Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Theater I Saw in 2016: For What It's Worth...

Normally I don’t get to tallying up all the theater I saw in a given year until well into tax season, but this year I’m a little ahead of the game on gathering information together so what the heck - for what it’s worth, looking at the list of what I saw, here’s the stuff that shakes out at the top.

Obviously, no ten best list is comprehensive.  There’s just too much theater in the Twin Cities for any one person to be able to see it all (though Scott Pakudaitis tries and gets closer than most of us).  For instance, right off the top of my head, I realize I saw nothing this year at either Penumbra or Pillsbury and that right there should be disqualifying to me.  The bulk of theater companies in town I only got to one presentation of theirs and that’s hardly representative of all the work they do.  Sometimes I got lucky, sometimes I didn’t.

Some of these shows I’ve already written about, some I haven’t.  If I got comps in exchange for writing a review, I did my duty (whether the company in question ended up being happy with the resulting review or not).  If I paid for my own ticket, a lot of times I didn’t weigh in.  It’s a time thing, more often than not.  I have my own plays to write, after all, that’s gotta happen sometime, too.

We’ll set aside the items on my schedule that had to do with plays I wrote.  We’ll just assume the time I spent in the rehearsal room or seeing the script on its feet were the happiest times of my year, which they were.  So, TV Boyfriend, and Discreet, Straight-Acting, Disease/Drug-Free, you know I love you.  (also, a shout-out to Off Book at HUGE Improv Theater, which used a scene from How To Date A Werewolf.)  But on that level, this list isn’t about me.

So, 74 shows seen outside the Minnesota Fringe Festival, 56 shows seen inside the Fringe, 6 play readings, 4 improv events (pitiful tally there), and 6 other random theater events like Theatre Unbound’s 24:00:00 Extreme Theater Smackdown, Fringe previews and the like.  Roughly a third of the evenings of my year spent in the dark watching someone tell me a story with live performers of one sort or another.  (So, my thanks to the following for engaging my brain: Arena Dances, Denzel Belin, Blue Water Theatre, Fearless Comedy, Four Humors, Freshwater Theatre, Gadfly Theater, History Theater, Live Action Set, Loudmouth Collective, Main Street School of Performing Arts, Mission Theatre, Mixed Blood, Nautilus Music Theater, Off Leash Area, Open Window, Park Square, Recovery Party, Sandbox Theatre, Savage Umbrella, Sheep Theater, Swandive Theatre, Theatre Coup d’Etat, Theatre Forever, Theater Latte Da, Theatre Novi Most, Theatre Pro Rata, 20% Theater Company and Workhaus Collective - but you’re not on the list this time around.)

It’s more like a Top 9 to 15 list, nine groups, 15 presentations that grabbed me:

1 - Jungle Theater - The Oldest Boy - Sara Ruhl makes everything okay (review)
2 - Walking Shadow - The Christians - Pardon me, I know it’s church but… damn (review)
3 - 7th House Theater - The Passage, or What Comes of Searching In The Dark - Makes me happy/sad as an audience member and artist (review)
4 - Underdog Theater - Baltimore Is Burning - Very last thing I saw this year, but probably the most urgent piece of new theater created in the Twin Cities.  A meeting between police and community representatives goes horribly wrong - but honestly, it could have gone worse.  There is both despair and hope pulsing through this play and production and it is riveting
5ish - Fire Drill, based at Fresh Oysters Performance Research (a place I am never bored) - Consequences Have Consequences, Semester: Lecture 1 (review), Boiling Point (review), plus Emily Gastineau curating artists at the Soap Factory
6ish - Guthrie - The Parchman Hour, Trouble In Mind, The Lion In Winter (see note below)
7ish - Skewed Visions - EX(remade) (review), Losing Kantor (review) - you have to watch closely and keep thinking the whole time because they’re not going to explain it to you in words
8 - Small Art - You Bring The Party (review) - low impact audience participation (review)
9 - Classical Actors Ensemble - Julius Caesar - oh, so THAT’s why this is a great play (review)

Biggest surprise (no offense intended, I know it’s kind of a backhanded compliment)? - the Guthrie Theater is on this list.  I work at the Guthrie box office, and we are encouraged to see all the mainstage shows so we can discuss them with people calling in for tickets (and if I could keep up with the flurry of things going on up in the black box space, I would).  Because it either looks like I’m sucking up to my employer (if I like the show) or biting the hand that feeds me (if I don’t), I don’t normally write reviews of Guthrie productions.  In general, the work at the Guthrie hasn’t really been my aesthetic.  It has tended to be overproduced, and at a bit of a remove from me as a spectator.  But something exciting is starting to happen at the Guthrie Theater.  Not that they didn’t do solid work before but under new artistic director Joe Haj, things are kind of blowing up.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of these shows I tagged have an interracial cast, and a large percentage of non-white actors.  I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the productions were directed by women of color, and two of them written by artists of color.  I think that’s a big part of what engaged me, and frankly blew my mind as an audience member.  This change is deliberate, long overdue, and so very, very welcome.  So I gotta be honest, they creeped into my top ten almost in spite of myself.

Trend? - I apparently have developed an artistic nerd crush on Kory LaQuess Pullam.  He wrote Baltimore is Burning.  He was in two of the improv presentations I managed to see (you need to see some Blackout Improv, if you haven’t yet).  He was in the cast of both The Christians and The Parchman Hour.  If you’re not following him around to see what he’s doing next, you probably should be.  Guess I will be, too.

Place I Am Never Bored - as previously stated, Fresh Oysters Performance Research, a makeshift performance space just a couple of doors down from Open Eye Figure Theater.  It’s the home base right now for Fire Drill (Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney), and Skewed Visions (Charles Campbell) - all of whom I already came into 2016 with an artistic nerd crush on and it apparently shows no signs of dissipating.  Throw Small Art’s You Bring The Party onto the pile and the place hasn’t presented a thing that I haven’t been fully engaged by this year.  You feel extremely necessary as an audience member here.  They are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a spectator of live performance.  I am also, oddly, happiest when I am in this space.  So if you need happy, and different, and necessary, you should check them out.

As for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, if you held a gun to my head, these would be ten shows that engaged me, and stuck with me, the most:

1 - Write Me A Song - I saw it twice, so… (review)
2 - Oh Snap! My Alien Children Are Trying To Kill Me - best solo show I saw (review)
3 - Genesis/Revelations - late viewing in the festival, didn’t get to review in those final days as much, but some of the best dance performance I saw in the Fringe, orchestrated by gifted young choreographer Sydney Burch, keep an eye on SB Movement
4 - Of Something Human - always love me some Tamara Ober (review)
5 - The Not So Silent Planet - mind-boggling storytelling (review)
6 - It Is So Ordered - some much-needed words from our country’s better angels (review)
7 - The Disillusionist - rarely do I find someone’s disintegration this entertaining (review)
8 - Break Your Heart - another late viewing in the festival, didn’t review at the time, but a great piece of open, funny, vulnerable, painful, yet hopeful solo performance by Scot Moore
9 - Celebrity Exception - yay, pansexual romantic comedy (review)
10 - Suite Surrender - a genuine, hilarious surprise (review)

(And because I don’t want to seem ungrateful, a shout-out to the other shows that almost made this list (in the order I saw them): For Worse, Ball: A Tribute To My Lost Testicle, Sometimes There’s Wine, Happenstanced, The Abortion Chronicles, Caucasian Aggressive Pandas and other Mulatto Tales, The Gospel of Sherilyn Fenn, Fruit Flies Like A Banana: Alphabetical Disorder, Hostil Watching, The Adventures of Crazy Jane and Red Haired Annie, AfterLife, Know Your B-Movie Actors, Darlings, An Accidental Organist, and Twice (with special bat cameo)

So, for what it’s worth, there’s my 2016.

Good theater helps my heart, and makes me a better writer, so thanks to you all for giving me that gift.  Keep on doing what you’re doing, and hopefully we’ll cross paths sooner rather than later in 2017.  And if I thought good art seemed necessary last year, here comes a whole new world with the new year (yikes).

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