Theater Beat: Top plays of the season; Mark Rylance in Pittsburgh

Mark Rylance in Pittsburgh. On Thursday at Carnegie Music Hall, the famed actor hosts The 1892 Battle of Homestead. It's the 125th anniversary of that violent attack by Pinkerton guards, hired by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie, against locked-out steelworkers. Rylance says the story is "worthy of Shakespeare," and he's trying to work up a play about it.

Season's bests! It's our kind of six-month anniversary at Theater Beat, so let's look back at some of the glittering high points. This list reflects what I saw, what other reviewers really loved, and what readers recommended. Productions are ordered by the start of run. Quite a season; excellence abounding, manifold surprises.

Pa. Shakespeare Festival's "Evita."

St. Joan (McCarter Theatre, Jan. 13-Feb. 12). The four-person Bedlam company alternated between Shakespeare's Hamlet and Shaw's St. Joan. I agreed with reviewer Toby Zinman that they didn't quite nail the former - but the latter was a flat-out masterpiece.

Coriolanus (Lantern Theater Company, March 9-April 16). Reviewer Tirdad Derakhshani called it "a shattering and chillingly resonant dissection of the ease with which leaders can manipulate the governed by manufacturing scapegoats and phantom enemies."

The King and I (Academy of Music, March 22-April 2). Reviewer David Patrick Stearns said that although modern productions were often cut, "this elegant, smart touring version of the Lincoln Center Theater production restored the often-cut song 'Western People Funny' - which gives needed equal time to the Siamese court." A tip of the clairvoyant's hat to David, who, reviewing Oslo on Broadway in April, called it (correctly) "a play that, in my humble opinion, has Tony written all over it."

Anna (EgoPo Classic Theater, March 29-April 16). "Astonishingly, they did it," Toby wrote in her review. She called Anna a triumphant adaptation of Tolstoy's novel.

The White Devil (Broad Street Ministry/Philadelphia Artists' Collective, May 3-20). The kinetic PAC tamed John Webster's unruly play and gave us a biting, bloody, ironic masterwork.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (Philadelphia Theatre Company, May 17-June 4). Reviewer Julia M. Klein said, "James Lecesne's one-man, many-character piece . . . was an acting tour de force, but also an affirmation of how powerfully a single, seemingly ordinary life can affect those it touches."

Gypsy (Arden Theatre Company, May 18-June 25). Our reviewers disagreed. Jim Rutter found Gypsy surprisingly "provincial" and lifeless; Julia was impressed and thought Mary Martello's performance was on a Patti LuPone/Tyne Daly level.

School Play (Tribe of Fools, June 9-25). This is among the most often mentioned in reader emails. Ginnie Wilson-Williams of Chestnut Hill took three of her grandchildren, and they "belly-laughed, giggled, guffawed, hooted, or howled from the first bell to the end of detention."

Project Dawn (People's Light, June 7-July 9). Karen Hartman's world premiere, based on the "problem-solving" Dawn Court in Philadelphia, is one of the very best plays of the season.

Evita (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, June 14-July 2). Jim called it "a musically superb staging that - coupled with lush costume designs and exhilarating choreography - evokes a romantic era."