5. SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Theatre Latté Da
Due to its no-walk-in-the-park design requirements and demanding songs, Stephen Sondheim's 1984 classic about George Seurat and Stephen Sondheim is a beast that few small companies would attempt to slay (though two local companies tackled it in 2003--Minneapolis Musical Theater opened the show just as this production closed). Theatre Latté Da met Sondheim's challenges adroitly, especially in the visual and choral climax of Act 1 and in Ann Michels's plaintively beautiful solos.
6. THREE SISTERS
This gorgeously designed meditation on melancholy offered onionlike performances (layered and potentially lachrymal) from locals Stephens Pelinski and Yoakam and out-of-towner Kathryn Meisle. What's more, it did right by Chekhov by making his finely sculpted dialogue sound as natural and meandering as the best dinner conversation you ever had, only much better, of course. Special honors to Jim Lichtscheidl (as Tuzenbach), who found the perfect delivery for literature's greatest teleological argument and our next state motto: "Look, it's snowing. Where's the meaning in that?"
7. TWO TRAINS RUNNING
The 1960s volume of August Wilson's 20th-century cycle is a sad, comic, angry, and triumphant affair. Under the direction of Lou Bellamy, Penumbra's second staging of the play (the first was in '94) got at all that, plus served up a supremely romantic slow dance played by Kevin West and the not-seen-enough Marie-Françoise Theodore.
8. THE FULA FROM AMERICA
Carlyle Brown & Company
The world of autobiographical solo shows is riddled with landmines--solipsism, tedium, page-bound writing. But I keep coming back to theatrical diaries because of winners like this travelogue by Carlyle Brown, which played at the Center for Independent Artists in January and later spent five weeks at Atlanta's Horizon Theatre. Here, the personal was universal, and not only that, it was witty, discursive, and genuinely dramatic. Brown's script drew from his early '80s trip through Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. His journeys found him wandering into revolutions, partying in nightclubs, and having epiphanies on a beach, in a Ford van, in a former "warehouse for slaves"--and all over again, it seemed, in south Minneapolis.
9. THE QUICK AND THE RED
Fifty Foot Penguin Theater
This comedy by Ari Hoptman followed mild-mannered Don Webber (Don Eitel) from the bottom rung of PR firm Hanson, Liebowitz, McCullough, Balthazar, and Kincaid to the hub of a world-domination conspiracy involving the walking dead and their unwitting lackeys in the American Communist-Sympathizer Labor Party. With more good jokes per minute than anything I saw this year, The Quick and the Red was one of those rare and fabulous fusions of exceptional intelligence and absolute silliness.
10. DINNER WITH FRIENDS
Eye of the Storm Theatre
Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends is an insular drama of marital strife and dissolving friendships--more optimistic than Edward Albee's tilling of the same soil, but similarly scalpel-like in its analysis. Director Casey Stangl assembled a quartet of actors--Kristen Frantzich, Terry Hemplman, Charity Jones, and J.C. Cutler--who subtly conveyed their characters' mutations from heroes into heels and buddies into strangers--transformations elegantly mirrored by Joe Stanley's protean set.
FIVE GREAT PERFORMANCES IN SHOWS THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE TOP TEN
This list could probably be longer without asking too much of the word "great." In nearly half of the plays I see, there's a performance that compensates for, or at least mitigates, some flaw of the production as a whole. These performances (listed alphabetically), however, are less diamonds in the rough than jewels of the (nonexistent) 11 through 30 section of my master list of 2003's best plays.
Carmen,Theatre de la Jeune Lune
Small Tragedy,Hidden Theatre/Playwrights' Center
UnderFlood, Theatre in My Basement
Perfect Crime,Jungle Theater
Jesus Hopped the A-Train,Pillsbury House Theatre
All right, I've written my last words about local theater circa 2003--any brilliant eggnog plays that emerge in the latter two-thirds of December will be eligible for 2004's Top 10. I'm proud to say that not once in the past 12 months did I call Shakespeare "the Bard," which means that my squash partner owes me 10 bucks. But speaking of last words, it seems only fair that the final one, for once, shouldn't belong to the critic. To that end, we've asked a handful of local theater types to recount some profound, ridiculous, or otherwise memorable 2003 moments as an artist or audience member. Two of those moments, as it turns out, have to do with performing the work of the Bard.
As the audience walks in you notice they're all wearing pretty much the same outfit: tennis shoes, sweat pants, a T-shirt or sweatshirt. All pretty much the same color scheme, too. Depending on the venue you're playing, the audience, except for a guard or two, is pretty much the same gender. Having done four productions with Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, the memorable moments fly at you not only from your fellow actors but directly from the audience. "Don't do it, man!" "You go, girl!" "That's bad," and of course the laughter of irony from a prison audience because they know the story, they've been there. It wasn't till after the show that the casts got something better than any applause. An inmate being interviewed after the show, you know, for grant purposes, to keep the engine running [said], "I was supposed to get my monitor bracelet to go home 10 days ago, but I didn't have $500 to pay for it. I'm glad I didn't. I wouldn't have gotten to see this show." Now that'll set you back.