The year in Shakespeare for the Metroplex was one of artistic and thematic extremes and surprises. With everything from tried-and-true crowd-pleasers (Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) to rarely staged orphans (The Comedy of Errors, Cymbeline), there was seemingly something for everyone. In a curious coincidence of material, Much Ado made multiple appearances with different companies, and even more curious was the double appearance of the infrequently performed Comedy of Errors.
It was also a year of palpable change for the much better in overall quality, attention to detail and enthusiasm. Many directors took courageous chances with setting, interpretation and choice of plays, and if paid off. Of course there is the courage of choosing a little-seen (potentially unpopular) gem from the Shakespeare canon, but there is also the courage of taking on a play that is staged to death and breathing new life into it. Furthermore, the actors relished in the words they were saying, and weren’t just out there punching the Bard box on their thespian dance cards.
So with that premise of theatrical pluck in mind I will narrow the field of roughly a dozen contenders to the top three, in ascending order, with a few deserving honorable mentions thrown in for good measure:
3. For Dallas Theater Center’s erudite and enjoyable Henry IV, director Kevin Moriarty condensed both parts of the play to create a dark, counterpoint yin to 2009’s Day-Glo yang A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is quite refreshing, and high time, to see a history play (more of these neglected treasures in the future please) in North Texas. It was especially gratifying to see this play performed and supported in the versatile yet intimate Wyly Theatre.
2. Close on the top spot’s heels is Shakespeare Dallas’ The Comedy of Errors. Director Matthew Tomlanovich brought zany, madcap funk to this already hilarious play, eliciting howling, roll-on-the-grass responses from packed audiences in the park. It is a special experience to witness Shakespeare under the stars and even more so when we have such comedic wares before us, not just the distractions of picnic baskets and cellphones. Hats off to SD for upping its game in a serious way from their previous, lackluster year. All of their other offerings this year (particularly Cymbeline and a reading of the poem Venus and Adonis) were strong, garnering this longtime outfit a “Most Improved” award to boot.
1. Perched on top of our list is Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s magnificent Much Ado About Nothing. In a year in which it seemed that everyone was staging the already played out Much Ado, Stephen Fried created the most original, warm and completely straightforward masterpiece of the season. Everything from costumes and sound to selfless, ensemble acting was top-notch and adoringly crafted. It is not often that this admittedly jaded―some might say snobby―reviewer is given chills and brought to tears of delight during a play. I practically levitated from the enchantment of this show, and I do not think that I was alone in that sentiment. TSF is only in its second season, and at the end of the funding that was originally allocated for the endeavor. It would be a pity if they could not continue given the quality of theater they have produced (but the third season is set). Even their jocular Hamlet, seen in repertory with Much Ado, was worth the effort of seeing.
Honorable mentions go to the National Theatre of London’s incisive Hamlet, a production that would garner a top three slot were it not for the fact that it was broadcast and shown in a cinema (there's still a chance to see it, Jan. 5 and 7 at the Angelika Plano); and Onstage in Bedford’s Much Ado About Nothing, which used a WWII setting, boogie-woogie music and women’s empowerment themes to fashion a jewel of a play from (gasp) a community theater company. How about a special director’s award for the visionary Adam Adolfo?
The top actors of Shakespeare this year are the prodigal Randy Moore in Henry IV, Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest (not fair, but she’s just too wonderful not to single out), Rory Kinnear in the National Theatre’s Hamlet, Anthony Ramirez in The Comedy of Errors, and the triumphant triumvirate of David Coffee, James Crawford and Trisha Miller in Much Ado About Nothing. Coffee in particular pulled off the truly mean feat of transcending the role of his play (not a leading one, mind you), yet at the same time making everyone else around him even better by his mere presence and commitment to the process.
So let’s raise our glasses of holiday cheer to the great year that was, and toast for more of the same for the coming one, which will see two major productions of Macbeth (at Kitchen Dog Theater and Trinity Shakes), simultaneous summer productions of As You Like It (Dallas Shakes and Trinity Shakes), and kicks off in February with two lesser-seen shows: Measure for Measure (Nouveau '47 Theatre) and Love's Labour's Lost (Stolen Shakespeare Guild).
Editor's Note: In the week between Christmas and New Year's, we'll run our looks back at the year in the performing arts, including: The year in theater from local critic Alexandra Bonifield, whose blogsite Critical Rant is a new TheaterJones media partner; Mark Lowry's look at the year in theater with a best-of list; biggest theater and arts stories of the year; and the year in local performing arts photos. Margaret Putnam's year in dance is here.