The best in theater for 2016 throughout South Florida yields a healthy mix of new work and classic scripts. Of course, any such list is by definition a subjective opinion, so your mileage may vary, but by any measure, it was a good year at the theater:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Kravis on Broadway) — The five-time Tony Award winner from the 2014-2015 Broadway season was an adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel about an autistic teen who becomes determined to solve the mystery of the killing of a neighborhood canine. Like the book, director Marianne Elliott (War Horse) takes us inside Christopher Boone’s head with remarkable, kinetic projections designed by Finn Ross. Adam Langdon is just the latest in a line of energetic, emotionally open young actors to play Christopher, whose chaotic journey by train from the British suburbs into London with his pet rat is one of the most harrowing ever on a live stage.
>After (Zoetic Stage) — South Florida playwright Michael McKeever has done it again – taken themes from the daily headlines, illustrated them with vivid characters with whom we empathize and places us squarely in the middle of the issue. In the case of his latest world premiere, the issues are bullying and school violence. Two seemingly civilized couples meet to discuss an incident where one son has threatened the other – not unlike Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage – but when the culprit is insufficiently punished, matters escalate with fatal consequences. Yet what interests McKeever in this tight, taut, intermissionless play is not the violence, but the aftermath that the parents must live with. Stuart Meltzer directed expertly an ensemble led by Mia Matthews, Jeni Hacker, Tom Wahl and the playwright himself.
The Golem of Havana (Miami New Drama) — One of the first shows of the year remains one of the most compelling,twelve months later. This new musical by a debuting company blends Cuban and Jewish cultures artfully in a character-driven tale set in pre-revolution 1958. At its center is a family of Hungarian Jews who emigrated to Cuba after World War II for a life without persecution. But violence now hovers over their existence, as daughter Rebecca explains with the legend of the Golem of Prague, which protected its congregation until it suddenly turned violent. Company artistic director Michel Hausmann stages this complex story with evocative simplicity and the score — by Saloman Lerner and Len Schiff — moves the narrative with atmospheric urgency.
Long Day’s Journey into Night (Palm Beach Dramaworks) — There is something about the great works of the American stage that brings out the best in Palm Beach Dramaworks, as seen in its powerful, impeccably performed production of Eugene O’Neill’s epic autobiographical masterwork. Director William Hayes gathered a handful of company veterans, including Dennis Creaghan and John Leonard Thompson as combative father and son, but it was the performance by Maureen Anderman — a mid-rehearsal replacement — as drug-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone who cemented this show’s place among the year’s best.
Kiss Me Kate (Maltz Jupiter Theatre) — Part Elizabethan romantic comedy and part backstage farce, this intersection of William Shakespeare and Cole Porter blends The Taming of the Shrew with an out-of-town tryout starring two formerly married egotistical headliners. At the Maltz, director Peter Flynn and choreographer Marcos Santana set the material in giddy motion to such hummable Broadway ballads as “So In Love” and “Were Thine That Special Face” and the groaning puns of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Maltz newcomers Peter Reardon and Sally Wilfert headed a top-notch cast, assuring that the production delivered a kick in your Coriolanus.
The Royale (GableStage) — Artistic director Joe Adler often combs the New York theater scene for material, with special interest in emerging South Florida writing talent. So it was a sure thing from him to be drawn to Miami-born Marco Ramirez’s fictional account of the life and career of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, whose biography was also recounted in The Great White Hope. What that Pulitzer winner did on an epic scale, Ramirez matches with a cast of five, and a stylized synthesis of boxing in which not a single blow is landed. Also constantly bobbing and weaving in search of new performance talent, Adler struck gold in Aygemang Clay, charming and lethal in his professional acting debut.
Reborning (Arts Garage) – In search of creepy material, director Keith Garsson found and staged Zayd Dohrn’s twisted, but surprisingly involving drama about love, loss and the crutches we invent to start over. Specifically, the play concerns reborning dolls, effigies of lost children created to help surviving loved ones through the grieving process. The remarkable Elizabeth Price played an artist who specializes in the creation of such dolls, with Deborah Kondelik as a curiously demanding client. Garsson’s macabre taste and directing skill led to a very successful freshman season, but the continuation of that signature kinkiness then fell out of favor with his audience and his board, leading to the suspension of the theater program at the Garage.
This Random World (FAU Theatre Lab) – Based on personal connections he has made with playwrights, Louis Tyrrell has been producing and directing new works in South Florida for the past 30 years. Plays like this latest by Steven Dietz about connections and the lack of them, as illustrated by a handful of characters whose links are evident to the audience but not to themselves. Death is a theme that hovers over the play, yet Dietz still manages to keep the tone whimsical, tossing out profound statements with a lightly humorous spin. If this description seems vague, that is intentional for this is one of those theater pieces that work best when the audience comes in knowing little. For his first season of full productions at Florida Atlantic University, pied piper Tyrrell attracted a first-rate cast of familiar faces (Harriet Oser, Dan Leonard, Elizabeth Price again) and newcomers (Kelli Mohrbacher, Cherise James).
Spring Awakening (Slow Burn Theatre) – Every theater in South Florida yearns for a young audience and none has been as successful as this purveyor of edgy musicals that resides at the Broward Center. It helps that it has set its sights on producing shows for young people and performed by young people, like this Tony-winning musical, based on a play from 1891, about German teens coming of age and discovering that new-fangled invention – well, to them – called “sex.” Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater put an emphasis on sound clarity, and the lyrics were actually intelligible. Stephanny Noria and Bobby Cassell headed a youthful, energetic, sexy cast that let all the angst of adolescence shine through.
Rapture, Bliss, Burn (Zoetic Stage) – The road not taken is a familiar literary theme, dusted off and given a scalpel-sharp, funny new examination in Gina Gionfriddo’s Pulitzer finalist script from three years ago. College friends Gwen (Margery Lowe) and Catherine (Mia Matthews) took divergent life paths. The former married and became a stay-at-home mom, while the latter became a controversial feminist author and academic star, sacrificing any personal relationship. They reunite when Catherine returns to town to care for her ailing mother (Barbara Bradshaw) and lead a seminar which explores the meaning of feminism for three generations of women. Stuart Meltzer directed a first-rate cast, bringing out the play’s many ideas and the human drama as well.