December is my favorite time of year as a reviewer: It’s when I put together my personal top 10 list of Austin theater productions from the past year. As always, I’ve included only local productions. What’s more, these are my favorite shows, not necessarily the ones I would list as the "best" — it’s assembled from a personal, idiosyncratic point of view, not one that pretends to espouse critical distance and objectivity. Which is all a very fancy way to say, "Your mileage may vary," so let’s get on with the list:
10. "Immortal Longings": This show at Zach Theatre was the world premiere of a reworking of a new Terrence McNally play exploring love, art, inspiration and abuse. Despite its sumptuous scale, it was ultimately an in-depth character study of ballet impresario Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, played with superb nuance and depth by Stephen Epp. His razor-sharp comedic timing and sorrowful heart made this a deeply moving production.
9. "Heartland": Gabriel Jason Dean’s latest work — another new play that premiered this year, albeit on a smaller scale than "Immortal Longings" — is an exploration of an Afghani scholar’s relationship with an American woman and her father. This was simply a classic stage drama presented without bells or whistles by talented director Rudy Ramirez, and it showed that sometimes the power of theater comes down to solid performers presenting a well-written tale.
8. "The Butcher of Baraboo": Like "Heartland," "The Butcher of Baraboo" was a production that relied on a powerful text rather than a fancy production. In this case, the result wasn’t family drama but rather a bleak, black comedy. Featuring a panoply of colorful characters and the biggest gross-out moment of 2019, "The Butcher of Baraboo" was the cap to an amazing year for Street Corner Arts, who time and again have shown themselves to be a company that truly focuses on its actors, with spectacular results. I’ve rarely laughed so hard and been so disgusted and disturbed in the same evening.
7. "The Waverly Gallery": Babs George is probably the most talented performer currently gracing Austin stages, and in Alchemy Theatre Company’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s "The Waverly Gallery," she gave one of her greatest performances yet. As an elderly woman slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, George transformed herself from a youthful, vital actress into a little old lady rapidly losing control of her faculties. Her performance evoked the heartbreak, frustrations and helplessness that come with seeing a loved one in such a situation, creating one of the most powerful and devastatingly sad productions of the year
6. "Notes From the Field": The first production of Anna Deavere Smith’s 2015 play to feature actors other than Smith, "Notes From the Field" featured 17 monologues drawn from her interviews with hundreds of Americans about the school-to-prison pipeline. What resulted was an eye-opening exploration of the difficulties of being black in America, and the meaning of white privilege in relation to that, further teased out by breakout guided discussion sessions that director Dave Steakley worked into the production. If the purpose of theater is to change hearts and minds for the better, then "Notes From the Field" made the most valiant attempt to accomplish that goal this year.
5. "Plano": Paper Chairs’ production of New York playwright Will Arbery’s surrealist "Plano" featured a breakneck pace and an ongoing series of wholly theatrical surprises. An eerie atmosphere permeated the production, which showed the lives of three sisters played in extreme fast-forward. Defying easy description, "Plano" was an experience in pure theatricality, pushing the boundaries of what can and can’t be accomplished on a live stage.
4. "Antigonick": Salvage Vanguard’s "Antigonick" is at least slightly easier to describe than "Plano" — a surreal retelling of Sophocles "Antigone." Anne Carson’s elliptical text, wedded to director Diana Lynn Small’s inventive creativity, crafted a unique theatrical experience that pulled the audience into the strange world created on the stage. "Antigonick" was content to confuse audiences into reactions more emotional than logical.
3. "Dance Nation": Clare Barron’s semi-surrealist "Dance Nation," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, explores the lives, dreams and ambitions of a group of students in a small dance studio. As the play goes on and the young women literally turn into vampires (among other semi-surreal surprises), we see inner truths expressed outwardly in a breathtakingly bold reclamation of young female bodies — and lives — for nobody but those young ladies themselves. This was simply a great script imaginatively directed by Jenny Lavery with a potent ensemble.
2. "Junk": You might think that a three-hour exploration of corporate takeovers in the 1980s can’t be edge-of-your-seat drama, but Street Corner Arts’ "Junk" proves that wrong. A fast-paced story with a giant scope, "Junk" merged issues of nationalism and antisemitism with great moral ambiguity in order to paint a picture of a corporate world that points a finger directly at where we are today. About half of the actors in Austin were a part of this production, and each of them shone, a credit to director Benjamin Summers’ ability to coach strong performances out of a wide variety of actors.
1. "The Rover": Speaking of surprisingly thrilling productions with a giant cast, I never expected to be so moved and energized by Aphra Behn’s 1677 Restoration comedy "The Rover," but Beth Burns and her talented crew at Hidden Room Theatre knew what they were doing. The actors literally burst onto the stage with energy and vigor that didn’t let up. Hidden Room’s productions are the ultimate in no-frills theater, relying entirely on intimate performances (and just a little bit of live music), and with "The Rover" they showed that the right mix of savvy, smart, engaging performers can make even a 350-year-old comedy soar.