Before I weigh in with my thoughts on what I thought was the best theatre of 2017, I have a confession: for an actor working in one of the more vibrant and busy theatre communities, I didn’t see as much theatre as I normally do this year. I know, I’m the worst. There really is no excuse, but here’s my excuse - I spent most of 2017 blessedly working in a rehearsal room, or out of town spending time with an ailing family member. There just wasn’t enough time for me to see as much as I should have. That being said, the theatre that I saw this year was some of the best that I’ve seen in recent years and these are my favorite moments/performances of this year:
Favorite performance I saw as an audience member: Pearce Bunting as “LBJ” in The History Theater’s production of All the Way.
Robert Schenkken wrote one whopper of a play in his telling of LBJ’s “accidental presidency” and passing of the Civil Rights Bill. The play is text and history heavy, demanding of its actors, and long-clocking in at three hours. Luckily, the script is also very, very good. Under Ron Peluso’s skillful and smart direction, the rapid fire dialogue and tour through the political landscape of America in the 1960’s felt like a timely rollercoaster ride rather than a trek through the past. The moments of humor expertly mined out of the dense political strategizing were welcome gems for the rapt audience sitting through the tension Peluso and his cast were able to create. The tug of war between Shawn Hamilton’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Peter Thomson’s Richard Russell on LBJ, had me leaning forward in my seat throughout the whole show. Though the entire ensemble is exceptional, Pearce Bunting delivered a truly remarkable performance as Lyndon Baines Johnson.
I’ve seen Pearce in several productions over the last few years (full disclosure, we sit on the board of Theatre Novi Most together), but this was by far my favorite role of his to date. Bunting inhabited the role from day one. Fellow actor Josh Carson, who earnestly portrayed the despicable George Wallace, detailed how Bunting showed up with his hair slicked back wearing a suit and tie at the table reading. The dedication to character and detail is evident, but the performance seemed effortless. Clearly, Bunting dives in and does the hard work early so that the audience gets to see a fully polished, joyful product. It looked like Pearce was having a whole lot of fun up on stage, and his big, booming performance invited the audience to do just the same in our seats.
Favorite performance I saw as an actor: Sally Wingert in Artistry’s production of W;t.
This next “category,” if one would call it that, is admittedly unconventional because I also performed in W;t as part of the ensemble. But, I call them like I see them and Sally Wingert’s process and performance in W;t was incredible to watch. Like Pearce, Sally did the hard work from day one. I have a tendency of assuming that performers like Pearce and Sally are just good-no effort required, they just come out of the box like that. It is an easy misconception to hold. Sally Wingert has been the pride and joy of the Twin Cities for years, and deservedly so. She is consistently phenomenal in all the varied roles I have seen her portray. So, getting the supreme opportunity to watch her and director, Ben McGovern, craft the sterilized world of Vivian Bearing was a masterclass in performance.
Margaret Edson’s W;t, is a gorgeous and heartbreaking account of English professor Dr. Vivian Bearing’s journey towards “a little light” as she wrestles with stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. Dr. Bearing is a bear of a role. The actor playing Vivian never leaves stage. She has monstrous monologues of dense poetic language and critical theory, and must help the audience navigate the language and emotional strain of her own mortality. It is a lot. Despite the challenge, Sally approached the role with grace, enthusiasm, and humility. She has such respect words, that it reminded me of how beautiful finding interpretation can be. She swishes in her mouth like a fine wine while memorizing, and her delivery is crystal clear. Approximately 94% of the text in W;t is spoken by the actor playing Vivian. Sally said it the same every night- word for word. But the delivery, where emphasis fell, varied. She played the audience, and also took care of them. She listened to them, took where laughs and sniffles occurred to inform and drive her emotions and delivery in the following scenes.
Each audience had their own journey through Edson’s words. They experienced Vivian’s ferocious academic highs, and her lows of regret and fear with Sally gently holding their hands to guide them through to the end. I listened at the side of the stage each performance for a month, and struggled not to cry each night, as Vivian finally breaks down in the arms of her former professor (and, ironically, my former professor) Barbra Berlovitz. Both are incredibly generous people, and it translates into their acting. They gave us, their rapt audience, time to breathe in that sweet, sad moment of vulnerability. We all cried each night, and forgot that we were in a theatre (or, in my case, in a play). Those moments of transcendence are rare in theater. But, people like Sally can make it happen every night. And, I’ll never forget a one of them.
Favorite production I saw: Couple Fight 3: Weddings at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
This third installment of the Fringe favorite premiered at the Rarig Thrust. The show averaged five out of five stars from audience reviews, and rightfully earned the coveted ticket sale based encore slot. Unfortunately, the extraordinarily talented ensemble had to decline since so many were involved in other encore winning Fringe productions. All this to say, I’m not alone in my adoration for this brilliantly simple show-I’m just late to the party. I missed the first two shows in Couple Fights’ canon, but will not be missing any more.
I assumed walking in, that I would see some of the Twin Cities most talented comedians re-enacting their biggest brawls with their spouses in all their red faced glory for my amusement. I really couldn’t have been more wrong, or less informed. The absolutely packed Thrust rocked with laughter, true. But, it was not for the reasons I initially imagined. In his book, Why Is That So Funny?, John Wright talks about the different kinds of laughs performers can, and seek to, evoke from audiences. What co-creators Anna Wegel-Reed and Tom Reed have tapped into is the laughter of recognition. Couple Fight is not funny because there are funny people bickering on stage, it’s funny because the audience recognizes the humanity of the “fights.” At its very big heart, this is a play about love. We fight with our partners, lovers, whatever you call the person who puts up with you, because we love them enough to try and work through the problems that arise rather than bail on them. And, vice versa (hopefully).
The entire show was so well thought out. Scenes transitioned beautifully, and the storytelling was crisp. Along with the laughs, Couple Fight also served up beautiful narratives of couples, both romantic and friendship based, working through very real emotions and issues that we all face. Although each “fight” made me laugh, and each cast member was delightful to watch, I’d be remiss if I did not highlight Rita Boersma’s epic reenactment of the day after her wedding when she realized that the mini-pies she and her husband gave as wedding favors were undercooked and had a complete and utter meltdown. I don’t know if I have ever laughed so hard in a theatre. Again, the laughter came not just from how silly it was seeing a grown woman writhing on the floor screaming about tiny pies and her bewildered husband desperately trying to comfort her. The scene is funny because I’ve done that. Not about pies necessarily, but I have most definitely had my toddler tantrum moments as an adult. It is rare and beautiful to see an actor be so brave, vulnerable, and honest onstage.
So, there you have it. Although I did not get to see all the shows I really wanted to this year, I am so fortunate to have seen such high quality and unique productions. The Twin Cities is a melting pot of theatrical experiences and there is never a weekend without something good to go and see. At the very least, writing this article has inspired me to make my 2018 resolution to get out more often and see more of what this amazing community has to offer.