It was, no exaggeration, a tumultuous year in Seattle-area theater — a production-crammed year of major exits and entrances, of vigor...

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It was, no exaggeration, a tumultuous year in Seattle-area theater — a production-crammed year of major exits and entrances, of vigor and mediocrity, of fine accomplishments and lingering question marks.

With fanfare, David Esbjornson took over this fall at Seattle Repertory Theatre as the company’s new artistic director. But after a mixed slate of just three productions under his watch, where he will lead the city’s flagship resident theater is still not clear.

Much-honored Seattle playwright August Wilson died late this summer after a brief illness. He will be sorely missed, as an artist and a neighbor.

After a couple of dicey years, the larger professional theaters in town have rebounded financially to varying degree. And the ratio of new and nearly new plays and musicals presented on local stages in 2005 increased from previous years.

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To regain ground, the big companies tended to play it safe by tackling well-worn material of mainstream appeal. And much of the artistic vitality on the scene bubbled up from the fringe troupes (from Atlas Theatre Company to Washington Ensemble Theatre) and a new wave of exciting young actors and directors willing to take risks with both fresh scripts and classics.

Here, then, are major highlights (and lowlights) in Seattle drama over the past 12 months:

Best mainstage productions: “Three Sisters” (Intiman Theatre); “Sweeney Todd” (5th Avenue Theatre); “Vincent in Brixton” and “The Night of the Iguana” (ACT Theatre); “Restoration Comedy” and “The Secret in the Wings” (Seattle Repertory Theatre); “Frozen” and “Stupid Kids” (Empty Space Theatre).

Best of the fringe: “Waiting for Lefty” (Capitol Hill Arts Center); “Crave” (Washington Ensemble Theatre); “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Back of the Throat” (Theater Schmeater); “The Memory of Water” (Atlas Theatre); “Three Tall Women” (Seattle Public Theater); “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” (Strawberry Theater Workshop).

Best touring show: “Big River” (Paramount Theatre).

Best Shakespeare: “Macbeth” (Wooden O Productions) and “Hamlet X” (Brownbox). Also notable: “Hamlet” (Tiny Ninja Theatre) and “Othello” (Seattle Shakespeare Company).

Best new plays (Seattle or world premiere): “Back of the Throat” by Yussef El Guindi (Theater Schmeater) and “Restoration Comedy” by Amy Freed (Seattle Repertory Theatre). Runner-up: “Fission” by Molly Best Tinsley (Live Girls! Theater).

Solo shows to celebrate: “The Tricky Part” by Martin Moran (Intiman Theatre); “The Ugly American” by Mike Daisey (ACT Theatre); “Another You” by Allen Johnson (On the Boards).

Splashiest children’s musical: “Seussical” (Seattle Children’s Theatre).

Most thoughtful children’s show: “Red Badge of Courage” (SCT).

Stellar performances: Beth Dixon and Todd Jefferson Moore (“The Grapes of Wrath,” Intiman); Allen Fitzpatrick, Carol Swarbrick, Benjamin Schrader and Leslie Law (“Sweeney Todd”); Peter Crook and Lori Larsen (“Frozen”); Anne Allgood (“Vincent in Brixton”); John Procaccino, Suzanne Bouchard and Clayton Corzatte (“The Night of the Iguana”); Judy Kuhn and Michael Winters (“Three Sisters”); John Bogar (“Macbeth”); Louis Hobson and Megan Hill (“Stupid Kids”); Terry Edward Moore (“Enemy of the People,” Taproot Theatre); Stephen Caffrey (“Restoration Comedy”); Dana Powers Acheson (“Romeo and Juliet,” Seattle Shakespeare Company); Cynthia Jones and Jayne Muirhead (“Menopause the Musical,” ACT Theatre); Billie Wildrick (“Seussical”).

Excellent, busy young actors we don’t get tired of: Shawn Telford, Gabriel Baron, Darragh Kennan, Alexandra Tavares, Lathrop Walker.

Local treasure: Book-It Repertory Theatre.

Paris Hilton goes to prep school: The underwhelming world-premiere musical “Princesses” (5th Avenue Theatre).

Other premiere misfires: “Play It By Heart” (Village Theatre); “King Stag” (Seattle Repertory Theatre).

We’ll pass, Mrs. Robinson: “The Graduate” (touring show at the Paramount).

Relying on retro: A tie between Village Theatre (“Cats,” “Steel Magnolias,” “The Music Man,” et al) and Tacoma Actors Guild (“Forever Plaid,” “Noises Off,” “Sleuth”).

Most popular playwright: The late Arthur Miller, with local productions of “The Crucible” and “Death of a Salesman” (two); and his adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.” Anybody up for doing Miller’s (under-produced) “Incident at Vichy”?

Most popular themes: Sexual abuse and violence (“Frozen,” “Ugly American,” “The Tricky Part,” “Another You”). Runner-up: Death and purgatory (“Purgatorio” at Seattle Rep; “Camino Real” at Freehold, “Death and the Ploughman” at On the Boards).

Esteemed visitors: Shochiku Grand Kabuki Company of Tokyo (Paramount); SITI Company and Forced Entertainment (On the Boards).

Trend worth nurturing: The stirrings of a resurgence of African-American drama in Seattle (Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, Brownbox and ACT).

Retail therapy: “The IKEA Cycle,” staged at the Renton IKEA store.

Sammy Davis Jr. award: Michael McQuilken, whose “A Day in Dig Nation” showcased his talents as a composer, musician, mime, techno-whiz and tap dancer.

Kaput: Theatre Under the Influence and Exchange Theatre.

Nine lives award: Empty Space Theatre and Tacoma Actors Guild, which survived near-death experiences.

Let’s hang on to what we’ve got: Fresh off a Tony Award nomination for “Light in the Piazza,” Bartlett Sher signs on for another stint as artistic director of Intiman.

Best wishes for a swift recovery: Ailing local set designer Scott Weldin, whose many credits include the terrific set for this year’s “Vincent in Brixton” at ACT.

When giants fall: Goodbye and thank you for everything you’ve left us, master playwrights August Wilson and Arthur Miller.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com