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A vintage year onstage as classics blended with provocative premieres

EntertainmentArts and CultureJapanTheaterRodney KingRoger Guenveur SmithNicholas Hytner

Much that was old was new again in 2013, which turned out to be a very good year for the classics.

It wasn't a bad year for new work either, even if too many of today's most provocative playwrights are getting short shrift from this town's nonprofit heavyweights.

I was especially glad to see Samuel D. Hunter's "The Whale" at South Coast Repertory, but to catch "The Flick," the latest from Annie Baker (for my money, the most exciting American dramatist working today), I had to hop a flight to New York, where Playwrights Horizons was presenting the world premiere.

Christopher Shinn's "Dying City," a 2008 Pulitzer finalist, finally found welcome in Los Angeles, thanks to the indispensable Rogue Machine. And I must salute Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre for producing two new works on my highlight reel, Roger Guenveur Smith's mesmerizing spoken-word riff, "Rodney King," and Jennifer Haley's dystopian peek into the virtual future, "The Nether."

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But in a year that kicked into high gear with Nicholas Martin's sparkling revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" at San Diego's Old Globe, it was the canonical authors who held sway.

When was the last time I saw a production of "Prometheus Bound" as good as the one directed by Travis Preston at the Getty Villa? Well, I've never seen a production of Aeschylus' ancient tragedy before and was grateful for the belated opportunity.

Shakespeare, that perennially youthful old-timer, has certainly been riding high all year. Last summer in London at the National Theatre, I had the good fortune to see Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress staging of "Othello" with a luminous Adrian Lester in the title role and Rory Kinnear turning in a sinister working-class Iago for the ages.

"R II," Jessica Kubzansky's ingenious distillation of "Richard II" at the Theatre @ Boston Court, was magisterially pulled off. What's more, this beautifully designed production introduced me to an acting talent I hope to see more widely employed on our stages, Paige Lindsey White.

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My sweetest Broadway memory comes courtesy of Mark Rylance's Olivia in "Twelfth Night" at the Belasco Theatre. He's juggling this comic sundae topped with whip cream with the dastardly butchery of "Richard III" in Tim Carroll's superlative all-male productions from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Also working the repertory angle on Broadway, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart have been dexterously volleying the existential badinage of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" at the Cort Theater. I saw "No Man's Land" at Berkeley Rep last summer and was enraptured by the way these knights humorously handled the delirious crush of non sequiturs while persevering the mysterious menace that is Pinter's hallmark.

Any year that allows for the passionate inclusion of a Bertolt Brecht play has to be a vintage one. The Foundry Theatre rekindled "Good Person of Szechwan" at the New York Public Theater in a production directed by Lear deBessonet and starring the extraordinarily mercurial Taylor Mac. Let's hope someone has the sense to bring this wonderful production to L.A. next year.

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As for American classics, the Mark Taper Forum's revival of August Wilson's masterpiece "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and the Geffen Playhouse's remounting of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" were top notch. The Wilson, directed by Phylicia Rashad and starring two powerhouse actors, John Douglas Thompson and Glynn Turman, accrued an emotional heft that confirmed the healing properties of catharsis. And the Mamet, directed by Randall Arney, anchored the playwright's biting language in a blue-collar realism that gave the con game a gripping freshness.

What can you say about a year when even something as relatively new as "Shun-kin" harks back to something from the first half of last century? This collaboration between the London-based company Complicite and Japan's Setagaya Public Theatre that was presented by UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance brought a strange tale of love and sadomasochism to the Freud Playhouse from the Japanese writer Jun'ichiro Tanizaki.

The story was written in 1933, but as theater is an insistently present-tense medium, it was happening in that most special of time zones, the eternal now.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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