It's time somebody said it. What's really missing from the Bay Area theater scene at this time of year is a set of arbitrary rankings, preferably in the form of a top 10 (or 11) list.
But in all seriousness, if the end of the old year and the beginning of the new invite reflection, then our theater in 2012 offered a healthy crop of artists whose work is worth pondering and following assiduously in 2013. Some of the most fascinating and provocative are featured below
See also:An underused asset in Bay Area theater, Michael Barrett Austin is such a natural that he made TheatreFIRST's production of John Steinbeck's sweeping epic The Grapes of Wrath feel like an intimate chamber piece. But he also excels as a character actor. His Martin Van Buren in SF Playhouse's production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a delightful milquetoast -- except, that is, when dancing to Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA," when his knees alone redefined the term "flamboyance." Catch him next in Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a part-play, part-graphic novel at A.C.T.'s new small venue, the Costume Shop. It's hard not to keep an eye on Nina Ball, the omnipresent scenic designer whose work often graces the stages of Shotgun Players, where she's a company member, SF Playhouse, Marin Theatre company, and many others. More often than not, when you see a set that does more than what the stage directions call for, that distills a show's themes into a visual metaphor that's as practical as it is bold and aesthetically pleasing, Ball is responsible. Her sets often evoke cages -- forcing characters to stay on stage when they might not want to, and more than capturing her audiences' attention. The self-styled "most frequently produced female playwright in the San Francisco Bay Area" might be prolific, but Megan Cohen is also a ruthless innovator who never falls back on artistic crutches. That said, this frequent contributor to SF Theater Pub, Bay One Acts, the One-Minute Play Festival, PianoFight, and the SF Olympians Festival is consistent in at least one way: in her delight in the absurdity of language, and in absurdity in general. Most recently, her Zeus brilliantly equated myths of the god king's copious ancient impregnations with modern-day seemingly phantom pregnancies. (Zeus still reigns!) Classical themes continue to interest the young writer into 2013, with DIVAfest's The Helen Project, about Helen of Troy, and SF Olympians' Megan Cohen's Totally Epic Odyssey, for which she'll be both writer and solo performer. The Bay Area doesn't boast many performers from the country's top acting programs, so it's a treat for us that Lauren English, a native, moved back here after earning her MFA from NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in 2009. Education hasn't tamed her raw power though. As the title character in SF Playhouse's Becky Shaw, she was so fragile that whether she'd make it to each successive moment was a source of genuine suspense. But at the same time that you're emotionally submerged in her performances, you're also appreciating the craft of her choices, even if it's something as deceptively simple as standing up at the perfect time. She'll next be displaying her gifts and skills in the blue-collar screaming matches of Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty, also at SF Playhouse, where she's an artistic associate. The undisputed hit of this year's Fringe, Weightless, by Kate Kilbane and the Cellar Doors, was less fringy than gleaming from all its professional polish, forecasting its full production planned for 2014. The show, an adaptation of the Greek myth of Procne and Philomela, is a rock opera -- not quite a rock concert, not quite a musical; performers are at once band mates and actors. Kilbane's original, genre-defying songs are both catchy and musically interesting -- an unfortunate rarity in contemporary theater. Her performance required neither set nor costume nor movement to be counted among the most dramatic shows we've seen all year. In the coming year, Shotgun will feature her original music in Lauren Gunderson's By and By, and she'll be developing her next rock opera -- this one, a site-specific piece. Here are some signs that Berkeley-based playwright J.C. Lee is a big deal. In 2010, Sleepwalkers Theatre dedicated its entire season to his This World and After trilogy, one of the most poetic, tender, and witty bodies of work to grace our stages in recent years -- and by a young, and then relatively unknown playwright. Now a graduate of Julliard, he is the playwright-in-residence at Marin Theatre Company, the third writer to be granted that honor. Finally, it was just announced that he's a finalist in the Aurora's Global Age Project, which means that his Luce, about American parents who adopt an African child, will get a staged reading in February. Until then, just try to keep up. If you've been lamenting contemporary theater's penchant for small casts, the actress Rami Margron in and of herself might embody a solution. In Shotgun Players' recent Precious Little, a beautiful new play by Madeleine George, Margron played so many different ensemble roles as to singlehandedly conjure an entire affluent society and many of its failings. Yet her characters were not placeholders in a societal scheme but distinct, fully realized individuals with unique physical repertoires and modes of speaking. In 2013 she moves toward classic work, with Pericles at Berkeley Rep and Lady Windermere's Fan at Cal Shakes. Everything director Susannah Martin touches turns to, if not gold, then wrenchingly taut drama. At the Boxcar, she mastered the unruly beast that is A Lie of the Mind, Sam Shepard's play about the demise of an American family, making every moment of that sprawling tragedy both gorgeous and chilling. At Shotgun, she made twisted killers into sympathetic everymen with Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. Next up, with her longtime collaborators at Mugwumpin, she's a creator/performer in The Great Big Also, which explores prophets and their movements throughout American history. We'll do some prophesying of our own and predict that Martin's work will continue to make the theatrical waters part. Whether spewing the partially comprehensible jargon of a postmodern artist making a film about Mao, heckling an Orientalist play-within-a-play as a grade schooler, or wrestling his scene partner as if both were caged feral animals, actor Wiley Naman Strasser exudes commitment and passion. He plunges deep where other actors might take more measured steps, losing himself fully in a part in a way that looks personal and painful. He takes his next step off the edge in Cutting Ball's Risk Is This reading series and then with Martin in The Great Big Also. A recent graduate of S.F. State, where she got an MFA in costume design, Ashley Rogers will have very little trouble making the transition from grad school to the real world because, almost from the start of her program, she's already been in the real world. Working with director Mark Jackson, Shotgun Players, Impact Theatre, Just Theater, and Mugwumpin, Rogers creates costume designs so meticulously crafted, so richly detailed, that a world is created, that characters seem to talk to each other, even before they open their mouths. Performer Ross Travis doesn't play many easy parts. Whether he's marching around Angel Island and flying at the top of a mast with the site-specific theater company the We Players or rollicking with Nathaniel Justiniano in Naked Empire Bouffon's latest show, You Killed Hamlet! (which is touring to international Fringe festivals this year), he is undoubtedly getting a rigorous workout. He can contort his face and body into silly, grotesque positions in farcical satire, yet he can also deliver Shakespeare with the crisp clarity and deep sense of character that makes you remember how funny the Bard can be.