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Theatrical highs and lows from 2015

Jasmine Hughes and Megan Rippey in<i> Pussy Valley.</i>

Jasmine Hughes and Megan Rippey in Pussy Valley.

What happened in Twin Cities theater in 2015? Lots of good. Some bad. This Wednesday, I’ll reveal my top 10 shows of 2015. Considering I went to at least 100 shows over the past year, there were plenty more shows worth remembering. 

Best opening scene of the Year:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Guthrie Theater

Eventually, Joe Dowling’s latest go round with this Shakespearean confection got weighed down by too much, well, just too much stuff. But the opening moments were breathtaking. On an empty stage, the courtiers emerged from beneath the center of the thrust, decked out like members of the Rhythm Nation. Their precise marching around the stage to a heavy electronic beat gave the court a harsh, cold vibe — which clearly divided it from the fairy realm we would soon see.

A show that could end up on the Best Of list and the Worst Of list

<i>War with the Newts</i>

War with the Newts

Pussy Valley, Mixed Blood

My critical brethren came down on both sides of Katori Hall’s latest play. And after seeing it, I found myself agreeing... with both sides. Hall’s work is a tough ride, full of puzzling events and a long running time that begged to be trimmed. It also had some of the most memorable characters of the year, especially as we got to know the employees and the regulars of this southern joint full of superstar pole dancers.

Best touring shows of the year:

Touring isn’t just about recent Broadway hits and revivals, though Kinky Boots is a terrific example of this. The show is derivative, like most of what comes out of the Great White Way these days, but the musical’s massive charm (it’s about a dying shoe factory that reinvents itself by selling boots to drag queens) makes it a lot of fun.

At the Guthrie, The Events attempted to fathom a mass shooting. Using the 2011 Norwegian attack as inspiration, the play gave us a pair of actors and a local choir who navigated the almost unfathomable emotions to humanize both victim and perpetrator.

Roger Guenveur Smith took another famous moment of violence as the starting point for his spellbinding one-man show, Rodney King. King was a man made famous by violence, and Smith tackled the man’s contradictions and strange fame head on, all the while keeping an eye on the society that let an event like his beating and the Los Angeles riots happen.

The Walker Art Center’s annual Out There festival is always good for challenging works, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something as much fun as Red-Eye to Harve de Grace, where the final, mysterious days of Edgar Allan Poe are explored in a musical setting via clever set pieces and a big, beating heart.

Most Fringey of 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival shows:

High Flight hit nearly every Fringe box: We had an artist moving outside of her usual comfort zone to produce a highly personal work. Carin Bratlie Wethern took a personal tragedy — the disappearance of her father while flying a private plane — and made it a meditation on loss and recovery. That this came to life via a brass band and was interpreted by moments of dance made it an almost a Platonic ideal of a Fringe show. It also made it a memorable and emotionally charged hour of theater.

Worst Shows of 2015:

When avant-garde theater fails, it fails hard. Richard Maxwell’s The Evening, a world premiere at last year’s Out There Festival, was a tiresome exercise that offered little — except a sense of gratification when it was over.

I wasn’t expecting much when I went to see The Realish Housewives of Edina at the New Century Theatre, but I still hated the experience. The show didn’t even rise to the level of lazy Minnesota satire. The characters and situations were so general that the play could have been set anywhere (the producers did plan to tour the show around the country) with almost no changes. A highly overqualified cast did what they could, but nothing could save this turkey.

There’s a certain kind of middlebrow theater that gets paraded out each year, and I dutifully go and have a bad time. Stage Kiss was the worst of the worst of these in 2015. The plot, about a pair of actors who fall for each other while playing romantic leads in a melodrama, was terrible. The actors seemed to be playing in different shows, and the whole production felt severely undercooked.

How do you ruin an evening of Kander and Ebb songs? The Jungle’s And the World Goes ‘Round found a way. The show dragged and dragged, even as some of the liveliest tunes of the past 50 years were presented for the bored audience, all the while you wished that you were actually watching Cabaret, Chicago, or even The Rink instead of this dire exercise.

PS — Here’s a list (in no order whatsoever) of 15 other shows I particularly liked from the past 12 months:

<i>The Realish Housewives of Edina </i>

The Realish Housewives of Edina

Doctor Faustus, Classical Actors Ensemble

Choir Boy, Guthrie Theater

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Children’s Theatre Company

The Pirates of Penzance, Ordway

U/G/L/Y Sha Cage at the Guthrie

Bug, Shadow Horse Theatre Company

Boeing Boeing, Torch Theater

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One Arm, New Epic Theater

Mary Poppins, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Next to Normal, Yellow Tree Theater

Thing of Dry Hours, Frank Theatre

War with the Newts, Sandbox Theatre

Equus, Theatre Coup d’Etat

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Penumbra Theatre

Emile/Eurydice, Transatlantic Love Affair