THEATER | The top ten productions of 2009

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Marilyn vos Savant, who has one of the world’s highest IQ scores, writes an advice column for Parade magazine. A reader once asked her whether, with the price of movie admission rising, a movie ticket is worth its cost. I thought her response was right (so to speak) on the money: given that a major motion picture may cost many, many millions of dollars to produce, paying ten bucks to see it is a bargain. What you should be more concerned with, she continued, is whether the film is worth two hours of your time—time that you’ll never get back. From Broadway spectaculars playing at the Orpheum to free productions of Shakespeare in the Park, that’s also the common denominator among plays: watching one will take one to three hours of your time, time that you will never get back.

I saw a lot of plays this year—on average, about one a week. I reviewed or blogged about 49 different productions for the Daily Planet, and I saw at least one more that I didn’t write about, bringing the total to 50…and that’s not including the dance productions (four), operas (three), circuses (weirdly, two), and televised plays (one) I also saw. Some of them were a lot better than others—and not just in the sense that if you’re going to see a play, you might as well see a good one rather than a lousy one. The best productions resonate far beyond the theater, changing the way you think about your life. The worst ones make you sad that so many talented people conspired to create something so manifestly unworthy of their time and yours.

I didn’t see everything; in fact, the amount of good stuff you can miss around here even when you see a play a week is testament to the richness of the local theater scene. I missed a few acclaimed productions like Mixed Blood’s Ruined, and I missed the entirety of the Fringe Festival excepting one burlesque show. Still, I think I caught the large majority of shows that would be serious contenders for any 2009 top-ten list, and I’ve had a great time doing so. Below are the ten shows that meant the most to me in 2009: the ten shows that made the greatest impact on me and that I would most like, if I could, to see again. Each title links to my full review.

10. Henry V, Guthrie Theater and the Acting Company
This was a very good year for Shakespeare on local stages generally, and at the Guthrie specifically. I loved Joe Dowling’s lavish, fun production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on the Wurtele Thrust Stage; Henry V, in the upstairs black-box named for Dowling, was even stronger. The brilliant set design made for a rich visual experience, but Matthew Amendt’s performance as the eponymous monarch was what really made this production one for the ages. The play’s plot, in which Henry launches a military invasion more or less out of pique, has contemporary resonance given that U.S. troops are still mired in Iraq, and Amendt’s performance may have offered more insight into the psyche of George W. Bush than did Josh Brolin’s performance in Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic. Amendt was convincingly callow but also stirringly charismatic, and completely convinced that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it for the right reasons. Henry has reason to doubt this by the end of the play; whether Bush doubts it, we can only imagine.

9. Mary Poppins, touring production presented by the Hennepin Theatre Trust
What I wrote above—that all productions are equal insofar as they all ask for a comparable investment of your time—is true, but it’s also true that some productions additionally ask you for a hefty chunk of change. Touring Broadway shows aren’t cheap, but in return they promise seasoned performers and wonders of stagecraft. Reliably, they deliver those things; it’s depressing, though, how often they lean on them. Without memorable music and a thoughtful script, a Broadway show can feel distastefully cynical. Mary Poppins did it right: on the rock-solid foundation of the Disney film’s timeless songs, the musical’s creators built a precisely-engineered production with an almost overwhelming profusion of creative ideas. Leads Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee could not possibly have been any more confident, or have had any more justification for being so. Watching this show was like driving a luxury sports car; it leapt forward so effortlessly, you knew exactly why it was such a high-ticket item.

8. Bert and Ernie, Goodnight!, Children’s Theatre Company
Bert and Ernie sketches are normally so short, you don’t realize just how anarchic they are. This production brought all of the duo’s most manic adventures to life, back to back, in front of your eyes. By the end of the show, walls were falling over, sheep were tap-dancing, a drum set was sliding in and out of view, everyone was singing, and everything was really loud. For five-year-olds, it was the biggest, craziest party of the year. Though the humor was broad, it was never cheap or crass, and Bradley Greenwald and Reed Sigmund ably evoked the pair of Muppets’ touchingly steadfast mutual loyalty.

7. Othello, Ten Thousand Things
A truly astonishing performance by Luverne Seifert as Iago, experienced at TTT’s trademark point-blank range, made this one of the most powerful productions of the year. Shakespeare productions typically charge themselves with making Shakespeare’s Elizabethan language accessible to contemporary audiences—which is a worthy goal, but the Bard deserves more, and he got it from Seifert, whose performance, like quicksand, drew viewers further into Iago’s dark and envy-choked mind with every word. That Seifert managed to do so while also making the role very funny—even funnier, possibly, than Shakespeare intended it to be—is all the more impressive.

6. Caroline, or Change, Guthrie Theater
By general consensus, the highlight of the Guthrie’s Everything Kushner festival was not the playwright’s ambitious new work or the presentation of rarely-seen shorts, but the revival of Kushner’s masterpiece musical in a fluid and heartfelt production. As the title character, Greta Oglesby was sublime; she wasn’t afraid to be unlikable, which made it all the more powerful when she opened up to reveal the roots of her pain. The audience at the Ivey Awards leapt to its feet to applaud Oglesby when she took the stage to accept an award for this performance—testament to the fact that the mark she made on viewers endured even months later.

5. Some Girl(s), Walking Shadow
Many viewers find playwright Neil LaBute’s nihilistic worldview hard to stomach, and regard his plot twists as contrived. I agree on both counts, but what impressed me about this production was the way the cast found the emotional truth in LaBute’s brutal scenario. All four of the actresses—especially, in one of the performances of the year, Anna Sundberg—who spar with Clarence Wethern’s convincingly clueless character convey the attraction they feel towards the man and the hope they once had for their relationships with him, even as they lay bare the lasting pain he’s caused them. The show captured that burning, bittersweet stew of excitement, anticipation, hope, fear, love, pain, risk, and reward that can be so terribly—really terribly—addicting.

4. Shipwrecked!, Jungle Theater
The Jungle is one of the most prominent companies in town, but regardless, this production had the feel of a hidden treasure, a gem that turned up unexpectedly. The play depicts a rag-tag band of performers putting on a shabby production of an unbelievable tale, hoping to charm you into filling their pockets, and they charmed me right over the moon. Michael Booth was tireless in the leading role, with support from an amazingly game band of costars including Emily Gunyou Halaas, Stephen Cartmell, and Edwin Strout. Theater is never easy, but the conspicuously hardworking Shipwrecked! cast made it look like a hell of a lot of fun.

3. This is Not for You, Jeremey Catterton
Scary movies freak me out a little bit, but haunted houses scare the crap out of me. Why? Because they’re not safe. A poltergeist is not going to come out of your TV, but that chainsaw in the Soap Factory basement might just be real. Jeremey Catterton—who, as I acknowledged in my review of this show, is a friend of mine—feels strongly that theater should be real as well, that it shouldn’t be in any way safe. This is Not for You would have been worthwhile if only as an exercise in breaking a lot of rules governing music concerts and theatrical performances—higher-paying ticket buyers didn’t just get to sit closer, they were actually escorted off, in full view of everyone else, to see things that the others would not get to see at all—but as it happened, the show was also a moving, memorable experience that had as its soundtrack what turned out to be one of the best local albums of the year (Peter Wolf Crier’s Inter-Be). The show felt like a stolen moment, an experience so intimate it was almost uncomfortable; maybe that’s why Catterton opened each performance by standing in front of the curtain and somberly cautioning the audience, “This is not for you.”

2. The Seafarer, Jungle Theater
This may have been the single most completely satisfying production I saw all year. Conor McPherson’s script takes the character development at the heart of Dickens’s Christmas Carol—a discouraged man, through supernatural intervention, discovering that he does have something to live for after all—and presents it in a fresh, funny setting. The Jungle production was just about flawless, with a cast who seemed born into their roles. I left the theater exhilarated.

1. Dalí-DADA, Bedlam Theatre
This production was really two distinct short plays spliced together. The first one—Come to DADA—was an entertaining but rather academic exercise illustrating the principles of the Dada movement. The second, though, was something much more. Dalí’s Liquid Ladies, written by Savannah Reich, took a strong premise—a look behind the scenes at the surrealistic pavilion Salvador Dalí (played by an inspired Jon Mac Cole) built for the 1939 World’s Fair—and pushed it into further realms, and then into realms further still. In its short running time, the show sketched the connections and tensions between fear and desire, between freedom and restraint, and between the real and the surreal. More than just demonstrating why Dalí’s ideas were so powerful, the show was also—like Dalí himself—funny, erotic, and deeply strange.

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