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By Glenn Loney, July 2003

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
ATCA in the Twin Cities

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Glenn Loney Bio



American Theatre Critics Survey
Theatre in St. Paul & Minneapolis

The most astonishing thing New York theatre-journalists discovered—way out in the Midwest in early June—is that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis & St. Paul sell more theatre-tickets and have more theatre productions than any other city in the United States. With, of course, the exception of New York…

For those who still think of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco as the Nation's Big Theatre Towns, this comes as something of a surprise. But the evidence is right there on-site, on the banks of the Mississippi, as members of the American Theatre Critics Association learned during a wonderful theatre-filled week in the Twin Cities.

ATCA members make annual pilgrimages to major American theatre-centers to explore the range and potential of ever-developing Regional Theatre. Recent early summer outings have taken members to Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, and even to distant Ashland, for its famous Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Next year, San Francisco is the destination of choice, followed by Los Angeles in 2005.

Because there are so many professional theatre ensembles performing in the Twin Cities, eight samplers were shown the first evening of the conference. Arranged by Dominic Papatola, chief theatre-critic of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, the mini-performances were shown on the 19th century-style stage of the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.

Actually, this is really a show-barge, as the original showboat burned to the water's edge during renovations. The broad barge-base provides a larger auditorium and public areas than its vintage predecessor. The amusing Victorian roller-curtain features an image advertising this summer's production of Dracula, by Bram Stoker. The show is directed by Charles Nolte, who was Billy Budd on Broadway many moons ago. In fact, your reporter's first experience of Twin Cities theatre was Nolte's premiere production on the Showboat of Gaslight some seasons ago.

The charming Mayor of Saint Paul, Randy Kelly, introduced the various performances with panache and an obvious pride in what these ensembles have achieved. Mayor Kelly's love of the arts was apparent—and not just as a tourist-attraction to the Twin Cities. His younger son is now working in the arts, and he and his wife have helped establish a new High School for the Arts. He rightly sees the development of young talents as the future lifeblood of St. Paul & Minneapolis' major and minor arts organizations.

The most impressive of the eight Showboat samplers was David Mann's hilarious monologue, Revelations of Mann, which recounted his experiences as a young Lutheran theatre-teacher & director at a Roman Catholic High School. This comedy mono-drama is so good it should soon be seen in New York. And how about a nation-wide tour, including some of Mann's other solo-shows? There are several: Lucifer, Glass Onion, Temporary Insanity, and Sex with David Mann. Mann is a natural for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, not to overlook PS 122 or LaMaMa!

Other fascinating show-snippets included the company-created The Six Wives of Henry VIII, presented by 15 Head: a theatre lab. The Eye of the Storm ensemble offered a tense scene from Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things—now a motion-picture. The 50-Foot Penguin company showed its stuff with a strong scene from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

Most of the performances were very professional. All were certainly above the level of amateur or community-theatre, though the proliferation of Cute Company Names in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area suggested a certain sophomoric thrust.

Theatre Latté Da—talk about cute names!—offered bits from Tod Peterson's Oh, Shit, I'm Turning into My Mother. This was not the only show on offer with excrement in its title. The Bryant-Bowl Lake Theatre was playing The Shitty Things We've Done. Apparently, Urinetown has yet to hit the Twin Cities. The shit already has…

Theatre Mu charmed with its Asia-oriented Taiko drumming and dance-enactment of a folk-tale. Pillsbury House/Mama Mosaic staged a scene from The Bi Show. Bedlam Theatre's company-created Top of the Heap completed the samplers.

On ATCA's final evening, members had a wide range of choices. The Park Square had Meville Slept Here on view. Just across the pedestrian-mall from this show was another vintage theatre with Flanagan's Wake. This was said to be the Irish funeral equivalent of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, which was also enjoying a long run.

F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Fitzgerald Theatre. Photo: Glenn Loney.

There was nothing on at the Fitzgerald Theatre, except big photos of F. Scott Fitzgerald on the marquee. Even Garrison Keillor and his Prarie Home Companion were not on tap there in early June. Scotty Fitzgerald was standing in a local park, frozen in bronze. Near the magnificent State Capitol—designed by New York's Cass Gilbert to resemble Our Nation's Capitol—was a bronze of Charles Lindbergh, born near the Twin Cities.

The Old Log Theatre offered Moon Over Buffalo, while the Plymouth Theatre was showing A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. The Interact Theatre, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, was playing Cloud Cuckooland. Speaking of closer walks, your reporter chose a revival of William Inge's Bus Stop, only because the Loading Dock Theatre—at which the Gremlin Theatre was performing—was walking-distance from our Radisson Riverfront Hotel. The cast was energetic in action—despite its unconvincing stage-evocation of an actual bus-stop—but I had forgotten how awkwardly constructed Inge's play is. It made a much better movie…

Those adventurous critics who were willing to pay actual money for their tickets were able to sample the World Premiere of Craig Lucas' Small Tragedy, staged by Kip Fagan. If it's any good, it will surely be shown in New York. Even if it is not, it will be shown… This is Craig Lucas, after all! And press-tickets in Manhattan should be complimentary. Of course the Playwrights' Center was charging only $18 for this curious show in its intimate theatre, so perhaps I should have loosened the purse-strings.

The musical Mail was on view at the Hey City Theatre, produced by the Minneapolis Musical Theatre. At the Loring Playhouse, Naked Boys Singing was on offer, as was Triple Espresso at the Music Box Theatre. Way out of the twin towns, The Sound of Music was showing at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Where there are, in fact, three theatres and three choices. Your scribe was there some twenty years ago, and both the dinner and the show were very good.

But I couldn't go out to Chanhassen and visit the Mall of America on the same afternoon. For those who have never been to this Mother of All Malls, its
The Mall of America - the "Mother of All Malls." Photo: Glenn Loney.

core is a giant Snoopy Theme Park, surrounded by fast-food franchises to make Americans even more Mall-sized. The bulwark of the Mall are overgrown versions of Bloomingdale's, Marshall's, Sears, and Nordstrom's Outlets. No bargains: Kodak film was even more expensive at the Mall of America than in downtown St. Paul at the Walgreen's!

Fortunately for the theatre-starved critics, there were daytime performances as well as evening shows. Warren Manzi's deliberately concocted & clichéd Perfect Crime was a camp hoot, elegantly staged at the Jungle Theatre. This unusual playhouse has an exterior worthy of sculptor Louise Nevelson, and its foyer & auditorium are even more impressive. Director Bain Boehlke designed the stunning Modernist setting for Manzi's murder-mystery and encouraged his suave plotters to play with equal elegance. The admirable cast: Jodee Thelen—Barbara Stanwyck, eat your heart out!, Jeff Gadbois, Phil Kilbourne, and Richard C. Grube. ATCA members were told that Perfect Crime is the longest-running show in New York City. Most of the New Yorkers on hand had never heard of it, your scribe included. Actually, Chicago City Limits claims that honor, having been around Manhattan for a quarter of a century. This improv show has more lives than Cats! The Jungle Theatre season includes Ken Lonergan's Lobby Hero, Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick, and the MIKEANDNEALSHOW (Separating the Men from the Bull) . Promising Programming!

Lou Bellamy's outstanding Penumbra Theatre Company presented a super-charged production of August Wilson's King Hedley II. Staged by Bellamy, it featured Ernie Hudson as Elmore, Rhodessa Jones as Ruby, Lester Purry as Hedley, Jim Craven as Stool Pigeon, Tonia Jackson as Tonya, and David Alan Anderson as Mister. This was my fourth experience of the drama in production, and I found it the best of all, even better than on Broadway. But Ruby's accidental killing of her son—she meant to shoot the trickster Elmore—remains a difficult scene to stage. And its awkwardness was not relieved by closing with a Pietá. Nonetheless, this was a very powerful production.

Penumbra has been celebrating 25 years of theatre adventures with a season of August Wilson, including his notable Jitney and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Coming up: Dinah Was, The Diva Daughters Dupree, Slippery When Wet, by Susan Murakoshi, and Steve Tesich's On the Open Road.

Colorful seats at the Guthrie Theatre. Photo: Glenn Loney.

After many years of Siamese-Connection to Minneapolis' Walker Art Gallery, the Tony-winning Guthrie Theatre has broken ground for a stunning Post-Modernist theatre-complex on the banks of the Mississippi, near St. Anthony's Falls. Currently, its famed Tanya Moiseiwitch-designed thrust-stage—based on her original at the Stratford Festival of Canada—cannot accommodate the audiences and productions which the Guthrie wants to serve. Under the far-seeing stewardship of Artistic Director Joe Dowling, it has already expanded to the Guthrie Lab, some distance from the Mother-House. The new complex will preserve Sir Tyrone Guthrie's signature theatre-conformation, with two additional stages.

This season marks the Guthrie's 40th Anniversary! Reviewing the Guthrie's work and plans for the future for ATCA delegates, Dowling noted that the original Guthrie could not be viably preserved and programmed. And the Walker Art Gallery—which already has a huge parking-complex underway on the other side of its core-complex—can use the space for further expansion. Modern artists just won't stop making more Modern Art, it seems. But the subtext may well be that the new, improved Guthrie does not want competition for funding & audiences from its former home, under a new and possibly aggressive management. That is certainly the reason the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway & 39th was torn down. In fact, the Met didn't want the New York City Opera to move to Lincoln Center either.
Welcome to the Guthrie Theatre! Photo: Glenn Loney.

The transformation of major American Regional Theatres from adventurous ensembles—working in improvised or experimental performance-spaces, or even historic traditional theatres—into something rather like Establishment Theatres has been interesting to watch. Of course it takes a lot of money to produce in a theatre-complex resembling a European State Theatre—but without the government subsidies French, German, and Scandinavian Theater-Machers expect. That means no tacky productions with cardboard scenery and costumes from Goodwill. Unfortunately, patrons with the Big Bucks are not always as adventurous as their theatre-directors, so it remains to be seen what will become of the Guthrie in its new home. The same may be said of the Goodman Theatre & Steppenwolf in Chicago, which last summer showed the American Theatre Critics their respective new theatre-complexes. None of these is inexpensive to operate, let alone keep heated in the severe midwestern winters.

Although the Guthrie commissions new plays and actively encourages play-development, its current offering at the Guthrie Lab is Caryl Churchill's venerable Top Girls, which long ago was regarded as innovative. Today, it seems all too obvious in its Fem-Message, but at least the Guthrie gave it a very slick production, staged by Casey Stangl. Bianca Amato was super-stylish and chillingly intimidating as Marlene, the Toppest Girl of them all. Troy Hourie's Post-Modernist settings—with the exception of the deliberately depressing domestic scenes far beyond London—were impressive, as were Devon Painter's ingenious costumes. Indeed, Production-Values were—at least for this longtime Theatre Crafts contributor—more interesting than Churchill's sad fable: Success—at what price?

Adventurous is hardly the word one would use to describe the 2003-2004 season's Guthrie programming. True, the Lab is to offer Nickel and Dimed, based on Barbara Ehrenreich's devastating report on semi-survival around the nation on minimum-wages. But its remaining three productions will be Othello, David Mamet's labored Boston Marriage, and Joe Penhall's London hit, Blue/Orange.

Slated for the Main Stage are Pride & Prejudice, The Night of the Iguana, Crowns, Romeo & Juliet, & The Pirates of Penzance. These are, of course, all works to which Guthrie audiences cannot take exception. Mounted with the Guthrie's customary attention to detail and staged by its talented directors, these productions are sure to be visually striking and entertaining. But this line-up doesn't suggest Adventure with a capital A.

The Guthrie isn't the only Minneapolis theatre to be attached to a major gallery/museum. The Children's Theatre Company is also Siamesed, added onto the back of the august Minneapolis Institute of Art. Your scribe was invited to the CTC when it opened some years ago. At that time—although only a children's theatre—it had the fifth largest annual budget of any American Regional Theatre. It is still producing kiddie-fare with the imagination and flair of the best of adult professional theatre. It has also been basking in the move to Broadway of its A Year with Frog & Toad. Actually, this charming show worked better at the New Victory on 42nd Street—also a children's theatre—than it did later in its Broadway transfer.

The CTC's 2003-2004 season looks very promising: HONK! The Ugly Duckling Musical, Amber Waves, The Wizard of Oz, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, & The Magic Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. There will also be a World Premiere of Kia Corthron's Snapshot Silhouette, pairing an African-American girl with a Somali room-mate. This is sure to be seen at Manhattan's Public Theatre, where Corthron and Susan-Lori Parks are always welcome talents.

Cathy Rigby is currently touring in Seussical, the Musical, but CTC had something more immediately Seussical to offer ATCA visitors, parents, and kiddies: The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. It was designed with almost as much Loopy Seussian Verve as the Cat in the Hat ride at Universal/Orlando. It was played with so much energy and hysteric activity that No Child Could Be Left Behind—or Asleep! While admiring the Production Values, this viewer found the coy cuteness of the production finally cloying. Especially the acting, which did not offer boys in the audience much in the way of Male Role-Models. Just the same, the kids loved it! In the Q & A session post-production, one child posed the very question I wanted to ask: "Did you really make 500 hats?" Well, of course they didn't: Image Is All. Or Imagination…

[The charms of the fictions of Dr. Seuss—especially on stage—generally elude me. That is probably because I did not grow up with the Cat in the Hat at my bedside. My childhood favorites were novels by Charles Dickens & Mark Twain, for our one-room school had complete sets of both authors, as well as the Collected Works of Bret Harte. For lighter fare, we also had The Swiss Family Robinson Crusoe, as we called it. And The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, plus Pollyanna and The Bobsey Twins. Trust me: you do not want to see a kiddie musical based on the Bobsey Twins at Bar Harbor!]

Although I did not opt for the Hidden Theatre's production of Craig Lucas' Small Tragedy at the Playwrights' Center, I was interested to learn that Lucas was working on this new script with the Theatre and the Center, thanks to as McKnight Foundation Commission and Residency Grant. In fact, the roster of member-playwrights at the Center is almost a Who's Who in Theatre, with an impressive list of Tony, Pulitzer, Obie, and Olivier award-winning dramas.

From 17 to 19 July, the Playwrights' Center will stage Playlabs 2003—its largest ever—with scripts by Lisa D'Amour: Cataract, Janet Allard: The Untold Crimes of Insomniacs, Laurie Carlos: Marion's Terrible Time of Joy, Rosanna Staffa: Hansel and Gretel, Julie Marie Myatt: The Sex Habits of American Women, Toni Press-Coffman: Trucker Rhapsody, and Kira Oblensky: Quick Silver.

My last critical foray into Saint Paul was years ago, on the occasion of the World Premiere of Dominic Argento's opera, Casanova's Homecoming. This event was coupled with Minnesota Opera workshops on fund-raising for opera-theatre and community outreach. I found myself paired in discussions with composer Robert Ward, whose opera-version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible I much admire. Beverly Sills—at that time Artistic Director of the New York City Opera—was also on hand. She had co-produced the new opera for Lincoln Center and was very concerned. She asked me: "Will they like it? Will they understand it?" I told her I thought supertitles would certainly help, even though it was ostensibly sung in English. Subsequently, it premiered in New York at Lincoln Center, but the title was shortened to Casanova. It has not been seen there since…

For me, the high point of ATCA's recent visit to the Twin Cities was also opera-related, though it had nothing to do with the esteemed Minnesota Opera. [Many theatre-critics profess total ignorance of, or complete lack of interest in, opera as a theatre-form, when confronted with the possibility of a Night at the Opera.] Frankly, I was so entranced and astonished at the Théâtre de la Jeune Lune's fantastic & innovative FIGARO, that I have written to both Gerard Mortier, Director of the Ruhr Triennale and to Dr. Peter Ruzicka, Director of the Salzburg Festival, to urge them to invite this remarkable ensemble to show their hilarious new take on the tale of the Barber of Seville, his lady-love Susannah, the Count & Countess Almaviva, and the sex-crazed boy Cherubino.

Not only is Mozart's magical score for The Marriage of Figaro a fundament of this opera/theatre production, but Rossini's Barbieri is also quoted. All three of Beaumarchais' Figaro novels are text-bases. Including the seldom-read third novel, La mère coupable—in which the Countess Rosina bears Cherubino's child, Leon. There are also incidental quotes from such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens—rather in the manner of the late Charles Ludlam's Theatre of the Ridiculous.

Especially interesting is the pairing of actors with singers in the major roles. Fig and Suzanne's earthy comedic performances demonstrate the ensembles' lively debt to the training of Jacques Lecoq's Paris École. As embodied by Steven Epp and Barbara Berlovitz, they also evoke a Brechtian mode. They are paired with actor-singers Charles Schwandt and Momoko Tanno as Figaro and Susanna, who sing the Da Ponte lyrics for Figaro's Hochzeit, and soon begin interacting with their counterparts, as well as singing their operatic roles. This pairing also works powerfully with Mr. Almaviva [Dominique Serrand] and Count Almaviva [Bradley Greenwald], though there is only one Countess, Jennifer Baldwin Peden. In an interesting twist, she sings the Dove Sono over the corpse of Cherubino, played by Christina Baldwin. Above the elemental stage & set-props, a TV-screen highlights segments of the stage-action, greatly enlarged. This is shown against photographs of baroque backgrounds, which make a strong & symbolic contrast with the Brechtian simplicity of the actual staging: Elegance vs. Earthiness… Last summer at the Bavarian State Opera, this live-TV technique was used to even better advantage by having the scenic backgrounds enlarged from actual mini-models on camera and blown up for the overhead screen.

This New Moon FIGARO doesn't require much to tour. Barbara Brooks conducted a chamber-orchestra of only four members—actually a string-quartet. This production is so innovative, so vital, so charming, so affecting that it should delight opera-lovers who think they have experienced the ultimate Figaros of their time, as well as theatre-fans who think they hate opera. As for attracting young audiences, it should be a major revelation for them. The young woman next to me had no idea who Figaro was, let alone Mozart: "I've got to get the CD!" she exclaimed, enchanted. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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