Miami Theater: 2012's Best Productions

It was a difficult year for theater in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Plantation's Mosaic Theatre, whose sudden closure was announced this month, was the third quality company to shutter for various reasons, after the Caldwell in Boca Raton and the Promethean in Davie. Luckily, Delray's Theatre at Arts Garage and Boca's Parade Productions and Outre Theatre Company have begun moving forward.

By contrast, Miami's theaters appeared to be solid. The news in the 305 was only positive: New Theatre began its first full season in its attractive, spacious new home at the Roxy Performing Arts Center, and the PlayGround Theatre rebranded itself as the adult theater company Miami Theater Center to mount its first production, an inventive take on Chekhov's Three Sisters.

Indeed, 2012 spawned more than ten new works in the Magic City, mostly from hardworking local playwrights such as Mark Della Ventura (Small Membership and Roomies), Michael McKeever (Moscow), Antonio Amadeo (A Man Puts on a Play), David Michael Sirois (Off Center of Nowhere), and Juan C. Sanchez (Property Line).

Yet the year's best productions are largely made up of recent hits on Broadway and elsewhere, produced exceptionally by South Florida's finest companies. What follows is New Times' rating of the top shows, with number one being the absolute finest.

10. Winter and Happy, at New Theatre. New Theatre's fruitful relationship with prolific Portland playwright Robert Caisley continued with a pair of caustic works that picked at festering emotional scabs in familial units. In the world-premiere Winter, the relationship between fraternal twins reached a dramatic breaking point when it came time to plan their mother's funeral. In the recent hit Happy, a seemingly content middle-aged writer's will — and possibly his marriage — was shattered by a troubled modern artist with sadistic designs. Besides the polished writing, Scott Douglas Wilson was the main attraction in both plays, in which his characters' drunken binges led to uneasy pronouncements.

9. Becky's New Car, at Actors' Playhouse. Laura Turnbull gave her most endearing performance of the year in Becky's New Car, an eccentric comedy that explored uncomic territory such as cancer, grief, and infidelity in the context of a woman's hectic work-home balance. Director David Arisco deftly and economically staged the action on an unchanging, self-reflexive set in which the commute from work became a few steps from stage right to stage left. The script's required fourth-wall-breaking interactions with audience members revealed Turnbull to be a lovely improviser, and on the other side of the stage, she enjoyed pitch-perfect support from Ken Clement, Allan Baker, and others.

8. The Turn of the Screw, at Naked Stage. Naked Stage has a habit of turning its shoebox of a space into a place of dreams, fantasies, nightmares, and dread far removed from three walls and a proscenium. Aided by topnotch, transportive sound design and lighting, the theater's ambitious adaptation of Henry James's 19th-century English ghost story burned slowly and surely, rattling nerves and bristling with sexual tension and claustrophobic terror. Katherine Amadeo's governess was the very picture of wide-eyed, in-over-her-head fright bordering on hysteria, and Matthew William Chizever's subtle changes in his posture and gait beautifully captured the essence of at least five characters — male and female, adult and child alike.

7. A Man Puts on a Play, at Naked Stage. Antonio Amadeo's world premiere — and first-time effort as a playwright — was a cheeky meta-play that not enough theatergoers saw, to their cultural detriment. Inspired by his own conflicts that have arisen between working as a theater professional and raising a family, Amadeo conceived a partially improvised first act in which a character based on himself works to put a set together in a half-hour, sandwiched between state-of-the-union-like conversations with his wife. We get to eavesdrop on the transformation of an empty stage into an enclosed storage room set, completed before our eyes by the talented crew doubling as actors, or vice versa. In Act II, an equally compelling play materialized on the new stage, which was then disassembled and rebuilt the very next night.

6. Venus in Fur, at GableStage. David Ives's provocative layer cake of feminism, S&M, and theatrical artifice began popping up at brave regional theaters throughout 2012 after its Broadway premiere turned heads and turned its star, Nina Arianda, into a sensation. I would gladly hold up GableStage's version against any competing production. Betsy Graver was a revelation as the deceptive seductress Vanda, turning on a dime from Valley Girl ditziness to Victorian iciness and sadistic menace. Sparring partner Matthew William Chizever also turned in some of his most dexterous work in a part that could easily be swallowed by Vanda's force of nature.

5. I Am My Own Wife, at Zoetic Stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center. In my initial response to I Am My Own Wife, Zoetic Stage's production of Doug Wright's solo play about the German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, I wasn't as enthusiastic as my colleagues about Tom Wahl's performance, which I found too mannered, almost bloodless. But it hasn't strayed far from my brain since — a multicharacter mélange that was chilly, sharp, and freakishly committed, the kind of one-man performance that almost qualifies for an ensemble acting nomination. His performance took place in front of one of the year's most astounding set designs, a giant dollhouse of antiquated furniture bolstered by an extraordinary lighting scheme.

4. The Motherfucker With the Hat, at GableStage. Fast-talking plays aren't easy, which is why you rarely see amateur theaters take on Mamet. They would similarly be best to avoid Stephen Adly Guirgis's profane Tony-nominated The Motherfucker With the Hat, a hilarious ensemble piece about drugs, sex, infidelity, and a certain piece of headwear that wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Never a theater to shy away from a challenge, GableStage mounted its production at the beginning of the year and hit it out of the park. This is what it looks like when a show fires perfectly on all cylinders, with its infinitely engaging cast owning every skeevy, scuzzy line of dialogue with inexhaustible aplomb.

3. Death and Harry Houdini, at House Theatre of Chicago at the Arsht Center. The House Theatre of Chicago has continued to impress in its vacation home at the Arsht Center. Its spectacular take on this Harry Houdini biography was its best effort yet, taking a somewhat pedestrian story line and creating magic onstage, in more ways than one. Elaborate costumes and choreography, video projection, smoke machines, stilt walkers, and dramatic props — including a re-creation of Houdini's notorious padlocked plunge into a foreboding booth of water — engendered a palpable sense of spectacle that few productions from this or any year matched. An extra bravo to Dennis Watkins, whose amazing magic was complemented by more-than-capable acting.

2. Next to Normal, at Actors' Playhouse. The year's finest production of a musical was a far cry from the frothy, escapist classics proffered by other theaters (including, at times, Actors' Playhouse). Jodie Langel delivered a fully believable, empathetic, and nuanced portrayal of a woman suffering from bipolar disorder. The musical surveyed the effects of the illness on an entire suburban family unit, with nary a flaw to be found in the cast. The best of all might have been Nick Duckart, a pliable showman whose best moments brought uproarious comedy to the sobering proceedings. The lovely, hollowed-out domestic set provided an appropriately half-empty blueprint for the action.

1. Ruined, at GableStage. Choreographer as much as director this time around, Joseph Adler took control of the largest cast ever assembled at GableStage — 16 altogether — to create the year's most riveting production. Discovering crannies of humor in a dispiriting milieu, Lela Elam disappeared inside the character of Mama Nadi, the morally complex barkeep-slash-madam trying to stay afloat in contemporary war-torn Congo. Renata Eastlick and Jade Wheeler were also virtually unrecognizable as two of her "entertainers." Flush with music, dance, violence, romance, and vitality, this production brought out every emotion in Lynn Nottage's extraordinary source material, with scenic and sound design that transplanted audiences to the middle of the horrific action.