A year in which Atlanta lost one of its most long-standing and venerable institutions can’t really be looked back on as a great year for theater. Many theaters, like Georgia Shakespeare, which ceased operations in October after 29 years, struggled in a difficult economy and a rapidly changing environment for the arts. The wonder is that so many theaters (and strangely enough, including Georgia Shakespeare) produced so many memorable shows in 2014. Here is our list of the year’s best as compiled by theater critics Andrew Alexander and Jim Farmer.
10. 1001 Nights: A Love Story (Center for Puppetry Arts)
Ostensibly for children, this musical — created by Robert Lopez of Frozen fame and former Atlantan Adam Koplan, now artistic director of New York’s renowned Flying Carpet Theatre — proved to be whimsical and just plain entertaining. Reminiscent of Lopez’ Avenue Q in the way it vividly combined live actors and puppets, this was one of the highlights of the season. This loose adaptation of Arabian Nights — written awhile back — will be popping up at national playhouses soon. (JF)
9. One Man, Two Guvnors (Georgia Shakespeare)
It’s a bit of a head-scratcher that months before closing, Georgia Shakespeare produced one of its most colorful, accessible and charming shows that was clearly a hit with audiences. But so it was with the Ga Shakes production of One Man, Two Guvnors, British playwright Richard Bean’s update of Carlo Goldoni’s classic comedy A Servant of Two Masters. With live music from the kids of the three-piece Atlanta band The Head, a star performance by gifted comic actor Aaron Muñoz and a fine supporting cast, the show looked nothing like a production from a struggling theater. (AA)
8. Ravens & Seagulls (Essential Theatre)
Staged by Peter Hardy’s Essential Theatre as part of its summer rep, this premiere (penned by local playwright Karla Jennings, the cowinner of the 2014 Essential Playwriting Award) was a family drama boosted by a sublime ensemble. Every cast member was strong, but special mention has to be made of Suzanne Roush. Returning to acting after a while (a la Andy Meeks), she was magnificent in the central role as a sibling trying to cope with a dying sister and relations with the rest of her clan. David Crowe directed quite subtly and triumphantly. (JF)
7. Mary Poppins (Aurora Theatre)
Over the last three seasons, Aurora Theatre has staged some major musicals — such as Clyde ‘n Bonnie and Les Miserables — and this is the company in peak form. No 2014 offering gave me more pleasure than this robust production, directed by Justin Anderson, showing an amazing level of craft and confidence. It was technically almost flawless. Galen Crawley made a fine, chipper Mary and Andy Meeks (returning to acting after a lengthy absence) was her equal as chimney sweep Bert. (JF)
6. Race (True Colors Theatre Company)
In True Colors Theatre’s riveting drama, Andew Benator and Neal Ghant (who won co-Best Actor citations at this year’s Suzi Bass Awards) went at each other like vipers as lawyers contemplating representing a client accused of rape. Directed by John Dillon, there was no mistaking this was a David Mamet play, with dialogue that left burn marks. Lean, topical and complex, Race was 80 minutes of potent, in-your-face theater. (JF)
5. The Geller Girls (Alliance Theatre)
When we think Atlanta history, we typically think Civil War and civil rights, but Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer took a slightly different route with her latest work The Geller Girls, which was given a top-notch production on the Alliance’s main stage in early 2014. Set during the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, the show exposed some of the origins of Atlanta’s deep-rooted, blustery boosterism, but it was moreover a touching depiction of how the world’s arrival in Atlanta affects a close-knit family. Courtney Patterson gave the elder Geller girl a sympathetic sense of world-weariness and experience while Ann Marie Gideon provided a lovely, wide-eyed curiosity as her younger sister. (AA)
4. Terminus (SAÏAH)
SAÏAH, known for its immersive event theater, has never been as successful as it was with this interpretation of the classic Watership Down, set as the Civil War is ending. Taking place at Decatur’s Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve, Terminus evolves into a parallel world with different stories, offered patrons three “paths” to choose from, all eventually uniting. SAÏAH creator Marium Khalid effortlessly merged creativity and emotion here; it was the kind of show you immediately want to see again to experience the other stories. (JF)
3. How I Learned What I Learned (True Colors Theatre Company)
It was surprising to attend a simple, one-act, one-man show in Atlanta and find that it’s been given all the production elements that the show would have in a big Broadway theater, but so it was with True Colors’ production of August Wilson’s final work, the autobiographical monologue How I Learned What I Learned. Actor Eugene Lee gave a fantastic performance as August Wilson sharing poignant memories from his youth and early career on a gorgeous set that featured the writer’s desk and a backdrop of floating manuscript pages; the set was a work of abstract art in and of itself. But it was Lee’s performance — intimate, direct and personal — that left one with the glowing feeling of having passed an hour getting some straight talk from the great man himself. (AA)
2. The Elephant Man (Georgia Ensemble Theatre)
Staging this drama was a bit of a risk for the Roswell-based Georgia Ensemble Theatre, but it paid off. David Crowe (again!) helmed this excellent version of the Tony-winning play, featuring a seasoned cast, led by Jonathan Horne’s sympathetic, haunting turn as the heavily disfigured Joseph Merrick. Without a lick of makeup, he made us believe in the character. (JF)
1. Dividing the Estate (Theatrical Outfit)
We were super-happy at this production of Pulitzer Prize– and Oscar-winning author Horton Foote’s fantastic play about a small-town Texas family wanting to carve up the family’s out-of-date ranch estate against the wishes of the aging matriarch. Masterfully directed by the Outfit’s artistic director, Tom Key, the show featured an ensemble cast of some of Atlanta’s most well-known and finest talent, with each one bringing something singular, a touch of something broadly comic and recognizably, touchingly tragic, to their depiction of their characters, all of it playing out on a gob-smackingly perfect set by Isabel A. Curley-Clay and Moriah Curley-Clay. All in all, it set the bar as the best show of the year. (AA)
Here are our individual awards for the year:
Best Actor: Neal Ghant and Andrew Benator for Race
Best Actress: Suzanne Roush for Ravens & Seagulls
Best Actor in a Musical: Andy Meeks in Mary Poppins
Best Actress in a Musical: Natasha Drena in End of the Rainbow, Actor’s Express
Best director: David Crowe
Best Touring Show: Evita
Best Student/College Production: Pinterfest, Emory
Best Children’s Play: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Synchronicity
Best World Premiere: Wall Street Wedding
As much as we like getting the opportunity to single out some great shows and performances with a top 10 list and award recognition, we also have to acknowledge that a year’s worth of work never sits perfectly in these sorts of pieces.
There were lots of great shows that didn’t make the list. Serenbe Playhouse had another fantastic year of site-specific productions, including world premiere drama Ten Mile Lake, a roving Wizard of Oz and a crowd-pleasing Oklahoma! that also managed to explore some of the surprisingly dark and sinister aspects of the story.
Longtime Atlanta costume designer and slam poet Jonida Beqo gave a final performance of her autobiographical show Harabel at Actor’s Express before returning to her native Albania. Park Krausen gave an outstanding performance as the Marquise de Merteuil in Actor’s Express’ production of Les Liaisons dangereuses.
Out of Hand theater staged multiple performances of the trippy White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which required various Atlanta performers to show up and perform the show without having read the script. The student theater group of Georgia Tech, DramaTech, commissioned Atlanta-based playwright Johnny Drago to write a fairy-tale-themed show, and the result was the strange, dark and haunting one act Boy Whose Eye Wandered.
Stage Door Players’ Rabbit Hole and Actor’s Express’ Murder Ballad were strong shows, and the drama students of Kennesaw State University participated in the inventive Red Badge of Courage at 7 Stages, which combined theater and puppetry to create a dreamlike version of the classic novel. And Atlanta playwright Topher Payne had a banner year full of world premieres, benchmark productions and awards, perhaps most notably the Osborn Award from the American Theatre Critics Association and the announcement that his play Angry Fags would be included in the Garage Rep season of Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company.