Our Stage Beaters , who assiduously beat the bushes and back alleys in search of good theater, here give us their Best of 1985 to salute 1986.

The question for Equity-Waiver theatergoers has always been: Who can you trust out there? In 1985, that question remained foremost. Weeks of Waiver-watching went by this year with hardly a breath of fresh air, let alone plays that made you sit forward and listen.

There were a few. The most unforgettable was the Underground Railway Theatre's puppet staging of Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale," at the 46th annual Puppeteers of America Festival in Claremont. This superbly crafted and performed display of puppet artistry combined visual and aural modernism with a politically charged and tragic text. The Underground Railway should roll into town more often.

Great mime is a rarity, but Daniel Stein and Thomas Leabhart gave us exactly that with Stein's "Inclined to Agree" and Leabhart's "How I Was Perplexed and What I Did About It" at The House in Santa Monica. Best of all, this was mime on the cutting edge of invention, far from Marceau's shadow.

Bill Barker's open-hearted and thoughtfully written family play, "Best Wishes," continues to shine at the promising Gnu Theatre (through Feb. 9, (818) 508-5344). Waiver saw no better ensemble all year than this. Another, very different, family play, David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones," ensured that Theatre 40 kept to its pace of producing at least one first-rate show a year.

That's more than most houses can claim. Who can you trust out there? Three theaters stand out.

Pipeline, even when it trips and stumbles, is out to explore new territory in performance of all kinds. It makes most of the rest of Waiver look sadly tame.

American Theatre Arts goes out of its way to unearth little-known classics, and usually does them with such grace and charm that you're happy they did the excavation for you. And the 21st Street Theatre, although always seeming in a financial struggle, has an excellent sense for interesting plays (like this year's "Tales of the Great Depression") and interesting actors to play in them.

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