Best of the Boards

The top shows from a memorable year in theater

The Twin Cities offered a kaleidoscope of imagery onstage this year, but those of us who make a serious habit of sitting in the audience also have indelible memories of going to shows. From the placid, mellow sound of crickets chirping during intermission at the Old Log on a warm night, to the panic in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse (occurring within scant hours of the opening of the Minnesota Fringe, forcing theatergoers to balance their love of art with compassion for the victims), the theater experience was always about more than what we saw onstage. We are fortunate to live in a place where we can mark our years by what moved us in the arts.

This year's Best of Theater is coming in two parts, with the second arriving in next week's City Pages. I'm counting down my 10 best shows of the year, with the usual caveats that 1) I couldn't possibly have seen every show that deserved consideration, and 2) I've made painful decisions to omit stuff I genuinely loved. But I know, I know. On with the list.

10. THE BARON
History Theatre

Former wrestling heel Jim Raschke appeared as himself in this biographical show cooked up with son Karl Raschke and writer Cory McLeod, and it was all kinds of fun even for those not raised on body slams and finger fours. Raschke stepped out of character to narrate his story as an Olympic hopeful turned unapologetic entertainer, and the onetime villain turned out to be a sweet, articulate guy with a great sense of understated humor and real insight into the line between reality and fantasy that wrestlers (and actors) straddle for a living. And then, at the end, he went berserk once more for old time's sake.

9. PRIVATE LIVES
Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie's 2007 production of The Home Place deserves mention, but here I'm going to opt for the sophisticated charms of Noel Coward's Private Lives. Stephen Pelinksi and Veanne Cox oozed charm on John Arnone's lavish set, playing lovers whose unshakeable cool was matched only by their intermittent homicidal feelings toward one another. This production of the 1930 play truly seemed to be of another age, a time when living with aplomb, as an adult, with wit and insight seemed desirable and downright sexy.

8. FAT PIG
Walking Shadow Theatre Company

Neil LaBute came about his reputation for dramatic cruelty honestly, and the title of his 2004 play (here in a local premiere) promised sadism aplenty. But this one took a different path, and Walking Shadow's production captured its ambiguity and sense of moral challenge. Celia Forrest played the plus-sized Helen, a bundle of charm who attracts the white-collar Tom (Shad Cooper). Tom falls in love, and lust, with Helen, but fights against the shame of societal pressure should he reveal to the world that Helen is his girl. Forrest and Cooper captured a real, breathing sense of romance, and both were courageous in seeing through LaBute's harsh, if plausible, conclusion. This one had heart enough to just about break mine.

7. GET READY
Penumbra Theatre

When the fictional R&B group the Doves scored a left-field hit in the 1980s, the aged song-and-dance men convened at the studio of dance teacher Knobby Coles (James Craven) to see if they still had their chops. The result was a hugely entertaining musical, with frontman Roscoe (J.D. Steele) battling his bandmates as well as his force-of-nature wife, Eva (Jamecia Bennett), while pondering a solo career. This was the kind of show that wed a tight-as-a-drum, experienced ensemble with thrilling tunes and a loose sense of humor to create the only disappointment of the night—when it ended.

6. MESSY UTOPIA
Mixed Blood Theatre

Here's a show that rose in my estimation the longer I thought about it. Well titled, it utilized five playwrights for eight shorts (woven together by director Aditi Kapil) that roamed all over the dramatic and comedic map while tackling the subject of mixed race in America. From a blind-date couple who met on the internet to a freewheeling bandit who escaped capture due to his ethnic indeterminacy, Messy Utopia painted a future not of colorblindness, but of giddy transcendence. Staged all around Mixed Blood, with the audience seated in comfy swivel chairs, this show dared itself to cohere, and ended up an optimistic prism of our own lives.

GREAT PERFORMANCES IN NON-TOP-10 SHOWS (in no particular order):

1. Casey Grieg, Thom Pain, Emigrant Theater. Positively bilious.

2. Robert Dorfman, Merchant of Venice, Guthrie Theater. He was going to get his pound of flesh, dammit.

3. Jevetta Steele, Two Queens One Castle, Mixed Blood Theatre. Passion, guts, brilliant pipes.

3. Nathan Keepers, Jennifer Blagen, The Swan, Jungle Theater. Looking for love in very wrong places.

4. Lisa Clair, Jake-A-Dee Meyer, Parlor Players. She dished out a lot of shit.

5. Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., André Samples, Namir Smallwood, The Lost Boys of Sudan, Children's Theatre Company. A trio who captured performance lightning in a bottle.

6. Katie Kaufman, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, 20% Theatre Company, Twin Cities. The hell with sainthood.

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