Chekhovian angst mined for Durang-ian mirth

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBy Richard Ades

There’s nothing quite as fun as watching Christopher Durang take on the Catholic Church, as he proved in his classic satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But seeing him take on Anton Chekhov is also good for laughs.

He does so in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award winner that borrows names and themes from the dour Russian, along with a general air of depressed malaise. That is, the characters suffer from depression; the audience is in hysterics.

CATCO’s current production benefits from a director with a flair for comedy—David Hemsley Caldwell—and two lead players who are equally adept. Jonathan Putnam and Danielle Mann are quietly masterful as Vanya and Sonia, the 50-something siblings who share a miserable existence in the home once owned by their deceased parents.

The first scene establishes their flinty relationship. Sonia brings Vanya his morning coffee, only to learn he’s already poured himself a cup. She complains that he’s deprived her of one of her few daily pleasures, leading to an argument that eventually ends in broken china.

Sonia, we learn, was adopted. We also learn that she’s attracted to Vanya despite his protestations that he marches to a “different drummer”—i.e., he’s gay. Putnam and Mann inhabit the unhappy pair so thoroughly that their personalities come through even when they’re just sitting and glumly observing the world.

Meanwhile, Chekhov is referenced in multiple ways, including Sonia’s insistence that a nearby stand of 10 or 11 trees constitutes a “cherry orchard.” But don’t worry if you’re rusty on the playwright’s works—Durang throws in enough explanations to keep everyone in the loop.

In a nod to Greek mythology, he also makes sure we know why a character named Cassandra is doomed to making dire predictions that no one believes. Shanessa Sweeney is a live wire as the housekeeper, whose ability to see the future comes in handy following the sudden appearance of Sonia and Vania’s successful sister, Masha (Lori Cannon).

The movie star barges in with her younger lover, Spike (William Darby), and begins talking about a change that will upset her siblings’ boring but stable existence. Narcissistic and overbearing, Masha proved a difficult character to enjoy at Wednesday’s preview matinee, especially since Cannon at first had trouble playing her with more than one note. Cannon fared better after intermission, when Masha’s insecurities bubbled to the surface and made her recognizably—and hilariously—human.

As Spike, Darby has some nice comic moments but is mostly limited to stripping off his clothes and showing off his physique. In a more nuanced role, Kristen Krak is lovable as Nina, an aspiring actress who quickly forms a bond with the man she insists on calling “Uncle Vanya.”

Completing the near-perfect production, Eric Barker’s painterly set is expressively lit by Jarod Wilson to suggest the passage of time as the action wends its way from morning to night and back to morning. It’s an entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted trip, and one that’s well worth taking.

CATCO will present Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 24 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. A preview will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 7). Regular show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $17 Wednesday, $30 Thursday, $40 Friday-Saturday and $35 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

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[title of review]

Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]
Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]
By Richard Ades

I arrive at the Riffe Center’s Studio Three and prepare to watch CATCO’s cabaret-style production of [title of show]. The intimate room is a pleasant place to watch theater, but I have my doubts about whether I should be watching this particular piece of theater.

My trepidation stems from what I’ve heard about Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s offbeat musical, which first appeared in 2004, had an off-Broadway run in 2006 and finally turned up on Broadway for about three months in 2008. What I’ve heard is that the show is loaded with inside jokes and references that only gay, theater-obsessed New Yorkers can fully appreciate.

As the show begins, my fears seem justified. Some jokes fly right by me, while others just don’t seem that funny. Several audience members seem equally mystified—indeed, I can see one woman across the room who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire two hours and 10 minutes.

However, a small group of viewers makes up for this by laughing at nearly everything the cast does. Looking around, I realize that most of the laughs are coming from four men sitting in a tight circle. To be sure, many viewers chuckle or at least smile at various jokes, but this quartet supplies the bulk of the audience response.

So what is this show that appeals—intentionally, as it turns out—to such a select audience? It’s basically a musical about putting on a musical. Composer/lyricist Bowen and book writer Bell wanted to enter a show in an upcoming theater festival, and since they didn’t have any ideas, they decided to make the show its own subject.

A bit self-indulgent, don’t you think? Like the theatrical equivalent of a taking a selfie? Yes, and some of the early humor acknowledges that fact by focusing on the creators’ superficiality. In particular, the show’s version of Hunter is loath to begin a new project because he’s too involved in watching TV’s The Bachelor and Project Runway.

If the musical has any depth and universal meaning, it involves the participants’ desire to do something that would finally allow them to make theater the center of their existences. The self-doubt that prevents all of us from taking necessary chances in life is lampooned in one of the better songs, Die, Vampire, Die.

Back to Studio Three: As I watch the musical unfold under Joe Bishara’s direction, I admire both the cast’s singing and the keyboard work of accompanist Quinton Jones. But I also think the actors are portraying their characters with mixed success. That’s especially true of two female friends who join Jeff and Hunter’s project.

Elisabeth Zimmerman—who played one of my favorite characters in CATCO’s wonderful 2013 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is entertaining as Heidi, to the extent that the thinly written role allows her to be. However, Annie Huckaba never quite gels as Susan, instead coming off as a caricature of playful quirkiness.

As for the men, Bradley Johnson is tastefully flamboyant as Hunter, while Jonathan Collura balances him out nicely as the more down-to-earth Jeff. It’s only in the later stages of the play that I begin to think Collura’s Jeff should have shown more passion for their shared project from the beginning. Maybe then the argument that arises late in Act 2 would be more convincing.

Truthfully, though, it’s unfair to blame the actors for anything that happens in Act 2.

The act didn’t even exist when the musical first opened, having been written to explain how the show and its creators changed as it moved to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway itself. Watching the second act in Studio Three, I quickly decide that adding it was a mistake.

And I’m not alone, judging from the audience’s reaction. Even the four biggest laughers are noticeably quiet as Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi argue endlessly about whether they’ll ever get the show to Broadway and whether all of them will still be on board if and when it gets there.

Finally, Hunter suggests it’s time to bring the elongated show to an end, noting, “We can’t keep adding everything that happens to us.” It’s a brilliant insight, though it’s hard not to wish it had occurred to him about half an hour earlier.

Then again, I’m hardly in a position to throw that particular stone. It’s now been days since I saw the show, and I can’t find a way to finish this review, which already has dragged on for way too long.

Should I mention that, while watching the show, I kept thinking Zimmerman was playing Susan because she reminded me so much of the short-lived Seinfeld character of the same name? No, chances are no one else will make the connection, and really, who cares?

I guess I should just finish by addressing the all-important question: Will you enjoy the show? Maybe, maybe not. The creators themselves admit it won’t appeal to everyone, declaring in the finale that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth-favorite thing.”

It should be obvious by now that [title of show] isn’t my favorite thing, my ninth-favorite thing or even my 90th-favorite thing. But who knows? Maybe it will be your favorite thing—at least until the second act.

CATCO is presenting an open-ended run of [title of show] in Studio Three of the Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35, $180 for a reserved table of four; a limited number of $15 student tickets will be available two hours before curtain. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

‘Master Class,’ like fact-based flicks, revises history

Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)
Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

Several recent movies have been suspected of bending historical reality to suit their dramatic needs.

Was LBJ really as hostile to civil rights as he’s portrayed in Selma? Was World War II code breaker Alan Turing as socially inept as he seems in The Imitation Game? And what about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle? Was he depicted with warts-and-all accuracy in American Sniper?

The answer to such questions is nearly always “no.” For better or worse, scriptwriters often reshape real-life personalities and events for the sake of a good storyline.

Playwrights are no different. It’s been suggested, for example, that the title king in Shakespeare’s Richard III wasn’t nearly as villainous in real life. History has its place, but the plot must be served.

Which brings me to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now being revived by CATCO. Based on an actual series of workshops Maria Callas led at Julliard in 1971-72, it portrays the former opera star as so wrapped up in her ego and her painful past that she fails to realize the effect her brutal critiques are having on her vulnerable students.

When I first saw a touring production starring Faye Dunaway in 1997, I wondered why McNally would portray a singer he’d long admired in such an unflattering light. After reading a 2011 piece by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, I wondered even more. Transcripts of the actual Julliard classes, according to Tommasini, prove the real-life Callas was demanding but far more supportive and sensitive than McNally’s fictional version.

The only explanation for the makeover is that McNally felt Callas would be a better dramatic character if she were preoccupied by memories of her former stardom and failed relationships, especially with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. To me, though, the play’s brief flashbacks to her glory days are less satisfying than her best moments in the “present.”

These mainly involve two students who show up in the second act and manage to pull valuable advice from Callas and incorporate it into their renditions of dramatic arias. In director Joe Bishara’s CATCO production, Daniel A. Lopez is personable as tenor Tony Candolino, while Sara Pardo delivers the night’s most glorious operatic performance as soprano Sharon Graham.

Act 1, which is dominated by Callas’s diva-like introductory remarks and a lengthy teaching session with soprano Sophie DePalma, is less compelling. Ilona Dulaski is haughtily cranky as Callas, but she’s isn’t quite regal enough to carry off the diva-hood routine, while Alexandra Kassouf’s Sophie is an unconvincing caricature of meekness when she isn’t displaying her lovely singing voice.

It should be noted that those comments are based on Thursday night’s preview performance, when Act 1 was hampered by minor stumbles and an overall lack of energy. It’s very possible that things will improve in subsequent performances.

Serving as an effective sounding board for Callas when he’s not tinkling away on a grand piano is Quinton Jones as the Accompanist, while Andrew Protopapas makes a few brief appearances as the surly Stagehand.

The serviceable wood-paneled scenery is designed by Edith Wadkins. Marcia Hain designed the costumes, including the fancy gown worn by Sharon and belittled by Callas.

Besides the fine singing by Pardo’s Sharon and the other students, Master Class is at its best when Callas shares her philosophy on what it takes to be an operatic artist. It’s hard work, she stresses, requiring much more than mere musical technique.

These moments, at least, seem faithful to the world-renowned singer who inspired McNally’s play.

CATCO will present Master Class through March 1 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

 

2014: A brilliant ‘Hamlet’ and a sad departure

Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors' Theatre's production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)
Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Two of the most memorable theatrical events of 2014 took place in Schiller Park.

The first was Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Though it garnered the most attention for its offbeat casting of a teenage girl in the title role, what really set the show apart was its overall quality. Every role—from the Danish prince to the lowly gravedigger—was cast and performed to perfection.

The second event was the May 30 memorial for actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last spring. I first met Carl several years ago when he approached me during intermission at a local show and said some nice things about my reviews—frank but fair, something along that line. I didn’t yet know who he was other than a familiar face at opening nights, but I appreciated the supportive words.

It was only after Carl’s death that I learned he’d said equally supportive things to many people. On Facebook and at the memorial service, people described him as a man who went out of his way to make others feel important and appreciated.

Though I don’t share the strong Christian faith that guided Carl, it’s hard for me to think of him without recalling words from the New Testament: “Go and do likewise.” What a world it would be if we all followed his example.

Back to business: This being the end of the year, it’s time for me to share my list of the best theatrical performances and productions I saw in 2014. Notice the “I saw.” No one has time to see everything, and I almost certainly missed many worthy contenders.

Thanks to everyone who made 2014 a good year to go to the theater.

Best Play: Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Co-directors John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare coaxed incisive performances from the entire cast, starting with Grace Bolander, the high school senior who gave such a brilliant interpretation of the title prince. Runner-up: How We Got On, Available Light Theatre.

Best Musical: The Producers, Gallery Players. Director Mark Mann and his crew paid amazing attention to detail while creating a tuneful show with many laugh-out-loud moments. The entire cast performed with spirit, but special commendations are due to supporting actors Doug Joseph (as Roger De Bris, alternating with Stewart Bender) and Brooke Walters (as Swedish secretary Ulla). Runner-up: Always…Patsy Cline, CATCO.

Best New Work: Memory Fragments, MadLab. Sam Wallin’s “cyberpunk” mystery constantly shifted between the present and the past, and between physical and virtual reality, but director Andy Batt handled the changes with aplomb. Runner-up: Gallery of Echoes, Shadowbox Live.

Best Revised Work: Evo, Shadowbox Live. Stev Guyer’s Evolution was an ambitious but plodding work from the troupe’s early days. The new version, which Guyer revised with help from head writer Jimmy Mak, musical director Matthew Hahn and choreographer Katy Psenicka, was just an ambitious but far more watchable.

Best Touring Show: The Book of Mormon, Broadway in Columbus. Only a poor sod with maggots in his scrotum could fail to enjoy this raunchy but warmhearted satire.

Worst Trend: musicals with canned accompaniment. CATCO’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels handled the prerecorded soundtrack pretty well, but taped music drained much of the life out of SRO’s The Sound of Music. Besides, musicians need the work!

Best Direction: Hamlet, John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare, Actors’ Theatre. Every role was handled with such clarity that even Shakespeare buffs probably gained new appreciation of the venerable tragedy.

Best Performance, Male: Isaac Nippert, My Name Is Asher Lev, CATCO/Gallery Players. As Asher, Nippert expertly navigated a role that required him to narrate his own tale while playing himself at ages ranging from youngster to adult.

Best Performance, Female: Grace Bolander, Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Casting a teenage girl as the melancholy Dane might seem like a gimmick, but Bolander gave an impassioned yet witty performance that proved she was simply the best person for the part.

Portrait of an artist as a Hasidic young man

Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players' co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)
Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players’ co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

The protagonist of My Name Is Asher Lev is still a boy when he begins drawing pictures of Jesus and nude women. Not surprisingly, the images upset his Hasidic Jewish parents.

“No Torah Jew would think of drawing such things,” thunders his father, Aryeh Lev (Ralph Scott).

But the parents soon learn that trying to stifle the youth’s artistic impulses is no easy task. Though he wants to be a good son and a good Jew, Asher himself (Isaac Nippert) seems unable to control his need for self-expression. The result is a recurring argument with his devout father and a source of stress for his mother, Rivkeh (Melissa Graves), who tries to be loyal to both her husband and her gifted son.

Adapted from a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner’s one-act is set in a particular time and place: a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The basic situation, however, is universal: The parents want their child to obey them and respect their traditions, while the child is driven by his need to find his own way.

Though the play sometimes seems like a collection of biographical scenes rather than a cohesive drama, the unifying factor is Asher’s fierce need to create art. Nippert expresses that need with a portrayal that incorporates joyful discovery and youthful enthusiasm—and, sometimes, youthful petulance. All the while, he succeeds in suggesting ages as young as 5 without turning into a childish caricature.

As Asher’s mother, Graves projects quiet dignity and equally quiet desperation. Because we see Rivkeh through her son’s eyes, she comes off as more of a symbol of long-suffering motherhood than a flesh-and-blood woman, but Graves fills the need by radiating an aura of profound sadness.

Graves also doubles as a couple of relatively minor female characters, but it’s Scott who does the heavy lifting in terms of multiple roles. In addition to Asher’s father, he plays a supportive uncle, a local Hasidic leader and, most notably, Jacob Kahn, a secular Jewish artist who becomes Asher’s mentor. Though some of the portrayals carry a whiff of stereotype, Kahn comes across as distinctive and fully human.

Under Kahn’s exacting tutelage, Asher is encouraged to remain true to his Hasidic identity while studying the European and largely Christian traditions that shaped Western art. The resulting tension leads to a climax that supplies the drama—melodrama, even—that much of the play lacks.

Steven C. Anderson’s sensitive direction makes the most of the work’s strengths, including its portrait of a youth torn between his art and his devotion to his family and faith. Jarod Wilson’s lighting design brings out every nuance of that portrait, while well-chosen background music adds both drama and ethnic flavor. Eric Barker’s painterly scenic design includes a floor divided into multiple, odd-shaped levels and distorted windows that play a symbolic role in later scenes.

The sum total of all this effort is a nearly perfect staging of an interesting, if not-quite-perfect, work of theater.

CATCO and Gallery Players will present My Name Is Asher Lev through Nov. 9 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Stranded seafarer lives to tell his tale

Lisa Thoma, Robert Behrens and Joe Dallacqua (clockwise from top) perform in CATCO’s production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) (photo by Dave Alkire)
Lisa Thoma, Robert Behrens and Joe Dallacqua (clockwise from top) perform in CATCO’s production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) (photo by Dave Alkire)

By Richard Ades

Louis de Rougemont had quite an adventure, and he desperately wants to tell us about it. With a combination of narration, acting, shadow figures and sound effects, the 19th century Londoner explains how he left home as a youth and went to sea, only to be shipwrecked and stranded for years on a desert island.

A giant octopus, a rare black pearl and a tribe of Australian Aborigines also figure in his tale, which unfolds in Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself).

When I first saw the play in a 2010 Whistling in the Dark production, I thought it was a bit long-winded, but I enjoyed the way it captured the spirit of its real-life adventurer’s times. Because it was presented in a theater that was designed to be environmentally friendly, the production took a low-tech approach that added to the period feel. The live piano accompaniment was particularly effective.

CATCO’s current production, directed by Mark Seamon, is less low-tech and, thus, seems less authentic. Moreover, Seamon and company punctuate the story with goofy sound effects (a slide whistle and the like) that probably are designed to tickle younger viewers. Well, maybe they do, but they detract from the show’s credibility. De Rougemont clearly wants us to amaze us, not amuse us.

Beyond those quibbles, the show has much to recommend it. Shakespearean actor/director Robert Behrens makes a rare stage appearance as the title adventurer, and he gives an entertaining performance. Enthusiastic supporting actors Lisa Thoma and Joe Dallacqua play all the characters de Rougemont comes into contact with, especially a friendly Aborigine woman (Thoma) and an even friendlier dog (Dallacqua).

Even before the action starts, Michael S. Brewer’s handsome set is sure to elicit a few “oohs” and “aahs.” The broad-beamed stage floor is a good stand-in for the ship deck on which the young de Rougemont begins his adventures.

Yes, the play still seems a bit long-winded (I’ve heard of other productions that wrapped things up in less than 90 minutes, though I can’t imagine how). But the tale it tells is a fascinating one, made even more so by the fact that we’re not entirely sure we should believe it.

CATCO will present Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) through Feb. 23 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $45 on Fridays and Saturdays, $41 for other shows. Discount student tickets ($15) are offered two hours before show time. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

A look back at ‘2013: The Musical’

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

2013 may be remembered as The Year of the Musical in Central Ohio. Or, more likely, as The First Year of the Musical.

In the more than two decades I’ve been reviewing local theater, musicals have always represented a small percentage of the shows I saw each year. But that’s likely to change.

A prime reason is that CATCO dropped its long aversion to the genre when Steven Anderson took over as producing director in 2010. Another reason is the ascendance of Short North Stage, a 2-year-old troupe that specializes in Sondheim’s art form.

Add to that the musicals staged by Otterbein University Theatre and the growing number staged by Shadowbox Live, including its recent collaborations with Opera Columbus. Then figure in the musicals bravely tackled by troupes that normally stick to standard fare.

The end result is a year that was teeming with musicals. And not just musicals: great musicals.

There were so many worthwhile musicals, in fact, that I’ve been forced to abandon the format I always followed at The Other Paper, which divided the nominees into categories such as Best Drama or Best Comedy. Limiting myself to one Best Musical would have forced me to ignore many of the year’s best shows. Instead, I’ve settled for naming the year’s Top 10 shows.

A couple of caveats: First, no one has time to see everything, so I’m sure I missed some award-worthy gems. And second, this is a subjective list based not only on what was done well but on what I found particularly interesting and memorable.

With that said, congratulations to the winners, and thanks to everyone who made this an exceptional year for theater in Central Ohio.

Top 10 Shows of 2013:

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, CATCO. Though the Top 10 list is mostly arranged haphazardly, this was my favorite show of the year. Director Steven Anderson found both the heart and the laughs in this familiar musical, with help from a consistently wonderful cast led by Japheal Bondurant, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Ralph E. Scott.

Sunday in the Park With George, Short North Stage. The Garden Theater-based troupe sometimes imports its directors from New York, and it paid off handsomely here. Sarna Lapine (niece of James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the Broadway premiere) gave us a Sondheim revival that was both pitch-perfect and picture-perfect. As a bonus, sound designer Leon Rothenberg found a way to tame the theater’s echo-y acoustics, which bodes well for future productions.

Passing Strange, Short North Stage. Green Day fans undoubtedly enjoyed the punk-rock anger of American Idiot, which came through town in March. But those of a thoughtful bent were more likely to enjoy this satirical take on youthful angst, which was beautifully realized by director Mark Clayton Southers and his committed cast.

Duck Variations, A Portable Theatre. The best news was that the fledgling troupe is the new home of Geoffrey Nelson, former artistic director of CATCO. The second-best news was that its premiere show paired Nelson with fellow CATCO alum Jonathan Putnam. These two sly and seasoned pros made the David Mamet comedy one of the year’s funniest shows.

Assassins, Red Herring Productions. Michael Herring’s solo springtime performance of Krapp’s Last Tape launched the rebirth of his long-dormant troupe. But nothing could have prepared us for Red Herring’s next show, a polished production of Sondheim’s most controversial musical. John Dranschak directed an A-list cast led by Ian Short and Nick Lingnofski.

Mercy Killers, On the Verge Productions. 2013’s crop of touring musicals supplied a fair amount of flashy entertainment, but none of them were as impressive or thought-provoking as this one-man touring show. Writer/actor Michael Milligan told a tragic tale that movingly dramatized the shortcomings of the U.S. health-care system.

The Whipping Man, Gallery Players/New Players Theater. If you thought there was no way to come up with a new take on the Civil War, this show proved you wrong. Matthew Lopez’s postwar drama reunited two former slaves with the wounded son of their Jewish master. The fascinating, if imperfect, tale was exquisitely directed by Tim Browning.

The Air Loom, MadLab. Local actor Jim Azelvandre has tried his hand at writing in the past, but this surreal tale is his best work to date. Azelvandre also supplied the canny direction, which ensured that the ingenious storyline and eccentric characters remained entertaining throughout.

Henry IV, Part One, New Players Theater. Besides staging The Taming of the Shrew on its outdoor stage, New Players was brave enough to tackle one of Shakespeare’s seldom-seen historical dramas. Bard-literate director Robert Behrens made 15th-century Britain come to life with the help of a lively cast led by David Tull as the hard-partying Prince Hal and John Tener as the irrepressible Falstaff.

Burlesque Behind the Curtain, Shadowbox Live. Shadowbox’s production of Spamalot was a blast, too, but Behind the Curtain deserves credit for improving on last year’s Burlesque de Voyage. Writer Jimmy Mak, director Stev Guyer and the talented players created a show that was sometimes very sexy and other times very, very funny.