By all accounts, 2011 should have been a bad year for theater in Atlanta. The economy was tanking, audiences dwindled, funding dried up, and several established theaters sent out desperate pleas that they were weeks away from closing. Hardly an auspicious environment for artistic creation.
But instead of shuttering shop, the city’s theatrical artists hunkered down and mounted shows that served to remind audiences what live theater is all about and why it’s so crucial. Some theaters took chances on big shows with elaborate sets and large casts in the hope of luring audiences back; others stripped things down to the bare bones. Aesthetically, both strategies worked. From the most established theaters to the weirdest warehouse spaces, strong work emerged all over town. To everyone’s surprise, 2011 turned out to be the year Atlanta theater folk cranked it up to 11. In honor of that, we’ve chosen our top 11 shows of 2011.
11. “August: Osage County,” Alliance Theatre. A host of longtime veterans of Atlanta theater sank their teeth into Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning saga of the Weston family. Despite a couple of directorial wrong turns into slapstick and character sketch, the production brought Letts’ sprawling, haunting vision to life as precisely and expertly as the “dream team” cast would lead you to expect.
10. “Bachelorette,” Pinch ‘n’ Ouch. This show featured a group of young women gathering to celebrate the marriage of a friend, an evening that descended into a drunken “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” night of vicious, bitter infighting as they tore themselves, one another and the wedding dress itself apart. Smartly paced direction was set on actors in parts they seemed born to play. Good stuff.
9. “Spring Awakening,” Actor’s Express. “Energetic” is the word that comes to mind to describe the Actor’s Express production of the Broadway rock musical based on Frank Wedekind’s classic play. But that doesn’t quite cover it. After AE’s desperate plea for funding a few months earlier — the equivalent of a theater-scene death rattle — watching this show was like watching an invalid rise up from a deathbed to sing a rousing version of “Totally F*cked.” In a goth dirndl and pointy-toed boots, no less. A comeback to beat all comebacks.
8. “The Lady From Dubuque,” Epidemic Theatre. There were more people on stage than in the audience for this largely forgotten Edward Albee play that flopped on Broadway — the community theater group approached it only because there was a hold on regional productions of Albee’s more desirable “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” due to a big Broadway revival. But those who were lucky enough to see it got an unforgettable evening whose meditations on death and American blindness and cruelty still haunt.
7. “Into the Woods,” Alliance Theatre. Big show, great costumes, elaborate set and an excellent ensemble cast, but the real secret of this musical’s success was the way its smart, simple clarity let composer Stephen Sondheim remain the real star.
6. “Sweeney Todd,” Fabrefaction. “Fabre-what?” was the likely response you got in 2010 if you told someone you were on your way to Fabrefaction for a show. But in 2011 the new theater group truly arrived on the Atlanta scene with several strong shows, and its spare, dark and brooding production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” stood out. Committed performances and some clever staging innovations showed that it doesn’t always take big bucks to put on a great musical.
5. “Judas Kiss,” Actor’s Express. The mystery of Oscar Wilde’s foolish, self-destructive decision to stay in London and face trial is at the center of David Hare’s London hit drama. AE Artistic Director Freddie Ashley took on the part of Wilde, and his smart, nuanced portrayal of a figure who all too often gets the clichéd “dandified” treatment in stage depictions was a revelation, showing the man in all his philosophical and existential complexities.
4. “Confessional,” PushPush. Tennessee Williams’ garrulous, sprawling, drunken, experimental late plays are usually ignored, but in 2011, the centenary of the playwright’s birth, theaters around the world took an unusual turn by reviving more of his late work than ever before. In PushPush’s production of “Confessional,” you could order a real drink from the play’s bartender or even chat and interact with the weird lineup of irregular regulars in the seedy Southern California bar that served as the setting for both characters and audience. Williams’ characters and their desperate need for one another emerged through the haze and noise in the most heartbreaking way.
3. “Buried Child,” Theater Emory. Theater Emory took on the granddaddy of dysfunctional families in the American Midwest with Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” Focused, intense, raw, without a hint of distancing irony or silly exaggeration, this is the play that “August: Osage County” dreams of becoming when it grows up.
2. “The Seagull,” Fabrefaction. The new theater group showed that it was capable of taking on the most challenging of Anton Chekhov’s plays and knocking it out of the park. The actors’ lucid and straightforward approach allowed the characters’ heartbreaking contradictions — as well as Chekov’s elusive poetry and multiplicity of tones — to shine through.
1. “The City of Lions and Gods,” The Collective Project. Everything in this show looked as if it was made by hand, and it was staged in a semi-basement room at a place called the Goat Farm. But this impressive play, written by the actors themselves, about a woman’s life in Pakistan as the country gained independence was a reminder of what live theater is all about: transporting story, vivid characters and actors living in the moment not 10 feet in front of you.