As 2006 draws to a close, one thing is certain: Theater is alive in St. Louis. How do we know? Because of the abundance of plays we saw. Altogether we reviewed nearly 120 productions: professional theater, semi-professional, community theater, university theater. It came in all sizes, shapes and lengths, and the best of it survives in cherished memories that transcend calendar dates. Here, then, are our year-end lists, not of "the best" of 2006, but of the most affecting memories, listed in the order we saw them.
Ipi Zombi? And now for something different. How often do you see a South African ghost story? In directing Brett Bailey's street-theater account of an outbreak of witchcraft hysteria eleven years ago, Washington U. student Pushkar Sharma reminded us that at its core, theater is an exercise in faith. Half a world away from its South African roots, St. Louis viewers felt the exhilaration of having been exposed to a world of wonder.
A New Brain The Webster Conservatory transformed William Finn's quirky musical about high-risk brain surgery into a joyous ode to life. The show's finale, "Time and Music," still stands out as a cherished gift, a reminder of how thrilling theater can be when all the collaborators director, music director, choreographer want to tell the same story.
Skin in Flames No matter that this Greenhouse world premiere of a searing new play by Guillem Clua, written in the Catalonian language and translated into English by Wash. U. grad student D.J. Sanders, was staged for pennies. The play's intricate structure was ever absorbing, and Julie Layton's gut-wrenching portrayal of a timid Third World factory worker who allowed herself to be exploited by a sexual predator elevated a simple, confused victim into a heroine worthy of Greek tragedy.
King Hedley II The Black Rep tackled August Wilson again. This time the Black Rep won. Wilson's saga of life in Reagan-era Pittsburgh received a vigorous, sinewy staging, highlighted by a towering performance from the redwood-solid A.C. Smith and blistering work from Ron Himes in the title role. I'll admit it now: I didn't even realize Himes was cast as the desperately intense Hedley till the play was almost over, so immersed was he inside his character's skin.
Harvey Mary Chase's vintage comedy about an invisible pooka allowed Alan Knoll and Whit Reichert to deliver a master class in comic timing. To see these two masters onstage together made the 125-mile drive out to the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre a breeze. Theater of this quality is always worth seeking out.
The Importance of Being Earnest Can you think of one good reason to see yet another revival of this Oscar Wilde classic? Act Inc. provided a great reason: Colleen Backer, whose gossamer rendition of Cecily was so stunningly perfect, you were almost afraid to breathe until the play was over for fear you might upset the precarious balance of a flawless escapade.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers This Muny revival served up exuberant dancing and a knockout star performance (for the second consecutive summer) from the delectable Kate Baldwin. What better way to while away a hot August night?
King Lear Robert Falls' volcanic Goodman Theatre production with Stacy Keach in the title role (summoning forth Lear as an Eastern European dictator) was Shakespeare in the Grand Style riveting and edge-of-your-seat compelling. I know: The Goodman is in Chicago, not St. Louis. But let's not be parochial. The Windy City hosts the second-healthiest theater community in America and it's only 250 miles away. We should embrace it, not ignore it.
Noises Off The laughs never stopped coming in Act Inc.'s progressive-supper staging of Michael Frayn's painfully funny farce. The ensemble cast rose to the surreal, nose-bleeding, trouser-dropping challenge of romping through maybe the most hilarious play ever written. Are there good actors in St. Louis? There were enough here to fill an asylum.
Urinetown As if you didn't know. This triumphant St. Louis Rep staging of a satire about the battle between innocence and cynicism was the stuff of which theater dreams are made and the stuff from which memories endure forever.
I Am My Own Wife Starting with the breathless opening moment when actor Arnie Burton encountered the Repertory Theatre audience as Charlotta von Mahlsdorf, this one-man show ironically reminded us that theater is a collaborative art. The creative team included designers Marie Anne Chiment, Mitchell Dana, Joe Payne and director John Going; their seamless work made Doug Wright's complicated story easy to follow.
Beowulf With a simple wooden structure, red scarves and an inventive original music score by Lance Garger, Metro Theatre Company created theatrical magic for all ages. Carol North's ingenious staging of this ancient epic featured precise physical work by actors Nicholas Kryah, Scott Hanson and Eddie Webb.
The Kevin Kline Awards for Excellence in Professional Theatre Among the memories: a freak snowstorm, Jason Danieley singing "Something's Coming," presentations honoring the history of St. Louis theater and perhaps most of all: the genuine warmth of Kevin Kline's smile as he gazed at the audience in the Roberts Orpheum Theater.
Humble Boy Echoes of Hamlet reverberated in the Rep's Studio Theatre as a strong ensemble brought Charlotte Jones' sharp script into focus under the watchful eye of director Steven Woolf. As fresh as the apple that strategically fell from the tree, Humble Boy juggled topics as disparate as gardening, beekeeping and the meaning of life.
The Sugar Syndrome Magan Wiles and Terry Meddows served up Lucy Prebble's startling script with zest in this Echo Theatre production, directed by Eric Little. Produced in the tiny Tin Ceiling theater, Wiles' manic portrayal of recovering anorexic Dani contrasted brilliantly with Meddows' calm portrayal of recovering (or is he?) pedophile Tim. We've heard of odd couples, but this one puts Oscar and Felix to shame.
Zombozo This silent movie/zombie/ romance/horror/clown story, featuring live (?) music by an all-zombie band, offered the Tin Ceiling audience the opportunity to laugh and be drenched in stage blood what more could you want from a night at the theater?
American Buffalo Proving that the NonProphet Theater Company can do more than sketch comedy, this production featured sizzling performances by Bob Mitchell, Rory Flynn and Brendan Allen in David Mamet's taut and still-relevant examination of crime and poverty.
The Oldest Profession What was the play about? Elderly hookers. But nobody remembers the plot the images that remain are of the exuberant sexuality of four of the city's most experienced actresses (Jane Abling, Dorothy Farmer Davis, Cindy Duggan, Nancy Lewis), who sang and danced their way through burlesque interludes that were the brightest spot in this West End Players Guild production.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot Intelligent, offensive, hilarious and heartbreaking Stephen Adly Guirgis's script was infused with the talents of a strong cast and shaped by the playful staging of HotCity Theatre's artistic director Marty Stanberry. Overshadowing the play's ambitious debate over the culpability of Judas is the final scene: Jesus washing Judas' feet a searing image of love and forgiveness.
Quidam It may be fitting that the final theater memory on this list combined elements of all the performing arts: dance, music, theater and circus came together in this unique and unforgettable Cirque du Soleil fantasia. You could follow a story about a family learning about life through a series of children's games or ignore the plot and enjoy the amazing acts. Either way, it was entertainment that moved performers and audience alike out of their comfort zone and into a soul-refreshing realm of imagination.