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.

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
Guthrie Theater

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
Penumbra Theatre

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.

 

CHRISTINA BALDWIN
Carmen, Theatre de la Jeune Lune

BRENT DOYLE
Small Tragedy, Hidden Theatre/Playwrights' Center

CHERRI MACHT
UnderFlood, Theatre in My Basement

JODEE THELEN
Perfect Crime, Jungle Theater

JAMES WILLIAMS
Jesus Hopped the A-Train, Pillsbury House Theatre

 

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

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.

 

STEPHEN D'AMBROSE, actor

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.

 

SARAH AGNEW, actor

During a performance of Hamlet in New York, Steve Epp, trying to recover from his sushi incident (which with the help of the gods and modern medicine he should recover from completely) and upon throwing up the line, "In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed," spied a small bearded Stephen Sondheim in the third row. We spent the rest of the show imagining the final scene as a show-stopping Busby Berkeley bloodbath. The rest is silence.

 

CARLYLE BROWN, actor, writer, creator of the autobiographical solo show The Fula from America

In The Fula from America there is a character that was chief of police in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The chief was very kind to me and we were good friends. He helped me out of the country when the troubles began that would plunge Sierra Leone into decades of war. When I began impersonating him I had not seen him for more than 20 years. After a performance a young man from Sierra Leone came up to me and told me he knew the chief and that he had been executed for involvement in a pro-democracy movement. I cried and the young man put his arms around me to comfort me. I looked into his face and for all the tragedy it must have seen, it was bright, smiling, and full of hope, a marvelous sight in this world where horrors are commonplace.

 

MICHELLE HENSLEY, artistic director, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company

Antigone, put on by Children's Theater Company to begin their new Teen Theater series, was my favorite Twin Cities production this year. I loved the immediacy of being pushed around in the big warehouse space, and the physicality, energy, and intensity of the actors. With Luverne Seifert as the father/king and Sonja Parks as the adolescent/social protester, the personal and the political sliced together in a way that was large, beautiful, and rare.

 

WENDY KNOX, artistic director, Frank Theatre

As an audience member, the singular highlight of the season for me was Mixed Blood's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog. Having seen the New York production (which was also a 2003 highlight), I knew that the script was great. But the local production was still phenomenal: great performances in an intimate setting. The show was gritty, it made me squirm, and it gave me things to think about that are still in my head. More theater should have that effect. Kudos to Jack [Reuler] and company.

 

PETER ROTHSTEIN, artistic director,

Theatre Latté Da

A highlight of my past year was participating in the International Symposium for Directors at La Mama, Umbria, Italy. The month-long symposium brought together 25 directors from around the globe to share new ideas, methodologies, and visions. We lived and worked in a 500-year-old convent, which is now an international home for artists. We took part in workshops led by master teachers from France, Poland, Brazil, and the Philippines. The opportunity to collaborate with this talented and diverse group of colleagues in the breathtaking hills of Umbria was an inspiring and life-changing experience.

 

KAREN WIESE-THOMPSON, actor

Being my first year post-gastric surgery and now 130 pounds lighter, it's all been great...and busy. The story that most sticks out in my mind, however, is from the Pigs Eye Theatre production of Twelfth Night. I was playing Toby Belch and had the distinct pleasure of sharing a very passionate kiss with the fabulous Kate Eifrig. During one performance, in the midst of said kiss, I suddenly hear my nine-year-old son shout from the audience, "You can stop now!" We barely made it off stage.

JOSHUA SCRIMSHAW, actor

My brother Joe and I put together a monthly late-night comedy show called Look Ma No Pants. This year we were asked by the Bryant-Lake Bowl to do a special "spooky" edition of the show Halloween night. Little did we know how spooky it would be....If you are familiar with the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, you are no doubt familiar with the much loved and much used EXIT door leading directly from stage to scenic Lake Street. Every show we've ever done at the Bryant-Lake Bowl has, in one way or another, taken advantage of that door. The Halloween show was no exception.

At the end of the opening sketch, fellow cast member Zvie was supposed to turn into a werewolf and chase Joe and me out the door and into the night. During the show, when we flung open the door to flee, there was a man in a hooded black robe standing on the sidewalk. His face was completely obscured by a ghoul mask. Before anyone knew what was happening, the masked man leaped onto stage. There was a beat where Joe, Zvie Razielli, the Ghoulish Intruder, and I all stood there, not sure what was going to happen next. Then, some "the show must go on" instinct kicked in and, as if on cue, Joe, Zvie, and I screamed and started to run in big wacky Benny Hill-style circles. Also, as if on cue, the Ghoul started to chase us.

After a few laps around the stage, we jumped out the door and tumbled onto Lake Street in a heap, the door slamming shut behind us. We did a quick head count and realized we were missing the Ghoul. We dashed back through the Bowl, into the green room, and snuck backstage. Sure enough, there was the Ghoul, still masked, lurking stage right. Up until this point, Joe and I thought this was possibly a prank being played by a cast or regular audience member. We changed our mind when we noticed the Ghoul was shaking slightly, nodding his head and muttering to himself all the while making the quick, random hand gestures of the recently de-institutionalized.

Some say comedy is tragedy plus time. Well, for Joe and me, in that moment, comedy was terror plus adrenaline minus any sense of self-preservation. We moved toward the Ghoul and he instantly adopted a semi-crouched position, shaking his head "no." We were within arm's reach of him and I saw the whites of his eyes under his mask and for some reason this was the tiny detail that really freaked me out. But just as we were about to grab him, the Ghoul dashed back onstage. Joe and I jumped onstage after him and, suddenly, standing there in the stage lights in front of a completely baffled audience, the intruder seemed far more absurd than menacing.

We took him by the arms and led him offstage and out of the theater. Although we never unmasked our Ghoul or discovered his motives, I couldn't help but imagine him cursing us as we dragged him away, "And I would have got away with it too if it weren't for you meddling Scrimshaws!"

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