Curt Holman picks the best in Atlanta plays for 2011 

August: Osage County leads Atlanta theaters' best work of the year

BUZZ WORTHY: Brenda Bynum (center) as the pill-popping diva matriarch Violet Weston in the Alliance Theatre's 2011 standout production of August: Osage County

Greg Mooney

BUZZ WORTHY: Brenda Bynum (center) as the pill-popping diva matriarch Violet Weston in the Alliance Theatre's 2011 standout production of August: Osage County

Any retrospective on the year in Atlanta theater should begin with the Alliance Theatre's August: Osage County, which will likely deserve top billing in any "Decade in Atlanta Theater" pieces in 2020. The Alliance's Susan V. Booth directed an all-local cast, including the artistic directors of 7 Stages and Georgia Shakespeare, in Tracy Letts' epic-length family drama. Brenda Bynum came out of retirement for a vigorous performance of a vicious, drug-addled matriarch.

The Alliance took a friendlier look at families and childhood by way of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's 25-year-old take on classic storybooks. Also directed by Booth, Woods was so wise and luminous that it put to shame the recent fairy tale revisionism on both the big and small screens.

Many of the year's most impressive productions took bold creative steps in the face of difficult economic conditions. The Alliance Hertz Stage directly addressed the Great Recession via the world premiere of Janece Shaffer's Broke, which overcame a silly second-act plot twist to explore the devastating repercussions of economic collapse on a privileged Atlanta family. The Hertz also staged the world premiere of David Mitchell Robinson's Carapace, the almost agonizing depiction of an alcoholic father's attempt to reconnect with his grown daughter on her birthday, and the most powerful play yet to emerge from the Alliance's annual Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition.

Other playwrights used their own lives as material for remarkably candid new scripts. Puppeteer Michael Haverty explored the artwork and mental illness of his late mother with Haverty Marionettes' The Colour of Her Dreams, an avant-garde but powerful series of tableaux combining biography with Alice in Wonderland. At Dad's Garage Top Shelf, Mike Schatz juxtaposed his success as a comedic performer with his moth-to-the-flame attraction to strip clubs in VIP Room. In Synchronicity Theatre's Feet First in the Water With a Baby in My Teeth, new mom Megan Gogerty ruefully revealed how having an infant all but destroyed her individuality and feminist ideals.

Some of the area's most financially beleaguered theaters staged the most entertaining shows. Marietta's Theater in the Square, which remains in the midst of a high-pressure fundraising campaign, started 2011 with the rollicking, quick-change thriller The 39 Steps. Actor's Express succeeded with a similarly dire money-raising appeal, which cast no shadows over its fascinating spring musical See What I Wanna See or its exuberant season opener Spring Awakening. Fortunately the latter play's self-deprecating youth anthem "Totally Fucked" does not describe the company's bank balance.

Some of the year's most memorable productions delivered exciting forms of spectacle. The touring show Cavalia: Odysseo spares no expense to craft magical images, culminating with untethered horses racing across a flooded stage. In contrast, Serenbe Playhouse took advantage of its natural resources for the more low-key charms of The Ugly Duckling, performed in and around a pond against a backdrop of rolling farmland. Out of Hand Theater may have hinted at the future of theatrical effects with Group Intelligence, an interactive MP3 experiment that sent participants all over Emory's campus in a metaphor for molecular behavior.

The Shakespeare Tavern won scholarly renown for the local theater scene by becoming the only playhouse in America to stage the full canon of plays written or co-written by William Shakespeare. Atlanta's regular theater-goers seem to have most enjoyed the "Sesame Street" parody Avenue Q, which led this year's Suzi Bass Awards for local theater with seven honors. I missed Avenue Q, but will get a second chance to see it when Horizon Theatre remounts the production beginning Jan. 13.

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