Egg nog. Fruitcake. Mistletoe. Some holiday traditions are worth clinging to, no matter what. In a world of chaos and change, these rituals give us a sense of continuity, of permanence in uncertain times.

That's why this theater critic cherishes the tradition of the year-end best-of list. While it's impossible to mark every notable play that happened this year, it's certainly a gratifying exercise to celebrate the shows that were memorable even to the most voracious culture vulture (read: me). Sometimes it's the text that makes a production unforgettable. Other times a play etches itself into the mind's eye because of a single luminous performance or a director framing a narrative with exquisite care.

KEVIN BERNE/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATREIan McKellan, left, and Patrick Stewart starred as two writers locked in an odd encounter in Harold Pinter’s
KEVIN BERNE/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE Ian McKellan, left, and Patrick Stewart starred as two writers locked in an odd encounter in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land," which premiered at Berkeley Rep before a Broadway run. (brt)

Indeed, it was such a good year that many estimable productions did not make the cut. Honorable mentions go to Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" at TheatreWorks and Dan Le Franc's "Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright" in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Here is my countdown of the Top 10 in theater for 2013.

1. "No Man's Land": Stage and screen legends Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, two virtuosos of the theater, played a rich symphony in the enigmatic comedy of Pinter in this memorable journey to the void. Sean Mathias' wonderfully tart revival made its world premiere at Berkeley Rep before heading to Broadway. McKellen and Stewart are the ideal interpreters for Pinter because they tap into the juicy black humor that laces the dread in this 1974 thriller.


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2. "Terminus": Three forsaken souls known only as A, B and C plunge into the Dublin underworld in this haunting drama from Mark O'Rowe, hailed for "Howie the Rookie." A play in verse that unfolds in a maze of interlocking monologues, this unforgettable drama was marked by the poetry of the Irish accent and the stunning versatility of actors Marissa Keltie, Stacy Ross and Carl Lumbly locked in a dance of danger and regret. The ingenious Jon Tracy directed this thrilling American premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre.

3. "4000 miles: Amy Herzog has a gift for understated characters facing everyday hurdles with equal parts pluck and self-destructiveness. The understated gem unfolds as a series of perfectly captured moments between eccentric people we instantly recognize and won't soon forget. The playwright ("Belleville," "The Great God Pan") based the character of Vera on her own grandmother, and you can sense her empathy for the indignities of aging. Mark Rucker directed this delicate gem in its West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater.

4. "Buried Child:" Loretta Greco's blistering revival of Sam Shepard's American Gothic icon, which made its world premiere at the Magic back in 1978, proved that this once lustrous troupe has made a full comeback. Framed by intense performances by Rod Gnapp, Patrick Alparone and Elaina Garrity, this white-hot production of the Pulitzer-winning family drama celebrated the theater's rich legacy as a fearless champion of bold new voices.

5. "Black Watch": Part lamentation for the fallen, part documentary theater, this critically acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland production both paid homage to and deconstructed the iconography of warfare within an explosive theatrical ritual that shook the walls of San Francisco's historic Drill Court. Director John Tiffany ("Once") and choreographer Steven Hoggett ("Once" and "Peter and the Starcatcher") brought the history of the legendary Scottish battalion to life.

6. "Strangers, Babies": Twenty years ago three little children, one of them a girl named May, romped into a park and changed their lives forever. Now May is all grown up, and she lives next to another such park but can never shake the terror of what happened that day. Scottish playwright Linda McClean ("Any Given Day") once again startled us with the enigma of the psyche, the way horror and pity can coexist in a single exhaled breath. This 90-minute odyssey, beautifully directed by Jon Tracy, made its regional premiere at Berkeley's Shotgun Players.

7. "This Is How It Goes": Neil LaBute, the bard of the bad boys, goes for the laughs and the jugular in this satire of race, love and gender in small-town America. Piercing performances by Carrie Paff, Gabriel Marin and Aldo Billingslea turned this Aurora production into an evening of gasp-worthy reversals of fortune. As in "Fat Pig" and "reasons to be pretty," the key to LaBute is making the brutality seem funny as well as true, a trick director Tom Ross has nailed.

8. "Beautiful": A blissful Brill Building score and a star turn by Jessie Mueller as songbird Carole King gave this jukebox tuner its sheen in its pre-Broadway tryout as part of the SHN series. If the boomer-magnet musical never quite makes the earth move under our feet, it does give a backstage pass to the sound of a legend being born.

9. "reasons to be pretty": Arias of howling rage were the stars of this Neil LaBute anti-rom-com. Juicy leading performances by Lauren English and Craig Marker made this savage deconstruction of gender, beauty myths and relationships cut close to the bone at San Francisco Playhouse. The redoubtable Susi Damilano directed this dark comedy hit.

10. "Peter and the Starcatcher": An inventive prequel to the "Peter Pan" fable, this Tony-winning charmer soars on its embrace of low-tech magic. A cast of 12 weaves a magic spell of fairies, pirates and shipwrecks from little more than a bit of rope, a stuffed cat and a kitchen timer. A witty antidote to the age of the FX-dominated Broadway musical. Clap if you believe in the power of imagination.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

COMING FRIDAY

Our picks for best films, best TV shows and best video games will appear in Friday's entertainment section.
Online: Or go to
www.mercurynews.com to find all our critics' picks, plus a slideshow and other extras.