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Best of 2005: Theater

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Richard Zoglin, TIME's Theater critic, has been on sabbatical since the summer. He has thus split this year's 10 Best list with his understudy, Richard Corliss.

1. PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES, by Alan Ayckbourn

Ayckbourn, the great British playwright who doesn't get enough respect in America, brought over his own Scarborough troupe to present the U.S. premiere of his chamber piece about the interconnections among six lonely London souls. Ayckbourn's delicate, understated direction showed, once again, that laughs are the least important thing in his vision of the sad comedy of ordinary lives. --R.Z.

2. KA, written and directed by Robert Lepage

There's no stage in KA, but it's great theater. Explain. OK. This martial-arts extravaganza from Cirque du Soleil (playing at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas) is performed on, and above, two revolving platforms. As the artists cavort on a boat, or fight a battle, or swing through a forest scene, the ground is literally moving under their feet. As conceived by Robert Lepage, the innovative Canadian writer-director, the $165 million action musical is unquestionably the most technically complex show ever devised, achieving marvels Broadway is too timid and strapped even to dream of. The first Cirque spectacle with a story line, KA traces the exploits of teenage twins separated from their parents and each other and encountering all manner of explosive mischief and beguiling romantic encounters. The plot, told without words, may be initially confounding, but KA works so magically on the visual, visceral and kinetic levels that an attentive viewer can feel the show's meaning. Seeing the show for the first time is like falling in love with a beautiful person who speaks another language: you miss the shadings but get the passion. Guiding your emotions is RenÚ DupÚrÚ's rich, throbbingly romantic music — easily the year's best new score. Sumptuous music, an engaging story, jaw-dropping visual grandeur... KA is what I said: great theater. --R.C.

3. THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, by Stephen Adly Guiggis

The disciple who betrayed Christ goes on trial, and his character witnesses range from Sigmund Freud to Satan himself. Guirgis's Shavian fantasy is not a jokey stunt, but a bold, blasphemous examination of the notion of forgiveness. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed a riveting -- and unjustly ignored -- production for off-Broadway's Labyrinth theater, sparked by Eric Bogosian's slick turn as the Devil. --R.Z.

4. THE WOMAN IN WHITE, book by Charlotte Jones, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by David Zippel

The critics have mostly sniffed at what they perceive as another laboriously lush Lloyd Webber score and clumsy lyrics from the usually clever Zippel. Agreed, agreed, and doesn't matter. What's impressive about this adaptation of the Wilkie Collins mystery novel is how it moves. I don't refer only to the patented Trevor Nunn turntable that, for about the 18th time since the director used it in Les MisÚrables, forces the actors to scamper around the stage like rats on a treadmill. I mean the moving scenery: all video projections by designer William Dudley. In your theater seat, you are the eye of a whirling film camera that soars over the rugged or ravishing Cumberland countryside, that takes you into Limmeridge House and through all its haunted rooms, that mimics a dozen mid-19th century paintings while curling and circling in the glamorously kinetic style of film directors Max Ophuls and Miklos Jancso. Dudley worked similar magic on the London productions of The Coast of Utopia and Hitchcock Blonde, but never on so ambitious a scale or to such vertiginous effect. Gimmick, or foretaste off theater's future? Either way, it kept me enthralled. The Woman in White is not a great musical, but it's a sensational movie. --R.C.

5. THE PILLOWMAN, by Martin McDonagh

Anyone worried that Broadway has no room for anything but tourist-friendly comfort food could only marvel at the arrival of this hair-raising drama from McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane). A writer of sadistic children's stories is thrown into prison on suspicion of committing a string of grisly child murders, in a play so intense and disturbing that some critics (and many in the audience) tried to pass it off as a comedy. It isn't. --R.Z.

6. SEASCAPE, by Edward Albee

Albee's Lifetime Achievement award at this year's Tonys certified the restoration of his career. The international success of his 2001 play The Goat, or: Who Is Sylvia, and strong Broadway revivals of his Pulitzer Prize-winners A Delicate Balance and Seascape (which both have run longer than the original productions), assure that the playwright, now 76, will not be remembered exclusively as the kid who wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (also smartly revived this year). In Seascape, the beach banter of an aging couple is interrupted by the appearance of two visitors from the sea: reptiles, the first in their class to reach land. Contact, of an edgily entertaining sort, ensues. It's a treat to see the pitch-perfect work of two grand troupers: Frances Sternhagen, hopping about like a perky tern, and George Grizzard (Nick in the original 1962 production of Virginia Woolf), who's equally convincing as either a cranky-adorable coot or a statesmen to the lizard world. As seascapes should be, this one is sunny and genial — the lightest of Albee's plays, by which I mean not the least substantial but the most buoyant. --R.C.

7. THE 35TH ANNUAL PIUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, book by Rachel Sheinkin, songs by William Finn

Seven kids, and a few audience memers, turn a spelling competition into a life lesson in this rambunctious musical. A few of the cast memers get carried away with cuteness (a little leth lithping would be nice), but the show is inventive and charming, and Finn's score, in a beautiful second act number in which one girl recounts her history of family dysfuncion, soars from the silly to the sublime. --R.Z.

8. MISS WITHERSPOON, by Chistopher Durang

If there's a circle of Hell — or Heaven — for comic misanthropes, Durang would reign (or serve) there. The author of many zippy sitcoms about domestic and social outrages now turns his thoughts to the afterlife, in an endearingly meditative farce about Veronica, a depressive woman who commits suicide in the year 2000 ("At least I got to miss 9/11") and lands in a sort of limbo, where she is reincarnated as, among other things, an abused child and a dog. Veronica is played by the dimpled Kristine Nielsen, whose performance is less depressive than manic; she orates her grudges with the gale force of one of those crazy people who enters a crowded subway car and shouts her conviction that the end is nigh into the ear of the nearest standee. But Nielsen gets the message across: that, whatever our scarred life histories, we ultimately make our own heaven or hell. At 56, Durang is exactly twice as old he was when he wrote his nunsploitation comic diatribe Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a pleasure to note that he hasn't lost his screwball. At the beginning of the new play an unseen voice warns the audience that there are five obscenities in the play. "All the other words are nice." They are, and pertinent and funny too. —R.C.

9. ORSON'S SHADOW, by Austin Pendleton

This play, about a notorious, disastrous teaming of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, is that rarity, a behind-the-scenes look at famous people that acually rings true. An account of Welles' attempt to direct Olivier in a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros is not just good showbiz dish but a real insight into two strains of artistic ego. --R.Z.

10. DARLING OF THE DAY, by Jule Styne and E.Y. Harburg, and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, by Joe Raposo and Sheldon Harnick, in concert revivals

Broadway has become so reliant on unearthing old musicals (there are four running right now) that it could be a zombie movie — The Night of the Singing Dead. Truth is, the old shows were better, including some that had short runs or none at all. Fortunately, there's a crusading archival interest (fomented by the City Centers Encores! series) to put on concert versions of neglected antiques, and a wealth of performing talent to give them life. This year I saw two terrific concert productions: one modest, one large, both grand. The 1968 Darling of the Day had a lovely score, but this adaptation of Arnold Bennett's novel Buried Alive practically was: it closed after just 31 performances. The Musicals in Mufti revival in April captured the show's wit and plaintive warmth, wreathing the audience in nonstop smiles. I also loved the Actors' Fund production of It's a Wonderful Life, a musical of the Frank Capra movie. First staged in 1986, the show never got to Broadway, until last week, with a luminous cast led by Brian Stokes Mitchell as George Bailey, Phylicia Rashad as his mother, Judy Kuhn as his wife, David Hyde Pierce as Clarence and Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior from The Sopranos) as Mr. Potter. It was directed (by Carl Andress) and choreographed (by Denis Jones) with the artful assurance that spills across the footlights on the opening night of a hit show. But this was a one-time-only event, a reminder that, in the evanescent art form that is live theater (and certainly in revival theater), folks, ya gotta be there. --R.C.