Theater this year had a hard time competing with real-life drama (the melodramatic collapse of the economy; Barack Obama's stirring, historic victory; and, for heart-attack-inducing suspense, Rafael Nadal's superhuman defeat of Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final). But there were a few powerhouse performances that deserved headlines of their own.
"All's Well That Ends Well," San Diego's Old Globe. Darko Tresnjak's enthralling production of Shakespeare's "problem play" may have laundered out some of the unsettling darkness, but it was so gracefully staged and spoken that it added fairy-tale enchantment to a summer evening.
"The Brig," Odyssey Theatre. Kenneth H. Brown's countercultural classic, first produced by the Living Theatre in 1963, has lost none of its radical edge in the ensuing decades. Directed by Tom Lillard (an actor from the original company), the production starkly re-created the disciplinary madness inside a Marine prison and, by implication, indicted the dehumanizing extremes of military culture.
"The House of Blue Leaves," Mark Taper Forum.John Guare's dark comedy may not have been the most ingratiating way of reopening the Taper (these characters aren't exactly welcome-wagon types). But Nicholas Martin's grounded production, anchored by the terrific trio of John Pankow, Kate Burton and Jane Kaczmarek, resonantly revived this tale of an aging showbiz-dreaming nobody and his inconveniently screwy family.
"Gypsy," Broadway's St. James Theatre. A tour de force by Patti LuPone, who transforms "Rose's Turn," the show's tousled-hair finale, into an existential act of defiance. The always excellent Boyd Gaines and a luminous Laura Benanti lend superlative support.
"Much Ado About Nothing," London's National Theatre; "Othello," London's Donmar Warehouse. Two sublimely acted Shakespeare productions, taken in during a post-holiday playgoing spree, started 2008 off with a bang for this critic. Chiwetel Ejiofor's heartbreakingly intimate Othello never hit a false oratorical note, and Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale's middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, soul mates in witty aggression, tapped a last-chance romantic poignancy in this comedy of linguistic one-upmanship.
"Secrets of the Trade," Black Dahlia Theatre. A brilliant cast, under the unerring direction of Matt Shakman, animated Jonathan Tolins' genuine if at times meandering drama about an adolescent with a theatrical dream (Edward Tournier) and a glamorously successful mentor (the fabulous John Glover), who seems rather dicey to the boy's loudly suspicious mother (a crackling Amy Aquino).
"Speed-the-Plow," Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Not one of David Mamet's masterpieces, you say? The perfect triangle of Jeremy Piven, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss (until last week) might have just changed your mind.
"Victory," Fountain Theatre. In his post-apartheid career, Athol Fugard hasn't had to look beyond his South African homeland for political conflict and moral ambiguity. Morlan Higgins, as a widowed teacher who has bitterly withdrawn from the world, was in his usual fine form. Also memorable were Lovensky Jean-Baptiste (an actor to keep an eye on) and Tinashe Kajese as a pair of bungling young robbers, who bring their country's turbulent history into this bookish codger's living room. Kudos to Stephen Sachs for his thrillingly character-centered direction.
"Winter," the Culver Studios' Stage 7. Jon Fosse's enigmatic play, about a sexy, strung-out woman who overturns the bourgeois stability of a married man's life, may have frustrated expectations of how a story should unfold. But this imagistic work by Norway's most innovative playwright since Ibsen was given such a haunting multimedia liftoff that those open to new dramatic forms couldn't help but be intrigued.
Train wrecks were few, but pointless mediocrities were as bountiful as ever (did "I Love My Wife" need to be resuscitated?). Here's to a 2009 of more purposeful producing.