While the best theater of 1999 may have been happening on the streets during the WTO protests, it was only slightly more dramatic than a whole series of upsets in the performing arts community during the last 12 months, including the closing of Green Lake's Bathhouse Theater and Mercer Island's Center Stage, the firing (and subsequent rehiring after artist-driven protests) of On the Boards' artistic director Mark Murphy, and the installation of a new artistic director for Intiman Theater, Bartlett Sher. Yet given all these upsets, the quality of Seattle theater was stronger than ever. It was a good year to be a theater critic, though a hard year to put together a list that kept to the 10 best shows. (So I snuck in an extra.)
Here, in no particular order, are my 11 picks, which exhibit a healthy diversity of style, subject matter, and budget.
Expressions of the Spirit: Tales from the Brothers Grimm (UMO and the Empty Space Theater): This unlikely collaboration of director Eddie Levi Lee's broad comic sensibilities and the esoteric tendencies of this experimental theater troupe was a wonderfully successful show that reimagined a series of traditional fairy tales into the hero quest of an unlikely princess.
The Crucible (ACT): Gordon Edelstein's production couldn't have been better timed to national events, and Miller's incisive portrayal of a community destroying itself through superstition, lust, and greed was epic theater at its best, with an outstanding (and huge) ensemble of mostly local actors.
Terra Nova (Taproot Theater): Another example of a strong ensemble led by consummate directing, this retelling of the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition managed to inject a surprising amount of subtlety into a tale of harrowing disaster. Director Scott Nolte and a fine cast led by Jeff Berryman as Scott produced knockout drama from Terry Tally's powerful script.
Strindberg in Paris and The Snow Queen (theater simple): A pair of shows (one involving the insufferable but undeniably great Swedish playwright, the other a superbly charming and inventive retelling of the Andersen fairy tale) devised by the company exhibited just how much artistry you can create out of some bare-bones props and plenty of imagination.
Sideman (ACT): Warren Leight's homage to the great age of New York jazz could have all too easily been just another riff on a memory play, a clever mix of comedy and melodrama. But with the direction of Mladen Kiselov and the elaborate set designs of Narelle Sissons, which transformed a traditional arena theater into an almost tangible evocation of time and place, this show, led by John Procaccino as the shambling trumpeter Gene, was transcendent and triumphant.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Seattle Repertory Theater): Despite the strong suspicion that hot young playwright Martin McDonagh may be a manipulative creep, there's no denying that this powerful domestic drama packs a wallop as a mother and daughter do really nasty things to each other. Zoaunne LeRoy as the monstrous Mag and Marianne Owen as the wounded (and wounding) daughter Maureen were quite the pair, and director Richard E.T. White fought the script's tendencies toward horror-comic creepiness with measured intelligence.
Bartleby (Annex Theater): A sensitive and straight-up adaptation of Melville's masterful short story by Paul Budraitis, James Cowan, and Tricia Sexton made the tale effortlessly relevant to the modern era, as the dilemma of the liberal conscience is tested to its farthest lengths by a clerk who "would prefer not to." Stellar work and a welcome change of pace from the theater's often noisier approach.
Wit (Seattle Repertory): Hate to climb aboard a national bandwagon (the show's won every major award out there, including, I believe, a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval), but Margaret Edson's funny, dire, intelligent, empathetic show about a dispassionate John Donne scholar's fight against ovarian cancer may just be one of the best scripts in a decade, and Seattle was fortunate to have Megan Cole, who originated the role, as Dr. Vivian Bearing.
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek (Theater Schmeater): Naomi Wallace's poetic evocation of dead-end lives in the Great Depression was a near-seamless combination of fine acting (particularly the two young leads), strong directing from Schmeater's new artistic director Sheila Daniels, and a stellar design team.
Punch Drunk (Unexpected Productions): Ethan Sandler's unlikely one-man show is ostensibly about the landmark Max Schmelling/Joe Louis title bouts, but in reality it's about how the mythic machismo of boxing can rearrange the life of a young Jewish guy from Mercer Island.
Teatro Zinzanni (One Reel): This dinner-theater-in-a-tent has actually been running since late 1998, but seeing as they're pulling up stakes on January 1 to move to San Francisco, it's only fitting to give one of the most charming and sophisticated evenings available a tip of the hat. Thanks to this show for reminding Seattle that there's a whole world of clowns, acrobats, magicians, ballerinas, and divas out there who are willing to come here.