The Year in Theater

4.DOWN THE ROAD AND TONE CLUSTERS
DIRECTORS THEATER

This production of two one-acts was the last local play to include actors Stan Peal and Laura Depta, who subsequently moved out of state. Peal and Depta were fixtures of the small theater companies that make the Cedar Riverside People's Center and the Acadia Cabaret their home, and as befits a swan song, they turned in some of their finest performances in this production. Peal and Depta played married couples in each of these two one-acts (as they do offstage), with both one-acts detailing the horrific aftereffects of murder. In the first, Lee Blessing's Down the Road, the two performers slowly fell to pieces while interviewing a sadistic mass murderer for a forthcoming book. In the second, Joyce Carol Oates's Tone Clusters, the two played an older couple on a talk show, quietly trying to defend their son against charges of having committed a terrible sex crime. Uniformly, their performances were wistful and unforced, and often terribly sad.

5.HECKLER
EYE OF THE STORM

There are not many actors who can steal the stage from the cast of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, but Brian Baumgartner is one of them. In Gulliver, he played an gargantuan baby, wailing and drooling as terrified Lilliputians fed him with cranes and fired at him with tiny tanks, desperate to placate or destroy him. In their production of The Green Bird, Baumgartner depicted an oversize dowager, dressed in massive kabuki robes, hollering at the top of his lungs. Baumgartner--round-faced, big-framed, and imposing--has many fine qualities as an actor, but the foremost among them is his sheer volume. Bill Corbett's Heckler gave Baumgartner the chance to use that volume in an ideal setting: The title character is a fellow who has made heckling his life's mission. Corbett's Dostoyevskian script is a sharp piece of writing that carefully details the squalor of his character's life and mission (a ratlike dog, a job as a busboy, a pompous and indulgent ego). But it was Baumgartner's performance that carried this one-man show. The actor managed to be both pathetic and inspirational, lecturing the audience on the lost, and essential, power of the human voice.

6.THE DEATH OF BESSIE SMITH
THEATER LATTÉ DA

Locally produced musical theater is still just finding a footing in the Twin Cities, but this Theater Latté Da production demonstrated how it can be done right--primarily under the guiding hand of director Peter Rothstein. This partnership took an old script by Edward Albee, set on the night of blues singer Bessie Smith's awful death. Albee's original rendition takes place in the hospital that refused to admit the singer, and it centered on a bitter, withering nurse (Carla Noack). Smith herself never appears, instead remaining offstage, dying of injuries from an auto accident. The Latté Da production allowed Smith to be a character in the story of her own expiration, splitting the stage between the desperate events at the hospital and a smoky bar, where Smith (played by Shirley Witherspoon) sang before the crash. Smith's music is earthy and hedonistic, a sharp counterpoint to the whittling killjoy that is the nurse, and the presence of her songs in the play brought a renewed urgency and poignancy to Albee's one-act. Rarely is such an established work so imaginatively reconceived.

7.THE DESCRIPTION OF THE WORLD
THEATRE DE LA JEUNE LUNE

Jeune Lune occasionally produces plays that are based, seemingly almost entirely, on their ability to invent things onstage with just a few sheets of fabric: a bowl of water, a large stick, a dozen cast members in funny costumes. Last year it was Chez Pierre, and this season it was Description, based on the writings of Marco Polo. Fortunately, Robert Rosen seems to be something of an avid amateur magician: He made knives, forks, and even customers disappear in Chez Pierre; and, as co-writer, director, and Polo in this production, he made the entirety of the Orient appear out of thin air. Admittedly, it was an imaginary Orient, as the play took pains to point out that Polo was probably an inveterate liar. But this theater company seems to appreciate such a wayward imagination. Description of the World eloquently made an unusual case: That there is nothing wrong with a few lies among friends, so long as the lies are beautiful.

8.THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
TEN THOUSAND THINGS

There is an appealing randomness to Ten Thousand Things productions. Director Michelle Hensley seems to choose plays on a whim, which is why her past season went from obscure Shakespeare (Cymbelline) to Beckett (Waiting for Godot) to this mild-mannered Broadway musical about a Napa Valley vineyard owner. Hensley has an extraordinary skill at casting her plays: This one featured Stephen D'Ambrose and Aimee K. Bryant as star-crossed lovers, one an elderly and somewhat dopey Italian immigrant, the other a naive San Francisco waitress. D'Ambrose is one of the Cities' finest actors, with a thin, unexpectedly sweet singing voice, while Bryant is one of the Cities' finest musical-theater performers, with a great booming voice and a surprisingly shy onstage demeanor. The two opposite each other was like a duet between a toy piano and a Stradivarius violin--which turned out to be a terrific match.

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