The Year in Theater

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

3. Masters of Puppets

It is bad form to declare a golden age when you're in the thick of it (really, such declarations should be left for posterity), but good form be damned: Puppetry has never been better in the Twin Cities, and if this is not a golden age, I don't know what is. This past year the Walker Art Center brought in such wild touring productions as the grimly comic Shockheaded Peter and the visceral Máquina Hamlet, both of which did perfectly cruel things to puppets. We are also blessed with massive local spectacles at the Heart of the Beast's May Day Parade and the Bare Bones Halloween show, in which enormous papier-mâché beasties roam the streets of this city as if they owned them--which is fitting. After all, puppetry has started to threaten to do in the Twin Cities what it did in ancient Japan: Supersede non-puppet theater as the most popular and artistically challenging form of performance.

Puppets have swept onto the stage of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where they have always been welcome. Most recently, a giant dragon head appeared in The Magic Flute. Both the Walker and 3-Legged Race have programs dedicated to the development of this form: The two-year-old Adventures in New Puppetry series and the Hand Driven series, respectively. And such local favorites as In the Heart of the Beast and Michael Sommers are working at the peak of their creative talents, as proven by Sommer's complex, elegiac A Prelude to Faust. Sommers's play retold the story of a contract with the devil, mixing traditional marionettes with rhymed couplets and droll humor, demonstrating that a good puppet show can be as thematically dense as a fine novel.

Z.A.P.! Künst
Z.A.P.! Künst

4. The Chaise Longue

It seems that there cannot be a costume drama without these antique furnishings making a cameo--and why not? Their half-chair, half-bed construction makes them ideal for fainting maidens and lazy, foppish villains. (Both these groups worked the upholstery in Frontier Theatre's production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.) One complaint, however (aside from the envy an audience member feels crammed upright into a seat with scant legroom while an actor rests, recumbent): Please pay attention to pronunciation. It is "shaz long," not "chaize lounge." These little details are important for establishing historical authenticity.

5. Sketchy Characters

Something volatile is forming in the world of comedy, but at this point the trend still hasn't reached critical mass. The Cities are now home to dozens of newly formed comedy troupes, such as improv-based gangs like the Velvet Elvises and the Impossibles, who can both be found on the single block of Nicollet Avenue that houses the Acadia and the Phoenix Playhouse. In the meanwhile, more seasoned performers such as the darkly comic Scrimshaw Brothers, monologist Greta Grosch, television parodists Idiot Box, and the object-based Garage Sale improv team of Janelle Ranek and Matthew Vaky have developed strong followings. And the iconoclastic Ministry of Cultural Warfare have planned a complete season of full-length productions drawing from their background in sketch and improv comedy, continuing with the sort of intellectually demanding work they debuted at this year's Fringe Festival with The Last Cherry Pit. Previously, sketch and improv comedy seemed limited mostly to cruise ships and boardrooms, and the works of the Brave New Workshop and Stevie Ray's. Now, we can expect the next few years to bring expansion of both troupes and venues that should mirror the ascent of standup comedy in the 1980s.

 

Dramatis Personae
MUCH TO THEIR chagrin, no doubt, actors, playwrights, and directors rarely get the chance to review their own plays. Here, we give a handful of local theater artists the opportunity to deliver one last soliloquy before the curtains close on the year in theater.

 

Joe Meichsner, actor

Working at the Mall of America in the Halloween Haunt maze, I was the mad doctor. I had my whole laboratory set up behind me--a cadaver with a little heart, and a pump that would shoot blood. People would come down the Hall of Clowns, so they were already freaked out: Clowns are frickin' scary. They'd get to me, and I had this little severed finger in a jar filled with red liquid. I came up to this girl--she was obviously a little tipsy--and she said, "Ha ha, I thought it was a penis!" And I turned to her boyfriend and I said, "Sir, I'm sorry." It wasn't a very big finger.

 

Jack Reuler, artistic director,
Mixed Blood Theatre

Zaraawar Mistry had worked for nine years on seeing his vision of an adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories come to life. Three minutes before the house opened for the first performance he gathered the cast of 18 and quietly told a tale of his father, a military man in India, who (when Zaraawar was eight) followed his dreams and flew off into a dangerous situation, never to return. For 30 years Zaraawar had misgivings about a man who could do such a thing, leaving a wife and three young children behind. This culmination of his hard work--the opening of Haroun--was an epiphany for this author/director and he suddenly understood his father's choices and honored his memory, which led to one of the most inspired performances--making quantum leaps over the last rehearsal--that I have ever seen.

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