It's been a strong year for theater in Western New York.
From small community productions with national implications to keenly executed comedies on Buffalo's most elite stages, theatergoers had their pick from the regional theater community's yearly embarrassment of riches -- which seems to grow richer every year.
Of the dozens of productions I saw this year, the following are 10 that rose above the rest -- not necessarily because of peerless execution or perfect writing, but because they brought something fresh and unexpected to local theatrical landscape. Though there were many excellent touring musicals and productions at the Shaw Festival, local productions receive special weight here. They are listed in no particular order.
"Appropriate," Road Less Traveled Productions
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' riveting play uses the classic story of the dysfunctional family squabbling over their inheritance as a delivery system for his slicing commentary on white privilege and cultural myopia in the age of Obama. Road Less Traveled's production, directed by Scott Behrend, brought equal parts energy and poetry to one of the more engaging scripts of the past few years.
"A Little Night Music," Irish Classical Theatre Company
Buffalo director Chris Kelley officially came into his own with this consummate production of the Stephen Sondheim classic, a series of deftly intertwined duets and triads that add up to one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful pieces of musical theater we have. This production was loaded with Broadway-worthy performances from Matthew Witten, Jenn Stafford and Michele Marie Roberts, among other leading lights of Buffalo theater.
Never has the 45-minute drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. been more rewarding than for Eda Holmes' heart-rending version of what, after this production, can now be called Tony Kushner's latest masterwork. Within a framework built by predecessors like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Kushner has inserted a family of radicals striving and failing to live up to impossible ideals.
"Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare in Delaware Park
Jonas Barranca and Kathleen Denecke shone in the title roles of Tom Loughlin's memorable production of Shakespeare's classic tragedy, which took on more boisterous and even raunchy tones than expected, with the addition of some clever, gender-bending casting.
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane," Irish Classical Theatre Company
No one does dark Irish humor better than Martin McDonagh, whose story about the victory of inter-generational spite and vengeance over youthful hope and ambition received a near-perfect treatment in Vincent O'Neill's minor-key production starring Kristen Tripp-Kelley and Josephine Hogan.
"Arrivals and Departures," Kavinoky Theatre
Few duos seemed better matched on stage this year than the odd couple of Gerry Maher and Aleks Malejs, who brought both searing humor and believable pathos to their characters in Alan Ayckbourn's time-traveling faux-farce. Under David Lamb's direction, this complex production did not miss a beat.
"Someone Done Bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church," Mount Olive Baptist Church
Buffalo playwright Marie Mullen, who lived in Birmingham, Ala. when the city's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963, poured all her effort into this poetic reflection on that era-defining event in a production that seemingly included every member of the Mount Olive Baptist Church congregation. In attendance was Sara Collins Rudolph, a childhood friend of Mullen's and one of the only survivors of the bomb that killed her sister and three other girls.
"Topdog/Underdog," Ujima Theatre
After losing its home of more than 30 years, Ujima Theatre had to scramble to find a home for Roosevelt Tidwell's production of Suzan-Lori Parks' masterful play about two brothers trying to make it in a city that's doing everything it can to keep them down. Fortunately for the company and for local theatergoers, Hallwalls offered up its cinema space for what turned out to be one of the most riveting and resonant productions of the year.
"Mystery of the Silver Chalice," Buffalo Laboratory Theatre
What seemed impossibly gimmicky at first -- theatergoers voting on the plot points of a play with remote controls -- quickly became the stuff of tear-inducing laughter in this innovative theater project from Taylor Doherty and his Buffalo Laboratory Theatre. From send-ups of the local theater community to absurd and unlikely choices, this play was a delightful surprise. It has since been optioned for a national tour.
"Daniel's Husband," Buffalo United Artists
"Not a dry eye in the house" was a term used for this production, which while it turned somewhat maudlin and soap-operatic in the second act, featured one of the most remarkable performances of the year. That performance came from Eric Rawski, a previously underrated actor who is finally getting the roles and recognition he deserves for his ability to fully inhabit his characters and make all their roiling emotions - from feigned disgust to simmering rage - feel utterly real.
Theater reviewers Ben Siegel and Ted Hadley also contributed their top five productions:
"Twelfth Night," Shakespeare in Delaware Park
"Henry V," Chautauqua Theater Company
"Doubt," Buffalo Laboratory Theatre
"Joe Hill's Last Will," Subversive Theatre Collective
"Stompin' at the Savoy," Paul Robeson Theatre
"A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney," Road Less Traveled Productions
"The Real Thing," New Phoenix Theatre
"Both Your Houses," Kavinoky Theatre
"The Un-American," Subversive Theatre Collective
"A Midsummer Night's Dream," New Phoenix Theatre
Story topics: Buffalo Laboratory Theatre/ Buffalo United Artists/ Irish Classical Theatre Company/ Kavinoky Theatre/ Road Less Traveled Productions/ Shakespeare in Delaware Park/ Shaw Festival/ Ujima Theatre Company