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Best Of 1998


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Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment


No contest. Despite its generally lame music and a plot as original as sin, this show rewrote the book on scenic design and costumes for big-budget musicals. Designer/director Julie Taymor's minimalist evocations of an African savannah and her doppelganger/companion animal costumes went way beyond the call of duty, and spoke to something almost unspeakable about the ways humans communicate with other animals and, ultimately, rely on them--for friendship, for a sense of our own identity, for the knowledge that we're not alone. Runner-up: Chicago, whose sound design was unusually impeccable and whose cast was Broadway-caliber all the way.


Playing favorites can be a dangerous game, particularly in matters artistic, where the judge's personal taste is paramount. Nevertheless, we find it undeniable that, alongside Hidden Theatre's Brian Baumgartner, Steven Epp (who played Aramis in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The 3 Musketeers) is playing in his own league in this town, and has been doing so for far too long. Brilliant is hardly too strong a word for this rare, scary, enigmatic, frightfully versatile actor. His one flaw is that, unlike Baumgartner, he hates to surrender center stage. We wish someone would come along to push back at him with equal force.


This town is packed with good actors, but Hidden Theatre cofounder Baumgartner is disgustingly good, and we are getting disgusted with ourselves for pointing it out so often. His talent is clear in every role, from the psychotic girlfriend-beater of The Crackwalker and the pseudo-psychotic guerrilla activist of Accidental Death of an Anarchist to the sweet, torch-bearing best buddy of Blue Window. Keep an eye on this kid: He's got the gift but good, and as long as he continues to work with the right directors, challenging himself with a range of roles, he stands to blow many minds before the day is done.


A veteran of the Guthrie stage, Wingert shines most wickedly in witty roles. Her rollickingly funny performances in last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream, You Can't Take It with You, and Blithe Spirit again proved the actress has a gift for saucy wit and comic timing. Her wide smiles slide from sweet to saccharine to sneer in seconds, but it's when she's trading barbs and battling with wordplay that Wingert rises to the height of her comic powers.


Okay, okay: So the two characters Duncan portrayed in Jar the Floor and A Raisin in the Sun are pretty much one and the same, with the Jar character simply a few years farther down the road to senility. No matter. Duncan hit almost every note perfectly in both roles, and when she wasn't cracking us up with her impeccable deadpan delivery and marvelous comic timing (especially strong in Jar the Floor, Cheryl West's generational drama), she made us swallow our tears with her artless pathos (see Raisin, Lorraine Hansberry's classic fable of African American family struggle). Other actresses in town have delivered roles of equal power (Annelise Christ in Hidden Theatre's Blue Window, Barbra Berlovitz in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Pursuit of Happiness), but none have surpassed Duncan's utterly flawless timing and ability to tap the very blood of her characters.


Between the hours of 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, the acerbic, absurdly energetic T.D. Mischke broadcasts either from "the muddy ditches along Highway 61" or his summertime perch above right center field at Midway Stadium. Mischke's m.o. is to use tidbits from the news as springboards into the inane, the banal, and the just-plain-stupid. Once he starts tugging on a story, the facts might get stretched, but the effort often yields hidden truths or new possibilities. Once, when describing the case of a hulking brute who'd been robbing female manicurists, Mischke began weaving a yarn about the crook's cry for help as he struggled to raise funds for a sex-change operation. Was this true? It didn't matter. Mischke had judiciously plunked the proper note by robbing the bully of his most prized possession: his masculinity. On another occasion last fall, Mischke suddenly became enamored with the quiet space between his words and fell silent for the entire show. The calls rolled in, of course. "It was actually a great study in what people will do when there's silence," Mischke recalls. "They filled [the air] and I never said a word." And, when the host feels like talking, the caller can't help feeling disoriented and a little woozy--in the best possible way.




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