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.

Emigrant Theater

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.

Frank Theatre

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.

5. Stacia Rice and Peter Hansen, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Torch Theater: Maggie and Brick done to perfection, all whiskey, perfume, and sexual frustration.

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)

3. Esperanza Rising, Children's Theatre Company (Riccardo Hernández)

4. The House of Blue Leaves, Jungle Theater (John Clark Donahue)

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mu Performing Arts (Joe Stanley)

6. Edgardo Mine, Guthrie Theater (Riccardo Hernández

7. Mother Courage and Her Children, Frank Theatre (John Bueche)

8. Bug, Pillsbury House (Joseph Stanley)

9. Crimes and Whispers, Gerry Girouard and Dancers and Off-Leash Area (Paul Herwig)

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.

2. Madmen and Specialists (Nimbus) Wole Soyinka's story of repression, control, and messianic madness was a typically bold effort by this risk-huffing company. Effective execution of the plot, in this case, was not in evidence.

3. Sex Diary of an Infidel (Penumbra Theatre) Great title. That's about it, though. This aimless story about a sham, careerist journalist and the Southeast Asian sex trade was a rare swing and miss for Penumbra.

4. Ten Percent of Marta Solano (Mixed Blood) Almost good, this story of surreal bureaucratic torment seemed several times to be on the verge of meaning something. I'm still not sure what that is.

5. Hamlet (Guthrie Theater) Or not to be.

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