THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Rising to new feats on the stage

Collaborations, risk-taking fueled an innovative mix

Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Circle Mirror Transformation’’ was part of the Shirley, VT Plays Festival. Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Circle Mirror Transformation’’ was part of the Shirley, VT Plays Festival. (T. Charles Erickson)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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Week by week, as one ambitious, well-executed production followed another, it got harder to shake the feeling that something special was happening in Boston theater this year.

A striking number of local companies swung for the fences with challenging, sometimes risky projects. They didn’t all hit home runs, but there was an overall sense of theatrical vitality and gathering momentum, as artistic and institutional forces mobilized in pursuit of excellence.

If you were a theatergoer, it was heartening to witness the combination of aspiration, collaboration, and “can you top this?’’ competition that characterized 2010. For one thing, you were much less likely to leave area playhouses with that sinking feeling — so familiar to moviegoers — that a couple of hours of your too-short life had been cruelly misspent.

It’s clear that some Boston-area theater companies still have a long way to go when it comes to reaching a more diverse and youthful audience. But onstage, there were a number of reasons to cheer in 2010:

THE SHIRLEY, VT PLAYS FESTIVAL

This collaboration among three Boston theaters generated substantial buzz and introduced many Bostonians to the distinctive voice of playwright Annie Baker, a 29-year-old Cambridge native who grew up in Amherst. Baker has an uncanny ability to capture the fragmentary way we try to communicate with one another; she knows that much of what we mean to say is buried in the interstices of our conversation — all those pauses and hesitations and second thoughts.

In an approach that was ingenious in its simplicity, the Huntington Theatre Company, SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Company One each performed a different play by Baker: “Circle Mirror Transformation,’’ “Body Awareness,’’ and “The Aliens.’’

They were all set in the same fictional Vermont town, featured scenery by respected Boston set designer Cristina Todesco, and were performed in theaters within the Huntington-operated Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. And all three were deftly directed and well-acted.

The festival underscored the artistic dividends that can be reaped if a big player is willing to be a team player. Peter DuBois, the Huntington’s artistic director, came up with the idea for the festival and put his company’s muscle behind a creative partnership with a medium-size theater company (SpeakEasy) and a small one (Company One). Here’s hoping this paves the way for similarly exciting collaborations in the future.

THE ADVENT OF ARTSEMERSON

Robert J. Orchard was well known to the theater community from his many years in leadership positions at the American Repertory Theater when he was appointed executive director of the arts at Emerson College. In that capacity, he introduced Arts Emerson: The World on Stage, bringing programming to the newly renovated Paramount Center on Washington Street and Cutler Majestic Theatre, both owned by the college.

Orchard signaled right away in September that he would aim high, pairing “The Laramie Project,’’ a searing examination from the Tectonic Theater Project of the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, with the world premiere of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.’’

ArtsEmerson followed in October with another wrenching example of documentary theater, “Aftermath,’’ an anti-Iraq war piece that had a torn-from-the-headlines immediacy. (The production dovetailed with leaks of documents revealing the grisly toll the war has taken on Iraqi civilians — the very subject of “Aftermath.’’)

When combined with such other productions as “Petrushka’’ and “The Method Gun,’’ it’s clear that Orchard and ArtsEmerson have put out the welcome mat for experimental, unorthodox works that ask a lot of audiences but offer a lot in return.

AMBITION ONSTAGE

As Spiro Veloudos approached his 13th season at the head of Lyric Stage of Boston, he was keenly aware that the bar had been raised in Boston thanks to, among other things, the recent arrival of innovative figures like DuBois and Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater. Veloudos decided that the Lyric needed to stretch and challenge itself, and the result was the splendid show “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I & II,’’ the largest, costliest production in the Lyric’s 36-year history, representing the first time the company had run two plays in rotating repertory.

Actors’ Shakespeare Project embarked on an ambitious production of its own that also represented the first time it performed two plays in repertory and featured an exceptionally large cast. Dubbed “The Coveted Crown,’’ it encompassed “Henry IV, Part I’’ and “Henry IV, Part II,’’ plus parts of “Richard II’’ and “Henry V,’’ to tell the story of a tormented king and a wayward prince who eventually embraces his royal duties.

SHOWCASES FOR ACTRESSES

With all due respect to the guys, this was a standout year for female performers. Just to name a few:

Karen MacDonald was riveting in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons’’ at the Huntington. Anne Gottlieb and Marianna Bassham shone in SpeakEasy’s “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).’’ Gottlieb also gave an extraordinary performance in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune’’ at New Repertory Theatre. My predecessor as Globe theater critic, Louise Kennedy, praised Bassham and Gottlieb in the Nora Theatre Company’s “Not Enough Air,’’ Estelle Parsons in “August: Osage County,’’ at the Colonial Theatre, and MacDonald in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s “The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead.’’

When it came to musicals, memorable performances were turned in by Rebecca Faulkenberry as Sherrie in the strangely hard-to-resist schlockfest that was “Rock of Ages’’ at the Colonial, and by Jackie Burns as Elphaba in an otherwise pedestrian production of “Wicked’’ at the Boston Opera House.

BENCH STRENGTH

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the overall health of the Boston theater scene was the consistently good work that could be found across the board. That was true in such productions as “Harriet Jacobs,’’ Lydia R. Diamond’s slavery drama presented at Central Square Theater by Underground Railway Theater in collaboration with Providence Black Repertory Company; Kelly Younger’s “Tender,’’ about a family being torn apart by financial stress, presented by Gloucester Stage Company; and Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,’’ an indictment of corporate greed presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company.

Those productions — and numerous others at small- and medium-size theaters that demonstrated a similar seriousness of purpose — proved that when it comes to quality, size doesn’t matter.

Who knows, Boston theater could well stumble in 2011. But 2010 sure felt like a big step forward.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.