Guts: 2013’s bravest theater

The Twin Cities provided the world with compelling and challenging material in 2013 — hold on to your armrests, people.

Joe Kellen

It’s been a hell of a year — a sentiment you’d probably expect a list like this to make — and an incredible amount of both boring and fascinating theater came through the Twin Cities.

Let’s focus on the positive. It’s a new year, and there’ll be a whole lot to complain about in ’14.

For now, let’s take a look at the theater that baffled, astounded and unapologetically broke down conventions. The following are in no particular order, and yes, yes, yes to all of you — this list misses plenty of awesome stuff. Let’s start.

 

What: “Cartooon”
When: March 2013
Where: In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater

A favorite of PuppetLab 2013, Steve Ackerman’s piece literally exploded onstage. What made “Cartooon” stand out was its feisty main character, Tummy da Talking Turtle, and his unending battle with his nemesis, Crackjaw the alligator. Ackerman’s visual work was always crescendoing, starting with small pits of piranhas and tiny fist fights. By the end of the piece, the stage was crushed by an enormous Christmas-lit anvil, a giant tongue “licked” the audience and a group of frantic puppeteers made the whole thing go boom.

 All of the insanity was narrated by Ackerman’s hilariously verbose stage directions, lending an authentic and goofy feel to the larger-than-life energy of the piece. Any show willing to go as far as “Cartooon” deserves to be recognized, and it’s being remounted at Heart of the Beast this January.

 

What: “The Clumsy Man”
When: November 2013
Where: Open Eye Figure Theater

This surreal envisioning of Hans Christian Andersen’s mind was both jarring and stimulating. Michael Sommers’ trademark aesthetic was put to fantastic use here, satisfying all of the senses.

“The Clumsy Man” began with a tray of cookies, beverages and paper crowns. Audience members were invited to eat with members of the theater and, in the middle of the revelry, were interrupted by the resplendent Kimberly Richardson. Her portrayal of Andersen was balanced by moments of wildness and delicacy. Watching Richardson, Sommers and musician Dan Dukich wade through the swamp of the storyteller’s cerebrum was hypnotic.

The combination of puppetry and choreography created an environment that was uniquely Sommers’ and took audiences into a deeply weird circumstance — something too few plays accomplish. 

 

What: “Ich, Kürbisgeist”
When: October 2013
Where: Red Eye Theater

Sibyl Kempson’s revenge play is not of this world. “Ich, Kürbisgeist” follows an unfortunate village and the inevitable attack of a pumpkin spirit, all while detailing the village’s odd and mysterious past. Written in an entirely made-up language with events that range from rapture to random time travel, Steve Busa and company bit off a lot to chew. Thankfully, it was just enough of a mouthful and pushed the envelope while asking an oft-overlooked question: What’s possible to put on stage?

Is it too much to cover our space with pumpkins? Hell no! What about giving the stage manager a vocoder to simulate the eerie voice of an undead spirit? Of course not. In fact, let’s add some strobe lights and sound design suitable only for the apocalypse while we’re at it. The biggest achievement here is that none of it is random or simply for the sake of craziness — this is the world of Kempson’s play. The creators were honest about what the work was, and because of it, they make the list.

 

What: “How To Be a Korean Woman”
When: September 2013
Where: Guthrie Theater

Confessional, heartfelt and raw, Sun Mee Chomet’s solo show caught her at the height of her powers as a performer. Her intensely personal story of returning to South Korea to find her birth parents created a vulnerable environment in the Dowling Studio that allowed Chomet to truly connect with her audiences. The courage it took to tell this story gives the production great merit, but what made the piece outstanding was Chomet’s dedication to the fluidity of the characters and her spot-on writing. Watching her perform was a kaleidoscopic journey into emotional catharsis, and it was clear the show wouldn’t let you go until it was good and ready.