On stage: The thrill of the new

New plays have been a welcome - and memorable - addition to Twin Cites stages as we look at the year in theater so far.

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Anna Sundberg and John Riedlinger in Carson Kreitzer’s “Flesh and the Desert” by Workhaus Collective.

Rohan Preston: For me, the year thus far has been mostly about new plays, some of which courageously tackled hot-button issues. Tracey Scott Wilson's "Buzzer" at Pillsbury House Theatre, directed with DJ-style lyricism by Marion McClinton, boasted commendable performances by Namir Smallwood, Hugh Kennedy and Sarah Richardson. The one-act drama provocatively waded into issues of love, race and gentrification.

Playwright Cheryl West delivered a witty and moving adaptation of "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy," which dealt with the uprooting of a black and mixed-race island community in Maine a century ago. The Children's Theatre production, meticulously staged by Peter Brosius, had affectingly beautiful performances by Traci Allen and Sam Bardwell as the title characters. The moving, music-infused play also proved disturbing, even if it was wrapped in sweet sentiment. The dispossessed black characters end up dead or scattered to the wind but their suffering is not in vain. What they go through helps some of the white characters get in touch with their better angels.

Playwright Christina Ham's "Crash Test Dummies," set in a foreclosure dystopia, showed a lot of promise in its premiere at Red Eye. And Josh Tobiessen's "Crashing the Party," another premiere, proved that a zesty, old-style comedy can have plenty of contemporary resonance.

"Party" played at Mixed Blood, where Enrique Urueta's "Learn to Be Latina" proved to be a racy riot. Though a few years old, Urueta's comedy irreverently showed that stereotypes populate not just the music industry, where a Middle Eastern singer played by Jamie Elvey tries to pass for a hot Latina. The show plugged into stereotypes in our consciousness.

Gavin Lawrence was exceedingly charismatic as Langston Hughes in "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," the Carlyle Brown play about creativity, ideas and Joe McCarthy's 1950s witch-hunts that premiered at the Guthrie Theater (it closes this weekend).

Lawrence carries this one-act on his magisterial shoulders. He delivers with more magnetism and spark than the real Hughes, and he does a killer, rubber-faced caricature of James Baldwin (whose "The Amen Corner" is playing downstairs on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust).

Graydon, you saw a bunch of new plays, as well. I remember you were so-so about Carlyle Brown's "American Family," but what did you really like?

Graydon Royce: Two new plays reminded me that there is still so much to be said in the theater. One was "Buzzer," which you mentioned. McClinton got excellent work from the actors by drawing out the characters that defined Wilson's themes. Second, playwright Carson Kreitzer's "Flesh and the Desert" allowed itself to drift into some dreamy landscapes amid the realism of Las Vegas' history. Several story threads kept the piece lively, entertaining and mythical. This was an articulate and holistic vision of a place and a myth. Good work by Workhaus Collective.

Small plays that boasted great performances reminded us of how valuable intimate venues are. Stacia Rice and Peter Christian Hansen charmed audiences in "Sea Marks" at Gremlin. Raye Birk and Skyler Nowinski elevated "The Last Word" at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Birk, in particular, was brilliant.

Two large musicals grabbed my attention. Peter Rothstein's "Spring Awakening" for Theater Latté Da and Gary Gisselman's production of "Ragtime" at Park Square stand out for their stagecraft and introspection. Both directors understood that it was the dynamic personal stakes that gave these shows their epic heft.

"Spring Awakening" filled up the Rarig Thrust stage with actors climbing into the balcony, rappelling down fire poles and singing their hearts out. Carl Flink's choreography represented the vivacity of youth, and Rothstein's young cast internalized its vulnerability.

Interestingly, "Ragtime" is set only a couple of decades later than "Spring Awakening" but the themes and location remove it from adolescence. Here was a panoramic exploration of how America muscled its way through an era of wrenching dislocation. Gisselman wove the complementary threads of wealth, immigration and race together into a beautiful fabric. Park Square's stage has never looked quite so full and alive.

It's significant -- but not surprising -- to note that the music director for both these productions was Denise Prosek.

Two other shows that used music without reaching the status of full-on musicals made impressions during the past five months. "End of the Rainbow" gave Guthrie audiences the first U.S. look at a show that moved onto Broadway. If Tracie Bennett wins the Tony for her portrayal of Judy Garland, you can say you saw it here first. "Coco's Diary" at the History Theatre looked at another Minnesota girl -- Coco Irvine. Kacie Riddle and Anna Evans gave outstanding performances as the 13-year-old Coco, managing to stay precocious without becoming precious.

On Twitter: @graydonroyce and @rohanpreston

  • related content

  • “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy” at Children’s Theatre Company

  • “Buzzer” by Tracey Scott Wilson at Pillsbury House Theatre

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