Boston's best: Theater companies
Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Prologue: The members of Actors’ Shakespeare Project know better than anyone that classic theater, if it’s worth the name, never gets old. Founded in 2004 by a group of professional actors looking to put up lively, innovative adaptations of the Bard’s works, ASP is an itinerant company that performs in venues all over town—ranging from Fort Point’s Midway Studios to a converted space underneath the Garage in Harvard Square.
What to expect: The ASP’s actor-centric productions usually involve a twist on the play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a 19th-century magic show, Henry V with only five performers or an all-male Titus Andronicus.
American Repertory Theatre
Prologue: Since its inception in 1980, the Harvard University-housed A.R.T. has been one of the most wave-making regional theaters in the country. Ever since Tony nominee Diane Paulus took the reins of the artist direction, productions have skewed toward younger crowds and audience immersion. In a town where the central theater audience is often 50 and up, it’s a welcome change.
What to expect: There’s always something gorgeous or befuddling on tap here, where arty provocation is the order of the day. In addition to their own shows—world premieres like Johnny Baseball and re-imagined classics like Chekov’s The Seagull—the A.R.T. also sometimes hosts cutting-edge outsider companies like New York’s Elevator Repair Service and London’s Punchdrunk. Second space Oberon is home to The Donkey Show, their glitter-disco adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Harvard Square, Cambridge (617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheatre.org); Oberon, 2 Arrow St, Harvard Square, Cambridge (617-495-2668,cluboberon.com)
ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage
Prologue: The moniker “Theater District” has become something of a sad irony; the Downtown neighborhood is full of opulent playhouses, sure, but they generally host only the most commercial touring theater productions. Enter ArtsEmerson. Not only did the Emerson College-backed initiative reopen and restore the long-shuttered Paramount Center to its former Art Deco glory, but executive director Robert Orchard is bringing in both theater legends and brilliant fringe companies from all over the world to perform.
What to expect: ArtsEmerson started off with a bang with the world premiere staging of the Tectonic Theater Project’s much-anticipated sequel to The Laramie Project. Three stages (two at the Paramount plus the Cutler Majestic Theatre) mean that ArtsEmerson can bring in both adventurous young companies like Austin Texas’ Rude Mechanicals and seasoned luminaries like British directing superstar Peter Brook.
Paramount Center, 560 Washington St, Theater District, Boston; Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St, Theater District, Boston (617-824-8000, artsemerson.org)
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Prologue: Since its inception in 1981, the BPT has been an incubator for emerging playwrights. The company puts up new works by local up-and-comers—many graduates of Boston University's Playwriting MFA program. That means more world premieres per capita than any other theater in town. Though these fresh-out-of-the-gate scripts can sometimes be a little rough, the company welcomes audience feedback. Being a guinea pig can be fun, we swear.
What to expect: In addition to works by noobs, the BPT has also put up shows by local greats like Ronan Noone (Little Black Dress) and the late Howard Zinn (Daughter of Venus). The company also organizes the annual Boston Theater Marathon.
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave, Allston (617-353-5443; bu.edu/bpt)
Prologue: Perhaps no other troupe in town has done more to bring the under-35 crowd into local theater than Company One. Founded in 1998 by six theater artists bored with the status quo, Company One has consistently dedicated itself to pushing boundaries and tackling current social issues through its shows. The troupe is also all about diversity, presenting an impressive breadth of work by and starring minority artists.
What to expect: Artistic director Shawn LaCount is a big fan of issue-driven plays (Lydia Diamond’s race and gender treatise Voyeurs de Venus), sharp comedies (Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch) and literary adaptations (Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake). The company also produces original work like collaborative spoken word piece ARTiculation and comic book confessional The Superheroine Monologues.
BCA Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St, South End, Boston (617-933-8600; companyone.org)
The Gold Dust Orphans
Prologue: We’re so very glad that the Gold Dust Orphans exist. If any area troupe is going to leave an indelible mark on your memory, it’s this merry band of drag performers. Local playwright/actor/gay icon Ryan Landry pens and stars in the Orphans’ hilarious drag reduxes of classic theater, film and literature.What to expect: Landry’s past works have included Death of a Saleslady, Phantom of the Oprahand Willy Wanker and the Hershey Highway. Look forward to fabulous costumes and wigs, filthy jokes and plenty of local flavor. All this is performed, no less, on a makeshift stage in the basement of a leather bar.
Huntington Theatre Company
Prologue: The Huntington is one of Boston’s biggest-name companies. Founded in 1982, the Boston University-affiliated troupe has earned a reputation for polish and quality. Many big-name playwrights, actors and directors have thrown their lot in with the Huntington over the years, including Nathan Lane, Carrie Fisher, Phylicia Rashad and August Wilson.
What to expect: Current artistic director Peter DuBois has been scheduling a decent mix of new plays (by up-and-comers like Lydia R. Diamond and Gina Gionfriddo) and classics (Arthur Miller’sAll My Sons, Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green). The Huntington has had some missteps, but when the company is on, it’s really on. And no matter the play, the production values are consistently incredible—in a recent show, a steady snow fell onstage for an entire act.
Boston University Theatre, 246 Huntington Ave, Back Bay, Boston; Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 539 Tremont St, South End, Boston (617-266-0800; huntingtontheatre.org)
Prologue: Of all Boston’s fringe theater collectives, these guys are unabashedly the fringiest. Performing in only the tiniest performance spaces, Imaginary Beasts turn whatever stage they’re on into a playground. Their collaboratively-created labors of love are twisting non-sequitur works that leave you feeling delighted without being entirely sure what you just saw.
What to expect: Imaginary Beasts often draw inspiration from literature and children’s games. Past works have included abstract adaptations of Lewis Carroll (Impossible Things), Gertrude Stein (Look and Long) and Federico García Lorca (Dream of Life).
Lyric Stage Company
Prologue: The Lyric isn’t your guy for cutting-edge, although the company sometimes trots off an Off-Broadway think piece now and again. No, the Lyric is your man for classics, musicals and sundry rip-roaring tales. Founded in 1974 just off Copley Square, the company is currently under the grandiose leadership of Spiro Veloudos.
What to expect: Though Lyric does an impressive job with small-scale pieces like Joan Didion’sThe Year of Magical Thinking, Veloudos is mainly about Theatrics with a capital T. Witness the Lyric’s impressive productions of two-part giant The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and musicals like Sondheim’s Follies and Leigh and Darion’s Man of La Mancha.
Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St, Copley Square, Boston (617-585-5678; lyricstage.com)
New Repertory Theatre
Prologue: The New Rep has been through a lot. In the past five years, the company has relocated the homebase and shifted artistic leadership—both pulled off with nary a hiccup in the quality of its shows. It’s now in a choice space in Watertown’s Arsenal Center for the Arts (never fear, car-less masses—the 70 bus will get you there) and under the artistic direction of Atlanta, Georgia’s ex-helmslady of improv, Kate Warner.
What to expect: With both a main stage and a black box space, the New Rep puts on a healthy combo of subscriber-pleasing classics and newer works by the likes of Irish badass Martin McDonagh (The Lieutenant of Inishmore), groundbreaker Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House), and even David Sedaris (The Santaland Diaries).
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St, Watertown (617-923-8487, newrep.org)
Nora Theatre Company/Underground Railway Theatre
Prologue: For years, these two solid local troupes had no space to call their own. But they made waves in 2008 when they pooled their resources to create a shared space, the Central Square Theater. The partnership has allowed both troupes—the experimental URT and the more traditional Nora (named for Ibsen’s heroine)—to spread their wings. URT has also joined forces with nearby MIT to put up sciences-meets-art plays as the Catalyst Collaborative.
What to expect: The Nora puts up sturdily-acted productions of both classics like Sam Shepard’sBuried Child and luminous newer works like Masha Obolensky’s Not Enough Air. URT is all about playfulness, mounting out-there shows like States of Grace, a puppet-and-human adaptation of Grace Paley’s short stories.
Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave, Central Square, Cambridge (617-576-9278;centralsquaretheater.org)
Prologue: Orfeo Group is one of those perfect storms of situations that you always hope to find, but seldom do: a collective of well-regarded local actors coming together to present small-scale, big-idea theater that’s as affordable as possible. Company members like Georgia Lyman, Daniel Berger-Jones and Gabriel Kuttner usually perform with bigger companies in town; Orfeo is what they do on the side, out of a pure passion for getting more good theater out to the city.
What to expect: The itinerant Orfeo has impressed with a free production of John Osborne classic Look Back in Anger and an experimental-as-hell take on Pierre Marivaux’s The Island of Slaves. But maybe their coolest gambit was an outdoor production of Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) that brought together cheap theater, barbeque and graffiti under one glorious summer sky.
Prologue: Founded in 1971, the Publick Theatre has long been known for its al fresco summertime productions in Brighton’s Christian Herter Park. In recent seasons, however, technical issues with the open-air space have driven the company indoors—and the change suits the Publick. Close-quartered productions at the BCA Plaza Theatre have helped to showcase artistic director Diego Arciniegas’ flair for more intimate work.
What to expect: The Publick’s selection of shows tend toward intelligence and wit. Wordy masterpieces like Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy and Joe Orton’sEntertaining Mr. Sloane have made ideal showcases for the troupe’s impressive stable of local talent.
BCA Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St, South End, Boston (617-933-8600, publicktheatre.com)
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Prologue: At 20 years old, SpeakEasy Stage Company is showing no signs of losing its spark. The productions are nearly always top-of-the-line, combining the talents of the best directors, actors and designers Boston has to offer. They’ve held down a residency at the Boston Center for the Arts since 1997, presenting a combo of the funny, the groundbreaking and the truly wrenching.
What to expect: SpeakEasy is the place for area premieres of Off-Broadway exports (The Vibrator Play, Fat Pig) and some honest-to-Dionysus high-quality musicals ([title of show], Adding Machine). Their 2009 production of David Harrower’s Blackbird was the most intense onstage showdown we’ve seen in a long while.
Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St, South End, Boston (617-933-8600, speakeasystage.com)
Prologue: This company may be based in the 'burbs, but they put on some of the coolest and consistently high-quality productions this side of Route 93. Vintage movie bills on the wall point to the Stoneham's past life as a movie theater (cerca 1917), as does the non-raked audience seating.
What to expect: The Stoneham puts on a healthy mix of classics and area premieres, performed by top-notch local actors. They've also begun to bring in innovative visiting companies from out of town, like New York's the Essentials (Perfect Harmony) and The House Theatre of Chicago (The Sparrow). Believe us—it's worth the drive.
Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St, Stoneham (781-279-2200; stonehamtheatre.org)
Zeitgeist Stage Company
Prologue: You can call Zeitgeist a lot of things, but unambitious isn’t one. Founded in 2003, David J. Miller’s company stages large-scale shows in the BCA Plaza Black Box, one of Boston’s bittiest performance spaces. Miller both directs and designs the sets for Zeitgeist’s shows, so expect the all-encompassing. He’s conjured everything from a forest to the entire state of Kentucky in the 1,150 square-foot space. The troupe employs a mixture of pro and amateur actors, giving up-and-comers a chance to shine.
What to expect: Zeitgeist has staged classics like Edward Albee’s Seascape and Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, but the company’s passion is for current events: issue-driven shows like David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Lucy Prebble’s Enron are Zeitgeist’s stock and trade.
BCA Plaza Black Box, 539 Tremont St, South End, Boston (617-933-8600, zeitgeiststage.com)