Some say that St. Louis in recent years has been experiencing a renaissance in theater, but I’m not entirely sure about that. While matching the second definition of ‘renaissance’ in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as ‘a movement or period of vigorous artistic and intellectual activity,’ it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the third definition of ‘rebirth, revival.’

That’s because the level of theatrical performance locally, both qualitatively and quantitatively, seemingly has never been better. The Kevin Kline Awards most assuredly have played a significant part in this artistic surge, but the energy level goes beyond even that significant development. In 2009, I observed approximately 135 productions, but by my own arithmetic missed another 120 or so presentations by professional, semi-professional, community, college and cabaret performers. The latter category in particular has proliferated impressively in just a few years.

A substantial percentage of shows I viewed were handsomely crafted, demonstrating just how high the caliber of acting talent in this area has risen on many occasions. So, what are some of the more lasting memories of this past year?

If comedy is what you crave, you had the opportunity to smile at the whimsical humor of Noel Coward in Black Cat Theatre’s superb production of Private Lives, directed with flair and finesse by Edie Avioli and featuring the talents of James Anthony, Aarya Sara Locker, Justin Ivan Brown, Larissa Forsythe and Sarajane Alverson.

Echo Theatre artistic director Eric Little and his troupe converted a Thom McAn shoe store into a cozy den of satire with a number of clever gems that were often hilarious with their biting wit, topped by the carefully clumsy courting dance by the manically funny duo of Charlie Barron and Colleen Backer in Nerve.

HotCity Theatre presented a truly hilarious gem titled Cockeyed, winner of its 2008 Greenhouse New Play Festival. This clever comedy by William Missouri Downs, about a philosophy major named Phil who is in love with a woman who literally doesn’t know he exists, was delightful thanks to Adam Flores’ endearing portrayal of the feckless Phil, and terrific supporting work by Tyler Vickers, Paul Pagano and Jennifer Nitzband under Marty Stanberry’s lively direction.

Donna Northcott’s Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre managed to condense J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into one hour of inspired mayhem, thanks to adapters John Wolbers and Liz Henning and a crazy cast led by Roger Erb in a giant diaper as the nefarious Gollum, Suki Peters as the vapid Legolas, Wolbers as Frodo the hobbit and Chris “Mr.” Jones moving gamely across stage on his knees as the warrior dwarf, Gimli.

Stray Dog Theatre presented an amusing version of A.R. Gurney’s charming tale, Sylvia, about a man in mid-life crisis smitten with the ways of a newfound pooch. Paris McCarthy was amusing as the high-spirited canine, Alan Knoll was the hapless master, Susie Wall his frustrated wife and Larry Dell a macho neighbor and sundry other parts. And West End Players Guild presented a whimsical little piece titled Almost, Maine about the rather eccentric denizens of a town in the not-quite Great White North, with Renee Sevier-Monsey guiding a clever cast that eased in and out of amusing skits.

Top-notch musicals were in abundant supply as well. The Muny kicked off its season with a captivating rendition of 42nd Street that featured the imposing stage presence of Muny newcomer Robert Cuccioli as producer Julian Marsh, who makes a star out of chorus girl Peggy Sawyer, played by Shannon O’Bryan. Cuccioli’s commanding version of The Lullaby of Broadway was the single best moment in The Muny’s season.

Scott Miller’s New Line Theatre offered a trio of engaging works, from the goofy sci-fi send-up Return to the Forbidden Planet to the offbeat 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to the world premiere of Love Kills, a rock musical by Kyle Jarrow based on the infamous Starkweather murder case in 1958. The latter featured excellent singing by Taylor Pietz and Allison Helmer and fine performances by Philip Leveling as Starkweather and Zachary Allen Farmer as the sheriff who interrogates him. And Spelling Bee, led by Nick Kelly as the long-suffering but cocky nerd William Barfee, was actually better on New Line’s cozy stage than when it played The Fox a year or so back.

Opera Theatre St. Louis mounted an exhilarating production of The Ghosts of Versailles, a sizzling presentation of its debut performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome and a vigorous and appealing version of La Boheme. The St. Louis Black Repertory Company offered a stylish telling of Blues in the Night, a high-energy revue conceived by Sidney Epps incorporating tunes by numerous contributors to the Great American Songbook, with producing director Ron Himes blending the considerable vocal talents of J. Samuel Davis, Anita Jackson, Willena Vaughn and Leah Stewart.

Himes also contributed a superior presentation of the Tony Award-winning masterpiece, Ragtime, as director of an impressive performance by the Washington University Fine Arts Department, with stellar work by Renae Adams as Mother standing out among the four dozen cast members. Across town, the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts presented a fabulous version of Cabaret. Other notable musical productions this year included a trimmed-down version of Fiddler on the Roof by Mustard Seed Theatre and a rollicking rendition of Guys & Dolls at Stages St. Louis.

Superior dramas were in abundance, whether fresh interpretations of classics or compelling new stories. New Jewish Theatre scored with the emotionally draining but powerfully packaged Conversations with My Father, with an unforgettable performance by Peter Mayer as a Jewish immigrant consumed by his own angry demons.

The Rep offered a magnificent performance by Amy Landon in the title role in a fabulous production of The Miracle Worker directed by the late Susan Gregg with one of her typically thorough and engaging efforts, while Jeffrey Hatcher’s psychological adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was provocative, bizarre and very entertaining.

There were solid productions of seldom-seen works, such as Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell’s excellent telling of Kafka’s surreal, existential tale, The Trial, with Will Ledbetter fabulous as the nebbish bank clerk who is targeted by sinister forces. And Avalon Theatre showed us a different side of veteran comic performer Whit Reichert, who was outstanding as an emotionally repressed dad in The Subject Was Roses.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presented Caryl Churchill’s taut, provocativ drama, Top Girls, with solid performances by Rachel Tibbets as a career-climbing Brit trying to distance herself from her plain sister and her own simple past, Dianna Thomas as her banal, disturbed niece and Johanna Elkana as her emotionally dead sister.

Muddy Waters Theatre celebrated the works of Edward Albee with splendid versions of the known (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the honored (Three Tall Women) and the obscure (The Lady from Dubuque). Dubuque was particularly satisfying in its telling of two dapper characters who pay an unannounced visit to the home of a young woman in the throes of a terminal illness. Director Cameron Ulrich’s fascinating presentation featured finely etched performances by Robert Mitchell, Sarah Cannon, Joshua Thomas, Emily Baker, Patty Ulrich, G.P. Hunsaker, Todd Pieper and Kirsten Wylder in the title role.

OnSite Theatre used the Craft Alliance Gallery as the backdrop for Joe Hanrahan’s clever piece, Exhibit, with Margeau Baue Steinau, Andrew Neiman and Sarah Cannon as artists, wannabe artists and perceived artists hanging about a gallery amidst audience members. Dramatic License Productions made an auspicious debut with a strong presentation of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a battle of wits between a headstrong nun and the young priest she suspects of pedophilia, with excellent work by Kim Furlow, Jason Cannon, Sarah Cannon and Leah Stewart.

The Orange Girls offered a compelling tale of love and betrayal in Donald Margulies’ two-person drama, Collected Stories, with riveting performances by Nancy Lewis as a haughty writer and Meghan Maguire as her admiring but opportunistic student under Edward Coffield’s careful direction. And the rarely seen Todd Gillenardo was superior as the wronged Jewish moneylender, Shylock, in St. Louis Shakespeare’s version of The Merchant of Venice.

Director Steve Callahan presented a special bouquet to audiences in the summer with Act Inc.’s endearing production of Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings, which featured a “Who’s Who” of veteran local actresses in its sterling cast, including Dorothy Davis, Liz Hopefl, Eleanor Mullin, Suzanne Greenwald, Teresa Doggett, Lynn Rathbone, Sally Eaton, Jan Meyer, Diane Peterson and Cindy Duggan.

Wayne Loui directed a moving presentation of Tina Howe’s sobering drama, Painting Churches, at Insight Theatre, with Joneal Joplin in a heartrending performance as a poet sinking increasingly into dementia. And Joe Hanrahan channeled former President Harry S Truman in the triumphant one-man show, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!, for Midnight Productions.

Michelle Hand delivered a memorable turn as an emotionally troubled artist who feigns believing she is onetime baseball star Darryl Strawberry in The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, which was given a splendid interpretation by Non-Prophet Theatre Company under Robert Mitchell’s steady guidance. Also, Charlie Barron was a pensive but still lonely Charlie Brown in Non-Prophet’s presentation of the disturbing, adult-themed Peanuts parody, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.

The Black Rep presented a pair of solid dramas, a character study titled A Song for Coretta about five women waiting in line to view the casket of the late civil rights activist and widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a work titled In the Continuum about two women, one African and one American, dealing with AIDS, portrayed movingly by Sharisa Whatley and Marylynn Gwatiringa.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio scored several triumphs in its season of shows devoted to “power and politics.” Bryan Keith and Tyler Vickers, respectively, portrayed a psychologically fragile Vietnam War veteran and the sad lonely psychiatrist who is charged with unlocking the mental mysteries of his patient in Medal of Honor Rag, while Glynis Bell virtually inhabited the personality of Martha Mitchell in the clever drama, Martha Mitchell Calling, in a sparkling production directed by Lana Pepper.

The company paired with Saint Louis University’s theater department for a fabulous telling by director Milton Zoth of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Setzuan, which featured a tour de force performance by Kari Ely. Another spectacular effort was the chilling work, Back of the Throat, with David Wassilak expertly setting the mood and tempo for a modern-day horror story about an Arab-American student increasingly grilled by a pair of ominous CIA operatives. Expert performances by Kevin Beyer and John Pierson and solid efforts by Alan David, Julie Layton and Joseph Garner made this taut tale engrossing from its innocuous start to its scary conclusion.

Still, certain shows stood out above the others when the smoke and fire cleared away from the performance venues around town. The following list, in ascending order, represents one choice for the area’s Top Ten performances of 2009. Let’s also mention, though, two runners-up at the start: The touring production of the visually and musically stunning Spring Awakening that visited The Fox in February, and Upstream Theater’s excellent presentation of an intense drama titled Helver’s Night, with sterling performances by Linda Kennedy as the guardian of a mentally-challenged man-child, superbly etched by Christopher Harris, fighting for survival in a ruthless totalitarian state.

The Top Ten for 2009:

One Extraordinary Darkness, presented by OnSite Theatre (#10). This enchanting work by Elizabeth Birkenmeier received its world premiere at the Green Center, a reputedly haunted house in University City that is the location for an arts and environmental organization dedicated to “helping people understand the natural world.” In a sense, that’s what Birkenmeier’s four characters do in her whimsical effort, which featured engaging performances by Joe Hanrahan, Margeau Baue Steinau, Robert Birkenmeier and Adina Talve Goodman under Bill Whitaker’s crisp and clever direction. An excellent example of OnSite Theatre’s mission to present works in offbeat locales.

Amadeus, presented by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (#9). Peter Shaffer’s three-hour drama premiered in London in 1979 and on Broadway in 1980, and has lost none of its luster in the ensuing three decades. Taking artistic license with historical figures, Shaffer examines the jealousy and pettiness that consume 18th century Austrian court composer Antonio Salieri in his admiration for the music but repugnance for the personality of musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A treatise on how the merely competent may view the truly gifted, Amadeus received a superior presentation by The Rep under Paul Mason Barnes’ precise and thorough direction, with marvelous performances by Andrew Long as Salieri, Jim Poulos as Mozart and Joe Hickey as the affable if intellectually challenged Emperor.

Wonder of the World, presented by The Orange Girls (#8). Late in the year The Orange Girls, who have offered several sizzling productions in their short time as a theater company, announced they would go on hiatus. Hopefully they’ll be back, but their final presentation in 2009 was the uproarious Wonder of the World, another hilarious work from the bizarre brain of David Lindsay-Abaire. Under the deft direction of Deanna Jent, it was impeccably choreographed to extract maximum laugh potential, led by a fitfully funny turn by Kirsten Wylder as an alcoholic bent on suicide (yes, it’s a comedy) after her husband leaves her. Superbly manic work as well by Brooke Edwards, Charlie Barron, Christopher Hickey, Greg Johnson, Kelley Ryan and Mary Schnitzler.

Barrymore, presented by Avalon Theatre Company (#7). One-person shows can be difficult to pull off, as there is no inherent conflict or interpersonal drama taking place. That wasn’t a problem, however, for John Contini, whose bravura performance so fully embodied legendary actor John Barrymore that one quickly believed that the late alcoholic, womanizing and immeasurably talented Barrymore was performing again. Director Erin Kelley and her talented technical staff expertly created the mood that supported Contini’s mesmerizing interpretation.

Mary Poppins, presented by The Fox Theatre (#6). Every day’s a holiday with Mary, especially when she arrives in a touring production that exploded with energy and dazzling pyrotechnics on the vast Fox stage. The musical version of the fanciful tale of a magical Edwardian nanny, a hybrid of the popular 1964 Walt Disney movie and the original stories by P.L. Travers, was a total delight, from the superior performance of Ashley Brown in the title role to the stupefying dance moves of Gavin Lee as chimney sweep Bert, epitomized in a breathtaking turn up the wall, across the ceiling and back down to the floor of the Fox stage on the show’s breakout number, Step in Time. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Woyzeck, presented by Upstream Theater (#5). Artistic director Philip Boehm specializes in translating works from their original German or Polish, and provided the adaptation for this 19th century drama by Georg Buchner about Germany’s most sensational homicide case of that century. Boehm’s stellar direction kept the story gripping and engaging throughout its 90 minutes, accentuated by Michael Heil’s ingenious set design and a magnificent cast led by a brooding J. Samuel Davis in the title role, with superior supporting work by Lavonne Byers, Bobby Miller, Brooke Edwards, Peter Mayer, John Bratkowski, Steve Isom, Jef Awada, Emily Piro, Joshua Cook and Patrick Siler.

Brooklyn Boy, presented by New Jewish Theatre (#4). Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies is the most produced playwright in the 13-year history of Kathleen Sitzer’s New Jewish Theatre, which offered a superb rendition of this 2004 drama. Director Bobby Miller’s cast worked seamlessly in scenes played across six different areas on Scott Neale’s beautifully flowing set design. Miller’s direction was compelling and focused throughout, aided immeasurably by Jason Cannon, whose powerful interpretation of tortured novelist Eric Weiss was on display for the entire show. Wonderful supporting work by Peter Mayer, Sarah Cannon, R. Travis Estes, Paris McCarthy, Kate Frisina and Justin Ivan Brown made this an unforgettable and immensely moving presentation.

Glengarry Glen Ross, presented by HotCity Theatre (#3). No playwright conjures ‘provocative,’ ‘controversial’ or ‘explosive’ efforts more than David Mamet, whose searing, in-your-face approach to drama has inflamed American theater for nearly three decades. Perhaps the pinnacle of his oeuvre is this raw, open wound of a play that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984 for its blistering assault on sensibilities that still carries an emotional wallop a quarter-century later. Set in a Chicago real estate office where ‘survival of the fittest’ is the de facto motto, Annamaria Pileggi’s brisk, blunt direction showcased brilliant efforts by Bobby Miller, Jerry Russo, B. Weller, Chopper Leifheit, Peter Mayer, Christopher Lawyer and G.P. Hunsaker. Bravo!

The Drowsy Chaperone, presented by Stages St. Louis (#2). A few years back, a touring production at the Fox Theatre presented a totally enchanting, exuberant rendition of this delightfully quirky comedy about a central character titled Man in Chair, who escapes his mundane existence by immersing himself in his beloved LP (not a CD!) of The Drowsy Chaperone, a Jazz Age spoof from 1928. Amazingly, Stages’ version was even better, as its more intimate venue was chockfull of charm, comedy and captivating insouciance under Michael Hamilton’s engaging and delightful direction. Man in Chair was played to the absolute hilt by David Schmittou in a sweet, endearing and heartfelt portrayal, with hilarious support from Edward Juvier, Christiane Tisdale, Tari Kelly, David Elder, Brian Ogilvie, John Alban Coughlin, Kari Ely, Ben Nordstrom, Michael Baxter, Ed Romanoff, Melinda Cowan, Zoe Vonder Haar and Patrick Martin.

Blackbird, presented by The Rep (#1). Sizzling and provocative, this one-act drama by Scottish playwright David Harrower about a 55-year-old man confronted by the 27-year-old woman who was his partner in an illicit affair 15 years earlier was exactly what you hope to see in a Rep Studio production. Crackling with intensity and raising as many questions as it answers, Blackbird soars with searing, intellectual fervor and unrelenting anguish. The Rep’s rendition was a rousing, outstanding artistic achievement directed by Amy Saltz in a tightly focused, brilliantly etched production. Both Christopher Oden as Ray and Carmine Goodine as Una emotionally exhausted themselves, and the audience, alternating superbly between the hunter and the prey. Reminiscent of Lolita and Mystic River as well as too many contemporary headlines, Blackbird challenges you to decipher its chilling flight plan.

Theater is thriving artistically in St. Louis these days, and hopefully doing well enough at the box office, too. Here’s a toast to our abundantly talented and diverse performers for splendid efforts in 2009 and the great activity certain to follow in 2010!