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Best of Stage 2000

Friday, December 29, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Glenlivet reddening the nose,
Trading memories of shows that were dire --
The critics gathered, squabbling like pros

Actress Lisa Harrow helped give Margaret Edson's "Wit" a mix of granite and tears. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Everybody knows a turkey or an outright hit,
Help to make a critic bright:
Gloating minds with their pencils full of wit,
Can hardly wait to write that night.

But every year Thespis mainly sends our way
A mix of plays both great and lousy on his sleigh,
And every critic's eye is gonna spy,
To see if each batch really knows how to fly.

So now we offer up this simple prayer,
For shows in two thousand and one:
Although it's been said many times, with much hot air:
Break a leg! -- and have some fun.

That's exactly how it was in the three-rivered town that day after Christmas -- a gaggle of crrritics snuggled round a roaring fire, happily roasting the turkeys of yore, cracking the chestnuts of their trade. They were there to praise the bests of 2000, but they could never remember whether the year past had given us five "Ballyhoos" and four "Forums," or was it four "Josephs" and seven Pohls?

And so the arguments surged back and forth as the Glenlivet loosened inhibitions (but Richard drank his usual Diet Coke) and the Mineo's kept everyone's strength up (even Richard had a piece). Meanwhile, the lists piled up in deep drifts as the differences of opinion tumbled about. Finally, they all stumbled forth into the frosty night -- the Drama Dick had to be carried to his car -- each critic convinced that his or her point of view had prevailed.

Then came the morning.

In the sober light of day, it fell to me to make some sense of all that warm air -- because the Drama Desk is not really a democracy, but a benevolent Critocracy, and somebody's got to put his name on the compromise result.

So here it is: The Post-Gazette's list of the 10 most memorable theater evenings of the year 2000. There's a baker's dozen of runners-up, of course, and in addition, the "Five Bests" of three of my most vociferous co-critics.

This was the year I started off spending four months in London, so even the main list relies more heavily than usual on the input of everyone who reviewed plays for the PG. Leading that honor roll is John Hayes, who reigned during my absence, followed by Richard Rauh, A. Levine, Mary Elizabeth David, Walter Evert, Cheryl Young, Eve Modzelewski, Becky Sodergren, Robert Croan, A.J. Caliendo and, our most recent addition, Anna Rosenstein, formerly the drama critic for In Pittsburgh.

Some thought that our difficulty in coming up with a consensus Top 10 was because it was a weak year, but you could also say that excellence was spread out more broadly than usual. The group's general feeling, which I do endorse, is that there was no obvious No. 1. But we pulled that same dodge last year, so in the sober light of dawn, I ranked the bests as they are below.

This was also a year full of theater news -- Eddie Gilbert replaced by Ted Pappas at the Public, Marc Masterson leaving City, new theaters unveiled by CMU (Chosky and Rauh) and Pitt (Heymann), the Public settling with mixed results into the new O'Reilly, the flap over the Broadway Series' second-rate non-Equity tour of "Sound of Music," the CLO's ambitious launch of the so-so "Copacabana," the qualitative jump of PICT (Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre), etc. And there were some great parties: The 25th anniversary bash at City Theatre comes first to mind.

Some of this fuller story will be retold in two weeks when we announce the PG Performer of the Year and honor the many individual outstanding actors, designers, directors and others who distinguished Pittsburgh stages in 2000.

But first things first.

1. "WIT," PUBLIC THEATER: Cancer, John Donne and an indomitable woman combined for a powerful evening that uplifted through shear theatrical essence. Actress Lisa Harrow and director Ethan McSweeney joined to give Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner a mix of granite and tears.

2. "QUILLS," PLAYHOUSE REPERTORY COMPANY: In making the aging Marquis de Sade the occasion for a brilliant blend of the barbarous and tender, hilarious and perverse, playwright Doug Wright and director John Amplas also provided Heath Lamberts with the role of a lifetime, a fission of articulate intellect and physicality.

3. "FAITH HEALER," PICT: A spare, difficult work by the great Irish playwright, Brian Friel, "Faith Healer" catapulted PICT to a new level of excellence. Andrew Paul directed Bingo O'Malley, Kate Young and Roger Jerome.

4. "THE ISLAND," GLOBAL POSSE: A striking debut for a new company led by Wabei Siyolwe. This classic of survival under apartheid, written by John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard, received a riveting performance by Tsepo Mokone and Ron McClelland.

5. "CABARET," BROADWAY SERIES: I didn't think this dynamic, insidious revival, directed for an intimate New York space by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, could hold up in the vastness of Heinz Hall, but it did. Not your father's "Cabaret," it registered every itchy, creepy bit, featured a surprisingly strong Lea Thompson and brought Lenora Nemetz home in triumph.

6. "PAJAMA GAME," CLO: The CLO at its best, building a show right here in Pittsburgh, marrying its traditionally strong ensemble to two sexy, funny, charismatic leads, Robert Cuccioli and Beth Leavel, and breathing visceral, giddy life into a golden oldie.

7. "ANNA KARENINA," QUANTUM THEATRE. Director Karla Boos found yet another special space, this with a view down over the rivers that, as the natural light died, created a powerful visual parallel to this epic tale, knowingly miniaturized by Helen Edmundson and England's Shared Experience. Kristie Dale Sanders glowingly led a fine ensemble.

8. "MASTER CLASS," CITY THEATRE: Terrence McNally's play about Maria Callas, directed by Gregory Lehane, provided a critical and popular triumph for Helena Ruoti.

9. "YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU," PUBLIC: The classic American tribute to cultural and intellectual nonconformance provided a feel-good introduction to new artistic director Ted Pappas, who dazzled us with a large, beautifully balanced cast led by Tom Atkins, Jan Neuberger and Mark Jacoby.

10. "THE LIBERTINE," UNSEAM'D SHAKESPEARE: The true hero of Stephen Jeffreys' 1994 play is John Wilmot, the Restoration period's infamous Earl of Rochester. Jay O'Berski played him coolly and director Kevin Ewart refused to trick up the play by showing off.

THREE NEAR-MISSES: "Side Show," Point Park; "The Club," Penn Avenue; "Side Man," City.

RUNNERS-UP (IN NO SPECIAL ORDER): "Grease," Gargaro Productions; "Knights of the Round Table," Playhouse Rep; "Great Expectations," Mountain Playhouse; "Cripple of Inishmaan," PICT; "The Adding Machine" and "Turn of the Screw," both Pitt; "Art," Broadway Series; "Twelfth Night," Little Lake; "To Kill a Mockingbird," Prime Stage; "Grapes of Wrath," Starlight Productions.

JOHN HAYES' TOP FIVE: "Quills"; "Pavilion"; "Cabaret"; "Faith Healer"; "Hearts Beating Faster" (Open Stage).

RICHARD RAUH'S TOP FIVE: "Side Show" tied with "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" (CMU); "Master Class"; "Mystery of Irma Vep" (City); "Quills" tied with "The Blue Room" (Unseam'd Shakespeare).

ANNA ROSENSTEIN'S TOP FIVE: "Pavilion"; "The Libertine"; "Wit"; "Faith Healer"; "The Adding Machine" (Pitt).

YEAR AFTER YEAR: Lest we take them for granted, let's recall some of the theater events that brighten every year, including the CLO's Gene Kelly Awards, New Works Festival, "Black Nativity" and Public's Shakespearean Monologue Contest. Welcome, too, City's new Young Playwrights' Festival.

AND AN INVITATION: You can still suggest favorite achievements by individual actors, directors and designers via e-mail: crawson@post-gazette.com.



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