Why I love theater

City PagesBy Ed Huyck July 9, 2014

City Pages' theater critic shows theater is better than anything on a flat-screen TV

The basement of the Soap Factory in Minneapolis isn't the most inviting place to see a show. The concrete floor saps the heat from your feet, while stiff, plastic chairs don't portend an evening of comfort.

Neither does the tiny audience, which can be counted on two hands.

Yet none of this matters when Theatre Coup d'Etat takes the stage for One Flea Spare, a drama about the ever-shifting allegiances among people trapped in a house during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 London. The tight company and well-directed script combine for an absolutely absorbing performance. Sore backsides are forgotten until after the play.

I've been to nearly 70 shows this year, from massive productions at the Ordway, Orpheum, and Guthrie to tiny pieces carved out in whatever space the performers could find. No matter the quality (a few have been so dire I've left muttering about what I'm doing with my life), I'm always eager to take in the next. Even if this wasn't my job, I'd still be out every weekend. (Note to bosses: This is not an offer.)

Going to the theater isn't easy. It's not as convenient as staying at home and watching a bootleg version of Transformers 4 or binging on Game of Thrones. (Spoiler: Everyone you care about dies.) It doesn't offer the thrill of breathing the same air as Lady Gaga or two-fifths of the original members of Molly Hatchet.

But there is nothing like being in the same room with actors performing without a net. That doesn't mean we're waiting for them to fail. It's more about the audience providing that net through our unspoken but quietly palpable support.

Theater should not be lazy. The performers need to take whatever energy they get from the audience and turn it into something engaging.

Lisa D'Amour's Detroit explores the emotional and spiritual decay of the American dream. At the Jungle, director Joel Sass and a terrific quartet of actors went for broke. There's enough humor on the surface of the story — in which the archetypical middle-aged American couple collides head-on with a pair of drug-addled free spirits — to keep the audience entertained without probing at all.

That's not what happened here. Instead, the actors went for broke with all the uncomfortable realities — a middle manager's descent into endless unemployment; a young woman's failed attempts to build a life beyond the next drink — to create a rich, moving experience. The Jungle's intimate space and Sass's clever set only added to the immersion. We felt like visitors to this backyard.

Theater should take chances. Presenting Our Town with musical interludes was certainly a risk on the part of Theatre Latte Da. So was casting a woman in the iconic role of the Stage Manager.

The Stage Manager has always been played by men. Wendy Lehr's warm and inviting presence is perfect for the role, while the color-blind casting underscored the point that Our Town isn't meant to be a relic, but a reflection of the community presenting the play.

There have been plenty of shows that have embraced a sense of adventure this year, from the chaotic fantasies of Strumply Peter to the sharp rage of The Ballad of Emmett Till; the Soviet farce of Star City to pretty much everything done by the Children's Theatre Company.

Great shows abound in the Twin Cities — offering experiences better than anything found on a flat-screen TV.