Any top ten list is implicitly prefaced with the caveat, "among the shows I saw," and having already considered at length the question of how many shows are enough to justify a top ten list, I'll just disclose the number here and proceed. Though I didn't hit last year's mark of 88 shows, by my best count I saw at least 69 plays in 2011—excluding dance performances, circuses, operas, and other theatrical entertainments. Here are the ten that have most stuck with me.
10. Losing My Religion, Seth Lepore. One mark of a quality show is how often you find yourself referring back to it when critiquing other shows. This one-man show, presented at the Minnesota Fringe Festival by Bay Stater Lepore, demonstrated how satire is sharpest when you don't underestimate your target. Lepore's portrayals of shady self-help gurus were completely compelling, all the more so because he wasn't afraid to let their seductive charms ooze through their ludicrous rhetoric.
9. Pinocchio, Jon Ferguson. Ferguson is two for two at Plainview's Jon Hassler Theater: his Legend of Sleepy Hollow made my top ten list last year, and he recaptured the magic with this darkly delightful adaptation of the classic children's story. Ferguson and his collaborators are textbook examples of how to get collaboratively created physical theater exactly right.
8. Doubt, Ten Thousand Things. I was astonished when, at the conclusion of this performance, the female prisoners with whom I saw the show were asked to vote on whether or not they felt the priest accused of child molestation in John Patrick Shanley's contemporary classic script was guilty—and most of them said no. I think the script makes clear that he's guilty, but any successful production of this play finds the uncertainty at its heart; propelled by tour de force performances, this production struck home and made sparks.
7. After Miss Julie, Gremlin Theatre. This blink-and-you'll miss it production in the servants' kitchen of the James J. Hill House was site-specific theater at its best, with Anna Sundberg anchoring a top-notch cast. I have my issues with Patrick Marber's script, but you'll never see it done better than this.
6. The Folly of Crowds: A Heterosexual Buttsex Play, Clay Sushi Productions. The surprise of the year. With a script by Mat Smart and direction by Brian Balcom, I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed this Fringe show—but I was surprised at how much great acting, drama, suspense, and genuine heart were packed in there along with the yuks and the yucks. As dozens of crummy movies demonstrate each year, romantic comedy is a delicate dish, and this creative company served it up just right.
5. Leave, Urban Samurai Productions. Playwright Matthew Everett is a regular contributor to the Daily Planet, so there's a potential conflict of interest here—but I didn't even make it to see Matthew's other shows this year, so take that for what it's worth in assessing my critical independence. This is another show I kept thinking of while reviewing other productions: Everett skillfully integrates the personal and the political, a thematic combination that's often handled clumsily or didactically. A strong cast and sure-handed direction by Matthew Greseth helped this show land all its punches.
4. The Winter's Tale, Guthrie Theater. Director Jonathan Munby brought one of Shakespeare's most complex and unusual stories into Technicolor life, from the family tragedy that begins the tale to the rustic interlude that follows intermission. Riveting characterizations and a gorgeous set by Alexander Dodge made this one of the best Shakespeare productions I've ever seen.
3. Bloodymerryjammyparty, Blank Slate Theatre. When people think of the Twin Cities as being a great place for young people's theater, they're typically thinking of the classy, safe entertainments at the Children's Theatre Company—but it's the likes of Blank Slate Theatre that are showing what young performers can really do. This thorny and intimate musical about a 1970s sleepover party was positively hair-raising; writer Heidi Arneson and director Adam Arnold opted not to protect their teen cast with the sheen of safe crowd-pleasers, but rather gave us a production that shows how theater can allow both performers and audiences to be vulnerable together.
2. Red Resurrected, Isabel Nelson. Nelson's Ballad of the Pale Fisherman came out of seemingly nowhere to be one of the best shows of 2010, and in the 2011 Fringe she upped the ante with this stunning reimagining of the Red Riding Hood story. With nothing but their bodies and their voices, Nelson's company enraptured The Lab Theater with a story richly situated in its Appalachian setting. This show established Nelson as one of the top young local playmakers to watch.
1. The Burial at Thebes, Guthrie Theater. My top-ten lists in 2008, 2009, and 2010 were all topped by small-scale productions, and for good reason: smaller shows can take bigger risks, and in theater as with any kind of gambling, the more you risk the more you can win. But there are some things you just can't do in a West Bank basement, and assembling a cast of this wattage on a stage of this scale is one of them. In the hands of director Marcela Lorca, this musical retelling of the Antigone myth felt genuinely mythic, anchored by the tortured Stephen Yoakam and the vast presence of vocalist Robert Robinson. The force of this show had me plastered back in my seat. It was an enormously powerful show that gave the lie to criticisms that these days, the Guthrie only plays it safe. There's nothing safe about great theater—on any scale.
Photo: The Burial at Thebes. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy Guthrie Theater.