Sunday, December 28, 2003

Best of 2003: Theater

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

1. Biggest - The Lion King. Hear it roar. The record-breaker - 68 performances at the Aronoff Center, 175,000 tickets - kept the lights bright in downtown's Backstage neighborhood from mid-March to mid-May.

2. Best - The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Playhouse. Carson Kreitzer's fantasia about the inventor of the atom bomb was a pinnacle for the Rosenthal New Play Prize - a fascinating script combined with sublime directing and some of the best acting and the finest acting ensemble of the year. It also turned out to be the last in a 15-year run for the prize.

3. Biggest jaw-dropper - The surprise announcement in mid-September that arts patrons Lois and Richard Rosenthal were ending their long-time association with the new play prize at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. What would have been the 16th winner, Hiding Behind Comets by Brian Dykstra, was clearly a bone of contention. We'll find out why when it has its world premiere at Playhouse in March.

4. Best news - Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival is still here. The festival has had three artistic directors in 12 months (no wonder the Web site is out of date) and spent the first six months of 2003 pulling itself back from the edge of oblivion.

All the offstage sweat and strategies worked. The festival is happily in the midst of its 10th anniversary season and looking as stable as ever.

Best of all, the festival is maintaining its ever-bold approach and will end the current season with the debut of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival (mark May 12 on your 2004 calendar).

5. Best intentions - (Tie) Corpus Christi, Know Theatre Tribe, and Paradise, Playhouse in the Park.

Know Theatre Tribe didn't make any money from its sell-out production of the still-provoking-after-all-these-years Corpus Christi. The drama, which tells the story of Christ from a gay perspective, still has the power to infuriate and drew protesters to the Over-the-Rhine theater. Know barely broke even after putting significant money into additional insurance and security.

Playhouse commissioned a student touring show on the topic of the troubles between Israel and Palestine and managed to create a firestorm of protest from both sides that forced the cancellation of the tour and, unbelievably, even drew some national attention.

Neither honorable effort was especially successful artistically - Corpus Christi isn't a particularly good script and Know's production deflected the gay theme by casting several women; Paradise particularly suffered from an incoherent and ineffective script, which was the source of the trouble.

But these are two occasions when intentions count at least as much as execution.

Bravo to Know and to Playhouse in the Park for believing that art must, at least sometimes, be about knowing what's going on in the community and the world and treating the audience to an artistic dialogue.

6. Best local script - One, Joseph McDonough, Playhouse. For the first time in 16 years, Playhouse featured a locally written script - although McDonough's three related monologues tied together by a dead Civil War soldier didn't get the Playhouse nod because it was local, it earned the slot of Shelterhouse opener. Smart, funny and heartfelt, One has a future far beyond Cincinnati.

7. Best element - Water. Touring Urinetown wanted it, bad; Metamorphoses at Playhouse had it in abundance. Together they made October a great month to see theater.

Along with a rude title, Urinetown sported a top-notch company of performers. Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman's shimmery ode to Ovid, glided through a breathtaking series of stage images in tales of gods and mortals set in and around a pool.

8. Best breakthrough - Multicultural casting is all but unknown in Cincinnati, so one more reason to exult in Metamorphoses was the world that was represented on the Playhouse stage, with a seamless cast that included Asian-American, Indian-American and African-American performers.

9. Best musical man - University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music graduating senior Eric Santagata showed startling range in 2003, starring last winter as the violent and all-around-creepy vaudeville clown Burrs in the year's best musical The Wild Party; his final performance at UC came in November, singing and especially dancing the role of an adorably aw-shucks sailor in On the Town.

10. Best idea - As the year comes to a close, the City of Covington stepped up its efforts to get a theatrical presence downtown -specifically Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (which wouldn't even have to change its acronym - ETC - if the move comes together).

Covington is spending the final weeks of 2003 scrambling to raise $1.5 million in pledges (of the $3 million price tag ETC has put forward) to establish the theater on the second floor of Odd Fellows Hall. (Using the hall as a theater venue was an idea first in play two years ago before fire all but destroyed the historic building. The intended resident then was a new project by Playhouse in the Park.)

If Ensemble's subscription season moves to Covington, it could open a host of possibilities for ETC's long-time Over-the-Rhine base and for the smaller would-be professional theater scene.


Best of 2003: Classical music
Best of 2003: Film
Best of 2003: Theater
Best of 2003: Dance
Best of 2003: Pop music
Best of 2003: Visual art

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