There are two things you don’t want to encounter in a theater: boredom and predictability. Thankfully, both were in short supply during a theater season that was buoyed by a number surprisingly successful productions and performances.
Although the 2010-11 season didn’t match the spectacular 2009-10 campaign in the sheer number of memorable productions, it was in some ways more interesting. The majority of the season’s top shows came not from the usual suspects (i.e. the city’s largest theaters, which routinely garner the lion’s share of the Barrymore Awards celebrating the best in Philadelphia theater) but rather from Philly’s small, adventurous companies. And despite facing mounting economic challenges, they delivered a host of artistically and thematically audacious productions.
No one production better embodied this season than Luna Theater’s presentation of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which represented the kind of high-risk, high-reward productions from small companies that gave the season its identity. Inspired by the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia, in Blasted Kane investigates the worst humanity has to offer. Sexually violent in the extreme, director Gregory Campbell’s in-your-face production didn’t pull any punches and though Blasted featured acts of obscene depravity, in the end we discovered that kindness can survive in even the most horrific circumstances.
No company delivered a bigger surprise this season than Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which mounted a charming and imaginative (not to mention free) production of Shakespeare’s Henry V last summer. Starring the young actor-students enrolled in PST’s Classical Acting Academy, Director Aaron Cromie’s rambunctious production took full advantage of the cast’s natural exuberance. Theatrically imaginative and shockingly well-performed, the production proved that when it comes to Shakespeare, teenagers are capable of doing far more than just playing the star-crossed lovers in Romeo & Juliet.
There was likewise no shortage of either charm or imagination in Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s joyous staging of the musical [title of show]. A terrific feel-good musical from Philly’s best gay theater company, the production was driven by a four-member ensemble led by Ben Dibble and Michael Phillip O’Brien, who complimented each other beautifully as the two best friends with dreams of mounting a Broadway musical.
Among the many strong performances seen on local stages during the past season, none was as skilled as Anna Deavere Smith’s dazzling performance in Let Me Down Easy. A solo docudrama conceived, written and performed by Smith, Easy explores the topic of health care by embodying the experiences of such diverse individuals as cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and ex-Texas Gov. Ann Richards. The Second Stage Theatre production was not locally produced, but Philadelphia Theatre Company’s presentation of Easy in association with Arena Stage gave local theatergoers the rare opportunity to experience one of America’s most gifted theater artists at the height of her artistic powers.
Sadly, the season was also notable for the passing of 27-year-old actress Melissa Lynch, who tragically died in a car accident in December. Shortly before her death, Lynch delivered a magnificent performance as Sonya in Lantern Theater Company’s sensitive production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. One of the city’s most versatile and gifted performers, Lynch will be sorely missed by those whose lives she enriched from the stage.
While the contributions from Philadelphia’s small companies this past season are cause for celebration, there is a danger that in the near future their ranks could be reduced. The problem isn’t a lack of audience; Philly theatergoers have proven themselves to be an intrepid group capable of finding and supporting small out of the way companies. The real problem for these resourceful and artistically daring companies is finding outside sources of funding. Many small companies struggle to survive on ticket sales alone and if the economic downturn continues, Philadelphia’s diverse community of theaters will not only be severely diminished but perhaps irrevocably damaged.
Following is a list of the 10 best productions from the 2010-11 season.
Blasted (Luna Theater)
Uncle Vanya (Lantern Theater Company)
[title of show] (Mauckingbird Theatre Company)
Henry V (Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre)
Cankerblossom (Pig Iron Theatre Company)
Let Me Down Easy (Philadelphia Theatre Company)
Run, Mourner, Run (Flashpoint Theatre Company)
Vigil (Lantern Theater Company)
Superior Donuts (Arden Theatre Company)
Dublin by Lamplight (Inis Nua Theatre Company)