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Atlanta theaters weather the misfortunes of 2000

"Bloodied but unbowed" might be an overly dramatic way to describe Atlanta theater at the end of 2000. True, our playhouses did collectively endure misfortunes and departures over and above the usual challenges in staging live theater in an often indifferent city. But as if energized by the various mishaps, Atlanta theater prevailed to provide a year of vital and creative work, impressive across the board. (My own Top 10 list of favorite plays are boldfaced.)

Unexpected problems come with the territory of live theater, but 2000 seemed to have more than its share of canceled productions, replaced performers and valued artists moving on to different cities, including the bombshell that Kenny Leon's current season as the Alliance Theatre's artistic director will be his last.

Several theaters faced dire funding problems, and recently Jomandi Productions, citing fundraising difficulties, postponed until probably next fall its planned production of Yo Alice, a hip-hop version of Alice in Wonderland, and canceled the Ruby Dee one-woman show My One Good Nerve that had been scheduled for February. Last spring, Jomandi cut short its 1999-2000 season, citing financial difficulties.

Perhaps the highest-profile substitute was Nancy Linehan Charles, who stepped into the difficult lead role of Margaret Edson's Wit when illness removed Susan Kellerman from the Alliance Studio production, which had no understudy in place. In a triumph over adversity, Wit saw an extended run and proved the year's most rich and remarkable play, a brilliant balance of cerebral concepts and wrenching emotional content proving why Wit won last year's Pulitzer and has been staged across the nation.

The Alliance Studio, newly renamed the Hertz Stage, followed up Wit with this year's Pulitzer-winning play by Donald Margulies, Dinner With Friends, which portrays exploded preconceptions and strained relationships when one pair of spouses witnesses the disintegrating marriage of two friends. Jessica Phelps West has emerged as one of Atlanta's most reliable directors, maintaining a three-for-three record by directing Wit, Dinner With Friends and Theatre in the Square's thoroughly entertaining Master Class.

Actor's Express artistic director Chris Coleman relocated to Portland this year, but had a kind of valediction at the Alliance Theatre's main stage with a lavish, richly played production of Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw's cerebral comedy of manners. Kudos to the Alliance for staging classics by Shaw and Eugene O'Neill (Leon's beautiful final play for the theater's main stage, A Moon for the Misbegotten), and credit to Theatre Emory for mounting Shaw's thorny, rarely produced, seven-hour epic Back to Methuselah.

One of the last plays in Coleman's tenure at Actor's Express was the marvelous musical Violet, with Rebekah Baty shining as a scarred young woman seeking to rise above her disfigurement in the turbulent South of 1964. A new era started at the Express with the arrival of artistic director Wier Harman, who announced himself with flair with The Illusion, Tony Kushner's magical, imaginative adaptation of Pierre Corneille's play. The Illusion's tribute to the powers of theatricality itself helped affirm Atlanta theater's ability to survive and adapt as a whole.

The year 2000 saw several plays that specifically reflected Atlanta history, including Theatre in the Square's presentation of The Lynching of Leo Frank, the local premiere of Alfred Uhry's musical treatment of the Frank Case, Parade, and Rebecca Ranson's A Glorietta at 7 Stages, which dramatizes the demographic changes in the Kirkwood neighborhood.

Amid the comings and goings, the disasters and successes, the city's theatrical troupes kept their sense of humor. In fact, one of the trends of the past year must be Atlanta theater's flair for creating, cultivating and reviving quality comedy scripts. Perhaps the most outlandish was the Dad's Garage production of Action Movie: The Play, an homage to shoot-'em-ups with an onstage car chase, alligator attacks and fight choreography so spirited that it left action hero George Faughnan literally spitting a tooth at one performance.

One expects light-hearted laughs from Dad's Garage, which also enjoyed a coup this year by staging the world premiere of Graham Chapman's O Happy Day!. It's more surprising to find irreverent media references in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Yet John Stephens' adaptation for Theatre Gael reimagined the tales in forms ranging from medical soap opera to spaghetti Western, and featured the year's most hilarious ensemble cast.

In 2000, puppeteer Jon Ludwig launched two terrific originals at the Center for Puppetry Arts, beginning in January with the batty botany of The Plant Doctors, a musical medical story set in the vegetable kingdom and aimed at all audiences. Then in July, Ludwig gave Shakespeare a smackdown with Wrestling Macbeth, an uproarious hybrid of "the Scottish Play" and professional wrestling, overflowing with bawdy jokes, Shakespearean puns and audience participation. Though aimed at different ages, The Plant Doctors and Wrestling Macbeth share a remarkably imaginative design sensibility, suggesting the Center for Puppetry Arts is overdue for one of those MacArthur Genius Grants.

Horizon Theatre's New South for the New Century festival featured perhaps the find of the season with the world premiere of Hilly Hicks' A Hole in the Dark, which addressed America's legacy of slavery and racial guilt with black humor -- both literally and figuratively. With a topsy-turvy treatment of character and history and racial complications worthy of William Faulkner, A Hole in the Dark could be just as easily be called The Sound and the Funny.

And given the often stormy conditions of the past year, you could label Atlanta theater of 2000 the same way.

Top 20 productions of 2000

1. Wit, Alliance Studio

2. Wrestling Macbeth, The Center for Puppetry Arts

3. Action Movie: The Play, Dad's Garage Theatre Co.

4. Violet, Actor's Express

5. A Hole in the Dark, Horizon Theatre

6. The Illusion, Actor's Express

7. The Plant Doctors, The Center for Puppetry Arts

8. Dinner With Friends, Hertz Stage

9. The Canterbury Tales, Theatre Gael

10. Heartbreak House, Alliance Theatre

11. Master Class, Theatre in the Square

12. Shadowlands, Alliance Theatre

13. Images in Smoke, Essential Theatre

14. The Lonesome West, Horizon Theatre

15. Tartuffe, Georgia Shakespeare Festival

16. Richard 2, Georgia Shakespeare Festival

17. A Moon for the Misbegotten, Alliance Theatre

18. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Georgia Shakespeare Festival

19. "Personal Care

, or The Secret Life of the Proletariat" from Holiday on Thin Ice, PushPush Theater

20. "The Strip," from 8 1/2 x 11, at Dad's Garage Theatre Company.

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