Twin Cities' best plays of 2011

Christiana Clark, Ansa Akyea in In the Red and Brown Water
Michal Daniel

Looking back, it was a terrific year on local stages, with several new voices heard along the way and plenty of fresh examinations of classic works. In the end, these are the 10 pieces that stuck with me the most through the past 12 months. (For more thoughts on the Twin Cities' year in theater, check out the Dressing Room blog this week.)

10. Burial at Thebes

Guthrie Theater

Twin Cities theaters certainly went Greek in 2010, with plenty of worthy (and a few not so) shows that twisted and turned the ancient stories with a modern eye. Seamus Heaney's re-creation of Antigone may have been the most intriguing of all, as the Guthrie production merged a dark, stone-and-fire vibe with a chorus providing modern-sounding music (courtesy of J.D. Steele) and touches of modern military dress.

9. Hairspray

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Chanhassen has the tools but not always the ambition to put on a top-notch show, but all the elements combined in this joyful staging of the hit Broadway musical. It starts with Therese Walth as Tracy Turnblad, the dancing dynamo at the center of John Waters's tale of big hair, dance contests, and integration in early 1960s Baltimore.

8. August: Osage County

Park Square Theatre

Tracy Letts's epic tale of a dark Southern family (are there any other kinds in American theater?) is reminiscent of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams in topic and scope, but the Pulitzer Prize is well earned. Director Leah Cooper's work with an all-star cast dug deep into the play, exposing the heartbreak, showing that the acidic singers may provide some laughs, and giving us insight into how terrible life in this house must be. Virginia Burke gave one of the performances of the year as the family matriarch.

7. Come Hell and High Water

The Moving Company

Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp got the band sort-of back together with this production, which showed much of the inventiveness of the classic work they did as part of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Merging music, movement, and drama, the piece linked a pair of floods decades apart, via a newly released convict, who recounts his own adventure on the flooded waterways in the 1920s.

6. On the Spectrum

Mixed Blood Theatre

There are a couple of moments in this play (part of the company's ambitious Center of the Margins festival) about two autistic people's search for love that were absolutely breathtaking. In one, Iris (Laura Robinson) puts aside the iPad she uses to help her communicate and tells high-functioning Mac (Skyler Nowinksi) in her own, halting words, how she feels about him. Later, after a harrowing trip across New York City, she meets with Mac's mother (Regina Marie Williams) to explain her feelings. They are both moments when all of the artifice of watching actors on stage falls away, leaving only brilliant, painful truth.

5. Doubt

Ten Thousand Things Theater

For almost the entire show, Regina Marie Williams sat in the audience, watching the proceedings as a fiery nun (Sally Wingert) pushes and pushes to prove that a popular priest (Kris Nelson) has molested the school's first African-American student. We never meet him, but Williams got one scene as the mother that changes all of our perspectives and preconceptions. It was a masterful turn, in which the actor brilliantly used every second to build her character (acting alongside someone as accomplished as Wingert certainly didn't hurt).

4. Two Trains Running

Penumbra Theater

It's rare when a show's most triumphant moment comes in the curtain call, but when Hambone finally gets to the object that has been his obsession for a decade, the sense of triumph was palpable. The rest of the production was no slouch either, as a small cast brought August Wilson's exploration of 1960s African-American life to perfect clarity. Much of that was due to Lou Bellamy's expert direction and James T. Alfred's performance as young and angry Sterling.

3. 7-Shot Symphony

Live Action Set

Finger guns. That's what stuck in the mind the most from this mix of ancient myths and Wild West adventure. There's plenty of violence, but most of it is brought to life by the old-fashioned finger gun, as if the neighborhood kids got together to play cowboys on a nice summer's day. Of course, having the talented Live Action Set folks leading the games made for something special—and something that hopefully will make a return.

2. Cabaret

Frank Theatre

Led by the incomparable Bradley Greenwald as the Emcee, Frank's production of the Kander and Ebb musical exposed the dark, bleeding heart at the center of the peppy score. Set in the dying moments of Weimar Germany, just before Hitler took power and thrust Europe and the world into a decade of darkness, Cabaret sported strong performances up and down the cast, but Greenwald absolutely stole the show. Wendy Knox's direction brought the show to life on the small Minnesota Centennial Showboat stage with humor and charm, but it never skimped on what was just around the corner for our characters.

1. In the Red and Brown Water

Pillsbury House Theater/Mount Curve Company

Tarell Alvin McCraney's epic tale of lost opportunity and hope in Louisiana introduced a singular, modern voice to the Twin Cities theater scene and solidified Christina Clark's position as local theater heavyweight. Her performance as Oya was the standout of the year, bringing the character's painful descent into sharp, brilliant focus. Marion McClinton's masterful direction and the full company's hard work only added to the overall quality. This is a rare piece of theater, and one that I hope gets a follow-up, as the playwright has written more set in his unique world. 

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