Three superb productions showcase the range of Minnesota theater

Food for thought: Susan Haas and Michael Sommers in <i>Dancing with a Contagion</i>

Food for thought: Susan Haas and Michael Sommers in Dancing with a Contagion

at Open Eye Figure Theatre
through May 11; 612.874.6338

A good, hard look in the mirror is advisable only once or twice on the best of days, but sometimes even that questionable experience is preferable to turning the lens outward and taking cold-eyed stock of our lives and accomplishments. Michael Sommers leaps into this territory with Dancing with a Contagion, and the results are little short of thrilling, albeit stark, like the gasp of exhilaration that always follows a glimpse into what this reality contains beneath the smooth, everyday surfaces.

Sommers often addresses the audience directly, working himself into a lather about his "bad ideas, mistakes, and failures," and his primal plea that he "just wants to make a big, big noise." Along the way he hectors and harangues a puppet substitute for himself named Boo Boo, while the rest of the cast (Susan Haas, Kyle Loven, and Angela Olson, aiding and abetting) observe the proceedings with convincing expressions of concern.

The show also incorporates compositions by Eric Jensen captured by Sommers and the cast with an enthusiastic, ramshackle precision (one tune is played by Sommers on hotel front-desk bells; in another, guitar feedback grounds the sonic field while Sommers shouts lyrics using a big metal funnel as a megaphone).

So what we have here is a look inward and then a great expulsion out into idea space, an agitated search for meaning girded with the knowledge that any such discoveries are fleeting and ephemeral. It's a massively original hour that dares its audience to will its "fool's heart" to "yearn and pine." Good advice for any of us.

Penumbra Theatre Company
at the Guthrie Theater
through May 18;

Gem of the Ocean: Van, Mays, Craven, Rambo, and El Razzac

Gem of the Ocean: Van, Mays, Craven, Rambo, and El Razzac

THE SECOND SHOW in director Lou Bellamy's five-year plan to present all 10 of August Wilson's plays, Gem of the Ocean is so laden with energy and confident purpose that even its weaknesses—Wilson's propensity for linguistic frippery, his unwillingness to let a scene pass without wringing every drop of meaning from it—somehow emerge as strengths. It's difficult to imagine another staging making a better case for Wilson's greatness.

The action takes place in 1904 in the home of Aunt Ester (Marvette Knight), a visionary whose main occupation is to "wash people's souls." She's a magnet for the characters who tend to her, such as the aged Eli (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), Black Mary (Austene Van), and Ester's might-be lover, Solly Two Kings (James Craven, using both slow burn and occasional lion's roar to strong effect).

Over three hours we deal with the plight of Citizen Barlow (Cedric Mays), who indirectly has blood on his hands, and the machinations of semi-crazed lawman Caesar (T. Mychael Rambo, with a chillingly passionate but smooth take on his character's racial self-hatred). At the play's heart is an extended sequence in which Aunt Ester takes Citizen to a place called the City of Bones. Michelle Habeck's lush lighting explodes the scene into a dark fantasy that evokes slave ships, shackles, and the weight of the dead on these souls freed from bondage, then thrust into a world that has tainted the concept of freedom with a bitter aftertaste. The ideas are massive, and they hurt like open wounds—and this show captures the beauty and ugliness without flinching from either.

at the Guthrie Theater
through June 22; 612.377.2224

THE GUTHRIE'S A Midsummer Night's Dream, on the other hand, deals primarily, and quite successfully, in beauty. After dispensing with the opening setup (he loves her, she loves him, but Dad insists he marry someone else...don't worry, it all gets scrambled once the fairy dust kicks in), the action moves to the forest, where a number of barriers get broken down.

This show is all about silliness, love, and mutable identities, helped along nicely by all manner of tricks (when Nic Few arrives as Oberon, he flies over the audience on a cable before rappelling down to the stage, and when Emily Swallow as Titania delivers a doo-wop ode to romantic transport, it's from a funky, weird, egg-like love nest). Massively entertaining, more than a little steamy, it's a Night that offers an interlude of genuine transport.