Top 10 plays of 2012

Latte Da and U of M actors bring a pulsating energy to Spring Awakening
Michal Daniel

I saw too many great shows this year and have too little space to talk about them all. But here are my favorite 10 productions from 2012.

10. The Cripple of Inishmaan

Nimbus Theater

Set almost entirely on a small, isolated Irish island, Martin McDonagh's play delves deep into the darkness that lies within the village and these characters. Nimbus's production, under the solid direction of Kari Hammer, deftly dances among all of the issues at play, bringing out the humor, the anger, and the deep-seated madness that comes from living in isolation with the same people, day after day, in a kind of foggy purgatory.

9. Buzzer

Pillsbury House Theater

Audiences who missed this fantastic new play by Tracey Scott Wilson will get a second chance this winter, when it is remounted at the Guthrie. The new production will feature the return of director Marian McClinton, as well as the same trio of actors, to tell Wilson's insightful meditation on race, gentrification, and going home again.

8. Werther and Lotte: The Passion and the Sorrow

The Moving Company

The Moving Company proved that Goethe and the blues could mix. The show, crafted by actors Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin with director Dominique Serrand, takes its cues not just from Goethe's original story but also Thomas Mann's 20th-century exploration of the material. The unique mix of talents combined perfectly, reaching its pinnacle in a stunning piece centered on Tom Waits's "The Briar and the Rose."

7. T Bone N Weasel

Theatre Pro Rata

Pro Rata had a great 2012 from end to end, but Jon Klein's absurd and brutal comedy — a kind of Waiting for Godot for the modern starving class — was easily the best of its productions. Led by Theo Langason and Mark Benzel as the title characters, the show sped along the cracked highways and broken communities of the 21st century.

6. Into the Woods

Mu Performing Arts

Rick Shiomi is stepping away from the company that he grew into one of the Twin Cities' best, but the 2012 Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award winner left quite a parting gift for audiences this summer. In re-imagining the musical about fairy tale characters and what happens "ever after" as set in Asia, Shiomi drove home the universal nature of these tales and characters.

5. The Brothers Size

Pillsbury House Theater and Mount Curve

Last year's In the Red and Brown Water topped our 2011 list. The second play in Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Brother/Sister Plays" trilogy nearly reached those same heights. Set in poor, rural Louisiana, The Brothers Size examined the bonds of brotherhood and friendship via three characters. McCraney's rich, poetic language sounded natural coming from the mouths of these actors, which only strengthened the experience.

4. The Birthday Party

Jungle Theater

In the hands of a thoughtful director and capable cast, Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter's work came to stunning, full life. Joel Sass directed a brilliant cast in this early piece loaded with brutal humor and ever-present but undefined menace. As the target, Stephen Cartmell was fantastic, but the entire company did strong work throughout.

3. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been...

Carlyle Brown & Company/The Guthrie Theater

Gavin Lawrence gives one of the year's standout performances as Langston Hughes in Carlyle Brown's examination of the poet, especially his testimony before Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt. The specter of the blacklist hangs over the play and lends it drama, but it is Hughes's own cross-examination of his art and the creation of poetry that allowed the show to reach such amazing heights.

2. Measure for Measure

Ten Thousand Things

Director Michelle Hensley and Shakespeare are no strangers to year-end best-of lists. There are good reasons for that. Hensley's directing style and the hard work put in by the actors create a Bard that can be understood by any audience, but it doesn't cheapen the impact — the humor, drama, or emotion — of the writing. That Ten Thousand Things was able to make such a dynamic experience out of one of Shakespeare's problem plays is an even stronger testament to Hensley's talent.

1. Spring Awakening

Theatre Latte Da/The University of Minnesota

At its heart, theater is about confirming life in the face of the deepest, darkest troubles. The young characters of Spring Awakening face problems at home, in school, and with their own burgeoning sexuality. Yet it was impossible to deny the living energy that pulsated during this production, as the company's young performers — many still University of Minnesota students — were ready to burst out of the stage. Director Peter Rothstein and choreographer Carl Flink kept just enough control of the chaos to make Spring Awakening feel exactly like adolescence.

Visit for more 2012 theatrical favorites.

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