The Year in Theater

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

4. Dracula, Park Square Theatre

Playwright Steven Dietz found very little that is new in Bram Stoker's classic horror story, and he decided to rely on the book's epistolary format to retell it. This meant that characters tended to talk about events as though they had already happened, which doesn't do too much for creating dramatic tension. Director Richard Cook, apparently inspired by Japanese theater, decided to dress his stagehands in rags, and as a result every set change was performed by creatures who seemed to have wandered over from a nearby mummy movie. Ooooh...scary!

5. Seduced, Cockpit and Rhombus theaters

Z.A.P.! Künst
Z.A.P.! Künst

I feel a bit like I'm picking on the little guy here: Companies this small seem to be working with budgets so low they must have been fished out of the pockets of old suits. But the Cockpit and Rhombus theaters' joint production of this weak Sam Shepard script resulted in one of the few shows this year that had me wondering if I could crawl up the aisle unnoticed to the safety of the exit. Sitting through bad Shepard is typically like having a tooth extracted; this production was root canal.


New Directions
Gender swapping, comfy chairs, and breaking into song: The trends of the year

DAMN THE STATE Legislature for ruining what otherwise was a perfectly lovely year for theater. Our public officials behaved in a miserly fashion toward the Guthrie Theater, giving the company a fraction of the money it needed to begin financing its new building. The Guthrie, with its powerful donor base and strong political support, will survive this slight. More catastrophic, the Legislature actually stripped away $1 million that had already been allotted to the Penumbra Theatre for its new-building campaign--leaving that company to forge onward in producing nationally important art in a uniquely substandard space.

Although the quest for new real estate may continue to be the headline story for the local scene--theater, like everything else, has a way of following the money--a handful of dramatic trends from the past year can be found lingering in the back pages.

1. Masculine/Feminine

While two of the best plays of the season dealt explicitly with questions of gender confusion (Frank Theatre's The Adventures of Herculina and Outward Spiral's Ladies and Gentlemen), a notable number of Cities theaters decided to put genderfuck theory into practice and cast their plays without regard to what sex played what character. A small sampling: The Theatre de la Jeune Lune cast Sarah Agnew and Barbra Berlovitz in the two lead male roles (a sociopathic freeloader and a corrupt town mayor), while saving the most outrageous female role for a hammy, mordant Steven Epp. With a simple change of posture and vocal tone, Stephen D'Ambrose played a dizzying array of characters, both male and female, in the Jungle's production of The Pavilion. Green T.'s production of Kabuki! 47 Samurai featured women in all but a few of the male roles, which certainly added a new dimension to this hoary Japanese classic.

Both Janelle Ranek and Kevin Pearson played characters opposite their own genders in Yard Sale 2000 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Matthew Bennet depicted a young woman in Ten Years Apart at the Ordway. Tod Petersen continued his career-making turn as his own mother in the revival of Oh S#!% I'm Turning Into My Mother, and his new holiday show A Christmas Carol Petersen. Finally, actor Charles Schuminski took on female roles in both Talk to Me Like the Rain at the Jungle Theater and in the Hidden Theatre's production Pride's Crossing; both performances put him in the running for the best actress in the Twin Cities. The latter play, by the way, also featured Ann Milligan as an athletic young man. Whew.

2. Soon to Be a Soundtrack

While the Twin Cities have virtually no indigenous musical-theater scene (save the rather highbrow Nautilus Music-Theater), reflecting a national decline in the form, that does not mean that our stages are free of music--in fact, quite the opposite, as an amazing variety of songs pour forth in the form of revues. These collections of songs, often connected only by the loosest of threads, have made up half the schedule for the new Pterodactyl Theater Company and have anchored numerous cabaret shows, such as A Christmas Carol Petersen and the Bryant-Lake Bowl's bizarre drag-artist-in-sheep's-clothing comedy All About Ewe. Outward Spiral's Ladies and Gentlemen was also, secretly, a revue show, featuring a handful of forgotten melodies from vaudeville and the music hall, while Djola Branner's Mighty Real was both a biography of disco superstar Sylvester and a revue of the performer's classics.

Most recently, Mrs. MacKenzie's Beginner's Guide to the Blues at the Illusion Theatre built a tragic romantic fable around a collection of classic Chicago blues, while Meet Me at the Fair at the Great American History Theater used the music of Irving Berlin to frame a tale of lost love. A few theaters have taken the additional step of moving beyond the revue format into developing full-length original musicals, such as the Illusion's Two Weeks with the Queen and the Great American History Theater's The Gangster Musical--a welcome development for local songwriters.

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