What an unexpected year for theater 2009 turned out to be. With the nation gripped in economic turmoil, it would have been understandable had we been fed a steady diet of crowd-pleasing escapist comedies, musicals and tried-and-true revivals. Instead, many local theaters produced the rarely seen and the unusual. They made theater seem fresh, relevant and resonant. Here, in vaguely chronological order, is a grateful list of memorable productions.
The year got off to a blistering start with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' studio production of David Harrower's harrowing Blackbird. Bravely acted and impeccably directed, the show was yet another example of the Rep doing what it does best: small, provocative theater in the basement below the main stage. In March the Rep Studio staging of Stephen Temperley's Souvenir, an oddity of a freak show about the incorrigible coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, was another winner, highlighted by a comic tour de force from Neva Rae Powers.
Three Tall Women, Edward Albee's dreamlike meditation on femininity, was a revelation at Muddy Waters. This was the most polished and professional production Muddy Waters has ever staged.
Echo Theatre Company transported viewers through a galloping maze of confusions in The Ugly One, a German satire about obsession with external beauty. As four intrepid actors (Charlie Barron, Michelle Hand, Terry Meddows, Ben Nordstrom) changed roles with reckless abandon, it made for an exhilarating hour.
Upstream Theater offered two stunning productions. In April Philip Boehm's adaptation of Georg Büchner's unfinished 1837 would-be tragedy Woyzeck featured a knockout ensemble cast (including John Bratkowski, Lavonne Byers, J. Samuel Davis, Brooke Edwards, Kari Ely, Steve Isom, Peter Mayer) that transformed what might have been a two-hour yawn into a spellbinding yarn. Six months later Boehm's staging of the Polish drama Helver's Night played out with the impact of a punch to the gut. Christopher Harris and Linda Kennedy were both wrenching in this parable about misfits in a totalitarian society.
The Muny mounted three especially satisfying musicals. Thanks to the charming pairing of Abigail Isom and John Schuck, the cartoonish Annie seemed real and fresh. The Music Man had a definitive Marian the Librarian in Kate Baldwin and made effective use of the full Muny stage. The ensemble danced up a storm in the cyclonic Hairspray, but the evening owed much of its élan to the Slinky-slithering Lara Teeter, who made even the non-musical scenes sway.
The epic Ragtime received an energetic joint production from the Black Rep and the Washington University Performing Arts Department, a fortuitous collaboration that captured the show's vastness in a spare kind of way.
The Orange Girls ended their all-too-brief existence with two impeccable productions. David Margulies' Collected Stories was gorgeously performed by Nancy Lewis as a respected author and Meghan Maguire as the fawning student who breaches her mentor's trust. Wonder of the World, David Lindsay-Abaire's madcap comedy set, in part, under Niagara Falls, was a zany delight with a beautifully calibrated performance from Brooke Edwards at the helm of a zesty ensemble directed to a fare-thee-well by Deanna Jent.
The year ended on a pinnacle with yet another David Margulies offering: Brooklyn Boy at New Jewish Theatre, an account of a week in the life of a novelist whose life was unraveling even as his career was taking off, was eloquent and haunting.
In addition to those actors already mentioned, there was compelling work from Gary Wayne Barker as a pastor-turned-gardener in the one-man show An Almost Holy Picture, Kari Ely as a tormented Cuban immigrant in the twice-told-tale Sonia Flew, Michelle Hand as frustrated artist in The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, Richmond Hoxie as a walking time bomb of a hospital administrator in Secret Order, Whit Reichert as the bluff of a father in The Subject Was Roses and Emily Strembecki as every man's fantasy maid in A Shot in the Dark. Month after month you couldn't swing a cat without bumping into good work from Kevin Beyer, who made for a persuasive Sigmund Freud in Sabina, an intimidating government interrogator in Back of the Throat and an ominous Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons.
It was, as the song tells us, a very good year.