The Year in Theater

The Year in Theater

The year for theater is already over. That is to say, but for a few brave productions of unexpected material (such as Ten Thousand Things performing classical Greek theater), the Twin Cities stages have already been turned over to holiday-themed plays, which are generally artistically irrelevant. The finances of this seasonal programming might be worth discussing, as Christmas plays frequently make up for sparse ticket sales

throughout the rest of the year, and some theater companies rely on these shows for a sizable chunk of their annual budget. Otherwise very little needs to be said. The Christmas Carol at the Guthrie? It's more ritual now than theater, a seasonal tradition along with carrying in the tree, stringing up the lights, culling the livestock, and setting huge wheels of holly on fire and rolling them down hills (or whatever it is people do in December).

What better time, then, to sit down and review this past year of theater, which, like every year, has been extraordinarily varied--excepting all those productions of Hamlet, which had some essential similarities, like the presence of the Prince of Denmark. Some of this variety comes from the sheer number of plays that opened in the year 2001. And that itself was a surprise; after all, the Twin Cities has only a handful of performing venues, so how to account for the fact that some weekends boasted a dozen or more plays opening?

Is there even an audience for all this theater? Sometimes not: Several marvelous productions played to near-empty houses. But every year finds Twin Citians bravely trying new theater experiences, as demonstrated by the fact that this year's Fringe Festival was the largest yet, with the relatively unknown Ministry of Cultural Warfare's oddball look at La Dolce Vita (titled Into the Acid Fountain) coming up as one of the top ticket sellers.

It is to these brave new audiences that this year's retrospective of Twin Cities theater is dedicated. There is more good theater than can be summed up on a short list, and so what follows is an idiosyncratic inventory of some of my favorites. Fortunately, the number of truly wretched productions is always consistently low--I have kept my list to five, mostly plays produced by theater companies who should know better. Additionally, I have taken a moment to note a handful of theatrical trends from the past year and, as usual, have invited members of the local theater community to cast their eyes back on the year 2001 and reminisce with me.

I spent about 500 hours in theaters this year, by my count, and of all that time I would only attempt to demand back a dozen hours, if I could. And there are an equal number of hours I would have spent at plays that I greatly regret missing. Going to a show is seldom a bad way to pass an evening.

 

TRENDS

Theater is chock full of staggering coincidences, such as the fact that the Jungle Theater and the Walker Art Center were both responsible for staging two-woman plays about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas this past year. But coincidence, as any spooky new-ager will tell you, can be awfully important. In terms of history, this theory of meaningful coincidences is called "Steam Engine Time": That is to say, when the world is ready for the steam engine, several people will invent the dingus simultaneously. But this is the world of theater, so let's call it Alice B. Toklas Time, the time when odd coincidences onstage begin to look like trends, and trends must have some meaning, mustn't they?

1. Theater: The Manly Art

It has been a year since I praised the Twin Cities theater scene for its audacious tendency toward gender-blind casting, and my praises seem to have had an effect. Based on the nontraditional casting to be found on Twin Cities stages this past year, we have at last entered a new period in Minnesota theater. Unfortunately, it happens to be the Elizabethan Period, when women were not allowed onstage, their roles played by men instead. Among the guilty: Nunsense A-Men at the Hey City Stage; the Minnesota Music Theater's production of Pageant; Theatre in the Round's production of Travels With My Aunt; and Theatre Latté Da's production of The Rink.

I would welcome this as the dawning of a Golden Age of drag, but for the fact that in many cases women could have played the roles quite well. In the meanwhile, the number of women in men's drag has been negligible, except for the Frank Theater's gender-blind casting of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which featured a bravura performance by Bernadette Sullivan as the title character. While I do not believe there is any malicious plot afoot to push women off Twin Cities stages, this sort of casting has the exact opposite effect of truly gender-blind casting--it encourages simpering, nastily parodied performances by men as women, reinforcing rather than questioning clichés about gender. It's at times like these that we should be grateful for the infrequent drag-king shows at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, which repeatedly prove the bumper-sticker adage that sometimes the best man for a role is a woman.

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