The year in theater, part two: Companies soldier on

Ash Land at the 2012 Minneosta Fringe Festival.
Ash Land at the 2012 Minneosta Fringe Festival.
Photo courtesy Transatlantic Love Affair
The Minnesota Fringe Festival certainly hit plenty of goals in 2012, with strong attendance and the usual positive vibe for what was being offered. There was some grumbling -- at least from colleagues -- that it all seemed old hat this year.

I'm not sure if that was because of the festival or the theater goers. If you are covering the Fringe, you are probably going to see between a dozen and two dozen shows in a very short time period. It's easy to get discouraged by a streak of bad luck, or even several "just okay" shows in a row.
If we're honest about it, the Fringe is the Fringe: a non-juried collection of theatrical events created by folks with wildly different expectations, skill levels, and desires. The best shows from this past year -- the Peanut Butter Factory's Romeo and Juliet, Ash Land, Nightmare Without Pants, and The Gentlemen's Pratfall Club -- featured experienced Fringe creators making engaging one-act art. 

Touring shows

I like big and bold touring shows as much as the next theatergoer, but the past year didn't produce much that absolutely wowed me. The highlight, in fact, came at the beginning of the year, when Disney's The Lion King returned for another round in downtown Minneapolis at the Orpheum. Timing -- and a desire to see non-Disney shows while in New York -- meant I had missed the musical up until this point. It's easy to see what the hubbub has been about. Created when Julie Taymor wasn't synonomous with artistic hubris and injured actors, The Lion King is infused with vibrant, theatrical action from beginning to end. The puppets are still impressive, and the story and score is certainly the best of the Disney movie/theater musical hybrids.

The only show that came close to this energy was another African-set piece, this time arriving in St. Paul at the Ordway. Fela! offered a propulsive two hours of entertainment, sharing a somewhat simplified story of his life, politics, beliefs, and music. The vibrant staging, breakneck dancing, and stunning musical performances helped to push back the show's weaknesses.

General thoughts

Of the trends I saw over 2012, maybe the most gratifying is the continued artistic health of older, small theaters. These theaters often get started on a wing and a prayer, with a strong core of creators (or a single figure) united in a desire to make the great theater they aren't seeing around them. 

Youthful energy can only take you so far, and many exciting groups flame out. Sometimes loudly (Jeune Lune comes to mind), but most often with little more than a whimper. Deep into their histories, the Jungle, Theatre Latte Da, Ten Thousand Things, Frank, and Pillsbury House still have considerable edge. Jack Reuler and Mixed Blood have been doing this for three and a half decades, with continued innovations on and off stage to be seen. 

There is also strength in the likes of Theater Pro Rata, Walking Shadow, the Workhaus Collective, and others that have emerged in the last decade or so.

It's not that there isn't great work being done at the big theaters, or that even the most stable-seeming organization can't fall off the cliff. Penumbra's saga over the last couple of years certainly proves that. It's that the work of all of these groups have created a vibrant scene that offers opportunities for artists at various places in their careers. That, in turn, makes it exciting to head out into the night two or three or more times a week. Bring on 2013.

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