Long Year’s Journey into Night

Amy Danielson

The theater scene in the Twin Cities is constantly expanding, with new theater companies emerging at a rapid pace. At least once per week I get an e-mail or phone call from an artistic director, publicist or playwright I’ve never heard of from a new-sprung theater company. Each time I talk to new people, I am continually amazed by the consistent growth of the scene – despite the fact that the smaller theaters seem to be almost entirely ignored. I can’t count how many people I encounter who tell me they rarely or never go to local productions. In any case, theater-goers are coming from somewhere to support engaging new and experimental work. Meanwhile, old companies continue to stage traditional works as well as essential contemporary and original productions. With all of this activity – scattered across roughly 100 different companies and collectives – it is increasingly difficult to attend every show, or even every show that piques one’s interest. Thus, even though I missed several promising productions this year (I am especially sad I couldn’t attend every show at the Fringe Festival), I still found the task of selecting my favorite shows completely daunting.

Puppetry, object manipulation and moving sets

determining the definition of puppetry is difficult. Puppetry might involve traditional puppets like Punch & Judy or Kermit the Frog. Alternately, mundane objects such as a stapler or a pop can may be manipulated within a theatrical context such that they become puppets. Given the breadth of possible forms in puppetry, it’s hardly surprising that there are more puppet shows happening in the Twin Cities than there are liberal-minded humanities professors. This year, in particular, was witness to an extraordinary selection of talented puppeteers, such as the assorted group of performers (featuring solo performances by locals Karen Haselmann of the Jet Pack Shadow Theater and Moe Flaherty) who collectively exhibited a diverse range of skills and imaginations for Three Legged Race’s forth annual “Hand Driven.” Then there was the performance by the profound Michael Sommers in his “Suitcase Narratives.” Sommers’ extraordinary sense of invention is unparalleled – it is silly, intelligent and visually dazzling. Therefore, it is a boon that future artists are learning the intricacies of the craft from him in the University’s theatre arts department. Bedlam Theater’s “Terminus” created waves of publicity, and shockingly, waves of suburbanites flocked to the West Bank theater to sit with noisome punk teens inside a rotating space ship. The same anarchic collective also created a wonderful Bare Bones Halloween Extravaganza this year with a giant skin-shedding snake and bicycle riding animal skeletons. Just a few months earlier, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre spread its pagan love in a testament to peace for the 28th time at the May Day Celebration which featured giant, marching political figures as well as masked children and more of those crazy too-tall bikers.

On the fringe

of the 33 or so shows I went to this year at the Fringe Festival, there was one show I saw twice: “Shut Your Joke Hole,” an original play by Joshua Scrimshaw of the late-night comedy troupe The Scrimshaw Brothers. “Shut Your Joke Hole” featured several vaudeville-style silent acts ranging from the risque to the ludicrous. In truth, most vignettes were both, such as the act about an ill-fated lap dance. By contrast, Joshua’s brother Joseph’s entry to the Fringe was a show that emphasized language over physical performance. “The Worst Show in the Fringe” proved to be far from the worst as it wittily told a story of a theater critic kidnapped by a young actor. Another incredible production, “Punk Rock Omaha,” by comedy duo Ferrari McSpeedy, found success at the Fringe through inventive improv. Joe Ferrari and Michael McSpeedy each played half a dozen characters with a unique approach to shifting from character to character, place to place and scene to scene. Of all the ridiculous characters mastered by the pair, perhaps most notable was the female boozehound who punctuated each line by belting out “Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!”

I think I wet myself

aside from the many hilarious shows in the Fringe Festival, many of this year’s full-length productions were nothing short of sidesplitting. “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” featured a red-faced, scenery-chewing Edwin Strout as an illustrious television writer, Max Prince. At the newly renovated Suburban World Theatre, Shawn McConneloug melded the old with the new by alternating movie clips of old performers from the days of vaudeville betwixt a series of dancers, sultry singers and physical schtick in “Palace of Dreams … 21st Century Vaudeville.” Theatre de la Jeune Lune outdid themselves once again with their staging of “The Nuns.” In that production, Steven Epp played a mute nun who delighted in exposing the stump of his tongue to the other horrified characters. Jeune Lune’s reputation for highbrow physical comedy was upheld by the cast’s expertly executed pratfalls. Rounding out the year was “Fully Committed” at the Jungle Theater, which showcased Nathan Keepers in a hilarious one-man show of 40 characters. For nonstop laughter, Miss Richfield 1981 provided comic relief when we all need it most in her annual holiday show “Fall on Your Knees: Down on All Fours.”

Blurred distinctions

theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Dominique Serrand made his directorial debut at the Children’s Theater for a magnificent rendition of “Alice in Wonderland,” which featured a brilliantly colorful set, hypnotic physical acting and several, different-sized Alices. Much more seriously, Frank Theatre tackled a weighty subject to gut-wrenching detail in “Self-Defense, or Death of Some Salesmen.” Carson Kreitzer’s play detailed the events of the Aileen Wuornos murder case, exposing multiple perspectives as the circumstances unfolded. Wuornos, a prostitute, allegedly killed several truck-driving johns in self-defense and left their bodies on Florida’s I-75 freeway. She was executed by lethal injection Oct. 9 in Florida. The play does what good theater should do. Instead of giving answers, it poses myriad questions with the intention of creating discussion.

Amy Danielson welcomes comments at [email protected]