Live theater in Greater Boston staged a welcome comeback in 2021. The pandemic-challenged year began with Zoom and live-streamed productions. Still, eventually actual attendance – free in this case – returned with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s summer revival of “The Tempest” on the Boston Common. Online and onstage productions by Igor Golyak and Bryn Boice established 2021 as the year of these gifted directors.
Whether online or in person, local companies presented exciting and often thoughtful productions of plays and musicals – with themes ranging from diversity, antisemitism, and racism to love, women’s empowerment, and family solidarity. Consequently, the following best of 2021 list includes the best of both virtual and live performance options.
Virtual theater best
“Black Beans Project” (Huntington Theatre Company): Gifted actress-playwright Melinda Lopez whipped up a rich Hispanic sibling entrée.
“chekhovOS /an experimental game/” (Arlekin Players): Mikhail Baryshnikov richly played the great Russian writer in artistic director Golyak’s interactive look at his greatest plays.
“Much Ado About Nothing” (Hub Theatre Company of Boston): Veteran actor Arthur Waldstein was an expressive joy as this clever split-screen Zoom – exuberantly directed by the gifted Boice – turned Friar Francis into Rabbi Francis, complete with tallit and yarmulke.
“Solitaire Suite” (Hub Theatre Company of Boston): Marital and parenting dynamics came together intriguingly in this Twilight Zone-ish odyssey with a wife-mother’s perspective.
“Witness” (Arlekin Players, through Jan. 23). Is America different? This 90-minute, unflinchingly probing documentary work calls on actors and Zoom participants to identify with the nearly 1,000 Jewish passengers on the SS St. Louis who were refused haven in Cuba, the United States, and other countries in 1939. There are telling references to antisemitic acts in Pittsburgh and Brighton. Gene Ravvin is a standout as an initially cheery onboard talent show host and eventually despairing Jewish Everyman (the “Cabaret” emcee may somewhat come to mind). Look for good work from Anne Gottlieb as a kipah-wearing rabbi looking for a coming together of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and Lauren Elias as an American Zionist.
“TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” (SpeakEasy Stage Company and Boston Conservatory at Berklee)
Live theater best
“All Is Calm” (Greater Boston Stage Company): Inspired choreographer-director Ilyse Robbins helmed this moving history-based musical look at an all too brief World War I holiday ceasefire.
“A Christmas Story: The Musical” (National tour at Boch Center for the Arts): Talented young actors stood out – especially in a tap dance ensemble. This affecting musical based on radio raconteur Jean Shepherd’s reminiscence focused on spunky Ralphie with some attention to his good friend Schwartz.
“Hadestown” (Broadway in Boston at Citizen Bank Opera House): The superb tour of this tuneful Tony Award-winning musical called Gershwin to mind and joined climate change subtext to its clever take on the Orpheus-Eurydice Greek myth.
“The Half Life of Marie Curie” (Nora Theatre at Central Square Theater): Lauren Gunderson’s stirring play paid tribute to both the title two-time Nobel Prize winner and her Jewish best friend, Hertha Ayrton, a pioneer engineer and Curie’s strongest supporter. Lee Mikeska Gardner captured Curie’s insecurity, while Debra Wise caught Ayrton’s feistiness.
“The Last Five Years” (Lyric Stage Company of Boston): Happily married Jared and Kyra Troilo very convincingly played a couple on marital rocks in this unusual Jason Robert Brown musical. Jared Troilo’s portrayal of Jewish writer Jamie Wellerstein in robust voice and nimble stage movement was Broadway-worthy.
“Macbeth in Stride” (American Repertory Theatre): Lady Macbeth took center stage in this bewitching musical riff on the Scottish play created by powerhouse talent Whitney White, who will give voice to four other Shakespearean heroines in this A.R.T. series.
“The Merchant of Venice” (Actors’ Shakespeare Project): Was Shakespeare antisemitic and did plays like this one contribute in some way to the Holocaust? Golyak turned this very different revival into a powerful if sometimes satiric commentary on these disturbing questions – with Nael Nacer brilliantly intense as Shylock.
“The Rocky Horror Show” (Moonlight Productions): A stellar cast brought Richard O’Brien’s devilish musical to campy life – especially the iconic Time Warp ensemble.
“The Sound Inside” (SpeakEasy Stage): Director Boice sharply voiced the professor-student dynamics of Adam Rapp’s wise 2020 Tony-nominated drama. Nathan Malin was riveting as the conflicted budding novelist.
“Teenage Dick” (Huntington Theatre, through Jan. 2): Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy, richly captures the vindictiveness and the pathos of CP-stricken Richard Gloucester, a bullied modern day high school student with similarities to Richard the Third. Playwright Mike Lew smartly laces his 2018 play-commission by Mozgala himself – with Shakespearean language and parallels. Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs tautly.
“The Tempest” (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company): John Douglas Thompson was commandingly forceful as Prospero in one of the company’s best revivals.
“Gone Nowhere” (Boston Playwrights Theatre)