Best in Shows: Top plays from Minneapolis theater in '08

Queen of the Jungle Theater: Jairus Abts in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Michal Daniel

Things felt as though they were shifting this year, in the theater and, to be sure, in the world at large. The biggest seismic shock was the demise of Theatre de la Jeune Lune; to these eyes and ears and heart, the loss still stings. But we're still sitting pretty, says the optimist in me. From the humblest small stage to the Guthrie thrust, we're awash in all manner of stories, expressions, thoughts—those precious diversions that, in their paradoxical way, bring us closer to the reality just beyond our fingertips.

I know: on with the list. We'll divide the Top 10 into two parts, with the second half running next week. But if I had to isolate a thread that ran through the theater in the past year, it would be hope. It takes hope to tell a story, to want to be heard. It's a simple notion, but simplicity and profundity are by no means exclusive.

10. Animal Farm
Southern Theater

Director Jon Ferguson's last major literary adaptation was Moby-Dick; here he tackled Orwell's allegory of power and the nasty ways humans tend to distribute it. The production closely followed the novel (because it is very good), highlighting the acquiescence of the exploited workhorse Boxer (a powerful Christiana Clark) and the cynicism of the ineffectual donkey Benjamin (Jason Ballweber). This was a restless, discomfiting, rewarding night.

9. Bud, Not Buddy
Children's Theatre Company

Nathan Barlow played the titular Depression-era boy adrift and on the road in America. This was a tricky story to tell: Bud charts a course from an orphanage to a cruel foster home to a life on the road, then to an orbit around a man who would deny being his father until his dying breath. Deep, hard stuff, delivered with enough heart and subtlety that the inevitable happy ending resonated with truth.

8. Love Person
Mixed Blood Theatre

Aditi Brennan Kapil's new play was all about language: Sanskrit, American Sign Language, and, of course, English. But what was going on here was far more than wordplay. In drawing an odd love triangle between a translator, a party girl, and her deaf lesbian sister (believe me, it worked), this sharp but tender production moved into that yearning place in which each of us wishes to be understood without the mediation of words. Far from being lost in translation, Love Person rode a glib pace and misunderstanding-based plot to identify our need for someone to grasp, as one character put it, "our true secret selves."

7. American Apathy
Urban Samurai Productions

I don't think I'm revealing any great secret in noting that our national culture is in a troubled state, and playwright Aaron Christopher took dead aim at its desiccated heart with a new satire that was by turns bitter and caustic, then finally deeply remorseful. Centered on wife Judy (Melissa Bechthold) and husband Ron (Nate Hessburg), this two-act depicted its protagonists as venal, shallow, passionless, and fatally estranged from truth and immediacy. Christopher stacked the deck with a lot of great one-liners, but this was a play for its time: pissed-off and unapologetic about it.

6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Jungle Theater

This rock music enjoyed the advantage of actually rocking, with an embarrassment of great tunes played by a live band, but the production dug deeper with Jairus Abts in the title role. Our washed-up drag queen rock star (David Bowie in a less kind universe) plows through her set list in a humble venue, all the while torturing her husband, Yitzhak (Ann Michels), for potentially outshining her. The whole mess, played out amid booze, betrayal, and lost love, turned out to be a genuinely touching tribute to notions of beauty and connection, a plunge into deep emotion that left one shaken and, eventually, cautiously, invigorated.  

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