The Year in Theater

The other week I had the debatably good fortune to see the Japanese avant-garde performance troupe Dumb Type do their thing at the Guthrie Lab. Their thing, you ought to know, involves hypnotic strobe lights, naked bodies careening this way and that, and ambient music so loud that if you decline the complimentary earplugs, the contents of your parietal cavity stand a good chance of being shaken into a cocktail of blood and gray matter. It's like being mugged by Cibo Matto. After the ringing in my ears resolved to a hollow throbbing, though, the performance also invited a moment's reflection on the peculiar potency of theater: When is the last time something on television or film or in the nine-to-five life made you shudder or grit your teeth or reconsider your relationship to the divine?

In that spirit and because of the fast-approaching New Year, it would seem an auspicious time to reflect on the divine, the daring, and the dull of 1999. Humbly submitted for your pleasure, therefore, is our Top 10 list, as well as a few of the trends that captured our interest during the past season, and some impressions from the people who usually express themselves under spotlights.


Generalizations and Sundry Accusations

1999 was a curiously sluggish year for local theater--evidence, perhaps, of some premillennial acedia. Even more curious, the malaise seemed to filter down through every stratum of the theater community. On the cabaret front, the departure of Dean J. Seal from the Bryant-Lake Bowl's theater operation threatens to have a lingering effect. Although Seal's new venue, the Acadia, and the newly renovated Patrick's Cabaret may ultimately fill the void (and the BLB has continued to book a number of shows), the loss of a hothouse for emerging writing and acting talent also meant a dearth of new work that might otherwise have stirred the scene.

Meanwhile, the Independent Theater Partnership, a loose consortium of indie theaters, all but disappeared this year, and many of its most creative member companies, including Bald Alice, Mary Worth, and Fifty Foot Penguin, were quiet through most of the fall. Despite some instances of cross-pollination--such as Bald Alice's Matt Sciple directing for Outward Spiral--the community of established independent theaters appeared more fractured and stratified than in the past. As evidence, talk of theater was eclipsed this year by talk of theaters: capital campaigns, new buildings, and comings and goings among artistic staff.


A Room of One's Own

The most immediate barrier to the cohesion of the indie theater community has always been the perceived scarcity of affordable venues. Again this year, the race for space was a hot issue among itinerant companies. Eye of the Storm, previously ensconced in the Loring Playhouse, went wandering, while others landed briefly at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, the Southern, Red Eye, or the Cedar-Riverside People's Center. Some, such as Hidden Theatre, have solved the problem by locating for an entire season at a single venue, but the level of competition points to a dearth of affordable spaces that don't take a Promethean effort to fill on a regular basis.

Those who weren't scrambling to rent a home for the 2000 season were building their own. The Jungle took up residence in the old Knickers--now another dive of Minneapolis past--and was credited with reviving the down-at-heel Lyn-Lake neighborhood (that is, until an enterprising amateur pharmacologist was discovered plying his trade around the corner). Illusion Theater's renovated space in the Hennepin Center for the Arts got its finishing touches last week, and should be ready for Miss Richfield 1981's upcoming revue.


Build It and They Will Moan

The mother of all building debates was, of course, the city's passive-aggressive sparring match with the Guthrie--what might be called a Minnesota standoff. Long before the recent Minneapolis City Council vote to keep the venerable theater out of Parade Stadium, the year's finest comedy of errors was framed in the polarized rhetoric of class discord: Look at those elite artist types, swooping in to steal precious park space from local ragamuffins (presumably with beat-up gloves and homemade bats). Lost in the clamor was the fact that the city initially suggested the Parade site to the Guthrie.

In addition, the Block o' Blight downtown is too small for the planned theater (and why would the city want the nonprofit Guthrie on what is supposedly some of the most valuable urban real estate in the Midwest?) Now that Norm Coleman has been sighted creeping about the Guthrie grounds, the deal-making--and the demagoguery--can only get more convoluted in the coming year. Sounds almost like a good drama.


Familiarity Breeds Box-Office Success, Contempt

Tuna salad, like revenge, is a dish best served cold. For everything else, fresh will do nicely, thank you. It's hard enough to survive on Broadway's table scraps without our regional and indie theaters constantly staging revivals and "greatest hit" seasons in lieu of new plays. The financial logic is sound, of course, but also approaches a reductio ad absurdum: recycle work to afford another season of recycled work. If we wanted to see the same thing over and over, we would stay home and watch When Animals Attack 3.

In a welcome change, the safety-first ethic infecting the local theater scene seemed to wane somewhat in the latter part of the year. Penumbra, rebounding from an operating deficit and an anniversary season of revivals, gave us two new one-acts, as well as Pearl Cleage's wonderful Blues for an Alabama Sky. Perennial adventurers like the 15 Head Theatre Lab and Mary Worth picked up some of the slack, while fresh productions by the embryonic Huldufólk Theatre went criminally underattended. And what a pleasure it was to find the new Jungle mooring its inaugural season with two new plays by local writers.


Audience Appreciation

While the endless struggle to fill seats showed no sign of abating this year, there were some promising patterns--if not actually trends. Attendance at the 1999 Fringe Festival (see below) and consistent turnout for riskier fare like Frank Theatre's The Threepenny Opera evidence a population of theatergoers willing to crawl out of the woodwork for adventurous productions. Artistic merit aside, the Guthrie's Martin Guerre drew a whole new crop of prosperous patrons to Vineland Place. (A few weeks ago, Joe Dowling told me that during an afternoon stroll through Loring Park, two befuddled parties approached him to inquire about the Guthrie's location--proof either that Dowling's user-friendly programming is attracting new initiates or that Minnesotans are not very good with directions.)

Actors and audiences alike know that there is nothing so dispiriting as settling in for a play only to discover either that you're performing to an empty house or sitting in one. As an inverse corollary, there is nothing more gratifying than watching the house fill up before a show by Outward Spiral, Hidden Theatre, Eye of the Storm, or one of the other small but mature companies that make theater in this town worth the trouble. Props go out, therefore, to the companies that have learned to sell seats without selling out, as well as the adventurous audiences who regularly fill them.


Theater for the Masses

15,333 sweaty Minneapolitans braved the sulfurous heat this July to make the rounds at the sixth annual Minnesota Fringe Festival. According to the fete's tireless organizer, Dean J. Seal, that figure represents a 132 percent increase over last year's attendance--a heady leap by any standard, but also one that should ensure an even more eclectic range of shows in the future. This year's jump in attendance is a record that, according to the folks at the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, will never be broken. To that, Seal replies, "Wait till next year, boy."


Looking Forward

In the spring, look for Hidden Theatre's Issac by local playwright David Schulner, as well as The Darker Face of the Earth, a co-production of the Guthrie and Penumbra, directed by Lou Bellamy and written by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove.


A Blessing for the Future

Someone once said that the best moment to be had in a theater is the minute of cozy silence between the dimming of the house lights and the rise of the curtain. I've come to disagree; I think it is what happened after Jeune Lune's meditation on exile, The Golem. It's a haunted silence that lingers as the audience wanders out of the theater and into the steadily falling rain. This quiet is neither stunned nor reverential. It is the silence of the blessed. It means that theater has done its work.

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