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O'Reilly Theater: Bouquets and a couple of brickbats for seasons past

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Picking favorites isn't easy -- there's so much to weigh, starting with my own prejudices. Like most critics, I have a general preference for the out-of-the-ordinary. It's a general truth that the great plays are always those we saw first, so there's also that bias to beware. How do you balance a so-so staging of a great play against a great staging of something lesser? Which do you prefer, a wonderful two hours that's soon forgotten, or a less intense experience that proves to have a richer half-life? But the vividness of memory is no sure guide, because what you recall may be the memory of the thing, not the thing itself.

The Public Theater started four years before I started reviewing for WQED-FM and eight years before I became a critic for the Post-Gazette. But because I was a charter subscriber, I've missed only five of its 137 mainstage shows in 24 years ("Henry 5," "Medal of Honor Rag," "Ashes," "For Colored Girls," the second "Glass Menagerie").

All that said, here's a list of favorites, and not-so-favorites and more -- all by the dozen ...

BEST

My 12 favorites in chronological order:

Dale Wasserman, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975): I can still taste the excitement of hanging over that second-level railing, feeling right there in the psychiatric ward as Tom Atkins and company brought Ken Kesey's morality play to vivid, visceral life.

Athol Fugard, "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead" (1976): Such a simple play, yet so memorable and moving, the impassive dignity of Joe Seneca contrasting with the mercurial intensity of Joe Morton.

Sam Shepard, "Buried Child" (1979-80): I went three times to savor (from different audience vantage points) this comic gothic tale about the search for family.

Sean O'Casey, "Juno and the Paycock" (1981-82): Tom Toner was the wonderful heart of this gloriously sad, robust slice of Dublin life.

Tom Stoppard, "The Real Thing" (1985-86): Stoppard's breakthrough play, in which he found the heart within the wit, a warm showcase for Helena Ruoti.

August Wilson, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (1989-90): A welter of stories leading gradually to a magical and harrowing exorcism, presided over by a shaman played by Roscoe Lee Browne; probably my favorite Wilson.

Shakespeare, "Hamlet" (1991-92): Ron Daniels' direction tilted the familiar text askew, opening up new views and featuring Mark Rylance as a very modern, very alienated prince.

Caryl Churchill, "Mad Forest" (1992-93): Breathtaking contemporary history (the fall of Ceaucescu) told in competing theatrical styles, the whole lit with surreal invention.

Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman, "Wings" (1993-94): A focused, intimate musical tale of a woman fighting back from a stroke, purely directed by Ted Pappas and acted by Leila Martin.

Michael Cristofer, "Amazing Grace" (1995-96): Eddie Gilbert's best directing, a taut ensemble piece about an unlikely serial killer and a strange redemption.

Tom Stoppard, "Arcadia" (1995-96): An intellectual puzzle of great richness with a surprising love story at its core.

August Wilson, "Jitney" (1995-96): As in all Wilson's work, the central conflict emerges slowly, with heart-gulping power.

There are many more I'd like to list, including the daring freshness of John Guare's "Gardenia" (1985-86); the comic invention of Stephen Kanee's version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (1980-81); "She Loves Me" (1985-86) and "Eleanor" (1989-90); Arthur Giron's searing "Edith Stein" (1987-88); Terry Johnson's serious farce "Hysteria" (1997-98); and several more from August Wilson.

WORST

In some cases it's the play that's weak, in other cases the production. Probably this dozen is even more idiosyncratic than my "Bests":

Robert Litz, "Tangles" (1980-81): Of all 137 shows, this is the one I can't recall at all.

Kyte, Marvin & Pearle, "Tintypes" (1981-82): A boring pageant.

Moliere, "Tartuffe" (1981-82): The lead and the director were doing different plays.

George Kelly, "The Show-Off" (1985-86): No pay off, Robert Mobley notwithstanding.

P.G. Wodehouse (after Ferenc Molnar), "The Play's the Thing" (1986-87): Too bad Stoppard's wittier adaptation ("Rough Crossing') wasn't available then.

Noel Coward, "Fallen Angels" (1988-89): No sizzle.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, "I Do! I Do!" (1991-92): Vapid.

Dan Sullivan, "Inspecting Carol" (1992-93): Community theater stuff.

Bruce Graham, "Belmont Avenue Social Club" (1994-95): Damp nostalgia.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, "George Washington Slept Here" (1988-89): Never took off.

FunFest (1997-98): I had some fun at the time, but in retrospect, it wasn't worthy of the Public.

Shakespeare, "Midsummer Night's Dream" (1998-99): Great disappointment.

HONOR ROLL OF ACTORS

Or an honor role, as it were:

Mary Alice: "A Sunbeam."

Tom Atkins: "Cuckoo's Nest," "Vikings," "Steward of Christendom," to name just three.

Paul Butler: "Jitney."

John Carpenter: "Death of a Salesman."

Harold Gary (pictured left):"The Price."

Larry John Meyers: "Moon for the Misbegotten" and many more.

Robert Mobley: "Private Lives."

Helena Ruoti: "Real Thing," "Three Sisters," "Hedda Gabler," "Edith Stein" and more.

Monte Russell: "Fences," "Ma Rainey."

Mark Rylance: "Hamlet."

Jack Ryland: "Uncle Vanya," "Nixon's Nixon."

Tom Toner: "Juno and the Paycock."

BEST SETS AND USE OF SPACE

It doesn't shine without great set design:

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": Joining the inmates in the asylum.

"Terra Nova": A bare stage has never felt more desolate.

"Galileo": First act at Buhl Planetarium.

"Tom Jones": Environmental staging in a barn.

"K2": Astonishing vertical set.

"The Hairy Ape": Expressionist noir.

"Eleanor": All the color of American politics.

"The Night of the Iguana": Gorgeously detailed romantic realism.

"Mad Forest": Enter through the loading dock and find the theater a wasteland.

"Wings": Elegant simplicity with a glowing patterned floor.

"Nixon's Nixon": Boxing ring set.

"Hysteria": Tricky problems neatly solved.

FOUNDERS' PICKS

We asked Public Theater founders Joan Apt and Margaret Rieck to come up with their favorite dozen plays. Six shows made both lists: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead," "Mad Forest," "Arcadia," "Long Day's Journey into Night," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Their additional choices:

Joan Apt: "K2," "'night, Mother," "Edith Stein," "Fences," "Wings," "Three Tall Women."

Margaret Rieck: "Medal of Honor Rag," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Hamlet," "Amazing Grace," "Sweeney Todd," "Jitney."



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