And so we warm ourselves in the embers of 2008, with the optimistic hope that the year to come will offer up yet new experiences and sensations, in the theater and elsewhere (why not get greedy?). While we're waiting, here is the conclusion of City Pages' list of top 10 plays in 2008. Bear in mind that no one person can get a complete handle on a very sprawling scene—though God knows I tried. And though I may certainly have missed some very worthy productions, I can certify that all of these shows were really good.
5. EURYDICE Ten Thousand Things
This was a tough call, given that Michelle Hensley's utterly unique company also staged gratifying versions of Twelfth Night and Once on This Island in the same year, but we'll go with the heart on this one. Sarah Ruhl's reimagining of the Eurydice myth followed the standard outlines (she dies on her wedding day, gets a shot at living again, but is let down by Orpheus's fleeting lack of faith), but it adds a father (Steve Hendrickson) who first mourns from the afterlife, then teaches Eurydice (Sonja Parks) how to exist as a shade before her shot at resurrection. The play suggested all sorts of unsettling things about how the human heart can fade; this production extracted enough emotion to leave a viewer unsettled, and questioning, more than a few months later.
4. DANCING WITH A CONTAGION Open Eye Figure Theatre
Michael Sommers's new hour-long work combined puppets, Eric Jensen's compositions, and plenty of agitation to portray, with sometimes startling honesty, the ultimate work in progress: the individual human life. It didn't hurt that the show was funny (Sommers hectored himself in the form of a surrogate puppet named Boo Boo) and inventive (at one point a tune was performed on hotel front-desk bells). But what remains in the memory is a sense of yearning, a desire for connection, and a need to validate the primal passion that leads us to care about art in the first place.
3. PEER GYNT Guthrie Theater
Peer Gynt had audiences (and critics) truly divided. Robert Bly supplied a new adaptation of Ibsen's anti-hero crashing through Norway, a weird troll world, the desert, then finally into some realm where he makes the case for his own soul's extinction. Mark Rylance in the title role was undeniably brilliant, portraying the amoral Peer with a mournful lilt, a man-child who only fractionally understood what he was doing or what was going on around him. Which came to be the point, by the end, when the action stopped amid total ambiguity and I asked myself why I was feeling so much about this oddball, cerebral story. The answer: This show almost perfectly found its intersection with our own uncertain, grasping, hopeful lives.
2. FENCES Penumbra Theatre
This story of a onetime baseball player thwarted by racism and his descent into tragic bitterness featured a powerful cast that fully realized August Wilson's epic and uniquely American vision. James A. Williams anchored the action as Troy, lending him charm, steel, and an alarmingly soulful take on a man of infinite energy bent and twisted by the world. The hard part here is elevating Fences above the unrepentant mind-bombs Gem of the Ocean and The Piano Lesson, also in 2008, all bold and declarative statements of director Lou Bellamy's profound understanding of (and ability to transmit) Wilson's greatness.
1. BLACKBIRD Pillsbury House Theatre
Here was a perfect storm of script and onstage talent. David Harrower's one-act, set in a rundown workplace break room, placed a man (Stephen Yoakam) and a woman (Tracey Maloney) in close proximity for the first time in 15 years—following a brief affair they had shared when he was 40 and she was 12. Along with director Stephen DiMenna, Yoakam and Maloney crafted an absolutely white-knuckle ride through emotions both familiar and otherwise. It was the kind of show in which you thought you'd seen and heard it all—until the next shock came out of left field. Ambiguous, painful, fleetingly tender, this production insinuated itself into the memory, and it won't soon go away.