Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018: The Year that Was in #TCTheater

Dear 2018, it’s been a wild year. You’ve brought us highs and lows, tragedies and triumphs. I’m sure many people are happy to say good-bye to you. But in the Minneapolis/St. Paul theater world, you’ve been grand, truly grand. And I now have the very difficult job of summarizing the approximately 190 locally created shows I’ve seen by over 80 theater companies (not counting 36 Fringe shows; click here for my festival favorites). For the first time since I started blogging eight and a half years ago, this is a slight decrease from the previous year – I’ve definitely found the saturation point. Even still, I’m at the theater more days than not, and I like what I see much more often than not. I started out with a list of about 50 shows I loved this year, which I attempted to whittle down to something a little more manageable. Keep reading for my 2018 #TCTheater favorites, in roughly alphabetical order.

Theatre Latte Da Assassins (Dan Norman)
If I had to choose between Theatre Latte Da’s first and last (not counting their annual holiday tradition All is Calm’s triumphant Off-Broadway debut) shows of the year, I’d be hard-pressed to do so. I loved the warped carnival that was Assassins, my second time seeing this brilliant Sondheim musical, which has never seemed more relevant. The entire ensemble cast was fantastic, led by Dieter Bierbrauer in perhaps his best performance to date as John Wilkes Booth. But I’ve been waiting for a #TCTheater production of Once, featuring music by my favorite musician since Glen Hansard, since it became available for regional production a few years ago. This musically rich production (featuring a cast of talented musician/actor/singers with music direction by Jason Hansen) featured a soul-searing performance by Ben Bakken and a lovely heartfelt turn by Britta Ollmann. I loved both of these musicals (both brilliantly directed by Peter Rothstein, natch) so much I saw them each twice, a rare treat for me.

Park Square Baskerville (Petronella J. Ytsma)
A female Holmes and Watson? Yes, please! Park Square Theatre took what was already an innovative and delightful adaptation (Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery utilizing just a five-person cast) and made it even better by casting McKenna Kelly-Eiding as Holmes and Sara Richardson as Watson. A fun feminist twist, and sheer comic delight.

Guthrie Familiar (Dan Norman)
Familiar was the play that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner wanted to be, but wasn’t. A modern look at an interracial couple, with all the drama, comedy, conflict, and love that goes along with it. Written by Macalester grad and movie/TV superstar Danai Gurira and featuring a sparkling mostly local cast, it was both a feel-good family dramedy and relevant social commentary.

Penumbra for colored girls (Allen Weeks)
I’d only heard about the “choreopoem” for colored girls who have committed suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and thanks to Penumbra’s radiant and perfectly cast production, I now see what the fuss is about. We lost playwright Ntozake Shange this year, but if this triumph of moving, funny, heart-breaking, profound stories told by women of color is all we remember of her, it will be enuf.

Artistry Follies (Devon Cox)
This spring, Artistry brought us an all-around beautiful production of Sondheim’s gorgeous but complicated musical Follies, with fantastic leads, a talent-rich ensemble, full and rich pit orchestra, and a haunting design to represent the fading theater of the follies. Follies is not an easy piece (nor is it a well-known crowd-pleaser), so I’m thrilled Artistry chose it and did it so well.

Jungle Hand to God (Dan Norman)
Seven solid plays passed through the Jungle Theater stage, from the music-infused Ishmael and My Mother Has 4 Noses to open the year, to the delightful co-commission The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, Jane Austen fan fic for the #metoo era. In between, nine talented young women brought us a very real story of female friendship in The Wolves (to be remounted at the Southern later this month), Thomasina Petrus gave one of the best musical performances of the year as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and everyone’s favorite Little Women were reimagined for the modern era upon the sesquicentennial of the novel’s publication. But perhaps my favorite Jungle production of the year was the outrageous, irreverent, and sweetly sad Hand To God, with a performance by Riley O’Toole as lost boy and foul puppet that was unmatched in #TCTheater this year.

Children's Theatre The Lorax (Dan Norman)
The US premiere of London's Old Vic Theatre's musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax at the Children's Theatre gave me hope for the future of our much in danger planet. A huge and hugely talented cast, innovative puppetry, delightful original music, and a message we all need: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

Underdog Luna Gale
In just their third outing, Underdog Theatre brought us the heart-breaking story of troubled young parents who lack the support system to care for their child, despite their good intentions. Luna Gale “doesn’t offer solutions to the many problems it addresses – teen pregnancy, drug abuse, child molestation, religious fanaticism, an overworked system. Except perhaps compassion for all involved, because things are complicated on all sides, and there are no good guys or bad guys.”

Dark and Stormy 'Night, Mother (Rich Ryan)
Two powerhouse performances by Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh as co-dependent mother and daughter, with a frank discussion of suicide, all done in Dark and Stormy’s almost too intimate studio space, ‘Night, Mother was a play that still haunts me.

Park Square Pirates (Petronella J. Ytsma)
My favorite Gilbert and Sullivan piece, reimagined as a story within a story about the creators themselves and their travels to America to perform it, Park Square Theatre’s Pirates of Penzance was one of my favorite musicals this year. Fresh, innovative, modern, while still being respectful of the source. And Christina Baldwin as a very modern major general (with new lyrics written by herself)? Yes, please!

Mixed Blood Hooded (Rich Ryan)
2018 was a great year to be at the firehouse. The old Minneapolis firehouse in which Mixed Blood Theater now resides, that is. Beginning with their co-production with Mu, the hilariously biting comedy Two Mile Hollow, continuing with the world premiere new musical about a typical American family with a transgender child Mermaid Hour: Remixed, through the wildly shocking revenge fantasy Is God Is, and finally, the crowned jewel in their season, this fall’s “Prescient Harbingers” (a trilogy of brilliant and timely plays by black male playwrights: Gloria, Hooded, and Hype Man, performed in rep), this may be Mixed Blood’s finest year yet.

Shoot the Glass Spring Awakening
Spring Awakening has long been one of my favorite musicals (just ask my kitty Moritz Stiefel), and Shoot the Glass Theatre’s production infused it with the necessary urgency and youth. The young cast of mostly unknowns brought such passion to the never-more-timely story of the challenges of teenagers growing up in any world, with a starkly beautiful staging at the Lab by director Ryan Nielson.

Gremlin A Steady Rain (DreamFirstBorn)
Gremlin Theatre’s intense two-hander A Steady Rain, about two cops, their friendship, and the violence that divides them, featured scary good performances by both actors, Peter Christian Hanson and especially Dustin Bronson as a man facing his demons and falling apart. The design and direction were also spot on, eliciting all kinds of intense emotions. I predicted in January that this would be one of the most memorable plays of the year, and it is.

Penumbra This Bitter Earth
Harrison David Rivers’ (more on him later) beautiful play This Bitter Earth, staged by Penumbra Theatre this spring, is everything I want in theater. It featured a real and complex story of a relationship between layered, flawed characters we care about, utilizing a structure that played with timelines, and dealt head-on with one of our biggest modern crises. I wrote at the time, "The talented two-person cast [Jon-Michael Reese and Kevin Fanshaw] and creative team have created a visually and emotionally stunning production that engages the mind, the conscience, and the heart." What more can we ask of theater?

Guthrie West Side Story (Charles T. Erickson)
West Side Story was one of my most beloved and most viewed movies growing up, making it a nostalgic favorite for me. But there was nothing nostalgic about Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph’s Haj staging of the classic. With a diverse cast of Jets representing the previous wave of immigrants, and a Latinx cast of Sharks as recent immigrants, all while a fallen Lady Liberty overlooks this tragic tale, it turned the familiar story into a commentary on modern America. I was skeptical about the choice not to use Jerome Robbins’ iconic original choreography, but Maija Garcia’s new choreography brought even more urgency and modernity to the piece, yet was familiar enough not to be jarring. A West Side Story like I’ve never seen before, but still the musical I fell in love with so many years ago.

One of the best things about #TCTheater is the new work that’s created here, and 2018 had some great examples of that. One of the last shows I saw this year was one of the best - new company E/D’s multi-media adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film, Animus was a unique, gorgeous, disturbing, thoughtful creation. I also loved Trademark Theater’s new play Understood, a very timely exploration of the opposing sides we find ourselves on, and the possibility of finding middle ground. Sparkle Theatrical cast a spell with their ensemble-created adaptation of short stories by Argentinian American writer A. Pablo Iannone, The Room with Closets. Other world premieres seen on #TCTheater stages this year are Bucket Brigade's new original musical about grief, love, and family, Life Goes On; Yellow Tree Theatre’s dance- and dream-infused Still Dance the Stars; Pillsbury House’s production of local playwright Christina Ham’s noir crime thriller West of Central, featuring a black female detective in 1960s Los Angeles; Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's story of the garment industry and the Hasidic Jewish culture in Brooklyn, Natasha and the Coat; and Theater Mu's charming romantic comedy The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity.

With the number of theater companies increasing at a much greater rate than the number of performance spaces, theaters continue to get creative. In perhaps the best example of site-specific theater, Wonderlust Productions brought us a play about people working in Minnesota’s State Capitol, inside our beautiful State Capitol building. Our House: The Capitol Play Project was surprisingly delightful edutainment. Another fine example of site-specific theater was Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production of the Broadway flop High Fidelity, a musical based on a movie based on a book about a record story, set in iconic Minneapolis record store Electric Fetus. It was a huge success, proving that location is everything (and a dynamic cast and immersive staging doesn’t hurt either). Also on the site-specific front I watched a woman actually make an apple pie for her condemned son in a real kitchen (Uprising Theatre’s Apples in Winter), had coffee in a coffee shop while watching two couples fall in and out of love in a coffee shop (Theater Elision’s new musical Ain’t It a Grand and Glorious Feeling), watched office politics play out like a boxing match in an actual boxing ring (Hypnic Jerk’s Bull), and witnessed the story of 16th Century composer of religious music in a church as a chorus performed his music (Orchard Theater Collective’s Thomas Tallis). Nothing makes theater more immediate than watching it in a location where the story could actually happen.

This year, I made my first (but not last) visit to the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, about two hours southeast of the Twin Cities. A theater weekend road trip with my blogger friends from Twin Cities Stages and Minnesota Theater Love was, predictably, a great time. It was like theater camp; we immersed ourselves in theater for two days, removed from the distractions of home and daily life. Between the four of us we saw four great plays (All's Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Love, and Venus in Fur) by a fantastic company of actors, enjoyed good food and drink in the charming river town of Winona, and learned about Intimacy Directors from one of the founders of Intimacy Directors International. Since then I’ve been noticing Intimacy Directors being credited not just in local theater, but in national theater, movies, and TV shows. The concept has been around for several years, but it seems like it really took off this year; it dovetails nicely with the #metoo movement and its importance is being recognized now more than ever.

I've never chosen a playwright as a favorite artist before, but my Playwrights' Center obsession is still fairly new. By all accounts, this was the year of Harrison David Rivers in #TCTheater. He worked with author and immigrant Ahmed Ismail Yusef to tell his story in the playful and poignant play A Crack in the Sky, which premiered at the History Theatre in February. In April, Theater Latte Da debuted the ambitious and exciting new historical musical Five Points, for which Harrison wrote the book. Also in April, his brutal and beautiful new play the bandaged place was the final reading in The Playwrights' Center's Ruth Easton Series (a series of free readings which continues monthly through April), for which he won the Relentless Award. But my favorite of all of these was Penumbra's production of This Bitter Earth, for reasons I described above. Thanks to Harrison for his words and stories, and to PWC for luring him to Minnesota and supporting his work, as well as that of thousands of other playwrights every year. You can also see readings of new plays, including one by Harrison, in History Theatre's "Raw Stages" festival next weekend.

I love to choose a new artist that made an impression on me this year, especially one I didn't know existed a year ago. This year the obvious choice is Maxwell Ward, who just this year appeared in four fantastic shows with four different theater companies, a feat for any actor. The first time I saw him on stage was this spring, when he was an adorable Arpad in Lyric Arts' She Loves Me. He followed that up by playing the charmingly awkward Dick in MMT's genius site-specific staging of High Fidelity, and as part of the talented young ensemble of Shoot the Glass Theatre's Spring Awakening. Lastly, his performance as an a capella singing St. Olaf student (along with Armando Ronconi) was one of the highlights of Daleko's super silly and fun City Council Christmas. An impressive debut in #TCTheater.

  • Agitators, Park Square - reminding us to vote!
  • As One, Skylark Opera - a modern opera about a transgender woman becoming herself
  • Awake and Sing!, Artistry - a beautifully tragic family drama
  • Dancing with Giants, Illusion - Tovah Feldshuh!!
  • If/Then, Lyric Arts - a brilliant performance by Kate Beahen in a role written for Idina Menzel
  • Indecent, Guthrie - an ingeniously written new play by Paula Vogel, with the best cast and design
  • The Laramie Cycle, Uprising - honoring Matthew Shepard's life 20 years after its brutal end
  • Make Believe Neighborhood, In the Heart of the Beast - Mr. Rogers' life story with puppets + highlighting the good work in the Phillips neighborhood = all the feels
  • Mamma Mia!, Ordway - an uber talented mostly local cast and So. Much. Fun.
  • Marie and Rosetta, Park Square - Jamecia Bennett and Rajané Katurah Brown raised the rafters with their harmonies and solo gospel performances
  • Melancholy Play, Theatre Elision - a sweetly sad little rarely done musical
  • Noises Off, Guthrie - a classic madcap comedy executed to perfection
  • Pink Unicorn, Illusion - Kate Guentzel in an affecting solo performance as the mother of a gender queer child
  • Rocket Man, Theatre Pro Rata - got me thinking about science, faith, and the nature of time
  • The Royale, Yellow Tree - short, intense, rhythmic, powerful play about boxing and so much more
  • Scapin, Ten Thousand Things - typical TTT shenanigans that delight from start to finish
  • Two Degrees, Prime Productions - a smart, sexy, engaging story about a woman over 40
  • Vincent River - another searing and intimate two-hander, independently produced and directed by Grant Sorenson
  • What I Thought I Knew, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company - a funny and moving true story told in a solo performance by the formidable Kim Kivens
  • Wiz, Children's Theatre and Penumbra - the perfect embodiment of the Brand New Day we all need, and what a cast!!
All of the above and more, plus a spring trip to NYC, made for a pretty memorable 2018. My NYC highlights were the beautiful new musical about humanity The Band's Visit, giving me hope for the future of music-theater, and the 7+ hour epic masterpiece that is Tony Kushner's Angels in America. It seems fitting to close this post, and this year, with Prior's final monologue from that play:
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you:
More Life.
The Great Work Begins.