Our critics found gems on smaller stages. Both liked "Buzzer" at Pillsbury House and "In the Next Room" at the Jungle.
Rohan Preston's list:
There were large-scale shows with oomph in 2012, including "Billy Elliot" at the Ordway, "The Lion King" at the Orpheum and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" at Children's Theatre. But most of what I liked best this year occurred in smaller theaters.
1. "Untitled Feminist Show," Young Jean Lee, Walker Art Center. Visionary performance auteur Lee created a revelatory contradiction. Hers is a play without words in which naked bodies of different shapes and sizes spoke clearly, shaking off preconceptions, reclaiming spaces and re-ordering perceptions. The result was deliriously disruptive.
2. "The Brothers Size," a Pillsbury House Theatre and Mount Curve Company co-production at the Guthrie Theater. In Tarell Alvin McCraney's drama about kinship and love, virtuosic actors James A. Williams, Namir Smallwood and Gavin Lawrence delivered intense performances under Marion McClinton's poetic direction. The action played out over a live percussion score supplied by Ahanti Young.
3. "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," Carlyle Brown and Co. at the Guthrie Theater. Under Noel Raymond's astute direction, Gavin Lawrence was spellbinding as poet Langston Hughes. He charismatically limned his activist character's doubts and rationalizations as he is called to justify his existence before Sen. Joe McCarthy's witch-hunting committee.
4. "Dirtday!" Walker Art Center. Laurie Anderson's hypnotic show was like taking an escalator through her dreams. As image after vivid image floated into view, you would reach out to touch them, only to have each of them dematerialize in your hands.
5. "Buzzer," Pillsbury House Theatre. Director Marion McClinton worked like a master turntablist with Tracey Scott Wilson's new drama, segueing effortlessly between scenes. That smooth sureness, plus an engaging acting trio of Namir Smallwood, Hugh Kennedy and Sara Richardson, made this show about love, race and gentrification a winner.
6. "In the Next Room," Jungle Theater. Under Sarah Rasmussen's direction, the Sarah Ruhl play revealed itself to be an entertaining work of tender discoveries and understated subversion. The sterling cast included Christina Baldwin, Bradley Greenwald, Emily Gunyou Halaas, John Middleton and Adia Morris, who replaced Austene Van as a wet nurse.
7. "Swimming With My Mother," Guthrie Theater. Choreographer David Bolger and his mother, Madge Bolger, married the movements of dance and swimming to create a moving and affecting duet that crossed time and generations. The result was an elegant tear-jerker.
8. "The Origin(s) Project," Dreamland Arts. Sun Mee Chomet and Katie Hae Leo paired two adoption one-acts for an evening of roots-seeking. The show, directed with elegant simplicity by Zaraawar Mistry and featuring wry accompaniment by guitarist Bri Heu, was alternately tough-minded and poignant.
9. "A Behanding in Spokane," Gremlin. Director Matt Sciple's taut staging of Martin McDonagh's strange, David Lynch-esque drama got beautiful performances from Luverne Seifert, Brian Evans, Sara Marsh and David Tufford as a one-handed bigot and hostage taker with mommy issues.
10. "Fela!" Ordway Center. Bill T. Jones' masterful direction and choreography, plus Sahr Ngaujah's engrossing performance, made "Fela!" the representative big show on this year's list.
Graydon Royce's list:
Looking over this list, I realize how important smaller stages are to this community. Not to dismiss the large ones, but small theater does not mean small quality. These are shows that took risks, reinterpreted old classics or hooked audiences with great performances, design and direction. These are listed in mostly chronological order through 2012.
1. "Flesh and the Desert," Workhaus Collective. Part fantasy, part pseudo-documentary, the glitzy little staging of a new work by Carson Kreitzer had the aura of dreamy magic and chance -- sort of a perfect metaphor on the gambling capital of North America. Ben McGovern directed a comprehensive and well- observed show.
2. "Ragtime," Park Square Theatre. Gary Gisselman showed us how well the Park Square stage could hold this big American pageant. This production looked great, danced and sang well, and anchored itself in the hearts of characters undergoing wrenching transitions.
3. "Spring Awakening," Theater Latté Da/U of M. Director Peter Rothstein had dancers literally climbing the walls, bouncing off the floor and singing their hearts out. Produced at Rarig Thrust, this intimate production reclaimed the story within a play that sometimes gets too big and loud. Soulful performances from Cat Brindisi and David Darrow.
4. "Sea Marks," Gremlin. An unexpected delight. Peter Christian Hansen and Stacia Rice, who have advanced to substantial roles at the Guthrie, returned to their small-theater roots for a two-hander about lost souls who find salvation in each other. Getting to watch two accomplished actors work in an intimate space was a delicious treat.
5. "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," Walking Shadow Theatre Company. Wade Vaughan cut a wide swath as Ned Kynaston, one of the last men to portray women on the Restoration stage. The production forced us to see the larger capabilities this small company possesses. Most astonishing is the fact that it was the first time this Jeffrey Hatcher script has been performed locally. What took so long?
6. "Cherry Orchard," Luverne Seifert/Darcy Engen producers. A few committed artists brought professional theater to outstate Minnesota. With an adaptation of Chekhov's classic story, Seifert and Engen wrangled a small troupe out to five towns and performed the show in historic public homes.
7. "Waiting for Godot," Jungle. Bain Boehlke saw Beckett's play as a meditation on the relationship between two old men. It had less to do with existential waiting and mystery than it did with the dependence of human beings on one another. Boehlke taught us something new about the enigmatic work, and for that we are grateful.
8. "Measure for Measure," Ten Thousand Things. Using a crisp adaptation from Michelle Hensley, Ten K did its usual crystal-clear work in relating Shakespeare's story of justice and mercy. If you have ever shied away from the Bard because he's long and hard to understand, this is the company to heal you.
9. "In the Next Room," Jungle. Is it too much to put the Jungle twice on a short list? Not for a show this good. Sarah Rasmussen directed a pitch-perfect telling of this story about technology and the mystery of intimacy. Christina Baldwin and John Middleton headed a cast that also included particularly fine moments from Austene Van and Ryan Underbakke. A rich and enjoyable night in the theater.
10. "Buzzer," Pillsbury House. Marion McClinton's cast -- Namir Smallwood, Hugh Kennedy and Sara Richardson -- had just the right sensibilities for this small look into race, class, gender and the role suspicion plays when all those forces mix.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299