The Year in Theater

Cage-y grin: Shá Cage starred in Frank Theatre's 'Fucking A,' one of the year's best theatrical productions
Tony Nelson

When I tell friends in New York and L.A. that I've become a Twin Cities theater critic, they respond at first with a sort of muted pity. Sure, they might have heard of the Guthrie, but they assume there's a precipitous drop-off in quality immediately following--think Paul Bunyan's Lament by the Lutefisk Players.

They're always surprised when I tell them that, in fact, this year there were a number of interesting and well-attended shows that I couldn't work into my viewing schedule. I was forced to pick and choose and, in some cases, neglect productions that had a good deal of promise. It's the holidays, so we'll go ahead and forgive our brothers and sisters on the coasts who think we live in a cultural wasteland. Anyway, they're just irritable because they pay two grand a month to live in a converted dumbwaiter.

At any given time, Twin Cities theatergoers have their choice of an eclectic array of work, from the conventional to the experimental, from the stellar to the merely average. Two local companies, Bedlam Theatre and Flaneur Productions, made the American Theatre Magazine list of hottest young American troupes. Perhaps it's this sheer variety and the number of theaters and performing companies in town that make ticket sales so variable. In the last six months I've sat in packed theaters, and I've also been to shows in which the cast outnumbered the audience. A number of theaters are thriving, while others are engaged in discussions about their very survival.

What distinguishes theater as an art form is the immediacy and the communal experience of being in an audience. It's very difficult to hide or feel anonymous in an audience, unless one is tucked away in an obscure corner of the balcony, because you can sense the actors feeding off your attention and returning it transformed into ideas and imagination. It's this existential vitality that keeps people going to the theater even after sitting through a string of mediocre shows. Because when it works, there's nothing else like it.

Here, then, is our list of 10 nothing-quite-like-it productions. Because I took over the theater beat just this summer and couldn't properly survey the whole year, Christy DeSmith and Dylan Hicks chipped in with a few of their favorites.


The 10 Best

Bill of (W)Rights
Mixed Blood Theatre

For this kick-in-the-gut slab of political theater, Mixed Blood honcho Jack Rueler and Guthrie literary director Michael Bigelow Dixon called on nine playwrights and assembled a collection of playlets about (more or less) the first ten amendments of the Constitution. The audience was broken into groups and guided to various nooks and crannies in and outside of the theater, which made this patron feel rather like a vacationer who had stumbled upon some especially talented tour guides. Jeffrey Hatcher came up with two cuttingly hilarious framing pieces, Jane Martin offered a harrowing dystopia, and the cast gave wonderfully in-the-moment performances that redeemed (or at least helped one forgive) the production's lesser mini-plays. When people wax profound about the immediacy of live theater, this is the sort of thing they're talking about. --Dylan Hicks


Guthrie Lab

This production of Joe Penhall's play, under Casey Stangl's direction, was a frenetic take on the politics of sanity that unfolded in the claustrophobic confines of a London mental hospital. Peter Macon's take on Christopher, a patient angling for his release, was full of sly wit and unexpected barbs. Stephen Yoakam's Dr. Smith was an erudite puppet master, flip and subversive and, as it turned out, stuffed to the gills with ideas less than airtight in their reasonableness. The play was nuanced and complex, and the actors attacked it with a lack of restraint that turned out to be the smart choice. This was a work that stared madness in the face and greeted it with a laugh. --Quinton Skinner


The City Itself
Skewed Visions

Skewed Visions' work in 2004 amounted to an absurdly rich series of sensory and artistic experiences that, by design, could be experienced only by very limited audiences. The Car (pictured above), a 2000 Fringe remount, combined existential musing with site-specific theater, along with the squirm-worthy experience of sitting in a backseat inches away from the actors. Side Walk, the second work in the series, was a sound installation creating an imaginative walk through south Minneapolis. Finally, Skewed Visions offered The House, in which they converted a rented home into a claustrophobic fantasy of demented memory and multidisciplinary performance. Their work is crackling with ideas and minute details. Now if they can just find a way to pack 'em in. --Skinner


The Dazzle
Jungle Theater  

It's hard to imagine Richard Greenberg's story of real-life eccentric pack-rat head cases Homer and Langley Collier in better hands. Stephen D'Ambrose provided his brand of knowing, vinegary smarts to Homer, while Phil Kilbourne's Lang was a wide-eyed aesthete whose intense love of the senses rendered him unable to function in the larger world. Bain Boehlke's direction gave the production drive and then decay, and his trash-house set in Act 2 was shocking and seemingly impossible in its construction. Charity Jones completed the cast as Milly, indistinct at first and then a scene-stealer after her fall from society. By the end, when tragedy took over, hearts were wrung out and then knocked hard when Lang refused to understand that his brother had died before his eyes. --Skinner


Fucking A
Frank Theatre

Frank Theatre continued its peripatetic ways by staging Suzan-Lori Parks's transgressive bombshell on the concrete floor of an old machine shop, an aptly austere locale for this harsh work preoccupied with sex, death, power, and warped injustice. Shá Cage delivered a raw and soulful turn as Hester, branded with a scarlet letter "A" for abortionist. Gregory Stewart Smith played her love interest with a guileless goodness that stood out all the more once a net of evil was pulled tight around Hester's search for her imprisoned son. Director Wendy Knox guided the work to a perfect tone, creating a world both futuristic (police state bureaucracy, a social order so broken down that vigilantes roam the woods) and old-timey (dilapidated shacks and roadhouses, a corrupt mayor running the town), all wrapped up in a blues score. Knox mentioned recently that audiences weren't as large as the company had hoped, which, to be blunt, is a fucking shame. --Skinner


Far Away
Pillsbury House Theatre

Is Caryl Churchill the world's best living playwright? It sure felt that way during Pillsbury House's inspired production of this short, frightening play set in an Orwellian world of permanent, nonsensical war in which the enemies include children under five, crocodiles, and the French (those folks can't catch a break!). The play's central figure is Joan, whom we meet as a questioning young girl and as a resigned-to-the-madness adult milliner. Laura Esping played the adult Joan with cool intensity. As Joan's love interest, the versatile, underrated Matt Guidry handled this difficult material with similar dexterity. Great literature and great drama from a restless experimentalist who remains committed to the fundamental pursuit of figuring out why people do the things they do. --Hicks


Good Clown, Bad Clown
Crab Apple Theater at the Bryant-Lake Bowl

Not important or moving or politically charged or even cohesive, but strange and very funny. At any rate, something about this scrappy production (what might the budget have been, 30 bucks?) has stuck with me. Keep in mind that I love clowns, especially clowns in unclownlike situations. Playwright Mark Ehling's collection of scenes brought us several winning crazy-haired losers. My favorites were the imposingly funny Gus Lynch's Clown of Rage (quite adept at forcing people to dance) and hilariously deadpan Ryan Newton Harris's Clown of Sloth (a good dancer). Smart let's-put-on-a-show goofiness at its finest. --Hicks


Lady with a Lapdog
Guthrie Lab

Director Kama Ginkas brought his brand of theater, popular in Russia and making headway in the U.S., to Minneapolis in the form of this wildly careening adaptation of a Chekhov short story. It was a show that asked a lot of audiences, what with its many tangents and Russian-style plummeting narrative trajectory. But this unorthodox staging was rife with ideas, humor, and a sense of improvisatory freshness. Stephen Pelinski's Dmitry was charismatic and foolish in equal measure; the actor treated the role the way a bulldog treats a rib-eye steak. Monica West as Anna took a path from broad, open innocence in the early going to embittered experience in later scenes, lending gravity to the wildness that had come before. More, please. --Skinner


On the Open Road
Penumbra Theater

Penumbra Theatre staged the year's most haunting production with Steve Tesich's On the Open Road, a disjointed but urgent Beckett-esque vision of Jesus' Second Coming. Armed with their artsy smarts and troves of possessions, a pair of proactive pilgrims is trying to muscle into heaven when a pedophilic monk swoops in with a suggestion: ride the rapture by knocking off that pesky Messiah, whose righteousness is no longer practical. Each member of the small, mostly veteran Penumbra cast poured ample fuel on this doomsday fire, but it was newcomer Namir Smallwood's baby-faced Jesus that burned into memory. Rather than spread the good word, he played a grievous Bach cello suite without pause until his crucifixion was final. --Christy DeSmith  


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Bloomington Civic Theatre

The year's biggest surprise was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Bloomington Civic Theatre (which opened on the heels of Hello Dolly starring Sally Struthers). As I entered the sprawling Bloomington Arts Center parking lot the day of the show, passing a welcome sign that read "City Hall/Police/Arts Center," I sulked. I didn't want to go. So I was tickled when this mostly amateur ensemble opened with passionate, full-force singing. Sustaining that energy, they turned Stephen Sondheim's deliciously anti-saccharine musical into a two-hour banquet with a barber who kills his clients and the accomplice who bakes them into meat pies. I've been humming the spooky overture to Sweeney Todd ever since. --DeSmith


wait, what's that, you've already tuned me out? Well, don't go yet. We contacted an all-star panel and asked them to give us their most memorable theatrical experiences of 2004. A number of them, it turns out, had to do with the reelection of Dubya. And then there were the happy ones.


Maren Ward Bedlam Theatre

Halloween 2004 at the annual Barebones show at Hidden Falls in St. Paul. Stretching a fourth of a mile along the Mississippi bank, glowing in candlelight and hollering visions for the future, we're keeping hope alive! Never mind the pageant's rocky beginning: the misinformed photographer dragged off the field, the fallen stilter, the cardboard lion that was supposed to breathe fire--not catch fire. Never mind that the arachno-technically correct spider (finished just in time for the last show) was barely visible. Never mind that we changed key during the rousing Viking march, that the lights went out during the headless square dance, that as the giant sparkler-bedecked swan boat approached one heard, "My hair is on fire!" and the response, "Just fucking paddle!" And never mind that three days later our dreams will be crushed. Tonight, we are past, present, and future sailing forth and when we are gone they will remain, the wind and rock and the fire and rain.


Shá Cage actor

Fucking A echoed with pain, honesty, political commentary, and just enough humor to balance the extremity. The only words that I can use to describe the experience of playing the lead role of Hester are wasee boree from the Yoruba (Nigerian) language meaning "set free." It stands as one of my most memorable experiences to date. A to-die-for-script, cast, and set, crisp direction, and the freedom to contribute intelligent choices as an actor--a girl couldn't ask for much more.

That said, how could one not remember Mizna's first theater production. With Love from Ramallah employed a large cast of Arab American actors in a gutsy attempt to tell their people's story. My mouth dropped to the floor for a good two minutes digesting the diverse array of beautiful brown performers on one stage. Other 2004 moments that left a lasting imprint on me include Pangea World Theater's physically intense production of Osiris and Gary Keast's transformative role in Pigs Eye Theater's production of Sam Sheppard's Buried Child. It's been a long time since I've seen such a visceral and effective reflection of human beings' "ugly" side. Watching Keast in that role gave me goose bumps.


Zach Curtis artistic director Fifty Foot Penguin Theater

Seven things I saw this year that made me laugh, cry, cheer, and reminded me why we all try to do this for a living (in no particular order, by no means complete, and with all awareness of personal bias included):


  1. Carmen at Theatre de la Jeune Lune
  2. Bob Malos as Teach in American Buffalo at Fifty Foot Penguin Theater
  3. Pygmalion at the Guthrie
  4. Ari Hoptman's loony take on Albert Einstein in Picasso at the Lapin Agile for Pig's Eye
  5. Karla Reck in anything you were lucky enough to see her in
  6. Jeffery Goodson's befuddled and poignant preacher in Joking Apart for Joking Apart
  7. The explosion of Twin Cities actors finding new work in other towns, as close as St. Cloud or Plainview, and as far as Florida Stage

Thanks for a great year.

Thomas W. Jones II actor

The cast of Mixed Blood's Permanent Collection (pictured above) was the funniest I have ever worked with: Phyllis Wright, Karen Malina White, John Donahue. Here I am doing this serious play with goofballs. It was like the tale of two cities. Austere, sincere drama onstage, bawdy, uninhibited conversation in the dressing room.

But perhaps the most memorable thing was opening this show a day after the presidential election. Even though a significant pending court issue was the foundation of Permanent Collection, that case paled in comparison to this particular election. The cast walked in pretty depressed on opening day. I mean, we were not only contemplating how to get through the next four years but how to get through the next twelve hours.  


Polly Carl producing artistic director Playwrights' Center

My most memorable theatrical experience came this past June when playwright Mac Wellman was in town to develop October Surprise, a new play about the staged capture of an Osama bin Laden look-alike. George Bush and Karl Rove (played by Maggie Chestovich and Annie Enneking) are reminiscing about Skull and Bones, the elite secret society at Yale, when the actors sneak off-stage, leaving their handpicked Osama (Sonja Parks) alone to contemplate his fate. Next we see George and Karl outside a window, dancing and singing an anthem to absolute power and corrupt purpose. Osama turns around, sees them, and slowly pulls down the blinds, cutting their performance short. I loved the perfect absurdity of this performance and the chilling possibility it imagined.


Steve Yoakam actor

I was sitting in the audience at Mixed Blood's production of Flags Friday night before the election. Besides being a great production of a new play with highly articulate but level and fair political content, it was also very emotional for some members of the crowd. Twice during different parts of the play, people in front of me and in back of me broke into tears. I thought this was the best of theater as it can be--provocative and caring at the same time.


Gulgun Kayim co-artistic/managing director Skewed Visions Performance Company

My cell phone rings; I look at my watch. It's 6:45 p.m. Why was one of the actors in the show calling me now? What was suggested by the timing of the call was confirmed by the edginess in Nathan's voice on the other end: Something was wrong. It was the car. It had broken down. Again. "Is anyone hurt? Wait there, we're on our way. Are the audience members okay? Wait! Where are you?...Oh.... And did you finish the show?" Nathan said that the audience was getting nervous. "That's bad," I thought, especially since the audience, in this case, consisted of three representatives of a major arts funder.

The show is The Car, performed this fall as part of The City Itself, a trilogy of site-specific performances created to explore experiences of intimacy in the urban environment. On that Friday evening, standing in a cold, windy parking lot, contemplating what I was going to say to our three VIPs, it didn't seem like a clever idea or a good thing to be staging a performance in a car, or even three cars. All I could think of was: Why am I doing this? Why can't I just create performances inside a theater where it's safe?

That was a bad night; then again, The Car engendered many near-miss incidents, the kinds of things that are impossible to anticipate and plan for. Like when the taxi inspector from the city showed up just before "curtain" and almost shut the performance down--apparently our actor pretending to be a taxi driver didn't have a license to carry passengers. Or the numerous times that sex shop workers, or punters, or pimps, or prostitutes plying their wares outside of Sex World mistook our actress (who was doing a great job in the role of a prostitute waiting to be picked up by her john) for an actual prostitute. As we had intended, life and art collided in this show in a big way; not all of those collisions, however, were intentional. On reflection we had wildly succeeded in putting our point across about the intimacy of city life. I'm left to wonder what the experience was like for our unsuspecting audience who, placed in an entirely new context to experience performance, must have regarded every incident as just part of the show. Did they think we were making it all up?

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