If ever there was a year to make a theatergoer want to resurrect the old counterculture slogan “Small is beautiful,’’ this was it.
In New York, the bloated, steroidal spectacle known as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’’ finally opened. Even though “Spider-Man’’ was large in every way - cost, cast, hype, controversy, calamity, box-office lucre - the musical by Bono and The Edge ultimately spun nothing more than a web of tedium.
By contrast, tiny theaters hereabouts spun gold.
Not always, but often. Enough so that as 2011 draws to a close, a host of productions by small or fringe theater companies in Boston, on the Cape, and in the Berkshires occupy a secure place among the year’s most memorable events. The plays unfolding in these snug venues were often challenging, even daring, while the casts - whose collective salaries probably wouldn’t match Bono’s annual budget for sunglasses - invariably threw themselves into their performances as if the fate of the American theater depended on it.
The bad news is that so few of you - the audience - were there to see them. Too often, many seats were empty; in fact, at a few performances, the critics in the audience seemed to outnumber the civilians. On a couple of levels, that has got to be a discouraging sight for those working hard onstage and behind the scenes.
So a good New Year’s resolution for you theater devotees out there might be to increase the number of shows you see at small or fringe companies in 2012.
Why? Well, apart from the allure of the underdog, there’s this: When the actors are literally in your face (and when you can practically count the pores in theirs), the theatergoing experience has a visceral immediacy not available to you when you’re squinting at the stage from the balcony of a big house or cupping your ear to hear dialogue murmured from far, far away.
There is - almost by definition - no such thing as a bad seat in a small theater. Said seats can often be had for the cost of a few double lattes, and are much more nutritious.
Let’s count a few other reasons you should think small if you’re a curious theatergoer.
1) To hear the voices of important young playwrights.
By any measure, one of the high points of the theater year in Boston was the staging by Company One of “The Brother/Sister Plays,’’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
McCraney is all of 31, so in a larger sense he’s just getting started. But this trilogy - “In the Red and Brown Water,’’ “The Brothers Size,’’ and “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet’’ - is a significant piece of work. Boston audiences needed to see it, and Company One, under the leadership of Shawn LaCount, made sure they did.
McCraney drew names and inspiration from the spiritual beliefs of the Yoruba people of West Africa to create a multigenerational panoply of passionate characters who struggle with questions of identity, family, destiny, loyalty, and sexuality within a housing project in the Louisiana bayou.
They include Oya, a young track star who drifts into hopelessness as she tries to figure out what, if anything, life holds for her and where the two men wooing her might fit into the picture; a pair of quarrelsome brothers, Ogun and Oshoosi Size, whose fates lie in very different directions but who are inextricably tied together by their tormented love for each other; and Marcus, a gay teenager trying to answer questions about himself by making persistent inquiries into the character of the now-deceased father he barely knew.
As a writer, McCraney floats from poetic to gritty and back again; he is earthbound one moment, soaringly allegorical the next. While rooted in grim social reality (poverty, imprisonment, homophobia), “The Brother/Sister Plays’’ are suffused with dreams and visions. Apart from giving audiences the chance to experience this playwright’s own vision, the uniformly well-acted Company One productions (directed by Summer L. Williams and Megan Sandberg-Zakian) also illustrated another upside of smaller theaters: They often introduce new faces to watch. Remember the name of Hampton Fluker. A student at the Boston University School of Theatre, Fluker compelled our attention whenever he was onstage in “The Brother/Sister Plays.’’
2) To explore the early work of established writers.
In a year when British playwright Jez Butterworth was attracting a lot of notice on Broadway for his scorching drama “Jerusalem’’ (star Mark Rylance won a best actor Tony Award), the Boston fringe company Theatre on Fire tackled an early Butterworth play, “Mojo,’’ at Charlestown Working Theater under the direction of Darren Evans.
Set in the late 1950s in London’s Soho, “Mojo’’ revolves around the battles and backstabbing that ensue among a collection of lowlife nightclub employees when their boss is murdered, their star singing attraction is kidnapped, and they have to figure out whether, and why, someone is out to get them, too.
In the torrential ferocity and streetwise rhythms of its language, and in the willingness of its unpredictable characters to go to extremes of sudden, eruptive violence, “Mojo’’ prefigures Butterworth’s later work. The Theatre on Fire production showcased a fine, mostly young cast, including Brian Bernhard, a 19-year-old sophomore at Suffolk University who has the world-weary air (and features) of a young Tom Waits, and who delivered an arresting performance as a scheming pill-popper.
3) To see an unfamiliar side of familiar figures.
By now, you half-expect to see Tony Kushner’s picture next to the word “epic’’ in the dictionary, so identified is he with his best-known work, the two-part “Angels in America.’’
But Zeitgeist Stage Company, under the guidance of artistic director David J. Miller, opted to present “Tiny Kushner,’’ an evening of five one-act plays by the author. It was intriguing to see Kushner deploying his artistry on such small canvases, yet still managing to give free rein to his famously untrammeled imagination while packing in so much of his trademark political and social commentary.
That blend was especially trenchant and effective in “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,’’ in which the playwright depicts Laura Bush serenely reading to three dead Iraqi children in Paradise, then steadily losing her composure (and the struggle with her conscience) as she talks about the spiritual questions raised by Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.’’
Another Dostoyevsky work, “Crime and Punishment,’’ was the focus of an engrossing adaptation by the small and alternative-minded Chester Theatre Company, in the Berkshires. (How small? Until a few years ago, it was known as the Miniature Theatre Company.) Authorial imagination and social resonance were hallmarks of two new works produced by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre: Walt McGough’s “The Farm,’’ which looks at the soul-corroding effects of the spy trade, and Will Fancher’s “The River Was Whiskey,’’ which explores racial injustice through the prism of one long-concealed murder. In the tiny Harbor Stage at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Brenda Withers premiered - and performed in - a surreal and chilling play about possession and dispossession, “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’
Whatever their differences, these small theaters have figured out that the trick is to zig when the big companies zag, to find an artistic niche and fill it, and to do it with integrity. Yes, size matters, theatrically speaking - the size of aspiration and achievement. You listening, Spidey?
DON AUCOIN’S PICKS
■RUINED Huntington Theatre Company
■CANDIDE Huntington Theatre Company
■THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS American Repertory Theater
■MABOU MINES DOLLHOUSE by Mabou Mines, presented by ArtsEmerson
■RICHARD III by Propeller Theatre Company, presented by Boston University School of Theatre in association with Huntington Theatre Company
■THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS Company One
■NEXT FALL SpeakEasy Stage Company
■THE DROWSY CHAPERONE SpeakEasy Stage Company
■R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER: THE HISTORY (AND MYSTERY) OF THE UNIVERSE American Repertory Theater
■TEN CENTS A DANCE Williamstown Theatre Festival