The Twin Cities' best theater productions of 2010

Epic theater: Daniel Betts in the seven-hour The Great Game: Afghanistan
John Haynes

It was a solid year for theater in the Twin Cities. Good and great shows were produced at theaters of all types and sizes, with only a few eye-gougingly bad ones along the way. In fact, a couple of dozen other productions probably lurk just beneath these 10 shows.

Life's a Dream, Ten Thousand Things: For the second year, Ten Thousand Things has topped my personal best-of list, this time with a gorgeous production of Pedro Calderon de la Barca's exploration of the nature of evil. Fueled by excellent performances up and down the cast and, as always, terrific direction from Michelle Hensley, Life's a Dream showcased theater at its highest level, as the whole piece perfectly melded, to the point that you forgot about everything except for what was happening onstage.

Eclipsed, Frank Theatre: Frank Theatre brought home the tragedies of the long-running Liberian Civil War in this searing work by Danai Gurira, but it was the performances that elevated the show to one of the year's very best in the Twin Cities. In a guerrilla camp, several "wives"—women essentially enslaved to the camp's leader—try to carve out some kind of life for themselves amid the horrifying daily struggle for survival. The most surprising part of the production was that the script, the five-woman cast, and director Wendy Knox were able to find humanity and even humor amid the horrors.

The Great Game: Afghanistan, Tricycle Theatre: Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires, as the Brits, Soviets, and now Americans have discovered. Over the course of 12 one-act plays, The Great Game doesn't offer any easy answers, except for the fact that history truly does repeat itself. Tricycle Theatre brought this to messy life in an epic (about seven hours total) theater experience. Not all of the plays worked, but several of them left indelible images—the briefings of new Soviet soldiers in "Black Tulips," the final moments of Afghan president Najibullah's life seen through the eyes of a British writer, and the finale, in which a recently returned solider finds doubt about the mission even in his home.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Mixed Blood Theatre: Moments after the aforementioned entry, the greased-up Deity (played to the hilt by Ansa Akyea) made one simple fact clear: "Chad Deity is a terrible wrestler." The line, combined with Akyea's on-point delivery, was one of my favorites of the year, and this may have been the best time I had at the theater in 2010. Maybe that's due to a long love affair with the weird world of professional wrestling, or maybe it was that Kris Diaz's script (a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama) showed a deep understanding of the business, while using the play as a doorway into how our society deals—or doesn't deal—with race.

Violet, Theatre Latte Da: Theatre Latte Da always makes theater worth watching (even with the maddening Evita), but Peter Rothstein has a special knack for finding shows off the beaten path often trod by musicals. Violet follows a young girl, disfigured in a childhood accident, on a long, hot bus trip to meet a preacher she believes will fix her. The music, crafted by Jeanine Tesori (she later collaborated with Tony Kushner on Caroline, or Change) has a folksy soul to it, while Britta Ollmann gave one of the performances of the year as the title character.

The Damn Audition, Joking Envelope: Joseph Scrimshaw knows how to write a Minnesota Fringe Festival hit, and this year's entry brought his skills out in spades. The show, about the final auditions for a new sitcom called What's Up Satan, brought the funny every step of the way, while a parade of local talent—John Middleton, David Mann, Maggie Chestovich, and Randy Reyes (playing an "aw shucks" actor from Minnesota)—joined Scrimshaw in the mad merriment.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Jungle Theater: Edward Albee's acerbic examination of one couple's dead relationship and the headlong rush another is taking down the same path isn't easy for the actors or the audience. Bain Boehlke's measured production offered the faintest glimmers of humanity and humor during the evening-long four-way dance, which only made the eventual devastation that much worse. A terrific cast, led by Steven Yoakam and Michelle Barber, helped to seal the deal.

Always and Forever, Illusion Theater: The jukebox musical gets a bad rap for good reason—no matter how you dice it, there's no way to find a coherent plot among two dozen Elvis songs—but when the focus is put on performance and interpretation rather than plot, watch out. Always and Forever fuses great soul music from the 1960s and '70s with an African-American barbershop setting, offering words of advice, good and bad, from the songs the cast sings.

The 39 Steps, Guthrie Theater: Director Joel Sass and set designer Richard Hoover crafted an elaborate, stylized world for this pastiche/spoof/homage to Alfred Hitchcock and traditional spy thrillers. A cast of four crafted dozens of mad characters to inhabit the world of double crosses, mistaken identity, and even a puppet-based bird attack.

Brief Encounter, Kneehigh Theatre: This was the touring show of the year until The Great Game landed at the Guthrie. Creator Emma Rice brought Noel Coward's film to the stage, but she never lost sight of its origins. The staging cleverly merged video and onstage performances that blurred the lines between the two art forms. That could have been all spectacle and no heart, but the script and performances brought this quaint story of a never-was affair to bright, beautiful life.

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