When I tell friends in New York and L.A. that I've become a Twin Cities theater critic, they respond at first with a sort of muted pity. Sure, they might have heard of the Guthrie, but they assume there's a precipitous drop-off in quality immediately following--think Paul Bunyan's Lament by the Lutefisk Players.
They're always surprised when I tell them that, in fact, this year there were a number of interesting and well-attended shows that I couldn't work into my viewing schedule. I was forced to pick and choose and, in some cases, neglect productions that had a good deal of promise. It's the holidays, so we'll go ahead and forgive our brothers and sisters on the coasts who think we live in a cultural wasteland. Anyway, they're just irritable because they pay two grand a month to live in a converted dumbwaiter.
At any given time, Twin Cities theatergoers have their choice of an eclectic array of work, from the conventional to the experimental, from the stellar to the merely average. Two local companies, Bedlam Theatre and Flaneur Productions, made the American Theatre Magazine list of hottest young American troupes. Perhaps it's this sheer variety and the number of theaters and performing companies in town that make ticket sales so variable. In the last six months I've sat in packed theaters, and I've also been to shows in which the cast outnumbered the audience. A number of theaters are thriving, while others are engaged in discussions about their very survival.
What distinguishes theater as an art form is the immediacy and the communal experience of being in an audience. It's very difficult to hide or feel anonymous in an audience, unless one is tucked away in an obscure corner of the balcony, because you can sense the actors feeding off your attention and returning it transformed into ideas and imagination. It's this existential vitality that keeps people going to the theater even after sitting through a string of mediocre shows. Because when it works, there's nothing else like it.
Here, then, is our list of 10 nothing-quite-like-it productions. Because I took over the theater beat just this summer and couldn't properly survey the whole year, Christy DeSmith and Dylan Hicks chipped in with a few of their favorites.
The 10 Best
(IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Bill of (W)Rights
Mixed Blood Theatre
For this kick-in-the-gut slab of political theater, Mixed Blood honcho Jack Rueler and Guthrie literary director Michael Bigelow Dixon called on nine playwrights and assembled a collection of playlets about (more or less) the first ten amendments of the Constitution. The audience was broken into groups and guided to various nooks and crannies in and outside of the theater, which made this patron feel rather like a vacationer who had stumbled upon some especially talented tour guides. Jeffrey Hatcher came up with two cuttingly hilarious framing pieces, Jane Martin offered a harrowing dystopia, and the cast gave wonderfully in-the-moment performances that redeemed (or at least helped one forgive) the production's lesser mini-plays. When people wax profound about the immediacy of live theater, this is the sort of thing they're talking about. --Dylan Hicks
This production of Joe Penhall's play, under Casey Stangl's direction, was a frenetic take on the politics of sanity that unfolded in the claustrophobic confines of a London mental hospital. Peter Macon's take on Christopher, a patient angling for his release, was full of sly wit and unexpected barbs. Stephen Yoakam's Dr. Smith was an erudite puppet master, flip and subversive and, as it turned out, stuffed to the gills with ideas less than airtight in their reasonableness. The play was nuanced and complex, and the actors attacked it with a lack of restraint that turned out to be the smart choice. This was a work that stared madness in the face and greeted it with a laugh. --Quinton Skinner
The City Itself
Skewed Visions' work in 2004 amounted to an absurdly rich series of sensory and artistic experiences that, by design, could be experienced only by very limited audiences. The Car(pictured above), a 2000 Fringe remount, combined existential musing with site-specific theater, along with the squirm-worthy experience of sitting in a backseat inches away from the actors. Side Walk, the second work in the series, was a sound installation creating an imaginative walk through south Minneapolis. Finally, Skewed Visions offered The House, in which they converted a rented home into a claustrophobic fantasy of demented memory and multidisciplinary performance. Their work is crackling with ideas and minute details. Now if they can just find a way to pack 'em in. --Skinner
It's hard to imagine Richard Greenberg's story of real-life eccentric pack-rat head cases Homer and Langley Collier in better hands. Stephen D'Ambrose provided his brand of knowing, vinegary smarts to Homer, while Phil Kilbourne's Lang was a wide-eyed aesthete whose intense love of the senses rendered him unable to function in the larger world. Bain Boehlke's direction gave the production drive and then decay, and his trash-house set in Act 2 was shocking and seemingly impossible in its construction. Charity Jones completed the cast as Milly, indistinct at first and then a scene-stealer after her fall from society. By the end, when tragedy took over, hearts were wrung out and then knocked hard when Lang refused to understand that his brother had died before his eyes. --Skinner