This is always a messy process, full of calculation, hunch, rekindled passions, and a thwarted impulse to somehow convey how many and how varied were the emotions and ideas communicated onstage in the last 12 months. The results are never entirely satisfying (for me), but here goes anyway, with the usual disclaimer that I couldn't see everything and surely missed some worthy shows, while nonetheless hogging a gourmand's share of theater seats in 2009.
10. My Father's Bookshelf, Live Action Set Bob Rosen portrayed an engineer losing his mind to Alzheimer's in this ensemble piece, in which his wife and children orbited him as his memories decayed, the set itself representing the shut-down connections and misfires of his disintegrating intellect. It was intense, poetic, and delivered the dignity its subject demanded.
9. Ching Chong Chinaman, Mu Performing Arts Lauren Yee's bitter satire of a well-off Asian-American family combined marital dysfunction, contemporary indentured servitude, and video-game fixation in a weird, funky stew. A terrific local cast delivered its ambiguous and unsettling tone with assurance.
8. Palace of the End, Frank Theatre Frank offered up this trio of monologues in a small-scale setting, with minimal fanfare. It felt appropriate. Three penetrating performances detailed stories surrounding the Iraq war, its implications, and its aftermath.
7. Raskol, Ten Thousand Things Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment was a soul-rattling foray into the frontiers of thought and existence, presented here as a free-jazz quasi-musical that did ample justice to its resolutely urban source. The walls closed in on Kris Nelson's tortured intellectual murderer, in an eternal winter of the spirit that shook and stirred.
6. Passage of Dreams, Theater Latté Da What a beautiful thing, with Denise Prosek leading a four-piece combo in a trio of new works afloat in notions of water: the oceanic depths of romantic yearning, the prosaic complications of family life around a swimming pool, and the parched thirst of a blasted-out group praying for rain. Ambitious, gorgeous, more than a little sad.
5. Robots vs. Fake Robots, Walking Shadow Theatre Company Pure fun. In the year 6000, violently stuck-up robots run the show, oppressing the scant surviving human population and serving as the objects of their lustful desires. Nathan Suprenant came out of nowhere to deliver "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?," Zoe Benston's salacious android had a great big secret, and before long we were confronted with the decay that eats at the heart of glamour. And it was funny.
4. 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick, Workhaus Collective It tried too much and it was too messy, but then the same could be said for the visionary sci-fi madman it depicted. Luverne Seifert knocked it out of the park as a writer who saw too much, knew too much, but had his charms. This was a scary little thing about the frightening temptation to go there.
3. The Whipping Man, Penumbra Theatre Joseph Papke and James Craven portrayed a onetime slave and slave owner in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was a story of American history delivered with staggering power, depth, and agility—a story of old bills that we have to comprehend are still coming due.
2. Pure Confidence, Mixed Blood Theatre A tough call—Mixed Blood's Ruined was also a highlight of 2009. But let's not forget Carlyle Brown's story of a slave jockey and horse trainer, anchored by Gavin Lawrence and Chris Mulkey tracing exquisite curlicues of affection, loathing, and power.
1. Caroline, or Change, Guthrie Theater Again, a bit of a toss-up: After all, The Intelligent Homosexual was a Tony Kushner premiere that moved and teased the mind in equal measure. But the nod for the greatest theater experience of 2009 can be credited, short and sweet, to one name: Greta Oglesby. Thanks, Greta.