The Year in Theater

The best and worst of 150 nights spent in a dark room. Plus: Dramatic hypotheses, and thespians speak out.

MAYBE THEY WERE just fishing for tips. But Luverne Seifert and Nathan Keepers played a wonderful little game in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of Chez Pierre. As Boo Boo and Gio, two busboys with high, halting voices and impossibly garish hair colors, they would disappear from the stage for a moment. Then one would materialize--Boo Boo, let's say--behind the bar, his head appearing furtively. He would peer toward some object at the other end of the bar--a glass, let's say--and his hand would sneak up on it. Despite the impossible distance to the glass, the hand would somehow traverse that space and snatch it up--his arm seeming to enjoy hidden elastic properties obscured by the bar. Then, Gio would rise and reveal himself as the true owner of the mysteriously wandering hand. The trick exposed, the two impish busboys would giggle at each other and look bashful.

Moments such as these are inherently theatrical: This blend of clowning and sleight of hand originated on the stage, after all, and remains a pleasure to see when performed by live actors before a live audience. One of the great pleasures of being a theatergoer is watching for these moments, sometimes a fraction of a second long, that are blessedly unique to the theater. Consider improvisational comedy, which Twin Cities audiences can sample in abundance. There is nothing quite like the creative peril of somebody stepping out onto a bare stage with nothing prepared in advance, then spontaneously creating something entirely new--a process that, due to its high failure rate, would be unendurable in other media. Who would pay to watch a film in which two actors stared at each other blankly, mumbling in confusion? What advertiser would buy time on a television show where the programming is nonsensical at best?

But in the theater, the performance is thrilling. Often reviewers compare the experience of viewing improv to that of watching a tightrope walker, another essentially theatrical tradition. There is, ultimately, the very real possibility of seeing somebody fail onstage--an experience Greta Grosch explored in her most recent installment of Greta! Still Becoming! at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, a show that was itself partially improvised.

Z.A.P.! Künst
Z.A.P.! Künst

Looking back on a year in theater--more than a hundred companies and thousands of performances--one begins to see the entirety of the Twin Cities scene as an act of bold invention. There is no director guiding which companies will try out a droll new playwright, no civic official deciding how many people will traipse around Loring Park on an August afternoon in search of the experimental stagecraft of the Fringe Festival. Unlike individual shows, the theater scene never opens and never closes. And so this year-end summary, by necessity, is a review of something that is still evolving. Who knows what script will be playing tomorrow?

 

The Lists:
The Best and the Definitely Not Best of A.D. 2000

The Cream:

1. The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol,
Ten Thousand Things

Featuring a grizzled, ill-tempered lead performance from Jodi Kellogg, this adaptation of a John Berger story proved the maxim that if the performers and the script are good enough, you need little else. Using minimal props and no set whatsoever (the production toured prisons and homeless shelters), director Michelle Hensley nonetheless created a complex, vivid world. Actors climbed mountain ranges simply by scurrying across several small stools, and they visited heaven by raising a canopy, playing music, and dancing.

2. The Adventures of Herculina,
Frank Theatre

Playwright Kira Obolensky's unusual fantasia is less about gender than it might seem at first. While the Herculina of the title swaps sexes midway through the production, acting the first half of the play as a woman and the second half as a man, Frank Theatre director Wendy Knox correctly recognized that Obolensky's use of gender was somewhat metaphorical. The real themes hiding in the play deal with the mutability of those things that are supposed to be permanent--most important, the shifting nature of love. The resulting production was less a clinical examination of hermaphroditism than a love song that was at once giddy and mournful.

3. Chez Pierre, Theatre de la Jeune Lune

There are times when the Theatre de la Jeune Lune threatens to become the Steven Epp show--which can be marvelous, as when the sardonic actor presided over The Magic Flute and completely ran away with The Government Inspector in this past year. But sometimes we need a break from the hysteria he creates, and mercifully Epp was not in Chez Pierre, although his guiding hand revealed itself in some unexpected moments of stage magic. Instead, this production seemed democratic: Every performer enjoyed an opportunity to seize the spotlight, from Vincent Gracieux's gruff, befuddled chef to Luvurne Seifert and Nathan Keepers's playful busboys. In the meantime, Jeune Lune artistic director Barbra Berlovitz literally danced through her scenes as a bewildered diner, showcasing her considerable talents for physical comedy.

4. The Beauty Queen of Leenane,
Eye of the Storm

Martin McDonagh's plays are shallower than they seem. The London-born Irishman has a talent for writing complex, engrossing Irish characters, but he relies on disappointingly simple plot twists and nasty, often unnecessary acts of violence to push his plays forward. The Ireland of McDonagh's plays is a foul place filled with foul people--they quietly launch petty attacks, heaping bile upon one another. Handled poorly, a play such as Beauty Queen could have seemed like the work of an Irishman who has watched too much Tarantino (which McDonagh has all but confessed to). Through intelligent casting, Eye of the Storm avoided such a pitfall. As the ill-tempered, elderly mother at the center of the story, Claudia Wilkens turned her performance into an essay in deviousness, making the violence that followed seem inevitable rather than gratuitous.

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