Curtain Call

Let's bring back the year's best (and worst) performances for one more round of applause (and jeers)

Looking through my notes from 2006 (to be donated upon my demise to the National Archives of Overwrought Obfuscation), I found no fewer than 34 candidates for my Top 10 List—and that's knowing that I missed several worthy shows this year. The opening of the new multi-stage Guthrie was the scene stealer this year (for good reason), but there were other great stories: the public American premiere of the transcendent Gatz at the Walker, the bold work for teens on the CTC Cargill Stage, and the time I found the perfect free parking space in downtown St. Paul before a show at Park Square. Of such events are legends made.

Top 10 Shows of 2006 (in alphabetical order)

Amerika, or the Disappearance

Theatre de la Jeune Lune

This show featured everything we love about Jeune Lune: sumptuous visuals, outré performances, and a cutting humor that dug into Kafka's unfinished novel with an unsurpassed intelligence. (All the better, the company whittled down the local version from the three hours it originally ran at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater). What sticks in the memory is the tremulous Karl (Nathan Keepers), horrified by burlesque visions of the land of the free—such as Luverne Seifert's rootin'-tootin' Texan and Sarah Agnew's sex-bomb seductress. This was director Dominique Serrand at his best, illuminating his work with restless curiosity and kinky subversion.

Skewed Visions

Skewed Visions updated its ongoing site-specific derangement of the senses in a dormant office building across from the Grain Belt Brewery. Days and Nights mined modernity's alienation, evoking the texture of a feverish, tooth-grinding night spent in a haunted past. One scenario followed the true story of Bruno Schulz, a Jewish painter and novelist who was compelled to paint a child's mural for an S.S. officer in the final weeks of his life. A weary Nathan Christopher crossbred this history with the Rumpelstiltskin myth, weaving strips of paper from books in a futile bid to save his hide. Downstairs, Charles Campbell broke down in a seedy apartment while Cherri Macht swilled a beer in urban oblivion next door. The result was spookier than the Celebrity Paranormal Project and more surreal than The Surreal Life.

Theatre in the Round

What a marvelous piece of total trash was this Jane Martin Western—like a John Ford picture remade by John Waters. The cracked action revolves around Big 8 (Karen Wiese-Thompson, with her typical comedic seamless ease), a woman who lives alone on a Wyoming ranch and supplies mystical—and occasionally sensual—services to bashed-up rodeo riders. Her latest charge is the dim Rob Bob (Josh Jabas), a lug-nut cowpoke tangled up in pink with a girl who has a homicidal maniac named Black Dog on her tail. Bob Malos stole the show as the aforementioned ebon canine, getting shot, stabbed, and shot again, repeatedly coming back to life with cartoon menace. This show lampooned everything that's right and sane, amid buckets of blood—a Yosemite Sam cartoon come to life with Ralph Bakshi drawing the pictures.

Jungle Theater

You spent the first hour of this show wondering whether it was going to reach transcendence or fizzle out like so many duds from an unsatisfying Fourth of July fireworks display. This story of two burnt-out Vietnam vets played to the strength of its male leads, with Terry Hempleman supplying gee-whiz geniality and Stephen D'Ambrose lending a tart air of repression to a guy unable to deal with his past. But the mixer that made the drink was the women: Camille D'Ambrose as a crowbar-swinging mother and Heidi Bakke as the war-scarred girlfriend. Breathy, mannered, and inappropriate, Bakke broke through as the evening went on, embodying the incoherent and broken spirit that results from our nation's wars of choice. The spirit of Robert McNamara makes an appearance in the script, but no worries: Future performances can be rewritten to include Don Rumsfeld.

University of Minnesota

The West Bank Arts Quarter, October. You: crouched in the grass while the devil screeched up in a car and cavorted to deranged techno music; jogged to a set of stairs and watched a wind-up band playing demented vaudeville; squinted through the gloom and watched a real-life silent movie playing out in the near distance; leaned against a wall while a huge student cast sang a song of heartache and near-redemption; held your breath while you walked through the dark with characters hissing sour nothings in your ear. What? You didn't? You missed out!

Gremlin Theatre

Humphrey Bogart got famous with his portrayal of iconic gangster Duke Mantee, first on Broadway and then on film. Jerome R. Marzullo did Old Ashtray Breath proud in this small-theater take on desert ennui and the myths of the American artist and outlaw. In a work that predated Slavoj ˆZiˆzek by a few decades, this show captured the desert of the real with chilling vigor: Jennifer J. Phillips as the small-town lovely, Michael Mikula as the law-and-order stiff, and John Middleton as a wandering solipsist. Holding it all together was Marzullo, weary and righteous, his hair seemingly slicked back with the grease that lubes all the machines of the age. As one character opines, "This is a weird country we're in." Amen to that.

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