5.The Nuns: I have complaints about the Theatre de la Jeune Lune: I think its gift for invention sometimes overpower its skills at interpretation, as evidenced this past year by their fitful and fretful production of Medea. (In Jeune Lune's production, Euripedes' passionate sense of debate was lost in a welter of howls and a mass of hurried action. Still, I am willing to lose a little bit of Euripides (he'll survive it; there were two other productions of Medea in the same season) if I can occasionally gain something like The Nuns. This ghastly farce, set in revolutionary Haiti and scripted by Eduardo Manet, told of three very bad nuns holed up in the basement of a church, conspiring to murder a wealthy woman to steal her jewelry. The Jeune Lune's artistic staff took to this play's grisly comedy as though it were the lightest of farces, with actors Steven Epp, Robert Rosen, and Vincent Gracieux performing fine bits of stage comedy, even as corpses danced around them and Haiti burned. It was a thrilling juxtaposition of somber theme and airy comedy, and Manet's whittling social commentary never got lost beneath it.
6.The Race of the Ark Tattoo: The oddest play of the year came from the Mary Worth Theatre Company--a fact that should come as no surprise. Director Joel Sass specializes in the unexpected, and, with The Race of the Ark Tattoo, he provided us with a semi-improvised work of spooky storytelling in the form of a flea market. This scene was presided over by master eccentric Charles Schuminski, who walked the audience through the various items in the junk sale, sometimes in the character of an emotionally fragile, somewhat stupid foster child, and sometimes in the form of the ghost that possesses him. The spirit is that of the child's foster father, a mean-spirited old man with a penchant for telling morose, grotesque tales. There was a mystery buried in this story, as any or all of it might have been lies. True or false, it was a great story.
7.Orange Flower Water: The third in playwright Craig Wright's trilogy of plays set in Pine City, Minnesota, concerned a bitter, bewildered love letter, read by actor Terry Hempleman in a drunken fit of melancholia. And so went the whole of Wright's play, which details the erosion of two families as the result of an infidelity. Wright's characters were simultaneously deeply enamored of and distressed by each other, and the author seemed to feel the same way about them. The resulting play was unerringly intimate, as Wright charted the exact trajectory that transforms a moment of joy into one of great distress.
8. Shut Your Joke Hole and The Worst Show in the Fringe:Both of the Scrimshaw brothers offered up superb plays for this year's Fringe Festival. And I hope they will indulge me in commenting on them simultaneously, as the plays were very different. At the same time, the brothers sometimes seem conjoined at the hip, and both plays were obvious outgrowths from their monthly Look Ma! No Pants! sketch-comedy shows. Josh Scrimshaw, the older and wilder-eyed brother, provided an oddity: a collection of ingenious mimed routines, inspired by silent films but infused with his own sadistic wit. Joe Scrimshaw, the younger and wilder-coiffed brother, produced a tale of a caustic critic kidnapped by an egotistical actor. The resulting sharp-tongued battle of wills proved to be an exercise in unrestrained wit.
9.Punk Rock Omaha: The improv team of Ferrari McSpeedy put together its first scripted production for this year's Fringe Festival, and it was a fabulous act of comic creation. The brief play tells of the breakup of a popular Omaha band, Supa Punk, and the ripple effect of emotional collapse that results. Joe Ferrari and Michael McSpeedy played all 12 of the show's characters, often two or three at once, leaping back and forth across the stage as they instantly switched from howling out obscenities as sodden barflies to crying into their beer as despondent HR managers.
10.The Sunrise Café: Sometimes I feel that nobody at all saw this Theatre Gallery production, which breaks my heart, as it is about the most haunting work of theater I saw in 2002. The Theatre Gallery consists of Paul Herwig and Jennifer Ilse, who here portrayed a lonely, meditative long-haul driver and an exhausted waitress in the last hours of their unsatisfying lives. The play was something of a mournful musical, with a score consisting of a few country ballads by Marc Doty, played on an old-fangled synthesizer. This sounded for all the world like the sort of tinny, excessively weepy stuff that might whine from a '70s-era portable radio. The cast also included Josh Scrimshaw playing a silently sinister short-order chef. The Theatre Gallery will remount this play in January of the coming year. Go see it.
Five Shows That Decidedly Were Not the Best
1.Neil Gaiman's Signal to Noise: I chose carefully when I went to the Fringe Festival this year, picking only plays that seemed especially interesting or featured performers I already trusted. Somehow Signal to Noise snuck through. Based on a graphic novel by cult-comic superstar Neil Gaiman, this short play was produced by Council of Doom, who had previously been responsible for a charming show about one woman's obsession with birdwatching. Their Fringe offering, however, contained none of the peculiar humor associated with birdseed purchases and anti-squirrel devices, and instead focused on an artist's lonely--and unexpectedly dull--death. The performers, a little too inspired by the play's heady theme, either shouted or wept every line of dialogue, until ultimately it seemed likely that the artists' untimely death would come about from an allergic reaction to the consumption of scenery.