Editor's Note: As the 2016-17 theater season begins, we like to reflect on the past year's season. To be inspired by the best.
I love writing about theater because it's such a rich art form. Narratives, characters, ideas, words, performances, sets, music. Sometimes it feels like it takes an entire review simply to describe everything I've seen in a given show, let alone evaluate it. Fundamentally, though, theater is about bringing artists and an audience together in a room to share an experience — and the very best theater is about unforgettable shared experiences.
Over the 2015-16 season, I saw many superb shows. There was the Guthrie's insightful Trouble in Mind; the brilliant Basic Instinct 1:1 by Shelby Richardson and Samantha Johns; the TEAM's tender RoosevElvis at the Walker; and more. The show that most stands out in my memory, though, is the Jungle Theater's transcendent Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Gentlemen was the first show of Sarah Rasmussen's tenure as the Jungle's artistic director — succeeding Bain Boehlke, who built the Jungle into arguably the Twin Cities' second most significant currently active theater organization (after the towering Guthrie). How would Rasmussen build on Boehlke's legacy? What would a post-Boehlke Jungle look, sound, and feel like? Everyone was eager to see how Rasmussen, who brought the Gentlemen production concept with her, would make her mark.
The answer: with utter joy. Two Gentlemen isn't even top-shelf Shakespeare, and its conclusion is notoriously problematic, but the cast so conspicuously gloried in sharing the stage that the audience was left with a sense that we'd been a part of something truly special. (Technically, Gentlemen was the first show of the season for the Jungle, which runs its seasons on a calendar-year basis.)
You knew you were in a new era from the moment you walked into the theater and saw a bright pink set, rising into the exposed fly space. Whereas Boehlke and his associate Joel Sass were known for intricate, hyper-realistic sets at the Jungle, Andrew Boyce's Gentlemen set was about bold, broad gestures: seating part of the audience onstage, planting a tree for performers to climb, sending actors into the house. Sets in succeeding productions of the Rasmussen era — the cosmic abstraction of Constellations, the rotating panels of Le Switch — have continued to make adventurous use of the Jungle's close and comfortable space.
Two Gentlemen was the funniest show of the season — not necessarily because Shakespeare's gags are all that great, but because Rasmussen and her cast established a playful spirit that made you want to laugh. From leading ladies Christiana Clark and Mo Perry to invaluable supporting player Wendy Lehr (a veteran of many stages, the Jungle stage in particular), everybody seemed to be having the time of their lives up there. Even the show's literal shaggy-dog trick felt fun, thanks to the dry performance of George Keller as the canine's companion.
At the performance I saw, there was a significant technical difficulty: the lights died, and for a few minutes we were all left in the dark. Even then, everybody kept laughing, with the actors quipping away while we waited. The show was so firmly on track that it couldn't be derailed.
Mainstream Twin Cities theater has long had inclusivity problems. With its multigenerational, multiracial, all-female cast, the ebullient Two Gentlemen felt like the long-awaited dawn of a bright new era — with fresh leaders ready to maintain our tradition of excellence while challenging us to do even better.