When the young characters in this rural drama go to church, they sing hymns while exchanging lascivious looks, voicing their lust in brief asides and generally giving off enough sexual energy to power a combine. Melanie Marnich's script was rife with menace and two-timing, but Emigrant's staging connected like a rabbit punch. In a bare warehouse space littered with hay bales and a disembodied car seat, the young cast played out sex and murder with enough juice to leave the audience with a contact Busch beer buzz. Maren Bush as wife Laura stood out as a flawed jewel in an ugly milieu, her angelic face ultimately belied by her squishy morality. Think No Exit with a soundtrack by Keith Urban.
Children's Theatre Company
A road in Alabama in the Civil Rights Era. Four African American men in a car. A redneck cop eager to abuse his power. So powerful was this scene in CTC's adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis's novel that some viewers left at the end of the night wondering whether children should be exposed to such things. I walked out thankful that my child had witnessed a portrayal of bigotry and injustice so unsparing, so real, and so shocking that she understood in an instant that racism springs from the weakest and most despicable corners of our souls. It didn't hurt that the show also unspooled the familial warmth of an early Gordon Parks pic.
Standing in a cage, the onetime South African washerwoman Saartjie Baartman is the object of a whole nation's leers. As the "Venus Hottentot," her outsized backside stirs fascination and lust throughout Victorian England. It's just messed-up enough to have really happened, and bomb-throwing playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wrung every drop of pain out of the scenario. Wendy Knox subsequently added her signature downhill-with-no-brakes directorial style. And Shá Cage projected disgust and defiance as a character who wishes to be loved despite the wrenching fact that she's not even accepted as human.
Mixed Blood Theatre
Thomas W. Jones II and Regina Marie Williams latched onto Dael Orlandersmith's story of African American skin-tone discrimination in the South with enough electricity to leave the audience singed. Williams and Jones played multiple characters, primarily a pair of star-crossed lovers trying to carry out their lives amid staggering ignorance and wrong-headedness. The highlight comes when Jones's character returns home after an unwanted inheritance. Amid layers of hate between generations, the story spiraled into despair and a murder on the front lawn. Swinging from character to character, Jones's deepest conviction emerged in an unvoiced sentiment: When will we quit all this bullshit?
Great Performances in Non-Top 10 Shows (in no particular order):
1. Gus Lynch, Gangster No. 1, The E.S.C.: So scary that by the end he was threatening to take the audience outside for a thrashing.
2. Sonja Parks, Antigone, Children's Theatre Company: Sympathetic and grandstanding in equal measure; Antigone as the original drama queen.
3. Joseph Papke, Slag Heap, Theatre Pro Rata: It was all good for Papke's street hustler until the drugs and porn started to, you know, turn unseemly.
4. Ahanti Young, Zooman and the Sign, Penumbra Theatre: It takes a lot of guts to play a character so rotten and irredeemable. The kind of performance you don't want your family to see.
6. Zach Curtis, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Fifty Foot Penguin: Stay down already, you wanted to yell. A fitting way to fold a small, brave theater company.
7. Emily Gunyou, Messalina, Red Eye: One hopes to exhibit as much sheer humanity when the breakdown of civilization ensues.
8. Annie Enneking, Mother Courage and Her Children, Frank Theatre: She'd sell you some scrap, some rags, maybe one of her kids. The rapacity of war laid bare.
9. Dieter Bierbrauer, Floyd Collins, Theater Latté Da: Let's see you try singing while pretending to be trapped immobile in a mineshaft.
10. Jami Rassmussen and Amber Swenson, A Princess of Mars, Hardcover Theater: And while you're at it, try playing the male and female leads against bug-eyed papier-mâché alien heads on the end of 12-foot poles. And do it without being upstaged.
Ten Great Sets/Scenic Designs (again, in no order):
1. Gotama, In the Heart of the Beast (Masanari Kawahara)
2. Mefistofele, Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Dominique Serrand)
4. The House of Blue Leaves, Jungle Theater (John Clark Donahue)
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mu Performing Arts (Joe Stanley)
7. Mother Courage and Her Children, Frank Theatre (John Bueche)
8. Bug, Pillsbury House (Joseph Stanley)
10. Floyd Collins, Theater Latté Da, (Michael Hoover)
Talking Turkey: The Bottom Five
We have nothing but affection and respect for the sweat and toil it takes to bring a work to the stage. But sometimes it doesn't quite pan out.
1. The Trial of Osama Bin Laden (Stagewright Unlimited) The verdict? This world premiere was well intended but really, really bad. Still, at least it seemed plausible at the time that Osama might be captured.