Theater Review - Top 10 plays of 2009

Curt Holman counts down the year's best theatrical productions

1) Fair Use (Actor's Express Theatre): While attorneys at a Chicago law firm take on a high-profile plagiarism case, their after-hours romantic triangle echoes Cyrano de Bergerac. A finalist in the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, Sarah Gubbins' play savors the pleasures of language, sensuality and rich debate over such elusive concepts as intellectual property. Actor's Express' world premiere proved to be one of the company's smartest and most entertaining productions in years.

2) 101 Humiliating Stories (PushPush Theater): For just over an hour, PushPush co-founder Shelby Hofer delivers a hilarious rendition of Lisa Kron's autobiographical monologue, which finds embarrassment not only in middle school memories and geeky celebrity encounters, but also the performer's (bogus) lack of professionalism. Director Lawrence Keller and Hofer work marvelously together to enhance 101 Humiliating Stories as a robust theatrical experience instead of simple storytelling.

3) The Medicine Showdown (Flying Carpet Theatre): A New York-based theater with Atlanta roots, this world premiere (co-written by local playwright Topher Payne) envisioned Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People as an early 20th-century medicine show. The cast brilliantly replicated vaudeville-era showmanship and snappy patter while offering a timely allegory for the fearmongering that surrounds the health care industry.

4) Jesus Christ Superstar Gospel (Alliance Theatre): Even non-fans of pop composer Andrew Lloyd Webber were impressed by the Alliance Theatre's gospelized version of the 1970 rock opera. Susan V. Booth helmed a clean, uncluttered staging, in sharp contrast to Webber's often elephantine productions, while Darius de Haas' breathtaking performance as Jesus, particularly his solo of "Gethsemane," was like being present at the creation.

5) The Wild Party (OnStage Atlanta Theatre): Is it hot in here, or is it just OnStage Atlanta? The little company's skill at staging risky musicals such as Urinetown paid off with its steamy production of Andrew Lippa's lurid Prohibition-era tale. Like a vintage film noir poster come to life, The Wild Party's nearly sung-through show was steeped in jazz age decadence and featured commanding performances from Geoff "Googie" Uterhardt, Mary Nye Bennett and Marcie Millard.

6) Around the World in 80 Days (Theatrical Outfit): Clint Thornton directed a high-spirited, almost giddy production of Mark Brown's fleet adaptation of Jules Verne's classic novel. Tom Key projected unflappable calm as circumnavigating Englishman Phileas Fogg, Bill Murphey displayed some Inspector Clouseau-worthy slapstick as a Scotland Yard detective, and the father-daughter team of James and Kate Donadio rounded out the show's globetrotting cast of characters. This family-friendly production captured the thrill of travel with merely luggage carts and minimal costume changes.

7) Suddenly Last Summer (Actor's Express Theatre): Before acting opposite her father in 80 Days, Kate Donadio played Catherine Holly opposite her mother Shannon Eubanks' Mrs. Venable in Tennessee Williams' most torrid drama. Director Melissa Foulger enhanced the psychological implications of the material, so the characters felt less like escapees of a Southern gothic soap opera than archetypes from the playwright's consciousness. Its lyrical monologues built to a climactic cross-examination worthy of courtroom drama.

8) Dracula (Atlanta Ballet): You didn't have to be a ballet aficionado to thrill at the drama and theatricality of the Atlanta Ballet's lavish remount of Dracula at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. As the cadaverous count, John Welker engaged in three seductive, neck-biting duets with different dance partners, conveying the passion and dread in the material better than Twilight's sparkly vampires ever could.

9) End Days (Horizon Theatre): Deborah Zoe Laufer's amusing new play juggles diverse characters, including a Sept. 11 survivor, a Jewish convert to Christianity, a goth-girl and an Elvis-obsessed high schooler (not to mention Jesus and Stephen Hawking) to set up a sharp but not hostile dichotomy between religion and science. Its trendy concerns may not age well in the next decade, but End Days offers a comforting exploration of spiritual and earthly sustenance.

10) Fingertips: 21 Short Works Inspired By Our Favorite Band (Dad's Garage Theatre): The mini-songs of They Might Be Giants' Fingertips provided the jumping-off point for these evenings of short plays and sketches. Monologues ranged from Greg Allen's pyromaniacal performance and Megan Gogerty's lovely nostalgia, while various sketches found excuses to dress Rene Dellefont as a milk carton, a pillow, and an antlered corporate mascot. Conceived and co-performed by Amber Nash, Fingertips' world premiere may be the most consistently pleasing one-show play festival in Dad's history.

Runners-up include Georgia Shakespeare's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Synchronicity Performance Group's Bunnicula, Theatre in the Square's The Woman in Black, Out of Hand Theater and Theater Emory's Hominid and 7 Stages' The Extremists.

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