South County audiences were treated to a delightful mix of theatrical offerings in 2017, including tragedy, farce, improv, musical revue and theater, and reinterpretations of literary classics. Indeed, area troupes frequently returned to the classics — from Greek poetry and drama to Shakespeare and Molière — but often with a contemporary twist. Many productions toyed with the boundary of tragedy and comedy, offering innovative and often provocative treatments of universal themes, including truth and lies, love and death, and war and politics. Here’s a look at some of our favorites from 2017:
“Eurydice” (URI Theatre) — An aching and enigmatic retelling of the myth of Orpheus, URI’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” featured this year’s most ambitious and imaginative theatrical interpretation. Under the direction of the talented Kira Hawkridge, the unified collaboration of performance and design created an immersive world on stage, which was seen, heard, and felt on a visceral, as well as intellectual, level. Led by Ardemis Kassabian in the title role, Ruhl’s emotional ambiguity and playfulness lingered long after the end of the show, as well as some of the most memorable visual moments seen on stage this year.
“Beauty and the Beast” (Theatre By The Sea) — Theatre By The Sea’s must-see smash hit of the summer, “Beauty and the Beast,” transcended the animated version — and even the recent film — in a way that only enchanting stagecraft and live musical theater can. Adored by audiences and critics alike, this was the crowning production in a record-setting season. Everything about this show was larger-than-life, from the special effects wizardry and fairy tale stage design to the soaring music and high-kicking song and dance showstoppers. Wayne Hu stole the show in the role of the goofy but villainous Gaston with magnetic stage presence, bulging biceps, and rich operatic voice, which nearly blew the roof off of Matunuck’s venerable barn theater.
“Every Brilliant Thing” (The Contemporary Theater Company) — The Contemporary Theater Company’s production of Duncan MacMillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing” was the first of two outstanding one-actor shows that found a home at this downtown Wakefield theater in 2017. Both intimate and quirky, this show offered a uniquely compelling exploration of mental illness and suicide. The production offered a relentless but often uplifting reminder of life’s treasures and tragedies and how they are often inextricably intertwined. Ashley Macamaux’s nurturing and empathetic comic presence toyed with the boundary of joy and sadness and made the most of memorable, engaging moments of audience interaction.
“An Iliad” (The Contemporary Theater Company) — Thanks to a mild early autumn, this riveting retelling of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem about the Trojan War enjoyed an extended run on the outdoor performance patio on the Saugatucket River, becoming the surprise hit of the year before playing several additional performances indoors. Performer Matt Fraza imbued his performance with emotional intensity and physicality. Fraza drew upon his musical talents to connect and captivate the audience with moments of humility and vulnerability, providing urgency and intimacy to Homer’s ancient tale. The production also paid great attention to atmosphere, offering spectators a blanket and savory broth soup meal to go along with a smoky fireplace and sparse, haunting music by cellist Morgan Santos, which underscored the show.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” (URI Theatre) — URI’s production of the Oscar Wilde classic “Lady Windermere’s Fan” showcased the best of what the Robert Will Theatre can do, with spectacular and sumptuous design elements and a large ensemble to go along with Wilde’s edgy and insightful social critique. Under the direction of Bryna Wortman, the playfully subversive show seemed to delight in ambivalences. The melodramatic plot was punctuated with heavy doses of comic relief and witty repartee. Cheryl deWardener’s scenic design and David T. Howard’s costume design, both stunning and extravagant, threatened to steal the show, but the ensemble rendered Wilde’s characters with sensitivity and care, particularly Emily Turtle and Catia Ramos, who stood out at the center of the play in the roles of Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne.
2017 will be hard to top, but South County theatergoers have a lot to look forward to in 2018, including Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and the Disney musical “Mary Poppins” at URI Theatre; Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and more full-length improvised shows at The Contemporary Theater Company; and a stacked summer at Theater By The Sea, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Mamma Mia!,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago.”