The year in theater: a deeper look

Categories: Theater
Image courtesy Theatre Pro Rata
​The last year was the kind that made me glad to be a theater critic in such a thriving community. So much so that the annual top 10 list barely scratched the surface of the high quality shows on display on Twin Cities stages during the last 12 months. So, for a slightly deeper look, here are the plays that just bubbled up under the top 10, or that excelled in particular areas.

2011: A Year of Musicals

I included several traditional musicals or music-themed shows in my overall top 10 list, but there were plenty more that engaged me from beginning to end. There's a certain irony in that, as I started out -- probably like most Gen X'ers raised on rock 'n' roll -- as an absolute skeptic, stubbornly holding on to a "why are they singing?" attitude until I realized that you could ask the same question about any play (or movie for that matter).

What did we have this year? Ten Thousand Things returned to musicals with Man of La Mancha, featuring a sublime leading turn by Steve Epp, while Mixed Blood Theatre took a ribald journey to Avenue Q. Joe Chvala, Chan Poling, and Flying Foot Forum dug deep into the Bosnian Civil War of the 1990s in Heaven. Theatre Latte Da examined how music and mourning go together in the bracing Song of Extinction, and then produced one of the year's most fun experiences in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. 

Over the summer, the Jungle absolutely packed its tiny stage for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And while touring musicals are the order of the day, Hair proved there was still some life in the 40-year-old rock musical, while Twin-Cities native Christopher Sieber saved La Cage Aux Folles.

Best use of a venue

The Hollywood Theatre in northeast Minneapolis has been dark for decades, a relic of an era when going out to the movies did not include the challenge of searching among 16 screens to find the shoebox where your chosen film was playing.

The decayed space was the venue for two of the most intriguing shows of the year. In the heat of the summer, Theatre Pro Rata used it to stage Waiting for Godot. The well-constructed production used the interior of the Hollywood to perfect effect, bringing out the decay and exhausted routine at the play's center. It also showcased why climate control is a good thing for a theater, as the production went up during July's heat wave, where the interior of the Hollywood started to feel like an oven.

A few months later, a much chillier Hollywood became the home of The Ravagers, Savage Umbrella's brilliant interpretation of Aeschylus' plays about 50 brides who are ordered to murder their bridegrooms on their wedding night. That was brought to life at the top of the second act, as the audience gathered in the lobby and watched multiple acts of murder play out before them, before returning to their seats, carefully picking their way among the corpses to do so.

Best Touring show

Britain's Gob Squad provided an early highlight at last year's Out There Festival with Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good), a reinterpretation of Andy Warhol's film. Using live action that was projected on screens, audience members slowly took on the roles of the actors. All of this could have come across as the worst kind of stunt, but the company (and the replacement company from the audience) played it perfectly, digging into the themes that Warhol only touched on in his work.

Designs of the Year

Both Bain Boehlke and Joel Sass have long been known as not just top directors, but also designers. These dual roles allow them to meld the tasks into a creative whole. That always comes across in their work, but especially in Sass's vision for Oliver Twist at Park Square and Boehlke's Hamlet at the Jungle. Oliver Twist was played out in a grimy, decayed "shoe box," that brought out the squalor of the early part of 19th-century England, even when Oliver made his break into a better life. Boehlke's vision of Hamlet was a mixture of high tech -- iPads, video steaming, and constant surveillance -- and imposing concrete, which again merged masterfully with his vision for the show.

Worst Show

There are always mediocre and worse shows in any year, but one from early last year took on this title and never let go during the rest of the year. There were talented folks from top to bottom on The Odyssey at Park Square Theatre, many of whom did good work here. Still, the idea of "redeeming" Odysseus during his 10-year journey drained much of the life from the character, while the whole play seemed to last longer than the time frame of the story.

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Matthew Saxe
Matthew Saxe

The two best shows I saw all year were "Crumble: Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake" and "The Ravagers".  I was glad to see "The Ravagers" mentioned in this article here online, but thought it was wrong not to see both these shows on the Top Ten list in the actual paper.   "CRUMBLE (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake") produced by Swandive was the best show of what I saw this year. A perfect script with twists of language that moved from laugh out loud to heartbreaking in a second. Smart, funny, brilliant. One of the best new plays I have ever seen. Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals are to be applauded for finding and producing this innovative, entertaining script.

Every performance by this talented cast was spot-on. Their comic timing and emotional depth was just breathtaking. They truly dug into this script and gave intelligent, nuanced, all-around fantastic performances. I can't single any one person out, Heather Meyer, Roneet Aliza Rahamim, John Zelier, Debra Berger, and Aaron Konigsmark were all amazing in every way and each had moments that just hit you in the funny bone, then in the heart, then the soul.

Every light cue and sound effect was placed perfectly. Every creak, whine, meow, and music cue added to the world of the play and moment of the particular scene. The set and John Zeiler together performing as The Apartment created a foreboding, cluttered, charming, and alive space--it was amazing use of that small space.  "The Ravagers" with its huge and immensely talented cast, innovative script that felt classical but played modern, strong directing and ensemble work, and use of the space was a deeply disturbing and take-your-breath away in shock and horror kind of show. I will be watching to see more from both Swandive and Savage Umbrella for sure.  Both shows are what theater SHOULD be about.  I hope I can see more shows like these in 2012, and not restagings of musicals.  I am sure Cabaret and Man of La Mancha were great, but I had no interest in seeing them. I've seen 2 productions of each, and just couldn't get excited about seeing them again.  I chose to see the two shows I mentioned above, by new companies, new scripts that I had never heard of before, and with new and young talent.  I applaud the Jungle for all the new talent it put in HAMLET, but when you combine new, exciting scripts with new exciting talent, it makes me happy.  That's what both these shows did better than anything else this year.  I also think "The Pride" had some of the strongest performances all year, and while I don't want to be out-of-line, the production of "Macbeth" I was in with Theater Coup d'etat was called "better than the Guthries" by the one critic who bothered to come see it, and that should mean something when its a brand-new companies first production ever.

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