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The year in review: Atlanta theater hits bumps in the road, but abounds in stirring productions

Tom Key ias Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko in "Red." (Photo by Josh Lamkin)
Tom Key's searing performance as Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko marked "Red." (Photo by Josh Lamkin)

In many ways, 2012 was not an auspicious year for theater in metro Atlanta. Marietta’s Theatre in the Square, a seemingly well-established stalwart, announced that it was deep in debt and then closed down for good in March, after 30 years of staging some of the region’s most reliably excellent shows. An attempt to reopen under new management and a new name in the late fall held promise but hasn’t taken hold.

Relapse Theatre in Midtown was a rising star of the improv and comedy scene, notable for its quick success and popularity, and then it too suddenly announced that it was closing after a seemingly glorious six years. The dissolution of a young upstart is, in its own way, just as foreboding as the fall of a mighty oak such as Theatre in the Square. (Efforts to save Relapse are ongoing, and we wish them the best of luck.)

Check my math, but I believe there is now not a single full-time critic of any kind at any major publication in our city, as the march of cutbacks in arts coverage continued with the layoff of longtime Creative Loafing theater critic Curt Holman in March.

We’re enthusiastic about the new crew that’s taking over at 7 Stages Theatre, but 7 Stages founder Del Hamilton’s retirement will create a nearly impossible-to-fill vacancy on the Atlanta theatrical scene. Hamilton’s singular aesthetic, accumulated knowledge and artistic integrity make him a tough act to follow.

But in spite of these and many other challenges, we’re thinking that the worst may be over. The theater companies that have weathered the lean times are hopefully here to stay. And the most promising sign of all is that this year, Atlanta theaters mounted some fascinating, lively shows, many of which had moments that we’ll remember long after 2012 is over.

Here are ArtsATL’s picks for the 10 best theatrical productions in metro Atlanta in 2012:

10. Georgia Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” This sun-dappled, charmingly silly production was notable for actors Joe Knezevich and Courtney Patterson, who not only made Shakespeare’s famously sparring couple Beatrice and Benedick pop off the stage in remarkable performances but deftly brought some of the play’s darker dramatic moments vividly to life.

9. Theatrical Outfit’s “Red.” Tom Key masterfully limned the inner workings of complicated, troubled 20th-century artist Mark Rothko in this two-man, one-act play. In Key’s performance, even the simple opening line, “What do you see?,” became fraught with radioactive uncertainty.

8. Alliance Theatre’s “I Just Stopped by to See the Man.” If there’s ever been a better match of part to player than “Mississippi” Charles Bevel in the role of bluesman Jesse Davidson in “I Just Stopped by to See the Man,” we don’t know of it. A smart, often political dramatization of the conflict between art and commerce, this play on the Alliance’s Hertz Stage knocked the ball out of the park with Bevel’s rivetingly authentic performance.

“Mississippi” Charles Bevel in the Alliance Theatre's "I Just Stopped by to See the Man."

7. Fabrefaction Theatre Company’s “Tartuffe.” Fabrefaction obviously had some fun with this one. The company broke in its black-box space with a dizzyingly paced, 360-degree, in-the-round, Mel Brooks-inflected production of Moliere’s classic comedy about religious hypocrisy.

6. Theatrical Outfit’s “My Name Is Asher Lev.” Tradition and modernity went head to head in this portrait of the artist as a young man. Nick Arapoglou compellingly depicted the conflict between the character’s communal Hasidic upbringing and his need to be an authentic individual as an artist.

5. Theatre in the Square’s “Flyin’ West.” This spot-on, 20th-anniversary production of Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage’s contemporary classic about black pioneers in the Old West had a touch of joy and celebration about it. Little did audiences know that it would also sound a sad valedictory note. It was a strange, bitter irony that the run of such a fantastic show ended early when the theater itself abruptly closed its doors.

Joy Brunson (left) and Donna Biscoe in "Flyin' West." (Photo by Seamus M. Bourne)

4. Georgia Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Lake. Carolyn Cook as a female “Prospera” ruled the island in this clever, energetic production at the interactive fountain in Piedmont Park. Profound thanks to the Loridans Foundation are in order for stepping in to make sure the city was able to keep the tradition of outdoor summer Shakespeare in the park.

3. Horizon Theatre’s “Time Stands Still.” Carolyn Cook is the kind of actress for whom the term “tour de force” was coined. Her nuanced performance as a conflicted photojournalist injured by a roadside bomb was a thing of beauty.

Carolyn Cook was unforgettable in "Time Stands Still" at Horizon Theatre.

2. National Theatre’s “War Horse” at the Fox Theatre. Touring productions of big Broadway-style shows that visit the Fox probably don’t often make lists like this, but “War Horse” was truly extraordinary. A potentially banal “boy meets horse” story was made utterly compelling by Handspring’s inventive puppet designs and by playwright Nick Stafford’s solid-as-a-tank adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s novel for young adults.

1. Fabrefaction Theatre Company’s “Assassins.” Perhaps I’m a bit idiosyncratic in my intense admiration for this one, but I loved, loved, loved this little Stephen Sondheim gem and the way Fabrefaction’s strong cast gave life to its oddball lineup of outcasts and losers.

Other notable shows

Top 10 lists necessarily are limited to, well, 10 items, but many other productions in metro Atlanta in 2012 deserve honorable mention. I imagine that “Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale,” “Wolves” and “Next to Normal” would rank pretty high on many local theater lovers’ Top 10 lists, and “Wolves” nearly made mine. The New American Shakespeare Tavern staged a strong “Twelfth Night” in July, and shortly afterward at the same venue, Veronika Duerr, who played Viola in that production, directed a bitingly funny “Anton in Show Business,” which satirized the ins and outs of mounting live theater.

The biting satire "Anton in Show Business" at the Shakespeare Tavern.

Synchronicity Theatre’s “The Minotaur” skillfully put some modernity into the ancient myth at Horizon Theatre. I heard mixed reactions to Saiah’s roving “Rua|Wulf” at the Goat Farm Arts Center (I was unfortunately out of town during its entire run), but I admired the ambitious, inventive nature of the production and am intrigued to hear that Saiah plans a theatrical version of the decidedly non-theatrical “Moby Dick” in 2013.

The Collective Project had a strong first season at the Goat Farm, showing an interesting range from Southern Gothic to sketch comedy. And Georgia Shakespeare, in addition to “Much Ado About Nothing” and the wonderful “Tempest” on our list above, put on a wonderfully smart and surreal production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

“Grim, Grimmer, Grimmest” was a beautifully staged if overly long meditation on fairy tales at Theatre Emory. “Xanadu” at Actor’s Express and Essential Theatre’s “Bat Hamlet” were both charmingly, winningly stupid. And PushPush rounded out the year with “Black Glass,” a challenging, dark meditation on corporate greed. All good work and all great signs for things to come.

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