THE HERD (Honest Pint Theatre/North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre) Under David Henderson’s direction, superior ensemble work by a seasoned sextet made the regional debut of British playwright Rory Kinnear a striking, nuanced domestic drama about a family challenged, but ultimately not defined, by the developmental disabilities of its youngest child.
MEN ON BOATS (The Justice Theater Project) Brilliantly conceived and staged by Jules Odendahl-James, this achievement in ensemble acting deconstructed the nineteenth-century colonialism and hubris of a geographic expedition of the Grand Canyon, putting women in roles they were historically denied and then placing us behind Sonya Drum’s clearly fabricated stage-play set to expose the artificiality of conventional history.
EMILIE: LA MARQUISE DU CHÂTELET DEFENDS HER LIFE TONIGHT (Sonorous Road Theatre) In the finest hour of Sonorous Road’s final season, at least for now, artistic director Michelle Murray Wells illuminated the role of an embattled mathematician fighting sexism in the eighteenth century as she tries to solve the fundamental riddle of Newtonian physics. Under Egla Hassan’s deft direction, Sterling Hurst also excelled as Emilie’s dashing and dangerous partner, Voltaire.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE (PlayMakers Repertory Company) In this still-too-timely Paula Vogel revival, sexual-abuse survivor Li’l Bit (a riveting Julia Gibson) needed every square foot of designer Jan Chambers’s cavernous storage-unit set to store and then unpack a lifetime of conflicted memories and feelings for her damaged Uncle Peck (Jeffrey Blair Cornell).
WHITE (Bulldog Ensemble Theater) What made this intersectional critique of the privilege and power dynamics that fuel the exploitation and erasure of African-American artists so strikingly meta? In the real world, transfigured lead actor Monèt Noelle Marshall had spent the previous year challenging the same issues (in her Buy It/Call It trilogy) that her character did in this razor-sharp comedy.
A WOMAN (Women’s Theatre Festival) When two old friends stood across gender and power divides and contemplated the same injustice—the Presbyterian church’s longstanding policy against female elders in its leadership—the resulting fight for the soul of a faith (brought to vivid life by Tamara Farias and Steve Roten) placed Chris Cragin-Day’s cerebral play in the company of Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn.
POOLED (Li V Mahob Productions) Moses T. Alexander Greene’s controversial but soulful play, a hit at the National Black Theatre Festival, updated the conventions of the gospel musical genre in its depiction of people in need of healing from problems that faith-based shows have traditionally considered too hot to handle.
THE ROOMMATE (Bulldog Ensemble Theater) The lengthy list of worthy female actors in need of starring vehicles got a long-delayed check mark when Madeleine Pabis played an enigmatic grifter slowly seduced into revealing the tricks of the trade to Julie Oliver’s character, a retiree no longer interested in being “Midwestern nice.”
SERIAL (Sonorous Road Theatre) Sometimes it all comes together. In this standout from an otherwise-shaky Open Doors Short Play Festival, newcomer Supriya Jaya’s up-to-the-minute script, Noelle Barnard Azarelo’s nuanced direction, and fine performances by Emily Levinstone and Sarah Richardson turned a deceptively cozy one-act domestic comedy into a delicate inquiry into murder’s role in modern relationships.
INFINITE POSSIBILITIES (Ward Theatre Company) After the initial punchlines faded in this send-up of wellness resorts for the well-to-do, sharply defined characters whose real-world hurts made them a lot less ridiculous inhabited an ensemble-devised work reminiscent of improvised filmmakers Christopher Guest and Robert Altman.
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