The Year in Theater

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

5. Talk to Me Like the Rain,
the Jungle Theater

This small collection of one-act plays by Tennessee Williams showed the playwright in a distinctly odd mood: His characters include a drunk who tells a rambling tale about waking up packed in ice, and two very young children who can quite fairly be described as utterly bonkers. As if that weren't enough of a theatrical pleasure, director Bain Boehlke gathered a cast capable of providing these characters with extraordinary depth: Barbara Kingsley, Buffy Sedlachek, and Charles Schuminski (who has demonstrated a special genius for eccentric roles). Boehlke's dank, cinematic set--with its collection of brightly lit, empty liquor bottles--lent an atmosphere of somberness to the whole production, which seems appropriate to a playwright who made a career of blending high weirdness with profound sadness.

6. Z.A.P.! Künst, the Theatre Gallery

Performers Paul Herwig and Jennifer Ilse offered up a feat of comic inventiveness in their parody of performance art, following two hapless and supremely untalented German artists in their misbegotten attempts to create something beautiful. This was joyous and occasionally transcendent comedy, made all the more surprising by the fact that it seemed to be created entirely out of children's toys, cardboard, and frenetic movement. At the end of a performance, one got the sense that Herwig and Ilse could pack their entire act in a suitcase and toss it in back of one of those tiny European three-wheeled cars. Which would have been appropriate: After all, this play was likewise a miniature, absurd wonder.

7. A Piece of the Rope,
Great American History Theatre

If a dramatist must steal from something, he couldn't do much better than stealing from history. With an ingenious script by Jeffrey Hatcher and a completely engaging performance by Julian Bailey in multiple roles, this story of the first white woman executed in the Twin Cities was full of high drama: An abusive husband, all sorts of courtroom shenanigans, and a pitched last-minute escape attempt before the trap door sprung and the murderess dropped to her death. If history class were more like this, few would have to repeat it.

8. Freewheeling in the Attic of Whim, Bedlam Theater

Maren Waard, Jon Cole, and Julian McFaul, the rollicking cast of this play, danced, battled, and leapt about on a stage that was so severely raked that a few more degrees of slope would have made it a slide. Come to think of it, the Attic of Whim set may have been steeper than the set for Jeune Lune's Magic Flute, and that is a slide. The script by John F. Beuche, detailing the relationship and weird obsessions of three supremely peculiar roommates, was at once poetic, silly, and freewheeling--appropriate, given its West Bank setting.

9. Ladies and Gentlemen, Outward Spiral Theatre Company

There is nothing particularly masculine about performer Jodi Kellogg, who played a vaudeville-era male impersonator in this drama--but that didn't matter. Kellogg tied her hair up under a top hat and rolled around on the stage on the balls of her feet like a punchy boxer, warbling out old popular songs. She performed with the air of an aging dandy, while casually seducing anyone who attracted her attention, regardless of gender. This production had an atmosphere so thick with melancholy that it could have been produced entirely in the sepia tones of photographs of dead loved ones.

10. Uncle Ed's Toucan World, Ari Hoptman

For some reason, Ari Hoptman is often referred to as a standup comic, but his most recent performance at the Acadia Café and Cabaret showed him to be something grander than merely a jukebox of unconnected bons mots. Instead, Hoptman is a storyteller, and his short humorous sketches display an astonishingly broad imagination. Who else would dare lecture his audience about Europe's slow transition from paganism to Christianity, all in the service of explaining why Christmas causes heartburn for the performer? And who else could make it so damn funny?

 

Top five touring productions:

1. Shockheaded Peter, Cultural Industries;

2. Máquina Hamlet, El Periférico de Objetos;

3. Dralion, Cirque du Soleil;

4. Dame Edna

5. North Atlantic, the Wooster Group

 

The Dregs:

1. Adventures in Love, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

Forgive me if I found the minor passions of the wealthy to be less than engrossing in this syrupy musical. Watching cheerful, pretty creatures flop around singing about their unrequited crushes and unsatisfying relationships had me ready to throw my chair onto the stage in protest. Better to hear these folks complain about the troubles with their stock portfolios.

2. The Leitmotif, the Original Theatre Company

Even a wonderful cast that included two of the Twin Cities' best performers, Jodi Kellogg and Stephen D'Ambrose, couldn't uncover the point of this meandering work of contemporary noir. Amid a tangle of senseless plot lines, the performers wandered from one puzzling situation to another. The final declaration of a minor character's pregnancy brought about vocal bewilderment from the audience. No one, I would guess, came back the next night to try to figure it out.

3. Silver Lake, the Jungle Theater

A play that proposed to savage Hollywood instead fell prey to the same failings as the town it mocked. While Silver Lake took potshots at studios, the script itself seemed like a studio remake of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by a consortium of shady businessmen who didn't want to pay for the rights to the original.

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