Saturday, January 8, 2022

#TCTheater 2021 - a Hybrid of Favorites

We did it, friends: somehow, we've made it to the end of another year. A year that started in the bleak darkness of a much too long intermission from live theater, continued through a glorious summer of outdoor performances, and into the sudden hopeful return of #TCTheater, almost like we knew it before, but different. Things looked pretty great in September as many companies returned to the stage with a new season, but a bit of darkness has descended again with the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant that has forced show closings and cancellations on Broadway and here at home. The future is uncertain, but the experience of the past nearly two years dealing with this pandemic gives me confidence that we will get through this too, and theater will continue. But first, let's pause and look back at the year that was in #TCTheater.

I saw 86 live performances this year, 81 of them here in Minnesota (I blissfully returned to NYC in early December to see a handful of amazing Broadway shows). Some of these shows were non-theater related concerts (including a triumphant return of the best little folk festival in Minnesota - Storyhill Fest, tickets now on sale for August 2022!), but most were theater or theater-adjacent (including ten live Minnesota Fringe Festival shows and three live Twin Cities Horror Festival shows, both of which were hybrid live/virtual festivals this year). 86 is a significant increase from 2020's dismal 49, but still remarkably less than a typical year. You'd have to go back to 2011 to find the last pre-pandemic year in which I saw less than 100 shows. Still, it feels like the beginning of the return to normal, or a new normal, and there was some really amazing theater produced this year.

It's almost hard to remember, but one year ago vaccines were just recently approved for certain segments of the population only, and we were still very much living in our homes (or at least I was). By this point, #TCTheater had become pretty expert at this new artform known as virtual theater, and the first few months of 2021 saw some excellent virtual offerings. Some pieces were created specifically for the digital world and made creative use of the technology, like Emily Michaels King's virtual creation Digital, which she performed live on Zoom from her home using a laptop and iPhone to craft a unique virtual experience. Theater Mu also performed Today is My Birthday live, from multiple actors' homes around the country, utilizing green screens, split screens, and other technology in "an incredibly ambitious and successful technical feat."

The Revolutionists by Lyric Arts
Other highlights in the virtual space include Theater Latte Da's excellent five-part cabaret series called the Ghostlight Series, which featured some of our favorite artists performing and sharing stories around different topics. Bucket Brigade turned their annual original musical 'Til Death into a streaming concert that maintained all of the charm, heart, and humor of the original. Lyric Arts performed a Lauren Gunderson play The Revolutionists on their Anoka stage to an empty audience, filmed for watching at home. Similarly, Lakeshore Players Theatre recorded a couple of new productions in the Hanifl Performing Arts Center for home viewing - the solo play The Lady with All the Answers (starring #TCTheater fave Shanan Custer) and the fun '60s musical Beehive. Last but not least, longtime Children's Theatre company members (and married couple) Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund filmed a delightful web series in their home called Audrey Saves the Universe.

Ordway Cabaret: Live at the Loading Dock!
Then came the glorious Minnesota summer, and with it the wealth of outdoor theater that I was hoping for in 2020. But by 2021, theater companies had finally figured it out, and my camp chair stayed in my car all summer for use at parks, parking lots, and lawns around the Twin Cities. I took a road trip down to Winona for Great River Shakespeare Festival's one-year-delayed 17th season and saw three excellent plays outdoors. In local Shakespeare news, Classical Actors Ensemble returned to their annual Shakespeare in the parks series with everyone's favorite comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mixed Precipitation's charming Pickup Truck Opera returned too, as did the Ordway's practically perfect outdoor venue on their loading dock. Elsewhere, I imagined the future in a series of new short plays by Wonderlust Productions in Hopscotch. I watched beloved #TCTheater actor Sally Wingert in the local true story solo piece A Pickle, produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (which shortly thereafter rebranded as Six Points Theater). I walked around the Como Zoo immersed in a story that asked some big ethical questions in Mixed Blood Theatre's Animate. I witnessed the healing ritual that was Pillsbury House Theatre's parking lot production of What to Send Up When It Goes Down, just a few blocks from where George Floyd was murdered a year earlier. 

On the musical side, I drove over to charming riverside Stillwater for Zephyr Theatre's joyous outdoor production of Mamma Mia! (and later, their ShakesFaire festival in a nearby park). I watched one of Collide Theatrical Dance Company's original dance musicals in the shadow of the James J. Hill House - Wonderland, a modern take on the Alice story that explored mental illness. I sat on the green rooftop of the Bakken Museum while Open Eye Theatre's sweet and silly original Paul Bunyan musical Log Jam played out before me. And perhaps my favorite outdoor musical was Lakeshore Players Theatre's production of one of my favorite Sondheim musicals Company, performed on a makeshift stage in their parking lot.

But without question, the highlight of 2021 was the return of live indoor theater. 508 long days from my last indoor performance in February 2020, I walked into Elision Playhouse to see Theatre Elision's lovely two-person musical Islander, and it felt like coming home. Since that July day I've seen over 50 indoor plays and musicals, most in the last four months of the year. Every time I walk into a theater, proof of vaccination in hand and mask on my face, it feels a little more normal. But I don't think I'll ever lose that feeling of gratitude that I gained after going through such a very long time without theater in my life.

My three favorite indoor musicals in 2021 were:
Songs for a New World, IslanderStations of the Heart
  • Islander by Theatre Elsion: My first indoor show of 2021 was also one of my favorites, exemplifying what Elision does best - small-cast, one-act, rarely done or original musicals with a mostly female cast and/or creative team. This Scottish import featured two performers (Christine Wade and Emily Dussault alternation with Deidre Cochran) on a lovely score that included cool looping effects, and told a charming story of a Scottish island and its legends.
  • Songs for a New World by Artistry: Maybe it was the fact that this was the first show of the 2021-2022 season, maybe it was Jason Robert Brown's genius songwriting skills, but this show gave me all the feels. With an incredibly talented cast that was twice the size of the normally small-cast show, this song cycle musical truly expressed all emotions of the past year and a half and our hope for a better future.
  • Stations of the Heart by Nautilus Music-Theater: Even pre-pandemic, full productions from Nautilus (which focuses on new works of music-theater) were rare and wonderful. They came out of the pandemic with this lovely song cycle by Jim Payne (lyrics) and George Maurer (music) that had been in the works for 18 years. Three vocalists, two musicians, a dozen and a half original, unique, related, varied songs on all stages and kinds of love.
My three favorite indoor plays in 2021 were:
Every Brilliant Thing, The Comedy of ErrorsAnamnesis
  • Anamnesis by the Moving Company: Leave it to MoCo to create the perfect piece to express the experiences and emotions of the last year and a half, where we are now, and what to do next. Inventive, funny, moving, odd, and heart-breakingly lovely, Anamnesis is "artistic exploration of humanity, the world we live in, and the nature of art itself." (And if you missed it, you have another chance to see it this month - click here for info.)
  • The Comedy of Errors by Ten Thousand Things: Nobody does Shakespeare like TTT - clear, accessible, and relatable, while bringing out the true heart of this piece. In this case, that's outrageous comedy, at a time when we all needed to laugh and be in the same room together. Returning to their unique brand of "all the lights on" theater made me feel like "everything was right with the world," at least for 90 minutes.
  • Every Brilliant Thing by Jungle Theater: I first experienced this moving, funny, non-threateningly participatory solo play outdoors at Great River Shakespeare Festival, then saw it twice at the Jungle (once with primary actor JuCoby Johnson, once with alternate Joy Dolo, both brilliant in their own ways). The play perfectly epitomizes the communal experience of live theater that we have all been missing so desperately, and truly felt like a welcome home to theater.
Honorable mention: Lyric Arts' hilarious laugh-fest The 39 Steps, Theatre in the Round's wonderfully awkward and poignant Circle Mirror Transformation, Dark & Stormy's return to site-specific theater with Jacuzzi performed in an actual Jacuzzi, Yellow Tree Theatre's swashbuckling romp Sherwood, Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Minne-Musicals - five ten-minute musicals performed in downtown Minneapolis Fringe-style, and Full Circle's necessary and moving original piece The Empathy Project.

And that closes the book on 2021 #TCTheater, a year filled with uncertainty, hope, disappointments, all of the emotions, and a wealth of incredible theater, just as I've come to expect from this community. Here's hoping for even more great things in 2022.