1. As Vishnu Dreams, Cornerstone Theater Company and East West Players. Playwright Shishir Kurups sassy adaptation of Indias epic poem The Ramayana took swipes at gender roles, racism and, yes, even the Iraq invasion, but remained a loving homage both to its Sanskrit source and its view of human nature. Shadow puppets, live musical accompaniment and an eclectic costuming effort created an ideal cultural bridge to American audiences; director Juliette Carrillos revelatory production should be toured in schools as well as commercial theaters.
2. A Winter People, the Theater @ Boston Court. Chay Yews adaptation of The Cherry Orchard moved Chekhovs play to China and 30 years forward. Embroidered with the conversational cruelties and banal ruminations of the waiting classes, this transplant sometimes fumbled with historical exposition to explain its new surroundings, but Yew directed his play with panache, and the production soared.
3. Bitter Bierce, Or, the Friction We Call Grief, Bottoms Dream at the Zephyr Theater. How often does anyone blow the dust off Ambrose Bierces Devils Dictionary or "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," let alone mention their author in a play? Playwright Mac Wellmans stage presentation, written as a solo show, succinctly distilled the acerbic, jaundiced outlook of this 19th-century San Franciscan. Actor John Billingsley turned in a crafty performance as the politically incorrect satirist, making the evening, depending on the audience member, either an introduction to a curmudgeon or a reunion with an old friend.
4. Macbett, Il Dolce Theater Company at the Globe Playhouse. Part political food fight, part Rocky Horror Show, director Neno Pervans production of Eugene Ionescos send-up of the Scottish play both served the playwrights absurdist vision and paid homage to the Bards poetry. Working with a pared-down version of Charles Marowitzs translation, Pervan unleashed a lean hellhound of social comedy and the suspicion that the storys ambitious villain committed regicide for an iridescent, lime-green frock coat.
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5. The Devils, Open Fist Theater. Playwright Elizabeth Egloff, who created a political stir with her work on the trashy TV biopic The Reagans, had also kicked literary shins a few years ago with a broadly comic adaptation of Dostoyevskys novel about a cabal of provincial nihilists plotting against czarist Russia. Open Fists L.A. premiere, directed by Florinel Fatulescu, played up Egloffs farcical moments with gusto, while faithfully capturing the storys feverish, claustrophobic paranoia. Actor Jeremy Lawrence stood out as the whining intellectual Stepan Verkhovensky, the kind of liberal complainer whod seem at home by an antique samovar or a modern office water cooler.