Best of 2013: Theater


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Theater is live, in the moment. But good theater also has a half-life in reflection and memory. As we celebrate excellence in our annual retrospective of the previous 12 months, one memory rubs up against another, helping us see them in new ways.

The theatrical year is not just a list of favorite shows, of course. There are also many achievements in acting, directing, designing and the other dimensions of this collaborative art. We'll be back in two weeks to announce the 30th Performer of the Year and celebrate other individual achievements of 2013. Offstage, it was certainly a news-making year. The venerable Kuntu Theater threw in the towel after 39 years, unable to survive the retirement of founder Vernell A. Lillie.

More dramatically, another founder and artistic director, Andrew Paul of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, was fired by his board of directors and began a new company with Pittsburgh Playwrights' Mark Clayton Southers. The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is facing foreclosure. Nationally, Pittsburgh native Billy Porter and fellow Carnegie Mellon University graduate Patina Miller won Tony Awards for lead actor and actress in a musical.

Onstage in Pittsburgh, breadth and variety ruled, as our annual Top 10 testifies.

Although we didn't plan it this way, this year's list features 10 theater companies, almost certainly a first in the half-century of these annual Post-Gazette retrospectives. Six other companies appear among runners-up. Note that we don't consider repeats ("The Chief," "Lion King").

The selections were determined in consultation with Sharon Eberson and Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette theater critics throughout 2013.

1. Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts (Pittsburgh Cultural Trust): Although best known by its giant yellow rubber ducky, the monthlong PIFOF also included six theater events. The pinnacle was "Kiss & Cry," a Belgian meld of theater, video, text and dance that was breathtaking and beautiful, not to mention mind-blowing in its disciplined live creation by a cadre of performers, technicians and artists of varied disciplines. By itself it would have claimed the top spot on this year's list.

2. "Clybourne Park" (Pittsburgh Public Theater): Bruce Norris' comedy of problematic racial and class manners moved easily from the Chicago of 1959 (telling a tale parallel to "A Raisin in the Sun") to that of 2009, one recapitulating the other, digging down into the uneasy comedy to find surprising heart. A wonderful play, it was movingly realized by director Pamela Berlin and a skilled cast.

3. "The Mother****** with the Hat" (barebones productions): Stephen Adly Guirgis' play makes shocking comedy tinged with tragedy out of the relationship of two addicts and three others. The language was as explosive as the emotions and the acting, led by Patrick Jordan and Ruth Gamble.

4. "Dream of Autumn" (Quantum Theatre): John Fosse's abstract dream drama about love, longing and loss was set in a surreal landscape of half-buried furniture and receding vistas over north Oakland, challenging audiences with its haunting images and enigmatic glimpses of story.

5. Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch (Pittsburgh Symphony Pops): What but a wonderful evening would you expect from a program featuring Idina Menzel, Brian D'Arcy James, Lucie Arnaz, Robert Klein and Maria Friedman?

6. "The Book of Mormon" (PNC Broadway Series): Would Pittsburgh embrace the brilliant snark of Parker, Lopez & Stone's musical comedy satire on ideological blindness and naivete in the face of absurdist catastrophe? Yes indeed!

7. "All My Sons" (Playhouse Rep): Arthur Miller's 1949 tragedy about hidden guilt swelling up to overwhelm an apparently successful family was directed by his son, Robert Miller, and featured a fine cast led by Philip Winters and Penelope Lindblom.

8. "Seminar" (City Theatre): Theresa Rebeck's smart comedy about writing and writers (and those who aspire to be), not to mention sex and the heart, was matched by Tracy Brigden's canny direction, City's polished staging and a crisp cast led by Daniel Gerroll.

9. "A Skull in Connemara" (PICT): Martin McDonagh's grisly comedy about the eternal presence of the past seems overblown until it reveals its tragic heart, embodied by James Keegan as Mick.

10. "Blue/Orange" (Phoenix Theatre): Andrew Paul and Mark Clayton Southers joined forces in a new company, which made an auspicious beginning with Joe Penhall's prickly comic problem play in which two white British doctors fight over the mental health of a black man claiming to be the son of Idi Amin. The Phoenix has already announced three plays for 2014.

Also of high note, this baker's dozen:

* "The Tempest," Dryden and Davenant's version of Shakespeare, adapted by Scott Palmer (Unseam'd Shakespeare).

* "Little Gem," Elaine Murphy (City).

* "1776," Stone & Edwards (Public).

* "Our Class," Tadeusz Slobodzianek (PICT).

* "Spring Awakening," Frank Wedekind (CMU).

* "Our Town," Thornton Wilder (Public).

* "Disney's The Little Mermaid" (tour, Pittsburgh CLO).

* "John Gabriel Borkman," Ibsen (Quantum).

* "Viva Los Bastarditos!," Jake Oliver (No Name Theatre).

* "2 Pianos 4 Hands," Dykstra & Greenblatt (City).

* "Other Desert Cities," John Robin Baitz (Public).

* "Miss Saigon," Schonberg, Maltby & Boublil (Pittsburgh Musical Theatre).

* "Huck Finn," after Mark Twain (Playhouse Jr.).


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