The best of 2014 in local theater

BUCCANEERS AND BURIED GOLD: Treasure Island at Parkway Playhouse had every audience member feeling like a giddy 12-year-old kid. Photo courtesy of the theater company

There’s an old saying that goes, “Theater has been failing for thousands of years.” The mid-2000s saw some lean times for the arts, and many theater organizations have struggled to maintain, reinvent and grow new audiences. But 2014 felt like a page had turned for the better on most counts. The arts in general (and theater more specifically) in Asheville and the surrounding region have been experiencing a renaissance. This year brought a large number of quality shows, and attendance appeared to be up in the majority of theaters.

I’ve often said (and stand by the theory) that without a strong theater and arts community here, there would have never been a base for the Beer City culture to take root. I only wish that theater shared the same level of across-the-board support and encouragement. It’s a special thing when a performance, an ensemble or a script can enrapture an audience with a transformative experience, and I’ve picked the five shows that did that for me.

Don’t Dress For Dinner

Don’t Dress For Dinner by N.C. Stage Company was a slice of comedy perfection. The pie-in-the-face farce production was so popular it was held over for an additional week. Charlie Flyn-McIver and Scott Treadway led a stellar cast in a riotous romp. N.C. Stage has earned its status as Asheville’s professional theater. In 2014, it continued its long string of hit shows and hosted a variety of other productions that ranged from A Conversation With Edith Head to the magic and mind reading show Impossibilities. Diversity and quality ruled the year at N.C. Stage.

RISKY BUSINESS: Don't Dress for Dinner starred Charlie Flyn-McIver and Scott Treadway. Photo courtesy of N.C. Stage
RISKY BUSINESS: Don’t Dress for Dinner starred Charlie Flyn-McIver and Scott Treadway. Photo courtesy of N.C. Stage

Promises

Promises was one of many original productions to grace the stage at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre during its 40th anniversary season. This Appalachian tale was a collaboration with the Screen Artists Co-op. It was masterfully directed by SAC founder Jon Menick and featured a pitch-perfect cast of stage and screen talent. SART has made its mission to seek out and produce new works during its long and illustrious run at the Owen Theater on the campus of Mars Hill College. The company faces a new challenge in 2015, as on-campus construction will cut off access to the facility. SART is going on the road for the year, accepting the challenge of reinvention after four decades of quality theater.

Treasure Island

Treasure Island is a classic tale that came to life in a full-force swashbuckling production at Parkway Playhouse in the fading days of summer. The show was a blend of stunts and scenery that made every audience member feel like a giddy 12-year-old kid. Producing Artistic Director Andrew Gall has built a solid theater community in Burnsville during his 10 years there, finding fun, inventive and unique ways to keep the audience excited and engaged. Summer 2014 was one of the playhouse’s most successful, according to Gall. A wide array of shows included the tight harmonies of Forever Plaid and the off-the-wall, all-star smash hit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

FALLING SLOWLY: Different Strokes' production of Next Fall challenged preconceived notions of religion, homosexuality, family and death. Photo courtesy of the theater company
FALLING SLOWLY: Different Strokes’ production of Next Fall challenged preconceived notions of religion, homosexuality, family and death. Photo courtesy of the theater company

 

Tartuffe

Tartuffe sparkled under the summer night sky at the Montford Park Players’ amphitheater. The production was a delightfully devilish teaming between the venerable outdoor Shakespeare company and The Magnetic Theatre. Steven Samuels directed and starred in the show and surrounded himself with some premier talent. The Montford Park Players are a gem in the Asheville arts scene. And Magnetic Theatre is boldly forging a new space in 2015, when the group will continue to push the envelope of original works.

Next Fall

My final pick of the year is Different Strokes’ powerful production of Next Fall. It was, quite simply, one of the most moving experiences I’ve had as an audience member. Scott Keel‘s direction of an ensemble of unmatched professionals left the viewers both moved to tears and profoundly changed by what they’d witnessed. In a stellar season of shows, Different Strokes helped redefine the very purpose of theater in Asheville and set a new standard of quality.

It was tough to narrow this list it to only five shows. Haywood Arts Regional Theatre continued its winning ways with crowd-pleasing productions in Waynesville, as did Flat Rock Playhouse with its strong slate of performances. Even the plucky Hendersonville Little Theatre continued to grow and flourish in 2014. And Asheville Community Theatre hit grand slams with Spamalot and The Addams Family. At every turn, 2014 brought quality theater throughout WNC, with the promise of bigger, brighter and even better offerings in the new year.

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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5 thoughts on “The best of 2014 in local theater

  1. Julia

    So much stellar theatre in this town! I am honored to have stage managed one of the productions chosen. I’m sure this article is going to get a lot of comments. I think any list of great theatre in 2014 would remiss in not mentioning Proof starring the always wonderful Trinity Smith and the amazingly talented, sorely missed late Jim Slautich in his final production. First rate directing by Scott Keel, powerful script, perfect supporting cast, wonderful sound and lights…everything came together.

    Other great shows include: God of Carnage, Spam-a-lot, Waiting for Godot, and The Bog.

  2. Jason W.

    Thanks Jeff for trying to push the Asheville theater scene a little further ahead in the regional arts scene. I hope we see more ongoing support of the theater in the upcoming year.

    It’s hard to see everything in the area, even for a reviewer, but here are a couple of other, in my opinion, outstanding 2014 shows that may have slipped through the cracks:
    Glengarry Glen Ross by DJCIII Productions – David Mamet’s caustic, dark comedy about swindling real estate agents really jumped off the page in this production due to stellar performances by an ensemble cast, and smart staging.

    Proof by Rarely Theater – A recent Asheville start-up theater company staged this powerful drama as their inaugural Asheville production. It featured an exceptionally tight ensemble cast, with some very moving performances. Look for their next production of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar this winter.

    Venus in Furs by Immediate Theater Project – ITP again proves that they put on some of the best theater in Asheville with their gripping production of David Ives Tony Award winning thriller. Hannah Sloat’s performance burned up the small stage at Stage Lane. Looking forward the their An Iliad in the spring.

    Animalia by Fox and Beggar Theater – Never have I seen something so ambitious and varied come together so spectacularly. Two captivating hours of remarkable physicality, and performance art at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater by many very talented Asheville performers and artists.

    The Bog by Magnetic Theater – a dark intense thriller from the mind of local poet/playwright Julian Vorus. The atmosphere was evocatively creepy and unsettling, the writing saturated with lyrical foreboding, and the performances were engrossing. Looking forward to John Crutchfield’s From the Intimate Journals of Jacob Higginbotham which should open up their 375 space in March.

    Greater Tuna by The Black Mountain Arts Canter’s Front Porch Theatre – Mondy Carter and Tom Chalmers, two of Asheville’s funniest performers, tackled this somewhat outdated, but extremely funny script, and turned it into a comedic touchdown. Some of the fastest quick changes I’ve seen on-stage. Surely some of the biggest laughs I’ve had this year.

    Coriolanus by Montford Park Players – In a year which saw 10 Shakespeare productions by various local companies, this production of Shakespeare’s “greatest tragedy you never heard” really stood out thanks to the remarkable performances by it’s leads, and an unique vision by director Scott Keel.

    Pontypool by Dark Horse Theatre – This quirky group’s work continues to grow. This radio-drama turned horror story, succeeded due to great storytelling, some fine performances by it’s ensemble actors, impressive design work, and the requisite gory effects. Look for their adaptation of Sexy Evil Genius in April.

    Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol by Ensemble Theatre/NC Stage – While in it’s third year, this show continues to prove why Michael MacCauley is one of Asheville’s most intense and talented actors. A two hour one-man-show that is never slow, uninspired, or static. Looking forward to seeing Michael in upcoming NC Stage productions of Annapurna and Amadeus.

    • jeff messer

      It was tough to pick the top 5, and I was limited to shows that I saw and reviewed in my time since late April with Mt X, thus a number of shows mentioned here, were not included for those reasons. We have a riches of great shows here, and it shows now signs of stopping.

  3. Sharkbear.org

    Oh, who are we kidding? All of the shows from Jan 1-Dec 31 were perfect. Let’s all grab a scotch and a standing O.

  4. Arnold Wengrow

    Ron Bashford’s production of Pericles at N.C. Stage was smartly conceived, imaginatively directed, and acted with great skill. One of the year’s best, maybe one of the decade’s best.

    Arnold Wengrow
    Contributing Editor
    Theatre Design and Technology magaine

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