The Year in Theater

The Nuns

Let's begin this with the usual caveat: I have not seen every play that the Twin Cities had to offer. In fact, I have missed a month of theater, owing to my recent move back to my adopted hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. I am working on a play of my own here, my third for the Blue Barn Theatre, and, as I write this, have spent the last month running sound for the company's Christmas show. (It's called Little Nelly's Naughty Noël, if you must know, and opens with two scantily clad ice fairies revealing their bare asses to the audience.) Knowing my cursed luck, I have missed a few masterpieces--Lisa D'Amour's 16 Spells to Charm the Beast, produced by the Mary Worth Theatre Company, looked to be quite promising, as did Frank Theatre's production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Here in Omaha, I am about to produce a boing sound effect (arriving at the moment a pioneer girl climbs behind a preacher's podium to offer sexual favors in exchange for a statue of the baby Jesus). Then it will be a few minutes until I must provide the prerecorded sound for an extended opium-den musical revue (with the usual Blue Barn subtlety, the proprietor is named "Wei Hung Lo"). So let me take this moment to jot down my memories of this past year of Twin Cities theater. I have, as always, gone with my own tastes here--thus nothing from the Guthrie, who, technical brilliance aside, produced little this year that moved me to great excitement. (Though I did appreciate the uneven but fascinating satire of Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues.) I tend to lean toward the small and the overlooked.



The 10 Best

1. SELF-DEFENSE, or Death of Some Salesmen: This Frank Theatre show was my introduction to playwright Carson Kreitzer, who is, for my tastes, the most exciting dramatist currently working in the Twin Cities. SELF-DEFENSE was an ideal script for director Wendy Knox, blending potent satire with potent political material (the script was inspired by the true story of the recently executed Aileen Wuornos, a Florida prostitute who had the bad habit of murdering her clients). The production featured a tour de force lead performance by Phyllis Wright, who spat out bitter harangues from inside an orange prison jumper, explaining that her string of killings was intended to nudge the scales of justice back into balance. Once in a while, she argued, it would be nice if johns feared for their lives as much as prostitutes do.


2. Terminus: A marvel of invention, Bedlam Theatre's adaptation of a series of some of Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction stories featured an extraordinary set. The audience sat in the center of a giant, circular spacecraft. Made entirely from papier-mâché, this contraption did the most unexpected thing at the play's start: It rotated. The effect on the audience was vertiginous, as was the play itself, which included in its cast a massive robot haunted by deaths it had witnessed, tapping out their final words in Morse code. The Bedlam crew brought to this material a giddy sense of humor. Their cast included an incompetent doctor, whose only cure for illness was cans of 7Up; and an alcoholic crew member whose jettisoned bottle of liquor spent the remainder of the play drifting lazily by a porthole in shadow-puppet form.


3. The Snow Queen: The Children's Theatre Company has a magnificent tradition of seeking out the Twin Cities' most inventive theater professionals and bringing them to the CTC stage. For example, they are currently developing a play with Lisa D'Amour, whose tastes tend toward the sorts of stories that are likely to make children scream with fear rather than delight. Such was the case with the CTC's magnificent adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Artistic director Peter Brosius called on two local talents for this production, using puppeteer Michael Sommers to aid him in directing the production and enlisting singer Ruth MacKenzie to fashion the play's script and songs, as well as to play the title character. The resulting production was sumptuous, beginning with the terrifying image of MacKenzie chanting her lyrics to songs inspired by Finnish folk music while hovering above the audience through a deft bit of theatrical sleight of hand. In this scene, MacKenzie appeared to be 30 feet tall--a spectacle that caused the youngest members of CTC's audience to burst into terrified tears.


4. Sohrab and Rustum: The magnificently named Zaraawar Mistry cofounded a new theatrical endeavor this past year, the Center for Independent Artists, with the explanation that he was tired of telling other people's stories and wanted to tell his own. His first production, therefore, was this one-man rendition of a Zoroastrian epic poem (Mistry is Zoroastrian himself). There seems to be something of a miniature revival of one-man epic poem-telling, what with Charlie Bethel's spirited take on Beowulf devouring the Fringe this summer. Mistry, too, knows his business. Mistry began with an ancient tale of a father and son who meet for the first time as combatants on the field of battle. This he coupled with a story set in modern-day India, in which a cantankerous old man bitterly complained about his own absent son. Mistry's tale wandered back and forth in time as the actor created rich characterizations with a mere cock of the head and a shift in posture.  


5. The Nuns: I have complaints about the Theatre de la Jeune Lune: I think its gift for invention sometimes overpower its skills at interpretation, as evidenced this past year by their fitful and fretful production of Medea. (In Jeune Lune's production, Euripedes' passionate sense of debate was lost in a welter of howls and a mass of hurried action. Still, I am willing to lose a little bit of Euripides (he'll survive it; there were two other productions of Medea in the same season) if I can occasionally gain something like The Nuns. This ghastly farce, set in revolutionary Haiti and scripted by Eduardo Manet, told of three very bad nuns holed up in the basement of a church, conspiring to murder a wealthy woman to steal her jewelry. The Jeune Lune's artistic staff took to this play's grisly comedy as though it were the lightest of farces, with actors Steven Epp, Robert Rosen, and Vincent Gracieux performing fine bits of stage comedy, even as corpses danced around them and Haiti burned. It was a thrilling juxtaposition of somber theme and airy comedy, and Manet's whittling social commentary never got lost beneath it.

6. The Race of the Ark Tattoo: The oddest play of the year came from the Mary Worth Theatre Company--a fact that should come as no surprise. Director Joel Sass specializes in the unexpected, and, with The Race of the Ark Tattoo, he provided us with a semi-improvised work of spooky storytelling in the form of a flea market. This scene was presided over by master eccentric Charles Schuminski, who walked the audience through the various items in the junk sale, sometimes in the character of an emotionally fragile, somewhat stupid foster child, and sometimes in the form of the ghost that possesses him. The spirit is that of the child's foster father, a mean-spirited old man with a penchant for telling morose, grotesque tales. There was a mystery buried in this story, as any or all of it might have been lies. True or false, it was a great story.


7. Orange Flower Water: The third in playwright Craig Wright's trilogy of plays set in Pine City, Minnesota, concerned a bitter, bewildered love letter, read by actor Terry Hempleman in a drunken fit of melancholia. And so went the whole of Wright's play, which details the erosion of two families as the result of an infidelity. Wright's characters were simultaneously deeply enamored of and distressed by each other, and the author seemed to feel the same way about them. The resulting play was unerringly intimate, as Wright charted the exact trajectory that transforms a moment of joy into one of great distress.


8. Shut Your Joke Hole and The Worst Show in the Fringe: Both of the Scrimshaw brothers offered up superb plays for this year's Fringe Festival. And I hope they will indulge me in commenting on them simultaneously, as the plays were very different. At the same time, the brothers sometimes seem conjoined at the hip, and both plays were obvious outgrowths from their monthly Look Ma! No Pants! sketch-comedy shows. Josh Scrimshaw, the older and wilder-eyed brother, provided an oddity: a collection of ingenious mimed routines, inspired by silent films but infused with his own sadistic wit. Joe Scrimshaw, the younger and wilder-coiffed brother, produced a tale of a caustic critic kidnapped by an egotistical actor. The resulting sharp-tongued battle of wills proved to be an exercise in unrestrained wit.

9. Punk Rock Omaha: The improv team of Ferrari McSpeedy put together its first scripted production for this year's Fringe Festival, and it was a fabulous act of comic creation. The brief play tells of the breakup of a popular Omaha band, Supa Punk, and the ripple effect of emotional collapse that results. Joe Ferrari and Michael McSpeedy played all 12 of the show's characters, often two or three at once, leaping back and forth across the stage as they instantly switched from howling out obscenities as sodden barflies to crying into their beer as despondent HR managers.  


10. The Sunrise Café: Sometimes I feel that nobody at all saw this Theatre Gallery production, which breaks my heart, as it is about the most haunting work of theater I saw in 2002. The Theatre Gallery consists of Paul Herwig and Jennifer Ilse, who here portrayed a lonely, meditative long-haul driver and an exhausted waitress in the last hours of their unsatisfying lives. The play was something of a mournful musical, with a score consisting of a few country ballads by Marc Doty, played on an old-fangled synthesizer. This sounded for all the world like the sort of tinny, excessively weepy stuff that might whine from a '70s-era portable radio. The cast also included Josh Scrimshaw playing a silently sinister short-order chef. The Theatre Gallery will remount this play in January of the coming year. Go see it.


Five Shows That Decidedly Were Not the Best

1. Neil Gaiman's Signal to Noise: I chose carefully when I went to the Fringe Festival this year, picking only plays that seemed especially interesting or featured performers I already trusted. Somehow Signal to Noise snuck through. Based on a graphic novel by cult-comic superstar Neil Gaiman, this short play was produced by Council of Doom, who had previously been responsible for a charming show about one woman's obsession with birdwatching. Their Fringe offering, however, contained none of the peculiar humor associated with birdseed purchases and anti-squirrel devices, and instead focused on an artist's lonely--and unexpectedly dull--death. The performers, a little too inspired by the play's heady theme, either shouted or wept every line of dialogue, until ultimately it seemed likely that the artists' untimely death would come about from an allergic reaction to the consumption of scenery.


2. The Lysistrata Lesson: Director/playwright Bucky Fay of the Cromulent Shakespeare Company sent me a good-spirited e-mail following my review of his contemporary retelling of this Greek classic, in which he glued together my quotes into something that sounded like a positive review: "Bewilderingly retro!"; "Nerdily charming!"; "Takes great pains to be witty!" Alas, Fay's e-mail was the funniest thing about this production, which made great comic hay out of dressing its female characters in dime-store Halloween costumes in lieu of fetish gear. One was dressed in a plastic Wonder Woman shell, suggesting that rather than refusing their husbands sex in order to end war (as in the Greek original), the players of this production should have refused their husbands caramel apples and candy corn.


3. Sister of Swing: This was a big hit for the Great American History Theater. I will take a stand here, though, and say that what brought the audiences was not script but the great songs of the Andrews Sisters (whose life stories the play attempts to tell), the appealing presence of sisters Christina Baldwin Fletcher and Jennifer Baldwin Peter, and the delirious comedic supporting performance of Ari Hoptman. Playwright Beth Gilleland took an admirable whack at the impossible task of telling an entire life--make that three lives in two hours. Then she got lost, and Bob Beverage took his own admirable whack. Another scriptwriter would not have helped.


4. Corpus Christi: I hesitate to write about Gray Space's production of Corpus Christi, because the production was coupled with the October disappearance of its director, Lavender editor Timothy Lee. The weekend of its opening, Lee, who is bipolar, checked himself into Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Upon checking out, Lee excused himself for a walk around the block, from which he has yet to return. I will be charitable in discussing the direction of the play, although Lee himself always admonished me that any failing in a play should be attributed to the director. This Terrence McNally production about a gay Jesus-like figure wasn't badly directed, per se, it was simply underdirected, as though it had been cast and the actors were told where to stand onstage, and then no further work had been done. Perhaps that is all McNally's script deserved, as he seemed to believe that nothing more was required of his story than to make Jesus gay and have him do things like bless a same-sex union. As a drama, the show is woefully incomplete. But it further fails as agitprop: The only people likely to be offended by such a story are exactly those who would not see a Terrence McNally play anyway.


5. The Sad Misadventures of Patty, Patty's Dad, Patty's Friend Jen and a Bunch of Other People: As the title suggests, Allison Moore's script, produced by the Cheap Theatre, was an overburdened play. The story superficially follows an economist (played by a suitably exhausted-seeming Michaela Kallick) who must mend her fractured relationship with her father when he suffers aphasia after a stroke. (And what was it with aphasia in theater this year? An aphasic character was also the subject of Theatre Latte Da's production of Wings.) But Moore continued to pile characters and subplots into her short script: a best friend with superhero powers, a magical pair of shoes, an introductory lesson to macroeconomics. Moore may want to study up on the law of diminishing returns.

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