As the 2009-10 theater season comes to a close, Philadelphia confirms its status as a city with one of the most vibrant theater scenes in the country.
It didn’t happen overnight. For the past two decades, the theater community has grown in both quantity and quality; now, previously young companies are now artistically established, and over the years have been cultivating a stable of talented local designers, directors and actors.
However, the difference between this season and past years wasn’t just the quality of the productions, but also the selection of plays. Past seasons have tended to be dominated by strong productions of inferior or mediocre work. This time, audiences were treated to selections of unusually high quality: Broadway hits like The History Boys and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, compelling dramas like Shining City and Rabbit Hole, sharp-witted comedies like the wickedly funny Becky Shaw, and exciting new work like The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Welcome to Yuba City, notable for its excellent ensemble cast as well as its brush with the national media as Sen. John McCain decried the use of stimulus funds to pay the show’s actors.
Plays were markedly shorter than in past seasons. Gone were the lengthy three-act dramas: Even the two-act play became an anomaly as 90-minute one-acts took over the area stages, rendering intermission a quaint memory. The result was tighter, more focused stories (good for audiences) and smaller casts (not so good for actors).
What makes the success so surprising is that it occurred in spite of (or because of) the struggling economy. If necessity is the mother of invention, the budget shortfalls of many companies led to a host of innovations like Yuba City, Gas & Electric Arts’ bizarrely entertaining Cabinet of Wonders , the interstellar site-specific work Survive! from new company Swim Pony and the season’s wildest ride, Brat Productions’ literary horrorshow Haunted Poe.
Finally, the 2009-10 season suggests that Philly theater’s best days may lie ahead. Perhaps the season’s most welcome trend was the emergence of young actors. Among the new wave of local talent this season are Aaron Stall, who gave a wrenching performance as a grief-stricken teenager in the Arden’s Rabbit Hole ; Jonathan Silver, as an enterprising, emotionally susceptible teen in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Up; Laura Giknis, who showed off her versatility with memorable performances in Up and the musical Little Shop of Horrors (a co-production of Theatre Horizon and 11th Hour Theatre Company); and Michael Doherty, who charmed audiences as a gay prep-school student in the Arden’s well-executed staging of The History Boys.
Becky Shaw (Wilma Theater)
Company (EgoPo Productions)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Walnut Street Theatre)
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (InterAct)
Haunted Poe (Brat Productions)
The History Boys (Arden Theatre Company)
Little Shop of Horrors (11th Hour and Theatre Horizon)
Rabbit Hole (Arden Theatre Company)
Shining City (Theatre Exile)
Welcome to Yuba City (Pig Iron Theatre Company)
Honorable Mentions: Cabinet of Wonders (Gas & Electric Arts), Up (Bristol Riverside Theatre), Sunday in the Park with George (Arden Theatre Company), Language Rooms (Wilma Theater), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Philadelphia Theatre Company), Coming Home (Wilma Theater)