Best of Theater, 2013: The power of one and the power of story

December 30th, 2013Written by: Rohan Preston Published by: Star Tribune

One-person shows are difficult to pull off, but when they succeed, they can be as absorbing and transporting as the biggest blockbuster musical. Solo shows claim half the spots on this list of the best Twin Cities productions I saw in 2013.

1. “700 Sundays,” Orpheum. Billy Crystal was warmly enthralling as he shared stories about growing up with his colorful family on Long Island.

2. “An Iliad,” Guthrie. Actor Stephen Yoakam was by turns mad, magisterial and wracked in Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s epic. The veteran performer brought poetry and pathos to the drama as he exposed the gnarly souls of a myriad of warriors, parents and royals.

3. “A Brown Tale,” Penumbra Theatre. Actor-performer James T. Alfred was wittily captivating as he limned his journey from the projects of Chicago to Harvard. Director Lou Bellamy elicited revelatory humor from Alfred.

4. “Jamaica, Farewell,” Penumbra Theatre. Writer-performer Debra Ehrhardt enacted her gripping story of travel and escape in this show that shares a title with a languid song. Ehrhardt, a newcomer to the Twin Cities stage, delivered with lissome gusto.

5. “Misterman,” Frank Theatre. The final one-person show on the list is Enda Walsh’s “Misterman,” which was expertly directed by Wendy Knox and starred John Catron as a self-righteous Irishman who, beneath his physical haughtiness, is spiritually and psychically broken.

6. “Urinetown,” Jungle Theater. John Command shook the Jungle with his energetic and fluid production of “Urine­town,” whose huge cast was led by the ineffable Bradley Greenwald.

7. “Speed-the-Plow,” Dark & Stormy Productions. Director Ben McGovern teamed with actors Sara Marsh, Bill McCallum and Kris Nelson to make David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” a savagely arresting treat in a found space.

8. “Ganesh vs. the Third Reich,” Walker Art Center. In strikingly poetic images, Australia’s Back to Back Theatre raised questions about myth and history, bigotry and brutality in this 90-minute one-act about reclamation of the swastika by Hindu deities. Spellbinding.

9. “River See,” Pillsbury House Theatre. Playwright, performer and erstwhile priest Sharon Bridgforth combined poetic play with restorative ritual in this one-act that turned the venue into a site of revelatory healing.

10. “Stick Fly,” Park Square. Marion McClinton worked his directorial magic with Lydia Diamond’s play, harnessing a cast of veterans and newcomers into a fluid whole.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

By Graydon Royce

The power of story was a key to these favorites from 2013. Some were well-made plays with tight dramatic frames. Others were rambling creations. All, however, made an inquiry into the human experience, which is about all you can ask from theater. In no particular order:

1. She She Pop & Their Fathers, Walker Art Center. Real-life daughters and fathers brought us a stirring modern deconstruction of “King Lear.” In the process, these performers probed questions of legacy, the ravages of old age and tender filial understanding. This most memorable work was disturbing, provocative and ultimately quite healing.

2. “Venus in Fur,” Jungle Theater. Director Joel Sass provided the perfect road map for Anna Sundberg and Peter Christian Hansen. Sundberg played an outwardly ditzy actor looking for an audition, and Hansen was the arrogant artiste. The production had style, contradicting valences and always a sure sense of where this emotional hijack was heading.

3. “Other Desert Cities,” Guthrie Theater. Another strong director, Peter Rothstein, drew out confident and sharply etched performances from David Anthony Brinkley, Sally Wingert and Michelle Barber. It was fun to watch these actors bare their fangs and tear into the Jon Robin Baitz script.

4. “Courting Harry,” History Theatre. Playwright Lee Blessing crafted a beautiful piece of drama from the untidy relationship between jurists Harry Blackmun and Warren Burger. Friends from childhood, the two grew to strongly dislike each other on the U.S. Supreme Court. Clyde Lund and Nathaniel Fuller, each pitch-perfect, anchored Joel Sass’ production. This was History Theatre at its best.

5. “Nice Fish,” Guthrie Theater. This was a play with at least seven endings — testing our patience with an odd story of two guys in search of lunkers on a frozen lake. However, watching Tony winner Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl explore Norse myth and the human psyche was irresistible. It was wild and raw work that felt important.

6. “Out of the Pan,” Moving Company. This show honored the company’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune roots. Dominique Serrand, Steve Epp, Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin patched together pieces of myth, operatic tragedy and theatrical tricks to create a penetrating fairy tale about an old man and his children. It felt good to see these folks back at it.

7. “Clybourne Park,” Guthrie Theater. Bruce Norris’ play took aim at the clumsy American dialogue over race. Lisa Peterson’s insightful direction nudged the piece to explore the erosion of relationships and our inability to talk straight. Bill McCallum, Jim Licht­scheidl and Shá Cage were particularly strong in the story of one house’s transition over a generation.

8. “Hair,” Seventh House Productions. This group of youngsters caught the exact right spirit for this production. The show felt homemade and brimming with the exuberance of the 1960s. We may or may not hear again from this gang — headed by Cat Brindisi, David Darrow and Matt Riehle — but in the summer of 2013, they were happening.

9. “Spunk,” Penumbra Theatre. Penumbra was coming back from financial troubles last spring, and it needed to remind us how important this theater is to the Twin Cities. Director Patdro Harris and a crackerjack cast demonstrated just that with this collection of stories from Zora Neale Hurston. Jevetta Steele, Austene Van, T. Mychael Rambo and Keith Jamal Downing provided memorable performances.

10. “Steerage Song,” Theater Latté Da. Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard launched this story and song cycle about the immigrant experience a few years ago. The revamped piece was that much more satisfying this fall. The arc was crisp and the stories from European immigrants around the turn of the 20th century fit together beautifully. Good for these guys, taking the work in for repairs and coming out with something so strong.

Theater Latte Da and "Our Town"

June 25, Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Several people have wondered what Theater Latte Da is going to do with “Our Town” next season. First, what the company is not doing: Ned Rorem’s opera based on the Thornton Wilder classic. It will be the play, said artistic director Peter Rothstein, with all the dialogue and scenes.

Behind the show, however, will be soundscapes and interspersed throughout will be songs sung by actors who play their own instrument. Actors who can do both, of course, don’t just grow on trees. Rothstein said over coffee that he plans to use contemporary dress and a multicultural cast that reflects a current community rather than the tweedy confines of Grover’s Corner, N.H. But the script will be just as it always has been.

Latte Da did something similar to this with 2012’s “Beautiful Thing,” which featured Erin Schwab stepping in and out to perform Cass Elliott songs between scenes. Also, 2003’s “Burning Patience” was a straight play with a soundscape that gave it a cinematic feel. Rothstein noted that “Patience” used a recorded score. “Our Town” will be all live, all the time. “Our Town” will run March 12-April 6 at the Lab Theatre in Minneapolis.

Latte Da starts its season in September with a fully staged “Steerage Song,” a piece that Rothstein created with Dan Chouinard a few years ago. They did a semi-staged concert version at the Fitzgerald Theatre in 2011. The show reflected the journey of European immigrants during the great wave that occurred around 1900. The creators have continued to work on the piece since then. It runs Sept. 25-Oct. 20, also at the Lab.

At the Pantages Theatre, Latte Da will partner up with the Hennepin Theatre Trust for two shows: “All is Calm,” with Cantus, is back for the Christmas slot, Dec. 19-22. Rothstein will stage “Cabaret” Jan.15-Feb. 9. Last season, Latte Da and the Trust started a collaboration called “Broadway Re-Imagined” with distinct takes on familiar musicals.

More information on the season is at