Year’s biggest news was loss of 3 theater companies

South Florida’s year in theater in 2012 was marked by gain and loss. On the plus side, artists pushed and challenged themselves, the region’s playwrights crafted a number of impressive (and often funny) world premieres, and the production of Pulitzer Prize-winning works led to many of the year’s richest theater experiences. The most devastating minus was the loss of three important local companies — and, by extension, dozens of jobs and hundreds of engaging nights at those theaters.

Certainly, Broadway shows are a first choice for many theater lovers, and the best of 2012 were The Lion King at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and Billy Elliot and South Pacific at the Broward Center. Spanish-language theater got a boost this year with the University of Miami’s festival celebrating Cuban playwright Virgilio Piñera and the shipping-container microtheater productions at Centro Cultural Español, in addition to the annual International Hispanic Theatre Festival and the locally focused TEMFest. Mad Cat blurred artistic boundaries with Paul Tei and Jessica Farr’s 21st century take on a Shakespeare classic, The Hamlet Dog and Pony Show. And the Arsht gave its summer audiences another splashy theater-as-event experience in The Donkey Show.

There’s nothing wrong with touring productions (I, for one, can’t wait to see War Horse at the Broward Center in May). But what makes South Florida theater distinctive, what gives its partisans reasons for pride and worry, are its local productions. Here, in random order, are the top shows, playwrights, developments and trends of 2012.

1. Sometimes, the most significant events aren’t happy ones. South Florida lost three important theater companies in 2012, two of them from an already theater-sparse Broward County. The reasons for each closing differed — burnout, fund-raising fatigue, debt, personal concerns. But the loss of Davie’s Promethean Theatre in March, Boca Raton’s 37-year-old Caldwell Theatre Company after Working closed April 1 and the shutdown of Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre this month means three fewer first-rate companies in the region — and three fewer places for top-tier talent to work.

2. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined finally made its way to South Florida in an enlightening, moving, devastating production by GableStage in September. Artistic director Joseph Adler’s much-honored company had a typically strong and impressively acted 2012 lineup, one that included Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker With the Hat in January, Keth Huff’s A Steady Rain in March and Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still in May. But the actresses playing the women of Ruined — Lela Elam, Renata Eastlick, Jade Wheeler and Trenell Mooring — illuminated what it means to be female in war-torn Congo with an artistry that was simply haunting.

3. Actors’ Playhouse began 2012 with its superb production of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. Jodie Langel was brilliant as Diana, a wife and mother with bipolar disorder, a woman whose personal losses just keep piling up. The rock-driven score and serious subject made for unusually riveting musical theater. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Paul Louis and Nick Santa Maria’s guy-friendly world premiere revue Real Men Sing Show Tunes…and play with puppets creatively married comedy, insight and poignant moments (not to mentioned a “mixed” cast of humans and puppets) to emerge as a show with a future.

4. Miami’s Arsht Center continues to encourage and support smaller-scale theater through its Theater Up Close series in the Carnival Studio Theater. April brought two terrific productions, first the world premiere of Michael McKeever’s set-in-1962 Miami Moscow for Zoetic Stage, then the return of Chicago’s House Theatre with Death and Harry Houdini, starring the charismatic actor-magician Dennis Watkins as the legendary illusionist.

5. Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami Lakes continued the hot streak started by David Michael Sirois’ Brothers Beckett in 2011 with another Sirois original, Off Center of Nowhere, in March, followed by two plays written by Sirois’ best bud and fellow New World School of the Arts grad, Mark Della Ventura. With his solo show Small Membership in June and his multi-character roomie s in November, Della Ventura proved himself a clever, funny writer adept at mining the lives and angst of people in their 20s. Catch the the playwright pals onstage in March when the Arsht presents a new production of Brothers Beckett as part of Theater Up Close.

6. Speaking of an exciting new voice, Kim Ehly channeled some of her life and lots of imagination into her play Baby GirL, which debuted at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage in July in a production by Ehly’s new Kutumba Theatre Project. Lindsey Forgey gave a warm, funny, touching performance as Ashley, a young lesbian whose search for her authentic self includes seeking out her birth parents and embracing her sexual orientation. Ehly’s writing is smart and insightful, quirky and real. Both she and Baby GirL seem headed for bigger things.

7. Tom Wahl’s October performance as German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Zoetic Stage’s I Am My Own Wife at the Arsht was an intricately detailed example of an actor soaring to match the most challenging role of his career. Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a man who survived the Nazis and the East German communists in a dress, pearls and sensible shoes had the actor making instant shifts to play nearly three dozen male and female characters. For Zoetic and Wahl, the production was a confirmation of excellence.

8. Naked Stage’s Antonio Amadeo gave himself a test by writing, directing, designing and acting in his world premiere piece A Man Puts on a Play at Barry University’s Pelican Theatre in November. Deconstructing the process of creating a show, Amadeo made things harder by designing an attic set that was assembled in front of the audience at each performance, which included an intense family drama as the show’s second act. All in all, it was a fascinating inside-baseball look at an artist’s obsessive creativity and his personal tradeoffs. Oh, and earlier in the season, Amadeo gave a shattering and intense performance (with an equally impressive Andrew Wind and a frightening Alex Alvarez) in Craig Wright’s The Unseen, the March swan song for The Promethean Theatre.

9. Stephanie Ansin has had a good thing going for years with her Miami Shores-based PlayGround Theatre, but this year the artistic director and playwright has transformed rebranded Miami Theater Center into a multifaceted arts space, one that includes main stage and black box performances for adults, the company’s beautifully realized productions for family audiences, classes for adults and children, and O Cinema bringing movies back to Miami Shores. The imaginative, wildly creative Ansin-Fernando Calzadilla adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters in November-December should leave grownup theater fans hungry to see what’s next.

10. Though Palm Beach County isn’t around the corner for theater lovers in Miami-Dade and Broward, the reliably strong work at Slow Burn Theatre in Boca Raton, Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre almost always justifies a road trip. Right now, you can see a thrilling demonstration of great acting in Dramaworks’ production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. You just missed Matt Loehr’s star turn as a dancing Harold Hill in Maltz’s The Music Man. And Slow Burn, which did a hot, impressive production of Avenue Q in October, will next tackle the rarely produced musical Side Show.

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