

3. "Annapurna" (TheaterWorks)

This pas de deux between two people who have a good deal of unfinished business between them was performed with the lean, crisp, incisive insight and wrenching truth we've come to expect from a Rob Ruggiero-directed show.

4. “Madagascar” (Chester Theatre Company)

Director James Warwick and an exceptional three-member cast delivered a meticulously crafted, impeccably acted production of J.T. Rogers’ haunting drama about loss, closure and life’s unsolved mysteries.

5. "Kiss Me, Kate" (Barrington Stage Company)

Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewak's valentine to theater was given an exhilarating, robust, go-for-broke production.

6. "Benefactors" (Berkshire Theatre Group)

A perfect blend of rich writing, four actors at the top of their craft and smart, understanding direction.

7. "A Number" (Chester Theatre Company)

A compelling. revelatory production that found clarity and vibrant theatricality in a challenging text.

8. "The Amish Project" (Chester Theatre Company)

Jessica Dickey's powerful one-actress play about the aftermath of a tragedy in an Amish community gained added life in this gripping production featuring a mesmerizing performance by Alison McLemore.

9. "A Great Wilderness" (Williamstown Theatre Festival)

Jeffrey DeMunn led an expert ensemble in this intricately fashioned drama about faith, family, friendship and life in all its rewards and disappointments.

10.“Shakespeare’s Will” (Shakespeare & Company) / “Dancing Lessons” (Barrington Stage Company)

Kristin Wold was in top form as Anne Hathaway in Vern Thiessen’s fascinating exploration of William Shakespeare’s wife. / Mark St. Germain’s new play about the relationship between a young man with Asperger’s and a young woman whose career as a dancer may be coming to a premature end made its bow in a sweet, lovingly presented production.

Waiting in the wings

(In order of being reviewed): "Freud's Last Session" (TheaterWorks); "Gypsy" (Capital Rep); "A Little Night Music" (Berkshire Theatre Group); "Living on Love" (Williamstown Theatre Festival); "Table Manners" (Mixed Company); "The Visit" (Williamstown Theatre Festival); "Woody Sez" (TheaterWorks); "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (The Theater at Hubbard Hall).

Best new work for the stage

"Dancing Lessons" by Mark St. Germain (Barrington Stage Company)

Contact Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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