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A tale of two lists: Favorite stage performances of 2012

<p>Breon Janay and Glenn Heath in &amp;#8220;Oleanna&amp;#8221; / Courtesy: DARIN GAROUETTE</p>Buy Photo

Breon Janay and Glenn Heath in &#8220;Oleanna&#8221; / Courtesy: DARIN GAROUETTE

<p>Thomas Chrastka, Cory Goble and Benjamin Loewy in &amp;#8220;November&amp;#8221; / Courtesy: RICHARD BRUSKY</p>

Thomas Chrastka, Cory Goble and Benjamin Loewy in &#8220;November&#8221; / Courtesy: RICHARD BRUSKY

We began 2012 with David McKee as CityLife’s theater critic and — because David went from reviewer to thespian this summer — end it with Kelle Schillaci picking up reviewing duties after a five-year hiatus. So we’re splitting the annual summary of theatrical bests between the two.

Act I

Joe Hynes does nothing halfway. He directed one of 2012’s worst shows (The Mineola Twins; Cockroach Theater) and its very best: Oleanna (RagTag Entertainment). David Mamet’s incendiary polemic pits freedom of thought against repression. Spoiler: Freedom loses. Hynes plotted a breathless, 70-minute stalk between predator and prey, keeping spectators on the edge of their seats and literally drawing gasps at the violent, cathartic climax. Glenn Heath gave a career-best performance as the preening, patronizing academic, while Breon Jenay’s intimidated student grew before our eyes from terrified mouse to remorseless tigress. Oleanna set the year’s standard.

Like a tidal wave of love, Troy Heard’s staging of The Great American Trailer Park Musical (Las Vegas Little Theatre), swept the lovable losers of muggy, buggy Armadillo Acres, Fla., to spiritually inspiring heights. These spirited skanks achieved an improbable state of grace as they learned to “Make like a nail/And press on.” David Sankuer’s exceptionally atmospheric set put you right at home, the versatile Kim Glover triumphed as potty-mouthed co-narrator Linoleum and Kelly Ward made agoraphobia endearing. Heard and choreographer Erin Marie Sullivan deified all five leading ladies (including Vicky Best, Jennifer King and Caitlin Shea) into disco divas for the show-stopping “Storm A-Brewin!” It’s not the best show I’ve seen Vegas … but it’s my favorite.

Imagine spending 30 minutes trapped in a room with a self-justifying murderer. Shane Cullum and director Gus Langley made that as profoundly disturbing as it sounds, in Neil LaBute’s Iphigenia in Orem (Olde English Productions). Cullum’s fearful, mean-spirited, creepily ingratiating cubicle rat wasn’t someone you’d friend on Facebook, but he ultimately inspired pity and horror alike. Pocket-sized Iphigenia ultimately dwarfed all other Fringe Festival offerings.

Before committing seppoku, Insurgo Theater Movement had one grand gesture remaining: Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. Brandon McClenahan’s staging created an eye-filling epic from a thin strip of stage, ingenious scenic effects and a mammoth array of the best actors in town. Norma Wood’s strangely sympathetic Mephistophilis was revelatory, and Tony Foresta terrified as Lucifer, even if protagonist Gary Lunn seemed more too-long-tenured professor than blasphemous alchemist. And playwright Maxim Lardent scored with Dick Johnson, Private Eye (Poor Richard’s Players), a loving evocation of radio serials, completely with wickedly witty jingles praising asbestos and cigarettes, penned by protean actor Benjamin Loewy. Propelled by Lysander Abadia’s dazzlingly precise staging and Arles Estes’ made-on-the-spot sound effects, Johnson was a hit, a palpable hit. DAVID MCKEE

Act II

In a heated election season that fatigued even the most diehard partisan, it was The Poor Richard’s Players that took that frustration to the stage, with a wisely chosen — and blisteringly funny — Mamet script. Under Lysander Abadia’s direction, Benjamin Loewy’s powerhouse performance as the desperate incumbent in November reminded us just how much all politicians suck in some way or another, no matter whose flag you wave on Election Day.

In a theater season filled with Hamlets, Table 8’s version featured an inspired cast — with Geo Nikols in the lead role — that poured their hearts into the tale of treachery, revenge and dysfunctional family drama. Troy Heard directed a uniquely abridged version of the famous play, jacking it up a bit for the masses to make it more accessible, without sacrificing its authenticity. After all, who’s to say Hamlet didn’t confess his love to Ophelia using a mixed tape?

Not only did Off-Strip Productions pull off a fully staged production of Sweeney Todd, the most famous cannibalistic Broadway musical (in the compact Onyx Theatre, no less), but the cast and crew, directed by Brandon Burk, accomplished a rare Vegas theater feat: They sold out several October weekends. It went so well, the demon barber and crew will reprise their roles for an encore run in January 2013, in case you missed it the first time. Tip: Don’t make the same mistake and bypass A Clockwork Orange, hitting the Onyx stage shortly thereafter.

It was the end of the world as we knew it, and Shane Cullum, Kristin Maki and Candi Elaine made us feel fine in Boom (Olde English Productions), which wins for best surprise of the season, and, sadly, one of the smallest audiences, at least during its Thanksgiving weekend run. The post-apocalyptic tale, directed by Gus Langley, may have tapped into the Mayan calendar fervor, but the play itself rose above the clichés to offer an entertaining event brimming with playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s sharp observations and clever wit.

The bright side of mental illness was showcased by Cockroach Theatre in what was arguably its best showing yet in their new Art Square Theatre space. Brandon Alan McClenahan, seen earlier in the season as Laertes in Table 8’s Hamlet, literally transformed himself to tackle the emotionally troubled lead in Love Song, a quirky tale of love, awakening and the power of imagination (or delusion, as the case may be), directed by Cockroach’s own Erik Amblad. KELLE SCHILLACI