and DAVID LEE SIMMONS
Atlanta theater already has the Suzi Bass Awards, an annual ceremony for summing up what’s best and most deserving on the stages of our local companies. ArtsCriticATL would like to offer a somewhat more idiosyncratic look back at the local theater scene in 2010, combining some serious acknowledgments with our own take on the whole biggest-best-most philosophy of year-end reviews. We follow our look back at 2010 theater with a look ahead at 2011 and some of the productions we’re looking forward to — knowing full well that they are based on very incomplete calendars at this point.
And remember: Dying is easy, comedy is hard, but making year-end lists is really easy.
LOOKING BACK AT 2010
Best Confirmation That Bacon Improves Everything: When Kenny Leon’s True Colors staged Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” he borrowed a trick from a Broadway revival and had real bacon frying on stage at one point, a strong sensory underlining of Emily’s soliloquy about how wonderful life is.
Most Unlikely Comedy Team: Pearl Cleage’s surprisingly funny take on life during the civil rights movement with the Alliance Theatre’s premiere of “The Nacirema Society Requests Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First Hundred Years.” Even more surprising were the comedic chops of Trazana Beverley and Andrea Frye. Frye’s flustered (and increasingly tipsy) Catherine was a perfect counterpoint to Beverley’s imperious and plotting matriarch Grace.
Most Deserved Standing O: Opening night of the civil rights drama “Night Blooms” at Horizon Theatre, with Atlanta playwright Margaret Baldwin in the audience and a great cast giving it their all.
Sharpest Contrast in Marital Relations (and Quality of Productions): Actor’s Express’ “Albatross” and Theatre in the Square’s “Conversations With My Wife” bookended October with their respective world-premiere meditations on married life. Where Lee Nowell’s debut work “Albatross” delighted in a sly cat-and-mouse game between two young professionals with secrets to burn, Leonard Gross’ “Conversations” bogged down as a grief-stricken writer debated with his late wife the reasons to move on with (and not end) his life.
Biggest Bug-Out: Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo,” a spectacular show in which nearly all the performers are clad in insect costumes, some of them quite elaborate and intense. It opened while people were freaking out about bedbug infestations.
Best Re-enactment of the Civil War: OK, maybe that’s not the best way to describe the Alliance’s third collaboration with Chicago improv troupe Second City, which brought forth “Miracle on 1280 Peachtree Street.” The “miracle” about this collaboration was how well the Atlanta performers held their own, especially Randy Havens and Tara Ochs. Ochs’ creepy, puppet-like take on Mary Norwood delivered a delicious local bite.
Splashiest Production Number: Justin Tanner, channeling Gene Kelly, in the title song and dance of “Singin’ in the Rain” on a very wet Aurora Theatre stage.
Worst Holiday Collision: Theater of the Stars opened “White Christmas” at the Fox Theatre on Nov. 2, two days after Halloween. While there were legitimate logistical reasons from the producer’s point of view, it was hard to get into the Christmas spirit with Halloween ghosts still decorating neighborhoods.
Most Welcome Newcomer: Pinch n’ Ouch Theatre, notably for Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” and Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero.”
Biggest Surprise From the Alliance = No Surprises: The Alliance Theatre, winner of the 2007 Regional Theatre Tony Award for outstanding achievement, states as its mission that it “sets the highest artistic standards, creating the powerful experience of shared theatre for diverse people.” So far, the 2010-11 season features high production values and excessive diversity, but no real surprises. This mindset began creeping into Alliance programming even before the Great Recession clobbered most arts groups, so this safety-above-all-else approach isn’t strictly economic. A “premier national theatre” should not only produce works that could make it to the Great White Way, but should also deliver plenty of “a-ha” moments and have us on the edge of our seats wondering what will happen next. The Alliance is the premiere theater in a city with a strong theater scene. Don’t we deserve better?
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2011
“August: Osage County.” Alliance Theatre, April 13-May 8. “Superior Donuts.” Horizon Theatre, Feb. 25-March 27. Let’s go, Letts! Tracy Letts, that is. The award-winning playwright will have two plays running here at different companies this spring. Horizon goes first with “Donuts,” starring Chris Kayser, in a light confection that The New York Times considered funny but a bit comfortable. Then comes the Alliance with Letts’ better-known, and much rougher, comedy “August,” which is billed as “filled with sex, secrets and really inappropriate behavior.”
“Blue Man Group.” Fox Theatre, Jan. 18-23. It’s been ages since the Blues played Atlanta, so fans are bug-eyed with anticipation. If you don’t know who they are, it’s almost impossible to describe how weird and wonderful their shows are — both tightly scripted and somewhat improvised. A trio of anonymous, mute men, painted completely blue for no discernible reason, play music, perform skits and interact with the audience in unexpected ways. They’ve appeared with the Dalai Lama and the Harlem Globetrotters — not many performers can claim that.
“Broadsword.” Actor’s Express, Jan. 13-Feb. 12. They’re getting the band back together in this world premiere of Marco Ramirez’s musical mystery, which kicks into gear when the members of a heavy-metal band reunite for the funeral of one fallen mate and then try to rescue the soul of another. Actor’s Express has had great fun with rock ’n’ roll in the past (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), so it’ll be interesting to see how Freddie Ashley tackles this one.
“Broke-ology.” True Colors, Jan. 28-Feb. 28. This family comedy-drama by Nathan Louis Jackson received a rather tepid review from The New York Times on its 2009 premiere, so we’ll leave it up to Artistic Director Kenny Leon and a cast that includes Afemo Omilami, Eric Little, Enoch King and Jasmine Guy to spice up the proceedings. The story focuses on the physical and financial strains faced by a contemporary African-American family in Kansas City.
“Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” Synchronicity Theatre, March 3-27. Playwright Lauren Gunderson uses her hometown as a springboard for what she calls a rolling three-city world premiere, which couldn’t come at a better time for a theater troupe that, like many in Atlanta, is trying to regain its footing during the recession. Here Gunderson takes one slice of Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale” and spins it out into a comedy of revenge set in the mountains of North Georgia. Artistic Director Rachel May helms the latest from this award-winning playwright.
“The Water Project.” Out of Hand, April, Emory University and Woodruff Park. Who but Out of Hand would present something billed as “an international science and art visual spectacle”? The project was co-created by the Netherlands’ the Lunatics, with whom the group collaborated on the critically acclaimed “Hominid.” In this collaboration with Emory University, the Centers for Disease Control Safe Water Program and Central Atlanta Progress, “The Water Project” tackles Atlanta’s favorite environmental subject in terms of its value, scarcity and central position in what has become a tri-state battle over its consumption.
“Ruined.” Horizon Theatre, Sept. 16-Oct. 16. “The Best Little Whorehouse in the Congo?” More like a rough contemporary adaptation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage.” Lynn Nottage won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama for this play about a Congolese brothel presided over by Mama Nadi. It has atrocities. And songs.