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To look back at the year in theater, we asked our three theater writers to tell us the plays and performances that stood out for them in 2011. Here are Liz Johnstone's picks.

The Best in Dallas Theater 2011: Liz Johnstone’s Picks

To look back at the year in theater, we asked our three theater writers to tell us the plays and performances that stood out for them in 2011. Here are Liz Johnstone’s picks.

Plays

The Shipment (Undermain Theatre). The Undermain’s production of Young Jean Lee’s unconventional play, directed by SMU’s Stan Wojewodski, was pitch-perfect. I hadn’t walked out of a show more enthusiastic about a performance in ages, and months later, I find myself wanting to see it again just to recapture that same sense of euphoria.

Arms and the Man (Stage West). My favorite play, very well done by a Fort Worth stalwart. I like it both as a love story and as a nipping social critique.

Cabaret (Dallas Theater Center). As much as I enjoyed Arsenic and Old Lace, the words to “Wilkommen” stuck with me for days. I wasn’t much impressed with Kate Wetherhead’s Sally Bowles, but director Joel Ferrell turned out a big budget, Broadway-ready production that felt both appropriately sleazy and appealingly sharp.

Easter (Undermain Theatre). A lyrical, naturalistic counterpoint to The Shipment that further showcased the Undermain’s range and continued dedication to thinking theater.

La Bête (Theatre Three). I always want to like the plays at Theatre Three more than I actually do; La Bête was a happy surprise late in the year. Hirson’s smug masterpiece, written almost entirely in rhymed couplets, stuns in the hands of capable actors. It’s a veritable assault of words, but a pleasant one for anyone who both enjoys and despairs of language.

Top Female Performances

Emily Scott Banks (A Most Dangerous Woman, Echo Theatre). Banks popped up in a couple of productions I saw this year, but she was memorable as Marian Evans/George Eliot. The play was rather straightforward autobiography, but Banks’ mercurial performance plumbed the depths of an accomplished woman’s insecurity.

Fiona Robberson (Easter, Undermain). I won’t repeat Lance too much, but the Booker T. Washington student’s otherworldly self-possession as Eleonora anchored the excellent production.

Julie Johnson, Fraulein Schneider (Cabaret, Dallas Theater Center). As the middle-aged matron of a boarding house, Johnson’s character goes on the sort of emotional journey from which one never quite recovers. Watching her open up was a joy; her final rejection of her Jewish suitor was completely heartbreaking.

Top Male Performances

Max Hartman (In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Kitchen Dog Theatre). Hartman’s turn as the buttoned-up, closed-off doctor, finally willing to reevaluate his own position in the world in order to meet the needs of his wife, was nuanced and well-paced. He stood out amongst a good ensemble cast.

Jakie Cabe (Travesties, Theatre Three). As the self-aggrandizing character of Henry Carr, Cabe did most of the heavy lifting in Tom Stoppard’s linguistically-loaded play. Carr is a footnote in history, but on the stage, Cabe’s Carr outshines giants like Lenin and Joyce.

Ensemble (The Shipment, Undermain Theatre). I know— there’s a woman in this cast, and Beverly Johnson was wonderful. But the four young men were all so strong in their myriad roles that there wasn’t a weak link among them. Adam A. Anderson, David Jeremiah, Christopher Piper, and Akron Watson delivered a cohesive, intense performance that could have easily fallen apart in less talented and committed hands.

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