Best in Boston Theater 2015

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 30, 2015

Boston is a theater town, and every year it seems there are more theater companies offering audiences more to see, more to enjoy, and more to think about. From the swanky environs of a Russian opera house (the A.R.T.'s "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812") to minimalist black box productions that seize the senses and fire the imagination, 2015 dazzled with a wealth of new plays, revivals, musicals, regional premieres, comedies and dramas. Here's a (very subjective) look back at the best, and most memorable, productions that graced Boston-area stages.

1. The Submission (Zeitgeist Stage Company)

When a gay, white playwright authors a play about a young African American man, he feels the only way the script will get a fair reading is if he submits it under the false pretense of being an African American woman. The play is accepted to a prestigious festival, and the problems -- both comic and dramatic -- begin there. The play, by Jeff Talbot, spares no one and refuses to quail before charged issues of race, sexuality, gender...all the hot buttons. But it was the performances by the cast -- especially Victor Shopov and Aina Adler -- that really set the stage on fire, under David Miller's direction. Superb.

2. The Farnsworth Invention (Flat Earth Theatre)

The script is by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote movies like "The Social Network" and "Steve Jobs," not to mention served as the creative force behind critically lauded TV shows like "The West Wing" and "The Newsroom." You know you're in for some juicy dialogue and crunchy characterizations. But the way Flat Earth Theatre presented the play -- with inventive design work by Rebecca Lehrhoff, actors Chris Larson and Michael Fisher in two central roles, and Sarah Gazdowicz directing -- ensured that Sorkin's work would be enhanced every step of the way. This is a play about science, commerce, vision, and ambition, and it sometimes felt like it was going to burst right out of the black box space where it played.

3. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (American Repertory Theatre)

Composer Dave Malloy serves up a slender slice of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," and makes it feel like an epic in this bravura musical. Though the compositions span a continuum of musical stylings, the attending the show is an immersive pan-theatrical experience; you sometimes feel like you're at a venerable Russian opera house (even though the show pokes barbed fun at opera), but a moments later you get the sense that you're wandered into the most elaborate dinner theater ever contrived. Much of the sheer joy of the show comes from Mimi Lien's set design, which is mind bending both in terms of opulence and Moebius-like contour; the musicians play live from scattered positions all around the space; and the performers are constrained by neither fourth walls nor stuffy old staging conventions. It's mind blowing; it's toe tapping; it's so uplifting you might almost think you do see comets sailing by.

4. Dry Land (Company One)

Ruby Rae Spiegel's hysteria-free and unsentimental play about abortion puts a teenage girl into the unenviable position of having to decide what to do about an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. Rather than going political, the play focuses on the realistic concerns and reactions of both the protagonist (played by Stephanie Recio) and her African-American best friend (played by Eva Hughes). That realism carries through to a bloody, and excruciating, climax. Steven Bogart directed.

5. Albatross (The Poets' Theater)

Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett didn't just adapt Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to the stage; they created an entire play around the poem's kernel of an idea, devising a main character with a backstory and an attitude. They also created a world of humor and drama around the poem's central ideas. Evett was electrifying as The Mariner in the Rick Lombardo-directed one man show, which was nominated for three Elliot Norton awards: Outstanding New Script, Outstanding Solo Performance, and Outstanding Production.

6. Julius Caesar (Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston)

Bridge Rep pared and trimmed one of Shakespeare's great tragedies into a tight, brisk hour and a half without losing the story's impact. Creative staging by director Oliva D'Ambrosio gave the play a fresh re-imaging that also implicitly tied its themes more closely to our times. A rousing and memorable production all around.

7. The Big Meal (Zeitgeist Stage Company)

Dan LeFranc's multi-generational family saga is both intimate and sprawling, taking place as it does in a series of scenes set at restaurants over the course of many decades. A perfectly chosen ensemble brought individual characters to life, while also illustrating the larger life of the extended family. David Miller's precisely keyed direction made a tight, effective unit of ensemble members Johnny Quinones, Ashley Risteen, Devon Scalisi, Becca A. Lewis, Peter Brown, Shelly Brown, Arianna Reith, and Alex Shirman.

8. i don't know where we're going, but i promise we're lost (Boston Teen Acting Troupe)

Boston Teen Acting Troupe (BTAT) gave MJ Halberstat's new play a reading that was confident and sincere without straying into saccharine. Three brothers bail from a home that's materially comfortable but emotionally sterile; the youngest has had health issues, which only sharpens his older siblings' sense of urgency to get away from Mom and Dad and create a more loving environment where they all might flourish -- including the middle brother, who is transgender and in need of a safe space in which to be himself. But the economic realities of living on one's own take a toll, and the fear that the youngest boy might relapse is a constant in their lives. Both the script and the production were smart and focused, and the cast -- which included Brian Ott, Aaron Piricini and Alec Shirman as the brothers on the lam, and Emily White as the oldest boy's girlfriend, who sets them up in her deceased uncle's house -- delivered spirited and layered performances. Live music from the band COVEY rounded out the package. Months later, this remains a haunting production.

9. Waitress (American Repertory Theatre)

I didn't like the 2007 Adrienne Shelly movie this was based on (also titled "Waitress"), but when the A.R.T. turned it into a musical stage production the material suddenly took on new life -- and took wing. In large part, the transformation is due to a set of songs by Sara Bareilles (and also to some deft re-writing by book author Jesse Nelson -- and not as much as one might have expected). Diane Paulus directed, reminding theatergoers once again of how the A.R.T., revitalized under her stewardship, has become a resurgent force in the theater arts in Boston and beyond.

10. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (Touring Production Hosted by ArtsEmerson)

One of the year's odder surprises was this two-person show in which a single mother -- working herself to exhaustion, facing hard times with the end of her latest job -- lapses into a feverish dream in which she's romanced by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, first via modern means such as long distance phone calls and Skype, and then (magically, impossibly) in person as the two set out to cross ice packs and survive epic sea voyages. Songwriter Valerie Vigoda smote audiences as she gave voice to her own sometimes-jittery lyrics as Kat, the main character; Wade McCollum portrayed the irresistibly cheerful British explorer as well as playing Kat's louse of a baby daddy, and he nailed both roles cold. Lisa Peterson directed a complex production that included not just live music and quick changes, but some well-engineered projections as well.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.