The Year in Theater

Last year my boss sent me to sit in a dark room for 150 nights. Here's what I took away from the ordeal.

When I was but a wee lad in North Dakota (theater capital of the Dakotas), my mom told me that a gentleman should never ask any of the following questions: 1) How much money do you make? 2) Have you recently put on a lot of weight? and 3) Can I have a few of them Funyuns? This wise advice notwithstanding, I'm occasionally compelled to ask members of the Funyun-deprived theater community about economic conditions, and in 2003, as you might expect, these types of queries rarely led to responses along the lines of, "Things are super! The only problem is, we need to get our mitts on an extra 300 seats and another meat locker for the foundation loot that's been pouring in."

There are as many financial pictures as there are theater companies in town (112?), but most have felt some sort of squeeze. In some cases box-office receipts have been we're-pulling-our-hair-out-here unpredictable or just plain crummy. Private donations naturally suffer during a recession, and some theaters have been hurt by the 32 percent cut in the Minnesota State Arts Board's budget, and by schools scaling back on field trips to plays. As a result, we've seen reduced production costs, some increases in ticket prices, administrative layoffs, salary cuts, fewer leather-bound playbills, and a general increase in musicals, revivals of past hits, familiar playwrights, plays known from movies, light comedies, guys dancing around naked, and other commercially promising stuff.

Yet during a year in which theaters struggled and two exceptional companies closed (Eye of the Storm and 3 Legged Race), the Fringe Festival had its biggest year yet. And a number of big, small, and risky shows did considerably better than expected, including Mixed Blood's Sweet Nothing in My Ear, Frank's The Cradle Will Rock (the 14-year-old company's biggest seller), Pillsbury House's Jesus Hopped the A-Train, the Guthrie's Top Girls, and Theater Latté Da's Sunday in the Park with George.

I saw all but one of the above plays and about 146 others this year, more theater than I'd attended in the previous 32 years. Rarely did I leave the theater aglow with wonder over the boundless potential of art; just as rarely did I leave in a huff of indignation. There's a lot of take-it-or-leave-it theater out there, a lot of plays that want to be movies, TV shows, novels, or editorials--things that leave you wishing you'd turned to the genuine article. So if there's anything that connects the shows on my Top Ten list (and, I suppose, the raves, anecdotes, and yarns from local actors and directors that follow it), it's that all offered moments of quintessentially theatrical transcendence. One or two of those electric, art-is-happening-right-now-and-I'm-in-this-room-watching-it experiences that buoy the spirit or at least keep one from sneaking out during intermission.

 

THE TEN BEST
(IN ORDER)

1. ELIJAH'S WAKE
Open Eye Figure Theatre

There were several ways to enjoy this poetic glimpse into the sui generis world of puppeteer-performer-renaissance man Michael Sommers. You could marvel at the sleight of hand, laugh at the arty slapstick, count the mythological and biblical references, or just relish the 55-minute puzzle. After a bit of head scratching, I settled on all of the above. The exchanges between Elijah's archetypal couple (Julian McFaul and Nancy Seward), though wordless, were articulate in their angst and tenderness.

 

2. THE CRADLE WILL ROCK
Frank Theatre

Maybe I just have a hang-up about gigantic, ghostly buildings that now hold stuff like abandoned children's bikes, but the former Sears on Lake Street ought to be a bit depressing. Yet this Depression-era folk opera about class struggle, performed in a section of the former department store, was more fun than winning a pinochle tourney during a work stoppage. There was joy in this Wendy Knox-directed production--I-love-being-an-actor joy--that gave Marc Blitzstein's influential work more life than one might expect from such a seemingly dated work. Performed by a great big cast featuring Ruth MacKenzie and Gary Briggle, The Cradle Will Rock was theater punctuated with comic-book onomatopoeia, satire without cynicism, and Marx with an ear for melody and snazzy chord changes.

 

3. ANTIGONE
Children's Theatre Company and Intermedia Arts

Children's Theatre Company and Intermedia Arts joined forces for this premiere production of the CTC for Teens program. What they came up with was none of the things that a skeptical grown-up might have feared--not pedantic, not patronizing, not dorky in that adults-trying-to-be-hip way. It was loud, fast, and intimate, and its street-theater style sucked you in. Sonja Parks played the title role fiercely, but it was Luverne Seifert who stole the show. For his king Creon, Seifert went for an ultra-nasty approach, conjuring a fun-to-hate hybrid of Mussolini, Mike Tyson, and Shakes the Clown.

 

4. CRAZYFACE
Mary Worth Theatre Company

A scene from this strange Joel Sass-steered picaresque by Clive Barker remains locked in my head. Actually, that's not quite true: Most of the details have busted loose, but an image lingers, and I get the feeling it's there to stay. What I remember is a serene Randy Latimer playing some sort of wise/dumb clown. She was looking skyward, as I recall, and her face was intermittently obscured by the shadow of what I think was a ceiling fan. I'm pretty sure all of this telegraphed the wisdom of the ages. Clearly I'm fuzzy on this one, probably because the image is just how I remember a soul-stirring experience that might have been private but felt public.

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