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Their Favorite Things: Our two writers discuss the best in theater from 2010

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As another year draws to a close, our two intrepid theater reviewers get together to share thoughts, concerns and delights from the past twelve months.

Dennis Brown: So, Paul, let's be positive — here at the outset, at least. I think 2010 was a very encouraging year for theater in St. Louis, as much for what did not occur as for what did. And what did not occur was that the still-shaky economy did not force a reduction in either the quantity or quality of local theater. Running a theater company in the best of times is a heroic endeavor, but to navigate the shoals of a precarious economy is even more impressive. I salute them all, for sheer fortitude, if nothing else.

Paul Friswold: Agreed. But let's not forget the people who pay for the seats. In early 2010 I was discouraged by the number of opening nights that were underattended. Thankfully that trend reversed by late spring, and audiences seemed to return to their normal levels. A small crowd is not the worst thing in the world, especially if they're attentive and appreciative, but it's disheartening when the viewers are outnumbered by the cast. I can think of one rather ridiculous reason audiences could have diminished for a couple of midtown theaters, but that burst of idiocy seemed to spur theatergoers into action.

Brown: Clearly you're referring to the imbroglio surrounding the extended hours for parking meters in Grand Center.

Friswold: It's like you're reading my mind.

Brown: The inconvenience of shelling out another handful of quarters was almost secondary to the philosophy behind it — a myopic view that those who support the arts, be it theater or the symphony, can be bullied. So far as I'm concerned, the people who run Grand Center deserve no credit whatsoever for reversing their callous decision. Rather, they deserve total condemnation for having initiated it to begin with.

Friswold: Supporters of the arts weren't the only ones stung by this ill-conceived scheme. The actors, technical crew, directors, ushers and other volunteers all suddenly had a new expense for the length of their runs as well as during rehearsals, unless the theater company itself paid for the parking, which was just as bad. And the lobby murmurings suggested that these companies found out about the meters the same day the general public did. Talk about contempt.

Brown: I said I wanted to be encouraging, and here we've already gone negative. So let's get back to the positive. I've been very impressed by the versatility and sheer elasticity of plays that have been staged at the still-young studio theater at the Kranzberg. Within the confines of this small black box, not only have I seen memorable performances but also wildly inventive scenic designs. I think, for instance, of Michael Heil's design for Oedipus King from Upstream and John Armstrong's truly mystical set for HotCity's staging of Equus.

Friswold: When it comes to evocative sets in a tight location, Gianni Downs' thicket of chairs and shadows for the Rep's studio production of Crime and Punishment was dazzling. But if you want versatility and elasticity, I would point to artistic director Gary Bell's work at Stray Dog Theatre. I don't know how many companies would or could stage a sterling production of Our Town and then slay audiences with Evil Dead: The Musical a few months later. This blend of classics and cult classics is what going to the theater should be all about. Something old, something new, something poignant, something horribly gory and ridiculous. It's a living art — let's let it bleed.

Brown: Perhaps more benignly, I'm also encouraged by the continuing health of Circus Flora, which to me is the purest kind of theater. It may sound parochial to boast that St. Louis has its own circus. On the other hand, how many cities can make that claim? We don't have many annual traditions to look forward to. The Rep, for instance, used to stage A Christmas Carol every December. That hasn't happened in a long time. But the annual return of Circus Flora is something that the child within us can anticipate for months in advance.

Friswold: I think we have plenty of traditions still extant; they're just not "traditional" traditions. I like that more theaters are selecting unconventional holiday plays for December runs — Echo's Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), HotCity's Slasher — that's become a tradition more vital than another Christmas Carol. As for anticipation, I eagerly await New Line Theatre's season announcement every year. Scott Miller is another artistic director who seeks the new while paying attention to the canon, although his canon may be not be for everyone. Kyle Jarrow's Love Kills is one of the most heart-wrenching love stories I've enjoyed; it just happens to be about two spree killers. Ah, romance! I'm already excited for Cry-Baby and the return of High Fidelity.

Brown: Yes, there are always productions that resonate. Fires in the Mirror from Mustard Seed, which opened in January, remains vivid in my mind. The direction by Lori Adams, the performances by Michelle Hand and Rory Lipede, the set by Courtney Sanazaro and lighting by Michael Sullivan — there was a sense here that everyone involved was eager to tell the same story. I had such fun at Gutenberg! The Musical! that I went to see it twice, and Actors' Studio's staging of David Mamet's November was a breathless marvel. Bobby Miller, who directed that bobsled ride, has reemerged as a forceful presence in St. Louis theater.

Friswold: Several shows stuck with me for days afterward. Carolyne Hood's direction of Anton in Show Business was so crafty I didn't really appreciate it until much later; this St. Louis Shakespeare production has begun to color how I think about what I'm seeing onstage.

Brown: Eight years ago Hood was a sublime Blanche DuBois in the HotHouse Streetcar Named Desire.

Friswold: Speaking of memorable performances, Avalon's Country Girl was incandescent, thanks to Erin Kelly and John Contini. Actors' Studio's Rock 'n' Roll is another production that infiltrated my mind; I listened to nothing but the Velvet Underground throughout November. It was like I was twenty again.

Brown: So much good work! Elizabeth Berkenmeier was bewitching as an isolated young girl in Outlying Islands. Gary Wayne Barker and Colleen Backer roller-coasted their way through the cadences of Richard Wilbur's droll verse translation of Molière's Tartuffe. Magan Wiles brought a humbling passion to My Name is Rachel Corrie. Brandi Wooten was a hoot in Promises, Promises. Dean Christopher invigorated The Good Doctor, and Kevin Beyer was simply stunning as the Coach in That Championship Season.

Friswold: Mr. Beyer was fantastic in Rock 'n' Roll as the genial secret policeman, Milan. It's a comparatively small part, but he made it memorable. The number of actors in town who excel at this skill is considerable. Chris Jones, who I think of primarily as a comic actor, was excellent as the dimwitted farmer Simeon in Muddy Waters' Desire Under the Elms, and he was brilliant as the morose political idealist Ferdinand in Rock 'n' Roll — no mean feat in that powerful cast (you'd think I wrote this play the way I go on about it). B. Weller is another actor who wears his characters so snugly that it takes me five or ten minutes to recognize him some nights.

Brown: We could go on and on, couldn't we? Let's make a resolution to do this again next year.

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