G.R.: It’s interesting to look back on a stretch of time and consider why shows get stuck in your memory. This first half of 2014 is a good example. Some of the plays on my list had frightening intensity; some were great reinterpretations of classics; some showed ambitious ideas; some were just new and fun.
R.P.: The shows with the greatest staying power had some of the most indelible images. Kuro Tanino’s “The Room Nobody Knows,” one of the highlights of Walker Art Center’s Out There series, was a strangely captivating cavalcade of surrealist metaphors and Freudian allusions. At the other end of budget and scale, “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess” at the Ordway offered a wash of Sea Island color and brilliant performances. Director Diane Paulus’ impressive update of America’s best-known opera harmonized gospel, pop and trained operatic voices into a stirring telling of a story of outsiders in a bottled-up community whose love becomes redemptive.
G.R.: Lisa D’Amour unspooled a lot of craziness in “Detroit” and had you wondering if this was real life or a fairy tale about the erosion of the old-school American economic dream. Director Joel Sass took the Jungle’s production right to the edge with feral intensity. “Rocket to the Moon” by Gremlin Theatre had that same liveliness, the sense that something big and bad was on the way, and reminded us that Clifford Odets could write a great play.
R.P.: Speaking of writing, playwright Ifa Bayeza distilled pain and fear with lyrical poetry in “The Ballad of Emmett Till” at Penumbra, which served as director Talvin Wilks’ introduction to the Twin Cities. The ensemble of Shá Cage, Greta Oglesby, H. Adam Harris, Darrick Mosley, Mikell Sapp and T. Mychael Rambo brought surprising musicality and lightness to a heavy subject. Over at Pillsbury House, “Gidion’s Knot” was impressive for its rococo tangle of feelings elicited by charismatic performers Laura Esping and Aditi Brennan Kapil.
G.R.: There are some shows I admired more than I loved. “The History of Invulnerability” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company rambled and repeated itself, but playwright David Bar Katz made this story about the creators of “Superman” an ambitious foray into Jewish identity and the power of myth. Walking Shadow’s John Heimbuch opted for a literary approach to “The Three Musketeers.” The play got exhausting, but Heimbuch is such an articulate and smart writer that it was impossible not to tip your hat.
R.P.: I love to see new work succeed, and was taken with Carlyle Brown’s “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom at the White House.” It is built on the cutesy conceit of a fictional black character created by a white writer urging the 16th president to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Brown spun it into something substantial, and it featured commendable performances by James A. Williams, Steve Hendrickson and Jodi Kellogg. At the Guthrie, Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” had memorable performances by James T. Alfred as Martin Luther King Jr. and Erika LaVonn as a seeming hotel maid. In his casting, director Lou Bellamy matched two actors with sparkling chemistry that made Hall’s supernatural one-act an engrossing treat.
G.R.: Theater Latté Da contributed a couple of fine takes on classics. “Cabaret” had a Brechtian effrontery to it (led by Tyler Michaels’ Emcee), and “Our Town” had a diverse cast and musical accompaniment that opened up the production to embrace the audience. Ten Thousand Things might have pulled off the nicest trick of all with its “The Music Man.” Luverne Seifert and Aimee K. Bryant showed the sensitive and sweet story lurking inside that big musical. Park Square’s “Cyrano” had a big and talented cast running on all cylinders.
R.P.: For sheer fun, the Brave New Workshop’s “A Snowplow Named Desire” was full of bawdy comic invention. The troupe, including Taj Ruler, Andy Hilbrands and Matt Erkel, took on timeworn issues of love and relationships with prickly gusto.
G.R.: Here’s what small theater let me enjoy this half year: Actor John Middleton stretched his legs as a playwright with the tongue-in-cheek “Prints” at Torch; 20% Theater seemed to know exactly what Gina Gionfriddo was hoping to say in “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” and Dark & Stormy Productions allowed established actors such as Kris L. Nelson and Tracey Maloney to play like a chamber ensemble in the tiny “The Drunken City.”
R.P.: Yes, “The Drunken City” proves that Dark & Stormy Productions, under whose aegis Bill McCallum staged this winner, is a consistently spunky outfit. Maloney, Nelson and Sara Marsh commanded the stage, as could be expected. But newcomer Adelin Phelps, who also was a standout in “Ash Land” at the Illusion, almost stole this Adam Bock show.