Frank Theatre continued its peripatetic ways by staging Suzan-Lori Parks's transgressive bombshell on the concrete floor of an old machine shop, an aptly austere locale for this harsh work preoccupied with sex, death, power, and warped injustice. Shá Cage delivered a raw and soulful turn as Hester, branded with a scarlet letter "A" for abortionist. Gregory Stewart Smith played her love interest with a guileless goodness that stood out all the more once a net of evil was pulled tight around Hester's search for her imprisoned son. Director Wendy Knox guided the work to a perfect tone, creating a world both futuristic (police state bureaucracy, a social order so broken down that vigilantes roam the woods) and old-timey (dilapidated shacks and roadhouses, a corrupt mayor running the town), all wrapped up in a blues score. Knox mentioned recently that audiences weren't as large as the company had hoped, which, to be blunt, is a fucking shame. --Skinner
Pillsbury House Theatre
Is Caryl Churchill the world's best living playwright? It sure felt that way during Pillsbury House's inspired production of this short, frightening play set in an Orwellian world of permanent, nonsensical war in which the enemies include children under five, crocodiles, and the French (those folks can't catch a break!). The play's central figure is Joan, whom we meet as a questioning young girl and as a resigned-to-the-madness adult milliner. Laura Esping played the adult Joan with cool intensity. As Joan's love interest, the versatile, underrated Matt Guidry handled this difficult material with similar dexterity. Great literature and great drama from a restless experimentalist who remains committed to the fundamental pursuit of figuring out why people do the things they do. --Hicks
Good Clown, Bad Clown
Crab Apple Theater at the Bryant-Lake Bowl
Not important or moving or politically charged or even cohesive, but strange and very funny. At any rate, something about this scrappy production (what might the budget have been, 30 bucks?) has stuck with me. Keep in mind that I love clowns, especially clowns in unclownlike situations. Playwright Mark Ehling's collection of scenes brought us several winning crazy-haired losers. My favorites were the imposingly funny Gus Lynch's Clown of Rage (quite adept at forcing people to dance) and hilariously deadpan Ryan Newton Harris's Clown of Sloth (a good dancer). Smart let's-put-on-a-show goofiness at its finest. --Hicks
Lady with a Lapdog
Director Kama Ginkas brought his brand of theater, popular in Russia and making headway in the U.S., to Minneapolis in the form of this wildly careening adaptation of a Chekhov short story. It was a show that asked a lot of audiences, what with its many tangents and Russian-style plummeting narrative trajectory. But this unorthodox staging was rife with ideas, humor, and a sense of improvisatory freshness. Stephen Pelinski's Dmitry was charismatic and foolish in equal measure; the actor treated the role the way a bulldog treats a rib-eye steak. Monica West as Anna took a path from broad, open innocence in the early going to embittered experience in later scenes, lending gravity to the wildness that had come before. More, please. --Skinner
On the Open Road
Penumbra Theatre staged the year's most haunting production with Steve Tesich's On the Open Road, a disjointed but urgent Beckett-esque vision of Jesus' Second Coming. Armed with their artsy smarts and troves of possessions, a pair of proactive pilgrims is trying to muscle into heaven when a pedophilic monk swoops in with a suggestion: ride the rapture by knocking off that pesky Messiah, whose righteousness is no longer practical. Each member of the small, mostly veteran Penumbra cast poured ample fuel on this doomsday fire, but it was newcomer Namir Smallwood's baby-faced Jesus that burned into memory. Rather than spread the good word, he played a grievous Bach cello suite without pause until his crucifixion was final. --Christy DeSmith
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Bloomington Civic Theatre
The year's biggest surprise was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Bloomington Civic Theatre (which opened on the heels of Hello Dolly starring Sally Struthers). As I entered the sprawling Bloomington Arts Center parking lot the day of the show, passing a welcome sign that read "City Hall/Police/Arts Center," I sulked. I didn't want to go. So I was tickled when this mostly amateur ensemble opened with passionate, full-force singing. Sustaining that energy, they turned Stephen Sondheim's deliciously anti-saccharine musical into a two-hour banquet with a barber who kills his clients and the accomplice who bakes them into meat pies. I've been humming the spooky overture to Sweeney Todd ever since. --DeSmith
AND ANOTHER THING...
wait, what's that, you've already tuned me out? Well, don't go yet. We contacted an all-star panel and asked them to give us their most memorable theatrical experiences of 2004. A number of them, it turns out, had to do with the reelection of Dubya. And then there were the happy ones.
Maren Ward Bedlam Theatre
Halloween 2004 at the annual Barebones show at Hidden Falls in St. Paul. Stretching a fourth of a mile along the Mississippi bank, glowing in candlelight and hollering visions for the future, we're keeping hope alive! Never mind the pageant's rocky beginning: the misinformed photographer dragged off the field, the fallen stilter, the cardboard lion that was supposed to breathe fire--not catch fire. Never mind that the arachno-technically correct spider (finished just in time for the last show) was barely visible. Never mind that we changed key during the rousing Viking march, that the lights went out during the headless square dance, that as the giant sparkler-bedecked swan boat approached one heard, "My hair is on fire!" and the response, "Just fucking paddle!" And never mind that three days later our dreams will be crushed. Tonight, we are past, present, and future sailing forth and when we are gone they will remain, the wind and rock and the fire and rain.