It wasn't all aesthetic revelation. I staggered through deep snow in the side streets behind Vineland Place to avoid paying the Guthrie's parking fee, nearly giving up on seeing a great production of Oedipus (see below). I sweated like a pack animal in a devilishly sweltering theater during the Fringe, wondering if I was going to succumb. I saw some crappy plays. I wandered into the Red Eye on a last-minute whim one Sunday and saw one of the best shows of the year (see below again.)
And last week I started jotting down shows that might qualify for the 2005 Top 10. Easy enough, one would think, since the productions that stick in the mind and impress with an ineffable combination of craft and insight are rare things indeed. My initial list of entirely viable candidates totaled 24. Not bad! In fact, whittling down the candidates was fairly excruciating. I won't pretend that this Top 10 represents anything more than the definitive take on the subject by one enormously insightful man--wait, that's not what I meant to say at all, the list is more an ephemeral snapshot, and sincerely, I had to leave some gems off the all too short list that follows, and undoubtedly missed a few Top 10-worthy productions.
Now on with the all too short list, beginning with number 10 and working, with appropriate drama (and inevitability, given the presence of two Greek tragedies) toward number one.
10. THE SEA WOLF
My interaction with Jack London's fiction took a turn for the queasy in college, when my leftist professors had me read London's "adult" work, which handled ideas like a food processor handles leafy greens. But the guy could write a really good adventure, and this handling of the horrible captain Wolf Larsen's saga was as smart and entertaining as anything I saw last year. Bob Malos reeked of malicious charisma in the lead, and Gregg Bush convincingly quaked as involuntary crewman Humphrey Van Weyden. To say that it was an unmitigated blast is to take nothing away from the quality and depth of this original Hardcover adaptation. Yar, indeed.
9. AMERICAN SUBLIME
at Gallery Atitlan
Staged at Gallery Atitlan in downtown Minneapolis, at floor level, this premiere Patty Lynch play took on paranoia and zealotry in post-9/11 America with maximum intensity and minimal fireworks. Terry Hempleman and Amy McDonald portrayed a couple who wander into a museum gallery and begin playing obscure mind games with a guard (Casey Grieg). They lay into him, making a case for the crappiness of his existence, then begin to groom him for their indistinct antiterrorist cause. Several '05 productions mined the (hopefully) temporary madness of the War on Terror; this Brian Goranson-directed show did so with police-state-like authority.
8. PATTY RED PANTS
The Red Eye
This staging of Trista Baldwin's new play was the kind of show that moved along pleasantly, leaving a nice residue of memory, and then proceeded to bubble up from the unconscious with regularity in the months to come. Ariel Dumas and Emily Gunyou played a couple of teenage girls tripping back and forth in time while rendering the Big Bad Wolf mythos in terms of high school rebellion and the awesome vistas of early sexuality. Against gorgeous projected backdrops, the action unfolded like a dream in which several corners of the blanket of ideas were smoothed and tucked. And how often does that happen?
7. STAGE DIRECTIONS
Here was a case of a tight script meeting solid direction (by Lou Bellamy) and a cast that filled the room with tension, humor, and a dogged aversion to cliché. Jay Jones played Rod, a macho straight actor who lands a role in a play. It was a good part and he needed it, but he blanched in rehearsals when it came time for a stage kiss with Gary (Desmond Bing). James Craven played the director, whose answer to the problem was an artistically unsatisfying cave-in. While the problem threatened to blow the production apart, the actors stormed around the theater, making the audience feel as though they were getting a sneak peek at a real-life artistic meltdown. The work played around with homophobia while providing character studies that transcended politics and worked immensely well as sheer drama.
6. THE STRONG AND CAPABLE SHOULDERS OF THE STUDENT WHEN HE DREAMS
Writer and director Jim Bovino's abstract meditation on the notion of adult futility following the promise of youth, only more fun than that sounds. Barbara Meyer inaugurated things with a doleful monologue, delivered from inside a bucket, during which she dropped stones marking the passage of time (get it?). Then a scenario unfolded in which Don Mabley-Allen endured many travails at a school for the (metaphysically, and otherwise) blind. Cherri Macht as a professor laid out hard lessons on impossibility and the void, then Bovino intervened as the school's director after spending the evening perched 20 feet over the stage. We were left chastened by the ontological realities we face (or don't).
5. TAKE ME OUT
Mixed Blood Theatre
Richard Greenberg's 2002 play about a baseball star announcing his homosexuality midseason saw a tight and funny regional premiere at Mixed Blood. Lindsay Smiling played Darren Lemming, the imperious athlete so sure of his innate superiority that he cares nothing for any fallout from his announcement (and wouldn't it be heart-thumpingly refreshing if it really happened?). This production shone for its easygoing depiction of clubhouse life, with Sean Dooley as the resident clubhouse brainiac (i.e., with legitimate pretensions to middlebrow status) who stands by his buddy in his time of strife. And, yes, this was the show that featured a Full Monty shower scene. The things they do for art.
Slick, visually stark, and deeply cutting. Peter Macon played the title role as a man imbued with greatness yet dogged by his intransigence--in other words, a fully realized, bloody-minded Greek tragic hero. His showdown with, and destruction of, Creon (Stephen Yoakam, the second time these actors squared off on a Twin Cities stage in as many years, the first being 2004 City Pages Top 10 show Blue/Orange at the Guthrie Lab) was probably the most harrowing sequence of the year. Isabell Monk O'Connor added a credibly complex and conflicted Jocasta, and David Zinn's costumes wed the classics to Ziggy Stardust. It's the ultimate detective story, with the gumshoe closing in unknowingly on himself, and this production of it was fittingly gripping.
3. ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE
The Jungle Theater
Joe Orton's 1964 play about a young rogue who malevolently insinuates himself into a British household, sleazily exploiting a woman and her brother's attraction for him and eventually committing a heinous act, is a dark, ugly thing. What a fine night out at the theater, then, in this playfully depraved production. Justin Kirk returned to the Twin Cities to play the contemptuous, sneering hustler in question, and Sally Wingert was painfully raw and moving as middle-aged Kath. Bain Boehlke returned to the stage with a shaved head--the better to play a doddering old man who earns a clubbing for his clear view of the rot around him. Mr. Sloane, it turned out, actually was very entertaining.
Ten Thousand Things
Emily Mann's new adaptation of Sophocles crackled with rage, emotion, and the ruinous consequences of a "wartime commander" who will "stay the course" despite all evidence that his decisions are ill-considered [polite clearing of throat]. Kate Eifrig in the title role was all unyielding anger to match Bob Davis's power-drunk Creon, though both actors hit perfect notes when the time came for their comeuppance. Sonja Parks as Antigone's sister Ismene plugged into the hot wires of a woman trying to compel her relatives to back down from their craziness, and Ron Menzel's Haemon exuded power in his lay-it-down doomed attempt to make his father come to, well, let's say Zeus.
1. MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES
Theatre de la Jeune Lune
This show ran around the same time Jeune Lune learned that it had received a 2005 Regional Theatre Tony Award--and was a triumph of its own. A tango opera by Astor Piazzola that premiered in 1968, Maria explores the feminine embodiment of the Buenos Aires underclass, in a vector that leads inescapably to the grave. Piazzola's original opera played around with dualities, and in this production Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden portrayed Maria split into two, a move echoed by the tag-team depiction of her suitor the Spirit Poet (Steven Epp and Bradley Greenwald). The Mandragora Tango Orchestra provided an understated take on Piazzola's compositions to good effect (tip for Piazzola lovers: Violin hero Gidon Kremer released Tracing Astor in 2001, and it is minimal, and beautiful). You walked away feeling as though you had seen sights and heard sounds not soon to be reproduced.
TEN GREAT SETS OF 2005 AND THE
PEOPLE WHO DESIGNED THEM:
As You Like It, Guthrie Theater, James Noone
The Flies, Bedlam Theatre, Brad Dahlgaard
A Cupboard Full of Hate, Off-Leash Area,
A Body of Water, Guthrie Lab, Michael Sims
Pericles, Guthrie Lab, John Clark Donahue
An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf, Girl Friday Productions, Steve Kath
Antigone, Theatre de la Jeune Lune,
She Loves Me, Guthrie Theatre, James Youman
NOTABLE PERFORMANCES FROM SHOWS THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE TOP 10:
Stephen D'Ambrose, in An Almost Holy Picture, Pillsbury House
Brian Sostek, in The Mad Dancers, Mixed Blood
James Craven, in Grandchildren of the
Buffalo Soldiers, Penumbra Theatre
Jeany Parkand Sherwin Resurreccion, in Happy Valley, Mu Performing Arts
Megan Gallagher, in The Constant Wife, Guthrie Theater
Ron Menzel, in Pericles, Guthrie Lab
Carena Crowell, in Iphigenia, Ten Thousand Things
Alayne Hopkinsand Edwin Strout, in An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf, Girl Friday Productions
Inside the Actor's Diary
Ever modest and democratic, we always seek to let the artists themselves have the last word. At least once a year. And so, in keeping with tradition, we asked a handful of local theater artists, some of whom made work cited above, to recount their most memorable theater-related experiences of the calendar year.
Lou Bellamy,Penumbra Theatre founder and artistic director
Penumbra's Tribute to August Wilson was held on October 26, 2005. Excerpts were read from each play of Wilson's monumental 10-play cycle beginning with Gem of the Ocean and ending with Radio Golf. Wilson's work has become a measuring stick not only of Penumbra's growth in craft, but a reflection of our maturity as human beings and contributing members of society. The complete offering of every ounce of skill and emotion that occurred in some of the readings was astounding. We're talking about actors, directors, writers, etc. working together for 30 years or more on some of the best literature that African Americans have produced. It demonstrated why black theater must and will always be.
Bob Malos, actor
I saw Radio Golf by August Wilson this past summer in Los Angeles. It featured our own James A. Williams, and I had a chance to sit down with James and the cast after the show. It was a thrill to see the last play in the cycle and actually know somebody in the cast. I was truly honored. Then about a week later came the announcement of Wilson's terminal cancer. What a privilege it was to see his final work and meet the extraordinary artists who brought it to life. His poetry will live on forever.
Sonja Parks, actor
My most memorable theater event of 2005 ran for over seven decades, played to hundreds of adoring fans, and ended in a triumphant crescendo that had every person in the room wishing they could see it just one more time. My most memorable event was the life of Kathryn Gagnon. Kathi, who died of liver cancer, was a Twin Cities institution. An incredible performer, accomplished singer, teacher, published writer, and true Renaissance woman, Kathi reminded me that it is absolutely essential to get the most out of this life. And even actors (who are notoriously catty in their critiques of each other) are still shouting, "Bravo, Miss Kathi! Bravo!"
Leah Cooper, executive director, Minnesota Fringe
For Five Fifths of the Godfather, five companies each took a section of the Mario Puzo classic and deconstructed at will. Skewed Visions abandoned both plot and stage; Ministry of Cultural Warfare translated it to partisan politics using hand puppets on film; Third Rabbit Dance Ensemble made choreography of Sicilian courtship; Rogue Theatre did Shakespearean verse, swinging swords instead of revolvers; and, for the stunning finale, Nautilus Music-Theater turned the climactic gunfight and simultaneous baptism into original opera led by Bradley Greenwald and Gary Briggle, complete with a chorus of 25 of the best voices in town. Crazy concept. Beautiful theater.
Dominique Serrand, Theatre de la Jeune Lune
Certainly the strangest and most astonishing theatrical event I was a part of took place on June 5. I'm backstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, with my career-long colleagues Barbra Berlovitz, Bob Rosen, Steve Epp, and Vincent Gracieux. Sally Field is slumped in a chair to one side of us, preparing to hand a lifetime achievement award to Edward Albee, who is irritatedly playing with his hearing aid and bitching that the last time I did one of his plays was when I was 18. Kate Burton is pronouncing "Jeune Lune" very beautifully. And suddenly we are onstage, receiving the Tony Award as Outstanding Regional Theatre. A truly wondrous occasion. We dedicate this award to all artists who fight to create and embrace the power and freedom of their imagination.
The other remarkable moments for me in the theater were, as always, those of remarkable performance. Jennifer Peden in Arion at the Fringe, Macbeth at the Guthrie Lab, Steve Epp in our production of The Miser at La Jolla Playhouse, Christina Baldwin in our production of Carmen at the American Repertory Theatre. Performances that are so truly stunning that you come away reenergized and proud to be a part of the theater.
Jack Reuler, artistic director, Mixed Blood Theatre
Last May Mixed Blood produced Found, an original musical set in Colombia and performed both in Spanish and English. At the end of the curtain call of a performance with several hundred Spanish-speaking audience members, a patron jumped to the stage to loudly protest the terrorist tactics of the revolutionary group FARC in Colombia. Theater provoked!
And: During the first act of a performance of the Guthrie's His Girl Friday, Carl Kenzler (playing Angela Basset's love interest, Bruce Baldwin) was hurt. In the second act, Bill McCallum, who had been playing another role in Act 1, came on as Bruce Baldwin, and Nat Fuller came on as Schwartz. The audience gulped, accepted, and the show went on.
We witnessed the power of theater for strengthening community as we spent our third summer performing the Driveway Tour in backyards, parks, and libraries as neighbors gathered to partake of a colorful, crazy puppet show. No matter the neighborhood, the work was truly appreciated; the arts are a necessity for everyone. Now we are building our own theater with eyes opened to the lessons this new space will teach us.