Editor's Note: Every year, in September, we welcome the new theater season with a few essays on what was great in the last theater season. It's like a memorial of inherently ephemeral excellence, and a pray for even better stuff to come. First up, one of our regular critics, Ira Brooker.
The critic’s memory is a curious thing. Every now and then I’ll flip through my archives to reacquaint myself with the works of art that have crossed my path over the years. I’m frequently surprised to come across an enthusiastic review, either positive or negative, of a work that I barely remember. Clearly these movies, albums and plays made an impression on me at the time, but not enough to lodge in my memory. That always leaves me wondering whether my initial reaction was accurate. If I genuinely loved or hated a piece of art, shouldn’t it have stayed with me well beyond the original writing?
When I stop to think about why some of these items make a mark and others don’t, the unifying factor is surprise. A production - even a deeply flawed one - that catches me off guard and shows me something I’ve never seen before is always going to resonate more than a perfectly realized vision of something familiar. A polished product can make a strong initial impression on me, but it seldom lasts very long. My brain needs that space for the truly weird and wonderful. And when I happen upon something that’s both wholly original and technically accomplished, well, that’s something that gets filed with the classics.
There’s plenty of stuff to be found on Twin Cities stages in any given season that you don’t come across every day. I saw a number of shows in the past year that I expect will remain emblazoned on my brain for a good while to come: the endless maze of portals and pathos that defined Open Eye Figure Theater’s Nothing is Something, the delicate balance of invention and imitation struck by Yes Anderson’s The Life Impromptu, the fractured narrative and churning viscera of Red Red Meat’s Frankenstein, the meandering fairy tale whimsy of Sunday Night Fold’s To the Moon. Every one of those productions was a unique gem that could easily stand as one of my favorites of the year.
Nothing I saw this season, though, was more distinctive than Off-Leash Area’s SAMO: Like a Fiery Comet Jean-Michel Basquiat Shoots Across the Sky. From the venue to the acting to the choreography, this show was unlike anything else I’ve seen, and all of it executed with an artistry and intimacy that places it among the indelible. Presenting a dramatized biography of as mercurial and malleable an icon of black American art as Jean-Michel Basquiat for a mostly white audience of theater-going Minnesotans would be a challenge under the friendliest circumstances, but staging it as a small-budgeted two-man show in a South Minneapolis garage in January is just plain crazy.
Confident, crazy, and without crutches
But hey, I like crazy, especially when it comes bundled with confidence. One of the many brilliant intricacies of SAMO is how assuredly it portrays an artist whose success hinged on an image of self-assuredness but whose inner life was plagued by self-doubt and a search for identity. What’s more remarkable about this production is how much of that turmoil is expressed non-verbally. Brian Evans’ Basquiat is a markedly physical being, busting out dance steps, vaulting over obstacles and moving around the tiny stage in a near-constant thrum of emotion and philosophy and politics. While Paul Herwig stalks his movements as various ghosts of artistry past, Evans creates in-character paintings on the fly, expertly mimicking Basquiat’s style but also creating original works of art within a work of art within a work of art, like a nesting doll of creative inspiration.
As much as it pains me as a writer to say it, words are too often a crutch for artists, especially theater artists. SAMO uses plenty of words in its various dialogues, soliloquies and rants, but those words are on equal footing with the movements, the props, the silences and even the stage. As much as I’d love to see this show play to a wider audience, that chilly Minneapolis garage is a key factor in the experience. The Off-Leash garage space simply feels truer to the spirit of the work than would an officially vetted, more polished theater space. Sometimes nontraditional art demands a nontraditional environment.
I’ve written about quite a few shows in my several-years’ tenure with Minnesota Playlist, many of them excellent, some of them execrable, and most of them somewhere in between. Flipping back through those reviews, I find that a lot of shows from all across that spectrum have already begun to fade from my memory, including some that I was very excited about just a few short months ago. SAMO, though, is seared in my mind as a vibrant, energizing, singular evening of theater. I haven’t seen anything quite like it before and I doubt that I will again, but I have no doubt that this vision of Basquiat will have a permanent home in my head.