Times theater critic Misha Berson bestows her annual Footlight awards after an unusually rich theater season in Seattle.

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Long ago, during another global recession, a seasoned London theater hand told me, “We always do our best work when our backs are against the wall.”

That phrase befits Seattle’s 2009 theater season. There were duds and hits, miracles and missteps. But many local companies made more with less, defying the prevailing financial odds and fears to move and delight us with remarkable tales well-told.

Adaptations of classic literary works abounded, from “Emma” and “Moby-Dick” to “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” The famous titles helped sell tickets, but insightful, vibrant acting and staging made the best of these shows fine indeed.

Equally impressive this year were the up-to-the-moment modern plays presented, with flair and rigor, by companies large and small. Vivid renderings of au courant Broadway dramas were supplemented with tryouts of big new musicals and dynamic, daring plays by younger American scribes of note.

Keeping live theater flourishing (and affordable to struggling patrons) is a constant challenge, in lean and plush times. And the theater scene here is bound to shift soon, as new artistic directors take the reins at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Intiman Theatre.

But the stage bounty of 2009 is a vibrant reminder: A scene this rich in excellent local actors and other stage artists, with droves of avid theatergoers, is worth patronizing, protecting and investing in.

And now, on with the show! Here (in no particular order within each category), are The Seattle Times Footlight Awards for 2009 theatrical excellence (and dubious achievements), bestowed by our staff and freelance drama critics:

Marvelous Mainstage Productions: “Opus” and “Equivocation” (Seattle Repertory Theatre); “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (ACT Theatre); “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (Intiman Theatre); “Moby-Dick” and “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” (Book-It Repertory); “Of Mice and Men” and “End Days” (Seattle Public Theater); “Around the World in 80 Days” (Taproot Theatre); “Orange Flower Water” (New Century Theatre)

Scintillating Shakespeare: “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Tempest” (Seattle Shakespeare Company); “The Taming of the Shrew” (Wooden O)

(Local) Musicals with the Mostest: “Show Boat” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Village Theatre)

Best of Fringe: “Act a Lady” and “Maria/Stuart” (Theater Schmeater); “The Elephant Man” (Strawberry Theatre Workshop);”Tragedy, a tragedy” (Satori Group); “Wrecks” (The Community Theatre); “The Rez as I Saw It” (Backwards Ensemble Theatre Company)

Friskiest Fringe Establishment: Theater Schmeater; runner-up, The Satori Group

Bravura Acting (Mainstage Plays): Charles Leggett (“Merchant of Venice”); David Hogan (“Moby-Dick”); Matthew Floyd Miller, Denis Arndt and Anne Allgood (“Rock ‘n’ Roll”); Erik Lochtefeld (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”); Sylvester Foday Kamara and Olachi Anamalechi (“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears”); Jim Lapan and John Murray (“Of Mice and Men”); Sean Griffin and Russell Hodgkinson (“The Seafarer”); Annie Lareau and Kevin McKeon (“The Vertical Hour”)

Bravura Acting (Fringe): Caleb Penn and Gavin Sakae McLean (“The Rez as I Saw It”); Brandon Ryan (“Maria/Stuart”); Karl Keff (“Wrecks”); Jay Irwin, Terri Weagant (“Act a Lady”); Alexander Samuels in “At Home at the Zoo” (Theater Schmeater);

Top Turns (Musicals): Chad Kimball and Montego Glover (“Memphis”); Cayman Ilika and Richard Todd Adams (“Show Boat”); Aaron Tveit, Tom Wopat and Norbert Leo Butz (“Catch Me If You Can”); Ryah Nixon (“Meet Me In St. Louis”); Felicia Loud (“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”).

Excellent Ensembles: Entire casts of “Opus” and “Equivocation” (Seattle Repertory Theatre), “Orange Flower Water” (New Century Theatre Company), “August: Osage County” (Paramount Theatre)

Best Shows for Youth: “Pharaoh Serket and the Lost Stone of Fire” and “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” (both Seattle Children’s Theatre)

Solo Magic: Mike Daisey’s “The Last Cargo Cult” (Richard Hugo House); Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “the breaks/” (ACT); Ki Gottberg’s “Frontier: Valley of the Shadow” (New City Theater)

Snazziest Pre-Broadway Tryouts: 5th Avenue Theatre’s “Catch Me if You Can” and “Memphis.”

Experimental Ecstasy: Young Jean Lee’s provocative jam on racial stereotypes, “The Shipment” (On the Boards)

Experimental Overkill: Jan Fabre’s “Orgy of Intolerance” (OTB)

Coolest Production Designs: Small budget: “Titus” (WET); midbudget: “The Tempest” (Seattle Shakes); big budget: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Village), “Sunday in the Park with George” (5th Avenue).

Pemberley Prize: Book-It’s latest Jane Austen delight, “Emma.”

Kookiest, Most Delicious New Dinner Theatre: Café Nordo

Please Don’t Share: “Lasagna” (On the Boards)

The Kids Are All Right: Backwards Theatre

The Importance of Two ‘Earnests’: Village Theatre’s sparkling “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and Helsinki Syndrome’s goofy, captivating deconstruction of the same Oscar Wilde comedy

Biggest Comeback Kid: Seattle Repertory Theatre

You Can Go Home Again: Top-notch touring “Rent,” with co-stars of the original 1996 cast, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal (Paramount Theatre)

Best Alternative Energy Source: Four actors fueling 100-plus roles in “The 39 Steps” (Seattle Rep)

Hardest Working Hoofer in Showbiz: Nimble musical theater fave, Greg McCormick Allen.

Guys in Pumps Prize: Jay Irwin (“Act a Lady”)

An Impressive Stretch: ArtsWest laudably tackles Arnold Bennett’s “The History Boys” (a dozen roles, Yorkshire accents)

They’re Baaaaaack!: Lifelike prehistoric creatures in “Walking with Dinosaurs” (KeyArena)

Shocker of the Year: Seattle Children’s Festival (Giant Magnet) fires manager Andrea Wagner.

Local Treasures: Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt

Much Better Than We Feared: “Chasing Nicolette,” a charming new musical set in the Middle Ages, and written entirely in rhyming iambic pentameter (Village); “Obama, the Musical” (Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center)

Valor in Extremis: Leo Norbert Butz continues in pre-Broadway tryout “Catch Me If You Can” after horrifying family tragedy

Grace Under Fire: Taproot Theatre takes the show on the road after an arson fire gutted its Greenwood playhouse

Moving On: Intiman director Bartlett Sher; actor-director Michael Place; disbanded Circus Contraption.

Rest in Peace: Peter Donnelly, former director of ArtsFund, manager of Seattle Rep and major player in creating Seattle’s world-class performing-arts scene

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com