10. Julius Caesar (Brooklyn)
In director Phyllida Lloyd’s London-birthed revival, orange is the new Bard. The setting is a women’s prison, where inmates act out the bloody tragedy and give an ironic charge to the conspirators’ calls for ”Liberty! Freedom!” The all-female cast, led by Harriet Walter as a butch, spliff-lighting Brutus, prove that women can be every bit as strong — and deadly — in letting slip the dogs of war.
9. After Midnight (Broadway)
This bouncy revue of Duke Ellington-era hits has an unlikely star: Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars orchestra. But the rest of the talented cast of singers (including Fantasia, through Feb. 9) and dancers aren’t exactly slouches. In fact, Warren Carlyle has produced the year’s most buoyant choreography, in styles ranging from tap to soft-shoe to modern ballet.
8. Waiting for Godot (Broadway)
”What do we do now, now that we’re happy?” Ian McKellen’s tramp Estragon asks at one point during Samuel Beckett’s classic allegory. Patrick Stewart’s Vladimir opts to resume his vigil for that perpetual no-show of a savior, Godot. But his manner betrays another response, not unlike our own: that the contentment we have been seeking is already at hand, standing right in front of us. In a superlative revival (played in repertory with a fine version of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land), there’s an almost kinetic camaraderie between the seventysomething stars.
7. Matilda (Broadway)
Roald Dahl’s arch story about a telekinetic bookworm springs to joyous life in an ingeniously staged musical led by talented child actors who thankfully never play ”adorable.” Instead, they put on brave faces to deal with the injustices of cruel, unfeeling adults like TV-obsessed parents and a dictatorial school principal, Miss Trunchbull (a role newcomer Bertie Carvel played with villainous glee).
6. The Apple Family Plays (Off Broadway)
As with many American families, when the four grown Apple siblings get together in upstate New York, the talk turns to politics. In four remarkable plays in four years, Richard Nelson has captured the spirit of our time while sketching a clan of literate, left-leaning adults in naturalistic detail. The 2010 and 2012 plays were set (and opened) on election night; 2011’s, on the anniversary of 9/11; this year’s Regular Singing bowed 50 years after JFK’s assassination. But the real occasion for each play is the sharing of a meal with loved ones — even if they sometimes push one another’s buttons. In the end, Nelson suggests, all politics is local.
5. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Broadway)
There are few kind hearts (or coronets) to be found in this deftly daffy musical about a deadly-charming serial killer who dispatches members of his titled Edwardian family so he can inherit the estate himself. Hilariously, all eight of the ill-fated D’Ysquiths (sounds like ”dies quick”) are played by the nimble, quick-changing Jefferson Mays
4. Here Lies Love (Off Broadway)
It sounds like a joke: a disco musical about the Philippines’ notorious former first lady Imelda Marcos. But DJ Fatboy Slim and ex-Talking Head David Byrne have written a hook-heavy score you can dance to — in fact, theater-goers stay on their feet for the 90-minute show, shuffling around moving platforms and line-dancing with the youthful cast. (The nightclub staging is a bit of a gimmick — the show, with one of the year’s smartest, tightest plots, would still play if the audience was seated.) Incredibly, there’s not a single song about shoes.
3. Pippin (Cambridge, Mass./Broadway)
Another import from Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre proves that a little 21st-century razzle-dazzle (and Tony-winning turns by Patina Miller and Andrea Martin) can invigorate even a chestnut like the 1972 pop musical Pippin. Director Diane Paulus teams with Montreal’s 7 Fingers circus troupe to pump up the simple story of a young prince who’s both medieval and me-generation in his quest for life’s meaning. The opening number, ”Magic to Do,” is made literal — with onstage illusions and a chorus of backflipping, hand-walking acrobats.
2. The Glass Menagerie (Cambridge, Mass./Broadway)
Tennessee Williams’ 1944 drama is called a memory play for a reason. Director John Tiffany’s exquisite revival, led by the sensational Cherry Jones and Zachary Quinto, captures the dual nature of memories. They can be abstract and fuzzy around the edges, like the show’s stylized movement and the understated set of the Wingfield family’s St. Louis apartment. But they also yield moments of hyperrealistic human drama that startle you awake with their power.
1. Twelfth Night (Broadway)
With its all-male cast, zipperless costumes, candlelit sets, and onstage seating stalls for theatergoers, this period-perfect revival of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could seem precious, like a stuffy museum piece preserved in amber. But there’s nothing restrained about director Tim Carroll’s spirited production — which features fart jokes, oinking noises, and various jabs at the fourth wall. (The accessibility applies in other ways, too: 250 seats at each performance sell for $25.) As the noblewoman Olivia, who goes from mournful to lovesick at the drop of a locket, British actor Mark Rylance is a wonder. At times, the two-time Tony winner can seem like a borscht-belt comic feeding off audience reactions and milking punchlines for every possible chuckle. (On alternate nights, he takes a similarly jokey approach to the lead role in Richard III, joined by much of the same cast.) For all the Elizabethan authenticity — there are even musicians playing lutes, rauschpfeifes, and hurdy-gurdies — this comedy feels as fresh and vital as it did four centuries ago.