2008 Theater Year in Review

By John Townsend December 19, 2008

Categories: Arts & Culture, Our Scene

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Queer discourse got sharper in the Twin Cities theater scene in 2008.

Never has the Guthrie Theater, the flagship regional house, been quite so in the thick of it regarding queer issues. And rehearsals for this spring’s Tony Kushner celebration haven’t even started yet!

The Big G gave us a great production of the late Wendy Wasserstein’s final comedy masterpiece, Third, glistening with recreational wit and wisdom about queerness, feminism, and left-wing academic bias.

The stunning John Carroll Lynch pulled no punches in revealing the sexual confusion of tragic figure Eddy Carbone in the Guthrie’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

In another Guthrie triumph, The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde unsettled in its dark depiction of the disintegration of gay legend Oscar Wilde’s wife and family. Tyson Forbes was part of that production’s fine ensemble.

Forbes also was powerful as Ernst, the seductive Nazi, in the Ordway’s spellbinding Cabaret, coproduced with American Musical Theater of San Jose and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Nick Garrison played the Emcee role as a gay man with a sense of compassion and horror at the unfolding Nazification that the musical portrays so well. Typically, the role is cast as a lecherous queen. Garrison’s take was so much more human.

However, it was small theaters that traversed new territory, and did so marvelously.

Two remarkable new plays dealt with gayness and the Iraq War: Matthew Everett’s Leave, from After Dark Productions; and Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, from Bottling Company. They not only were pioneering in their subject matter, but also were acted with truthful emotional nuance and wrenching depth.

Trans plays were in top form with yet another groundbreaker, 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities’s production of Tobias K. Davis’s Standards of Care, which is arguably the best play yet written about female-to-male (FTM) transgender life.

Artisphere and Torch Theater offered Jane Anderson’s powerhouse Looking for Normal, with Fred Wagner brilliant in the leading male-to-female (MTF) role. Renowned gender educator Debra Davis both advised the production and made her professional theater debut in it.

On the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention, dozens of local GLBT citizens were part of the exhilarating group performance Revolutionary Love 2: I Am Your Best Fantasy, directed by Sharon Hayes. Fortunately, no performers were caught up in any of the sweeps by law enforcement.

However, the year’s bravest queer theatrical event had to be that the venerable but conservative Chanhassen Dinner Theatres dared to stage the gayly forward The Producers. Still running, frankly, it’s better than the Broadway national tour, which broke the Minneapolis box-office record six years ago.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College and director Michael Robertson’s multiracial take on Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! took a script easily trivialized toward faggotty inanity and self-absorption, and shaped a visceral intersection between sexual identity, race, and class. Jim Pounds gave what was perhaps his best leading performance ever as the gay choreographer who wrestles with the reality of his mortality.

Director Joel Sass struck gold with two solo works: Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire, with Kate Eifrig, at the Guthrie; and Pamela Gien’s The Syringa Tree, with Sarah Agnew, at the Jungle. He also directed two other great star vehicles at the Jungle: Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Souvenir.

Lynn Musgrave, theater artist extraordinaire, and longtime straight ally to queer themes in plays, directed two first-rate productions of queer-themed plays, as well as created wonderful sound designs for two others.

Best Productions

Metamorphoses Photo by Charles Gorrill1. Third (Guthrie)

2. Bulrusher (Pillsbury House)

3. Metamorphoses (Theatre Pro Rata)

4. Have You Seen Steve Steven? (Red Eye)

5. Looking For Normal (Torch and Artisphere Theaters)

6. A View from the Bridge (Guthrie)

7. How I Learned to Drive (Theatre Unbound)

8. Dying City (The Bottling Company)

9. Vinegar Tom (Frank Theatre)

10. (3-Way Tie)

Leave (After Dark Theatre)

Standards of Care (20% Theatre Company Twin Cities)

Leave Photo by After Dark TheatreQ&A (Theatre Mu)

Theatre Artist of the Year

Lynn Musgrave, for directing Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis (Theatre in the Round) and The Sign in Sidney Brusteinís Window (Starting Gate), as well as for sound-designing Looking for Normal (Artisphere and Torch) and Exit Strategy (Cricket Productions)

Best Actress—Musical

Claudia Wilkens in Souvenir (Jungle)

Best Actor—Musical

Jairus Abts in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Jungle)

Best Actress—Nonmusical

Sally Ann Wright in Looking for Normal (Artisphere and Torch)

Best Actor—Nonmusical
(Tie)

Eric Knutson in How I Learned to Drive (Theatre Unbound)

Charles Nolte in Exit Strategy (Cricket Productions)

Best Solo Performance

Kate Eifrig Photo by Michal DanielKate Eifrig in 9 Parts of Desire (Guthrie)

Best Supporting Actress
(Tie)

Katherine Ferrand in Defiance (Park Square)

Jean Salo in The Sign in Sidney Brusteinís Window (Starting Gate)

Best Supporting Actor

Robert Gardner in The American Pilot (Walking Shadow)

Best Director

Steve Busa for Have You Seen Steve Steven? (Red Eye)

Best Original Music

Tim Donahue for The Horse, The Bird, The Monkey & The Dancer (Sandbox)

Best Choreographer

Steven J. Meerdink for Bright Lights, Big City (Minneapolis Musical Theatre)

Outstanding Achievement in Opera

Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus for Through a Glass Darkly

Outstanding Achievement in Performance Art

Deviants (Live Action Set)

Outstanding Artistic Partnership

Cabaret (Ordway, American Musical Theatre of San Jose, 5th Avenue Theatre)

Outstanding Achievement in Dance Innovation

The Foundation, etcetera (Walker Art Center and Southern Theater)

Outstanding Achievements in Artistic Courage

Love! Valour! Compassion! (Minneapolis Community and Technical College)

The Producers Photo by Act zOne, Too LTDThe Producers (Chanhassen Dinner Theatres)

Outstanding Achievement in Protest Performance

Revolutionary Love 2: I Am Your Best Fantasy (Walker Art Center and Creative Time)

Best Delivery of a Dramatic Speech

Brian Goranson in These Shining Lives (History Theatre)

Best Revival

3-Way (8 Ball)

Best Lighting

Michael P. Kittel, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (Park Square)

Best Set Design

John Arnone, A View from the Bridge (Guthrie)

Best Costumes

Kathy Kohl, Vinegar Tom (Frank)

Outstanding Achievement in Shakespeare

Macbeth (Torch Theater)

Remarkable Performances

Gavin Lawrence, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been….(Carlyle Brown & Company)
Erin McGovern & Alexandria Wales, Love Person (Mixed Blood)
Charity Jones, The Sisters Rosensweig (Park Square)
Christina Baldwin, Well (Park Square)
Shirley Venard, Exit Strategy (Cricket Productions)
Ansa Akyea & Greta Oglesby, The Piano Lesson (Penumbra)
Kate Durand & Ian Holcomb, Dying City (Bottling Company)
Tracey Maloney & Steven Yoakam, Blackbird (Pillsbury House/Guthrie)
David Wiles & Eric Avery, Blue Door (Workhaus Collective)
Katie Leo, Bao Phi, & Laurine Price, Q&A (Theatre Mu)
Stacia Rice, Fool For Love (Gremlin), These Shining Lives (History Theatre)
Jonas Goslow & Ray Birk, Old Wicked Songs (Guthrie/Theater Latte Da)
Zoe Benston, Amazons and their Men (Walking Shadow)
Bain Boehlke & Wendy Lehr, The Gin Game (Jungle)
Mark Nelson, Amy McDonald, & Jason Peterson , Rabbit Hole (Jungle)
Elayn J. Taylor & James Williams, Fences (Penumbra)
James Craven, Gem of the Ocean (Penumbra/Guthrie)
Zach Curtis, Metamorphoses (Theatre Pro Rata)
Samantha Cullen Maronek, How I Learned to Drive (Theatre Unbound)
Darien Johnson & Jermaine Small, Same Difference (Pillsbury House/Illusion Theatre)
Kurt Schweickhardt, Defiance (Park Square)
Dieter Bierbrauer, Parade (Minnesota Jewish Theatre/Theater Latte Da)
Fred Wagner, Looking for Normal (Artisphere/Torch)
Mia Katigbak, After a Hundred Years (Guthrie)
Jodi Kellogg & Christiana Clark, Bulrusher (Pillsbury House)
Sasha Andreev, The Seagull (Twin Cities Chekhov Festival)
Rob Frankel,The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (Starting Gate)
Peter Vitale, Souvenir (Jungle)
Heidi Edgeton & Anthony Neuman, Standards of Care (20%)
Sean Martin Hingston, Yankee Doodle (Ordway)
Dieter Bierbrauer & Ann Michels, Parade (Minnesota Jewish Theatre/Theatre Latte Da)
Simon Jones & James A. Stephens, Shadowlands (Guthrie)

A Note on the Outstanding Ensembles

The following ensemble productions were notable because of the degree of difficulty their complicated scripts demanded: Indeed, for any production to be outstanding, all the actors and technical elements need to shine. But certain scripts demand a complex clockwork in their timing, pace, and how their pictorial sense comes across. They were 4:48 Psychosis (20%), Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis (Theatre in the Round), The Sisters Rosensweig (Park Square), Animal Farm (John Ferguson Theater & Ktron Productions ), How I l Learned to Drive (Theatre Unbound) and the year’s best ensemble: Have You Seen Steve Steven? (Red Eye).

Outstanding Touring Performances (all of which had significant queer content)

Big Scale: Avenue Q, (Hennepin Theatre Trust at State Theatre): Imagine Sesame Street with Tony-winning gay twists and a Log Cabin Republican muppet.
Small Scale:
The Tiny Jumbo Jolly Grim Show (In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre): A brutally funny political spoof in terms of a Punch and Judy Show for adults.
Ramble-Ations: A One D’Lo Show (Pangea World Theater): A delightful look at gay identity, gender fluidity, Hip Hop, and being Hindu and it was Pangea’s first all queer show!
Chek it, Baby: A Fabulous Explanation of Anton Chekhov’s Fiercest Plays (Twin Cities Chekhov Festival): Jade Esteban Estrada actually put a queer spin on Anton Chekhov, the one playwright you may have thought was totally queer-resistant. But Estrada did so and indeed, it was a love letter to one of the greatest playwrights ever. If you ever had any doubt of Chekhov’s greatness, Estrada erases that.

Sexual Boldness on Twin Cities Stages

Christiana Clark astounded as a completely innocent child of nature who approaches sensuality, eroticism, and sexuality with total lack of shame in Bulrusher by Eisa Davis at Pillsbury House. Boundaries were dissipated. Touch and desire are healthy, natural things that society weeds out of all of us quite ruthlessly. But here was an example of the opposite. In the same production, Jodi Kellogg amazed as the ‘Madame’ of a brothel. Kellogg consistently delivers solid to brilliant performances but she emanated a sense of mystery unlike anything she had done before. She was reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck, but with a dark side that Old Hollywood could never have been free enough to evoke.

Some will balk that I named 3-Way as Best Revival over Penumbra’s must-see August Wilson series (still going, by the way). However, in an age when we label monogamy as moral and natural v. nonmonogamy as immoral and unnatural, it inherently raises a fundamental question that, dare I say, is just as important as any of the standard political issues out there. (In Lavender Archives, Issue 347 I elaborate on this.) I will leave it at this: Why will we impeach a President for lying about a blow job but let one off the hook, and his lackeys too, for lying us into war and letting billions get funnelled to unproductive military contractors? The same President who has kept a male hustler, Jeff Gannon, on in the White House press corp. Though I’m all for sex workers, it’s the hypocrisy of having been the President with the most unprecedented homophobia as enacted in actual policy and propaganda. A President who oversaw the firing of military translators for being gay; who used fear of same sex marriage to keep a critical mass of voters freaked out in order to keep his war/money laundering for unaccountable military contractors operation going while our soldiers and veterans are treated like crap. Not to mention how sexual assaults of women in the military during the current war decade have been swept under the rug continually. (Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! radio has delved into this.) Greed, erotophobia, and sexual abuse have joined forces to keep the war machine stoked. That’s why 3-Way, which by the way, also played in London this year, is more important than one might think. Let go of the insidiously complex internalization of sexual shame and the power structure loses its grip big time. Be able to laugh about and discuss rationally the wonder world of sexuality and you the individual take back your power, whatever your orientation may be or may become. Erotophobia is as much the root of evil as the love of money is as far as I’m concerned, and homophobia and misogyny are subsets of that. So let’s create all the plays we can to look at all that. 3-Way rocked and shows that gays can be silly prudes too!

As for a dark view of sexuality, the opposite of 3-Way, Park Square’s Frozen, was a disturbing look at how to forgive (or not) one who has molested and murdered your child. Bryony Lavery’s script is overladen with monologues that come off as more informative than dramatic. But actors Terry Hempleman, Linda Kelsey, and Karen Landry, courageously compelled us to reflect troubling subject matter that must be looked at as we explore the brave new world of the post-Sexual Revolution.

Looking Back at 2008 Theatre Scene

The worst stage news of the year was the closing of the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune. There’s been lots of opining about why it went under but debt was central and there’s a lesson here: sometimes it’s best to remove to smaller, cheaper digs. Artistic vision can often be recalibrated to smaller venues and this is something that Jeune Lune could have done but did not do. For instance, Penumbra Theatre, whose rep is actually every bit as stellar as Jeune Lune’s read the signs and resisted expansion. They went on to begin producing starting this past year, the 10 plays of the late great August Wilson’s 20th Century Cycle. In ’08 they revived The Piano Lesson and Fences, both to breathtaking effect. And gave us the luminous area premiere of Gem of the Ocean at the Guthrie whose bigger space suited that historical drama wonderfully. A great example of theatrical partnerships.

Unfortunately, the humbler Burning House Group, also, like Jeune Lune, also known for it’s edginess, went under as well. Both troupes will be missed. Like Jeune Lune, Burning House had developed its own very distinct style and was every bit, if not a bit more, daring than Jeune Lune.

However, Gremlin Theatre opened a new space on University Avenue in St. Paul and got raves and an IVEY Award for Orson’s Shadow. They also staged a strong revival of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in which lead actors Stacia Rice and Peter Hansen stretched their talents in roles that were much grittier than previous work they’ve done. Call it a breakthroug for both. That said, the two of them were also strong in After a Hundred Years at the Guthrie. Naomi Iizuka’s thoughtful drama of AIDS and post-Pol Pot Cambodia reminds us how Richard Nixon’s secret bombing catalyzed the brutal Khmer Rogue dictator to bloody power at about the same time Nixon and Kissinger assisted the coup that put Pinochet in power in Chile. Imagine that!

Happily, the Guthrie Theater has had a good year financially compared to most other theaters. They have maintained integrity by producing classic and newer plays. Moreover, they have partnered with local theater groups to splendid effect. Groups like Theater Latte Da, Pilllsbury House, and Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum whose French Twist was very different from typical Guthrie fare. Fabulously entertaining and danced with kooky wit, Chavals’s vision once again, showed that the new Guthrie is acknowledging wonderful local talent.

New Plays Rocked in ’08

2008 is surely a landmark year for local playwrights being marvelously produced by local theater companies. What’s agonizing is that because most of these plays played in small houses, often to small audiences, the world at large was not aware of their remarkable nature.

The year ended with an electrifying Carlyle Brown & Company production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…, playwright Carlyle Brown’s searing examination of poet Langston Hughes’s victimization by Joseph McCarthy’s heysterical anti-communist crusade in the 1950s. Gavin Lawrence’s performance was breathtaking.

Playwright Aditi Kapil probed lesbian love, disability, and different languages in the extraordinary Love Person, directed with great sensitivity by Risa Brainin at Mixed Blood. In Q&A from Theatre Mu, self-described bisexual, biracial playwright Juliana Hu Pegues penetrated racial and gender stereotypes ingeniously from within Asian-related communities. It’s one of the most complex examinations to come along yet about this particular stereotyping problem and what’s more is that Pegues dramatizes such a heady theme so vividly. This play is packed with some of the most arresting monologues to come along in one play since Edward Albee wrote All Over.

Speaking of Albee, he must be an influence on playwright Aaron Christopher whose exquisitely wicked American Apathy was surely the year’s tightest script. It was produced by Urban Samurai. Christopher’s savage take on consumerism essentially has a married heterosexual couple agonizing about consumer losses as if they had lost a limb or a parent or a job of 20 years on the eve of retirement. It recalls Albee’s early gems, The American Dream and Tiny Alice, but with the current day’s hyper-recognition of materialism run amok into financial collapse. There’s also a sense of kinetic musicality in the language and interplay of the characters. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it’s consistently scathing. Once again, something like Albee. Morevoer, Christopher unsettles because he doesn’t let us blame the collapse solely on greedy banks and deregulation. It’s we the people who also abdicate our power when we let ourselves seduced by credit cards, bargains, material crap, and keeping up with the Joneses. Of course, that doesn’t let the deregulation mania off the hook, but when we consume mindlessly we become part of the morass, don’t we!

Hardcover Theater, known for its reliable stage adaptations of classic literary works, re-channelled sexy escapades in Boccaccio’s six centuries old Decameron to late 1950s New Jersey Italian Americans with Johnny Bocca’s Sex Farce for Swingin’ Lovers. Shanan Wexler and Joshua English Scrimshaw’s inspired script is a juicily sexy affair that glories in spoofing Italian emotional excess. And the spoof is affectionate, not mean.

Guthrie actor Matthew Amendt penned a very intellectual and clever bioplay about Greek playwright Aristophanes, The Comedian’s Tragedy. It also marked a wonderful directorial turn by Guthrie actor Bill McCallum who is always a vivid interpreter of challenging plays. With Amendt’s script he saw to it that the wit within the lines came through with a sharp edge and emotional strength.

Two other scripts also skated on thin ice between cleverness and clear storytelling. Trista Baldwin’s Forgetting staged by Workhaus Collective, probed grief and sexuality quite bravely but it was difficult to get a full handle on exactly who the characters were. Alan Berks’s Everywhere Signs Fall gloried in circuitous dialogue that made us question the actual facts of an event. On the one hand, it was captivating, if not a bit longwinded. On the other, it didn’t culminate toward a coherent conclusion. Or if it did, I just didn’t get it. However, the Gremlin cast was excellent. Yet another fine performance from the adorable Tracey Maloney.

Tech Was Impressive at Small Theaters

It’s always impressive when technical aspects of theater do alot with a little. And in this era of financial collapse, when even movies are suffering from poor attendance, it’s remarkable when small troupes not only sport fine acting but vivid technical elements too.

Dixie Treichel’s nostalgic ’60s-style sound design brought bittersweet wistfulness to Theatre Unbound’s How I Learned to Drive’s hard-to-take theme of child molestation. It exemplified a sound designer who tuned into the playwright’s spirit of intent. Just so you know, I cohost on KFAI’s Fresh Fruit with Dixie the third Thursday evening of each month.

John Ferguson Theater & Ktron Productions’s Animal Farm’s ramshackle set designed by Eric Zaffarano matched the story perfectly. Sandbox Theater’s The Horse, The Bird, the Monkey & the Dancer was enhanced by simple but powerfully suggestive costumes designed by Laura Fulk, Anna Lee, and Kerry Riley. From purple overalls in a factory context to loose fitting clothing representing Buddhist monks to a con artist reminiscent of Uncle Sam, this simple little show still had an epic feel. The same production also gained from lighting designer Heidi Eckwall’s use of silhouette where we see subservient clerks and domineering chamberlains ‘passing paper’ with many arms like a wrathful Eastern deity.

Hardcover’s Johnny Bocca’s Sex Farce for Swingin’ Lovers was a triumph not only of acting style with its wonderful ensemble but in ambience as well, thanks to Eric Webster’s nostalgic ’50s sound design and Julia Gordon’s lighting.

‘Minor Performances’ Struck Gold

Minor role performances are those which are not quite supporting performances that carry the framework of the story. Minor roles are those that aid in moving the action forward at one point or two, and which could be easily forgotten. They don’t typically have the range of what’s called a character’s arc that a juicy supporting role like the one Jean Salo played so well in Starting Gate’s revival of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by bisexual African American Lorraine Hansberry. But a minor role, when seized on with insight by a gifted actor, they can illuminate a production beautifully.

Mo Perry actually achieved this twice in two minor roles in Shakespeare’s Macbeth from Torch Theatre. As Hecate, Queen of Hades, she could have opted for pure wickedness and pulled it off splendidly. Instead, she showed us a Hecate, who though Queen of the Underworld, has her limits and her scruples. We got a clear sense she is rightly perturbed at the Weird Sisters who have cast a spell on the gullible Thane of Cawdor.

Later on Perry astounded as Lady Macduff who sees her son and herself meet a gruesome fate at the hands of the Macbeth gang. This scene is alway disturbing even in a bad production. But in Torch’s superb production, directed by David Mann, it was set up to not only harrowing effect but heartbreaking effect as well. It’s one of those times where you just had to have been there, but the way Perry explains to the boy that his father is dead, the sense of abandonment, and the subtext of how violence rules this orb, was astonishing. It’s as if she encapsulated the Oversoul of all life in its outrage against man’s cruelty. In our time of ‘endless war’, it was especially riveting.

Actor Steve Hendrickson slayed one of my childhood political heroes with his enraging small role as Republican Senator, Everett Dirksen, accomplice of Joseph McCarthy in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… John Middleton gave us a seethingly cruel turn as that most vicious queen of the McCarthy Era, Roy Cohn, in the same production. You needed to take your blood pressure medicine after their scene.

If you’re a Doubt fan, John Patrick Shanley’s underrated Defiance would likely have been up your alley at Park Square. Sam Van Wyk was devastating in the small role of a low ranking soldier humiliated by his superior in a low blow that can only leave one disgusted. He embodied not just the common soldier, but the common person, who is compelled to face the degradations that the reigning power structure mandates. A man trapped irrevocably in his class and gender identity.

Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s Bright Lights, Big City was a luminous show to begin with, but three different solos by actresses in small parts made it worth the price of admission: Anna Carol, Christine Karki, and Jodi Tripp. And some feminists may object to this, but I simply adored Zoe Pappas’s naughty turn as sex bomb Ulla in Chanhassen’s The Producers. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect her to play, but she does so (it’s still running) with guileless delight. Even gay men will love it when she bends over! She channels a combo of Mae West and Marilyn Monroe with Swedish accent.

Though not as sexy, and not that he can’t be when cast in the right role, Shawn Hamilton was stirring as an ex-con in Peter Rothstein’s stunning staging of Parade by Minnesota Jewish Theatre and Theater Latte Da.

Queer Content at IVEY Awards and Spark24

The Ordway’s magnificent Cabaret was honored at the IVEYs as one of the best theater productions of ’08, and Jairus Abts took top acting honors for his turn in Jungle’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Scott Mayer, the mastermind behind the IVEYs, also masterminded spark24 which occurred over the Labor Day weekend in Orchestra Hall and just outside at Peavey Plaza to show everyone in town for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul that the Twin Cities is a mecca for the performing arts. Chanhassen Dinner Theater actor-singers like the gifted Sean Nugent performed, along with Post Productions and Ordway’s Broadway’s Legendary Ladies’ terrific Jen Burleigh-Benz. The Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus also performed along with numerous other diverse groups from many different quarters. But the most magical event of all was at 3 AM on Sunday, Aug. 31 catching a half filled Orchestra Hall with most of the audience swaying to the dreamy music group Cloud Cult. And they painted while on stage too! The crowd was hooked. Mayer is a Hero. I hope spark24 returns in ’09.

Remarkable Achievements Regarding Controversial Content

Cathleen Fuller only played one character but she was still on a par with Kate Eifrig’s solo 9 Parts of Desire at the Guthrie and Sarah Agnew’s masterful multi-character solo play performance at the Jungle, The Syringa Tree, a girl’s reflections on South African Apartheid. Fuller was dazzling and nuanced as Ann Landers. The play by David Rambo beautifully reveals the late advice columnist’s evolving understanding and compassion about homosexuality and the plight of gay people in a heterocentric society. Fuller manifested that with pure lovability. What an ally! Both Landers and Fuller!

Greta Grosch is clearly one of the funniest actresses around but her turn as playwright for Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping at Plymouth Playhouse was a revelation as she wove notions of fertility and the roots of erotophobia as revealed in a character who has turned off to sex. What was also ingenious and subversive is that Grosch, who knows the Playhouses’s conservative audience well, knew just how to present such very controversial subject manner so that it was palatable but candid at the same time. No integrity lost. No one scared away. The subject gets examined while the audience is rolling in the aisles. What a feat of writing! And of truly productive political activism.

Another tremendous achievement in a conservative audience getting exposed to controversial themes was at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The production itself -still running- is dynamite and it’s magnificently served by David Brinkley and Mark King as the gay couple who stage a deliberately bad, yet entertainingly inspired musical spoof on Adolf Hitler. It is by far and away the best example of camp in any stage production in the Twin Cities over the past few years. Credit must be paid on that count to director Michael Brindisi.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is perhaps the goriest play ever written and as is the problem with gore and violence on stage and film, it up can and almost always doesoverwhelm the story and character development. Yes, even when it’s the overrated Coen Brothers and the overpraised Martin Scorcese. However, Cromulent Shakespeare Company navigated this well under the direction of Paul Von Stoetzel. In a time of violent film fare and jaded moviegoers who’ve drunk too much Tarantino kool-aid, this live show on stage was a treat, in a grisly kind of way. You really got the sense of how brutal violent dismemberment actually is without checking out emotionally. (Theatergoer more courageous than moviegoer.) Moreover, Charles Hubbell was superb as the protagonist military commander who embodies a bizarre combo of authoritarian cruelty and genuine naivete and innocence.

For those who want a review of the Minnesota Fringe Festival ’08 you can go to the Lavender Archives, Issue 344. It has continued to be consistently rich with challenging queer content.

Questions to leave you with: How can small theaters draw more audience in a time of financial collapse?

When is Jungle Theater going to remount Bain Boehlke’s stunning directorial vision of the World War I play, Journey’s End in this era of endless war?

Stay tuned to this online column for a look at Twin Cities Film ’08 and Radio ’08 and what’s ahead in early ’09!

Congratulations to KFAI’s Fresh Fruit, the longest running queer radio show in the U.S.A.!
Goin’ strong for 30 years!

10 Responses to 2008 Theater Year in Review

  1. Katharine says:

    Best Sound Design

    Where did it go? There are a lot of us out there who work hard and are proud of our sound. And a lot of shows with a lot of sound.

  2. Jeff Redman says:

    More appropriately, the article should be entitled “2008 Theater that John Townsend Has Seen Year in Review”.

    No offense meant, but to create a “best of” list, shouldn’t you at least have seen representative work from all of the theater companies that fall under the IVEY award criteria?

    Don’t misunderstand, all are very deserving artists and SHOULD receive recognition for their talent, but it paints an incomplete picture of the theater arts world in the Twin Cities.

    2009 New Years Resolution: Visit and review at least one show from all of the theaters eligible for IVEY award recognition.

  3. David says:

    Jeff – that comment is a great way to encourage John to see your company’s shows.

    Keep it up!

  4. Katharine says:

    Please note that Eric Avery and David Wiles starred in “Blue Door” with EMIGRANT THEATRE, not Workhaus Collective.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    Wow- the twin cities rock! Thanks for this article Mr Townsen. I enjoyed reading thru it. Now if only I could make time to see more theater. Keep up the good work ladies and gentleman.

  6. Jeff Redman says:

    David – I do not care and I have never encouraged Jon Townsend to visit, review or write about any of our shows since our beginning.

    The company has been very successful without any single critic ever setting foot inside our door. We do not feel the compelling need to be validated by the critics.

    If I did care I wouldn’t have signed my name.

    Thanks for the tip though, “David” whoever you are.

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