There is no such thing as a "typical" Karen Stephens part. Like the best actors anywhere, she's an invisible conduit for a playwright's unique creation, which, paradoxically, we cannot imagine existing without her. Thus, if Christopher Demos-Brown's world-premiere play Fear Up Harsh, which debuted in Miami courtesy of Zoetic Stage, receives productions elsewhere, Stephens' masterly lead performance sets a seemingly untouchable benchmark. Her lesbian army corporal — physically and emotionally bruised, desperate, and probably alcoholic — is as convincing a portrayal of a military veteran as we've seen onstage, with Stephens infusing her character's tortured memories and wry wit with lived-in intelligence. A few months later, she flawlessly inhabited another complex character — a brash, funny, Southern-bred maid with a heavenly secret — in GableStage's The Mountaintop. That secret torpedoed an otherwise provocative piece, but Stephens remained truthful even during its descent, culminating in a powerful soliloquy encompassing the past 40 years of African-American history that ebbed and flowed with the oratorical gusto of The Mountaintop's immortal subject, Martin Luther King Jr.

South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center

Once viewed as a construction-delayed, $51 million albatross, the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center (SMDCAC) has already done plenty since it's 2011 grand opening to prove its worth to taxpayers. It has delivered a winning combination of jazz, classical, and dance shows with a heavy emphasis on Latin American and Caribbean troupes. But no one could have predicted that one of its greatest contributions to Miami's arts scenes would be providing an itinerant theater a permanent home. That's just what happened, though, after the rightly acclaimed New Theatre lost its longtime space in Coral Gables and then bounced around a few other locations before landing at SMDCAC. Their combination has been the Jay Z/Beyoncé hookup of the South Florida arts world — a powerhouse arts marriage made in heaven. New Theatre's premiere in-house production, Visiting Hours, told the story of an older lesbian couple and their estranged son, who barges back into their lives following charges of aggravated assault. Written by frequent New Theatre collaborator and Miami native David Caudle, the work gave the company a refreshing and memorable new start. Weaving innovative pieces from New Theatre into a season filled with crowd-pleasing events — the Miami Symphony Orchestra, jazz singer René Marie, and flamenco star Jesse Cook, to name a few — has solidified the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center as an exciting and worthy enhancement to Miami's theatrical stage.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

The touring production of Elf didn't make its way to Miami until December 31 — after many Christmas enthusiasts had already pulled the lights off their palm trees and bundled away the inflatable lawn snow globes for another year. But that doesn't mean the Christmas spirit didn't live strong at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. In fact, when it comes to eternal holiday cheer, Elf probably gave the year-round local favorite Christmas Palace a run for its money. The production, based on the instant classic starring Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel, brings the film to even grander and sillier heights by not only keeping all the fan favorite lines and scenes but also adding infectious songs, even more heart, and so much holiday fun that Santa might OD on cheer. Even better, Elf delivered snow to Miami, dusting the stage with the kind of white stuff that's all too rare in the 305. By the musical's end, you'd be hard-pressed not to agree with Buddy the Elf when he proclaims, "Smiling's my favorite!"

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

It's worth remembering that before John Wilkes Booth became the first successful presidential assassin, he was a Shakespearean actor, and apparently a damn good one. Early reviews of his plays referred to his "natural genius" and his status as "the most promising young actor on the American stage." So it takes an equally brilliant actor to bring this fascinating monster to life, to convey both his misguided sense of vengeance and his imposing theatricality — his demons and his dramaturgy alike. In this regard, Nicholas Richberg exceeded all expectations in his embodiment of Booth, one of a number of presidential killers explored in Stephen Sondheim's offbeat musical Assassins, from Zoetic Stage. Resembling the real Booth with frightening attention to detail in hair, makeup, and costuming, Richberg anchored a show that is, by its nature, all over the place — providing, in the character of this talented racist, its panache and its fire and even its soul. Barbara Bradshaw, a former New Times Best Actress winner, recently told a reporter that even if she were playing the biggest villain in a show, she needed to play her with the knowledge that she didn't know she was a villain. This was certainly the case with Richberg's Booth, who achieved the unlikely feat of making us genuinely care about the man who murdered our greatest president.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

Most critics agreed that Metamorphoses — the Adrienne Arsht Center and University of Miami Theater Department's ambitious adaptation of Mary Zimmerman's version of Ovid's Roman myths — was not a great success. But the effect of its uneven pacing and wildly disparate cast of students and professionals ensured that one performance stood out all the more glaringly from the rest, for all the right reasons. Ethan Henry almost single-handedly brought the cerebral script and ancient source material to vivid life, inhabiting its most difficult and iconic characters. His interpretation of Midas as an arrogant one-percenter who learns humility the hard way was powerful enough, but nothing could prepare audiences for his role in the Cinyras myth, in which his lecherous character engaged in a blindfolded sexual tryst with a nubile girl who turned out to be his daughter. The incestuous liaison took place in a pool, with Henry and Alanna Saunders swirling and tumbling on the water's surface in shameful ecstasy. The moment when the blindfold came off, and Henry's carnal bliss metamorphosed into the agony of irredeemable despair, was as masterful a transition from one extreme to another as any that graced a stage in recent memory. Let's hope the UM students populating at least half of this production were taking copious mental notes.

Colony Theatre
Courtesy of the GMCVB

A lot of theater companies and movie producers do the whole "Shakespeare as you've never seen him before" thing, which usually involves staging the Bard's words inside a McDonald's, on the front lines of a Middle Eastern war, or in outer space. But Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney's eccentric and visionary adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra never relied on such gimmicks. It employed the abstract sets and spartan style of his previous work at Gable­Stage (like The Brothers Size and his ratatat Hamlet) to somehow evoke both 18th-century Haiti and ancient Rome/Alexandria, creating a cross-cultural hybrid that respected the original source material while enriching it with subtextual meaning. The props and live, balcony-perched band created Afro-Caribbean ambiance that drifted in and out of Shakespeare's fraught and complicated text, uttered by its spectacular cast with the mix of frothing passion and enviable, roll-off-the-tongue nonchalance that any modern Shakespeare interpretation could hope for. Yes, not every actor enunciated clearly enough for every line to be heard within the Colony Theatre's imperfect acoustics, but be honest: Unless you're a Shakespeare scholar, you wouldn't be able to decipher it all anyway. The grandiosity and chutzpah of this cinematic vision more than made up for any minutiae that might have slipped through the cracks.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

Michael McKeever's set for Zoetic Stage's Assassins must have been a fun place to show up to work for its cast of ten. After all, it's not often you get to spend a couple of hours a night playing around and firing blanks into a multitiered carnival booth, not to mention exhaling your last breath while collapsing onto a flawless replica of the official presidential seal of the United States. With its mix of jingoistic colors and iconography and its peeling wooden marquee reading "Take Your Shot," McKeever's set resembled both Coney Island parlor games and White House pomp and circumstance — finding a visual representation of the nexus of the assassins' low-rent delusions and their unseen victims' patriotic grandeur. It was also a fount of hidden pleasures, from the centrally positioned, rotating presidential portrait to the red-and-blue police sirens tucked away in crates to the noose atop the stairway, which helped create one of the show's funniest visual gags. This might sound like a dubious honor for McKeever, but the fact is, if anyone had the choice to die on any set, it would be this one.

Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre
Photo by Diego Pocovi

The Actors' Playhouse's End of the Rainbow was a funny and heartbreaking antidote to the stale formula of the Judy Garland musical revue. Moreover, it satisfied criteria for both best play and best musical of the year, encompassing the crackling dramatic exigencies of the former and the seemingly unpredictable cabaret atmosphere of the latter. Mostly, though, it was a bold look at faded glory — that of Garland, once the biggest star in the world, reduced at the end of her truncated life to insecure pill fiend, alcoholic, rotten friend, and erratic, occasional nightclub singer, when she wasn't too doped up to put one foot in front of the other. The perfectly diminutive Kathy St. George captured Garland's charms as well as her demons, and Colin McPhillamy exuded initial warmth and finally tragic pathos as her longtime pianist, a loving man ultimately crushed by the oblivious Garland steamroller. Director David Arisco handled the shifting genres with ease, especially the play's transitions from hotel room to nightclub — complete with a live onstage band — which never ceased to dazzle.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

Zoetic Stage has been producing fine work since its inception in 2010, but this past season was the one in which the company really came into its own, establishing itself as a powerhouse incubator of new plays and an accomplished interpreter of canonical classics. The antiwar dramedy Fear Up Harsh opened the season with a proverbial mortar blast of energy, wit, and insight, earning a pair of Carbonell Awards in its wake, including Best New Work for playwright Christopher Demos-Brown. Its followup, Assassins, likewise plumbed comedy from dark scenarios. A standout cast, a spare-no-expense set design, and dynamite costumes brought to life the black humor, complex musicality, and blistering monologues of one of Stephen Sondheim's most controversial musicals. The season continued with one of Michael McKeever's finest comedies, Clark Gable Slept Here, a world-premiere satire about Hollywood that explored the movie industry's myth-making at the expense of its humanity — if such a thing can exist in the plastic Dream Factory. Producing only four shows in its season (The Great God Pan opened after this writing), compared with other companies' five or six, Zoetic had fewer chances to stumble, but the flawlessness of its track record remains impressive and sets an intimidating bar for next year.

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
Justin Namon

Few works, new or established, were as instantly visionary as Christopher Demos-Brown's Fear Up Harsh. The play, which premiered in an acclaimed production at Zoetic Stage, opened on a delirious gamble, in which the carnage of a war zone played in complete blackness, its actions bleeding into the next scene in a traumatic, time-shifting cacophony. The effect was dizzying and whiplash-inducing but never less than compelling, and it set the stage for a Brechtian exercise in the lingering effects of war (and awards) that deservedly won the Best New Work statuette at the 2013 Carbonell Awards. The hierarchies of rank, the politics of medals, the shameful horror of "enhanced interrogation techniques," and the struggles of being a single dad who is also a wheelchair-bound veteran coalesced into a 21st-century American tragedy that was also, when it wanted to be, one of the funniest plays of the year. Demos-Brown's knack for finding believably comic conversational nooks within a more damning, bigger picture cannot be understated; though, as he has said, some of the play's best lines developed from working out the production organically with his cast. Whatever the formula, it played out magnificently on the Arsht Center stage.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®