William D. Walker
<i>The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker</i>. For more photos, click gallery, above.
What a year it has been on the arts scene. Artists reacted passionately to the political drama in the Capitol, boldly designed new buildings opened on campus, and striking new artistic voices emerged. Our writers look back on a colorful 2011.
It was a year of change: a new governor, new challenges and a new sense of community. It will be interesting to see how these new paradigms affect the arts in 2012. In 2011 the first waves were already felt.
The most obvious response to this year's political angst was Broom Street Theater's The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker, by local playwright Doug Reed. A small set made way for big ideas in this "fakespearean" reimagining of the budget-repair bill signing and subsequent protests at the Capitol last winter. Through swordfights and soliloquies, this improbably thoughtful farce accomplished what theater has always done best: holding a mirror up to nature and letting us all have a good laugh.
One of the strongest performances came from Collin Erickson, playing dual roles as the governor's court jester and as a cynical protester whose heart is opened. Erickson was also a bright spot in Broom Street's uneven Maya and Me earlier this year and is definitely a performer to watch in 2012.
After a tumultuous period, it's natural to seek a period of reflection and even grief. It's also natural to get drunk on cheap champagne and seek the glitziest, most blindingly sparkly distraction possible. Enter: Chicago. Middleton Players Theatre's production this summer was heavy on the sequins and light on the contemplation, and sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered. More elaborate dance numbers than you often see on a Madison stage paired well with the flash of the footlights and the razzle-dazzle of sequined leotards.
Strollers Theatre's The Norman Conquests was another enjoyable romp with laughs aplenty and a memorable performance by Erin S. Baal, whom I always like.
A more sensitive offering came in the form of The Little Prince, Children's Theater of Madison's adaptation of the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Christopher Younggren, whom I saw this summer at the New York International Fringe Festival presentation of Madison's You've Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery!, brought the perfect note of gravity and longing as the story's Aviator. Eighth-grader Henry Shotwell, fresh off a lauded performance in the award-winning short film The Bully, screened this spring at the Wisconsin Film Festival, seemed wise beyond his years in his role as the Little Prince.
Another tearjerker was StageQ's production of Make Me a Song, by William Finn. Full of catchy tunes and upbeat harmonies, Make Me a Song was mostly tasty fluff, but when the waterworks turned on, they didn't turn off easily. Bruce Wheeler's rendition of "When the World Stopped Turning" was one of the most moving moments I experienced in Madison theater this year.
Jennifer A. Smith
It's been a banner year for architecture on the UW campus with the spring opening of the new Union South and the fall debut of the Chazen Museum of Art's new wing.
While Union South involved the razing of a bleak Brutalist building to make way for a sophisticated yet comfortable "green" facility, the Chazen's lead architect added to an existing Brutalist wing in a way that honors and improves upon it. Whether you have a connection to the university or not, you owe yourself a trip to these spaces that will make any Madisonian proud.
Visual art highlights of the year included the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's invigorating survey of Chicago Imagists (and a companion show, Chicago School: Imagists in Context), both still on view. Colorful, funky and inventive, the Imagists are now receiving more of their historical due, thanks in part to this thoughtfully presented exhibition. I also loved MMoCA's The Industrial Modern and its many views of city life in the 20th century.
Other favorite exhibitions this year included the group show Handmade Meaning at the James Watrous Gallery on Overture's third floor. With a focus on how craft shapes identity and community, it was visually strong, touching and even funny at times. It successfully integrated Victorian craft with work by contemporary artists.
At the Chazen, Madison's only art museum spanning all time periods and cultures, it was an eclectic year ranging from Russian icons to Japanese prints and the massive abstract paintings of contemporary artist Sean Scully. While not every temporary show wowed me, the Chazen's greatly expanded size permits the display of many works from the permanent collection that have previously been little seen. It's truly a museum reborn.
On area stages, offerings ranged from fun-yet-thought-provoking musicals (University Theatre's Bat Boy and Music Theatre of Madison's The Glorious Ones) to thorny contemporary drama (plays by Neil LaBute and David Harrower at the Bricks Theatre, and David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole at Strollers, which featured a sharp performance by Jessica Jane Witham as a grieving mother).
Forward Theater Company's productions included lighthearted monologues on love in The Love That Changed My Life - love for both fellow humans and the savory wonders of hotdogs and spiced nuts - as well as Lee Blessing's powerful Going to St. Ives. That tense political drama featured first-rate performances by Colleen Madden and Olivia Dawson, respectively, as a British doctor coping with a searing personal loss and a stately African woman whose son is a brutal dictator. This fall, Forward enjoyed packed houses for The Farnsworth Invention.
In Spring Green, my favorite American Players Theatre shows this season were wildly divergent. At one end, The Critic, a zany 18th-century spoof of the theater world and its many personalities; at the other, the much more intimate and serious The Cure at Troy, a modern reworking by Seamus Heaney of Sophocles' tragedy. Troy featured a knockout performance by core company actor David Daniel. Also of note was APT's staging of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, with a poignant performance by Brian Mani as the hulking Lennie.
John W. Barker
Musical life expands while space to report on it diminishes, hardly equal to a particularly rich year.
First, the big guns. The Madison Symphony Orchestra offered abundance and diversity. Notwithstanding a range of orchestral pieces, guest soloists were responsible for some of the finest moments. Henning Kraggerud gave new life to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in January, and likewise Christopher Taylor with Schumann's Piano Concerto. Visual excesses aside, Robert McDuffie proved that Barber's Violin Concerto (March) is a major work of its kind, while Lynn Harrell (October) showed that Lalo's Cello Concerto hardly deserves its neglect. Midori in Shostakovich's magnificent Violin Concerto No. 1 (November) was the ultimate solo sensation. Music director John DeMain achieved a grand spring closing with Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony, but made a dubious choice of John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls" for the autumn opener. Along the way, Naha Greenholtz succeeded Tyrone Greive as concertmaster.
Soloists with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra were a more mixed bag, though in October, young Ilya Yakushev was dazzling in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 before tackling Gershwin's tacky "Rhapsody in Blue." It was in typical orchestral enterprise that music director Andrew Sewell provided the interesting novelties. In January, one of Resphigi's too-much-ignored "Ancient Airs and Dances" was a nice foil to a 10-composer French collaboration, "L'eventail de Jeanne," for which - in another of Sewell's imaginative touches - the Madison Ballet danced on the stage apron. With Beethoven's Seventh in April, Sewell also showed what his emerging series of that composer's symphonies can be. And, of course, Sewell and the WCO gave their annual set of Concerts on the Square.
Madison Opera presented a vocally and dramatically satisfying La Traviata in the spring and a truly gorgeous - and brave - Eugene Onegin, in Russian (November). Its smaller midseason production brought an imaginative Threepenny Opera, with Tracy Michelle Arnold of American Players Theatre as a stunning Jenny Diver. Kathryn Smith took over from Allan Naplan as director, but the company's 50-year guiding spirit, Ann Stanke, died in May.
The UW's counterpart, University Opera, offered a powerful rendition of The Consul in the spring and a thoroughly credible fall production of La Bohème, both with remarkably able student casts. In other campus activities, this fall the Pro Arte Quartet launched its centennial celebration with its first concerts featuring new works commissioned for the group.
On Madison's busy choral scene, standouts were Haydn's Creation, nobly performed by Robert Gehrenbeck's Wisconsin Chamber Choir (April), and Mendelssohn's majestic Elijah by the UW's Choral Union (April-May), which also offered interesting contemporary works for non-holiday novelty in December.
Summer, busier than ever, saw the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society celebrating its 20th season with flair. The Madison Early Music Festival made a revelatory exploration of colonial Latin American music. The Madison Savoyards took on the expansive Utopia, Ltd. of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival juggled Mozart, jazz and Bach with its customary aplomb.
The Ancora Quartet; the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble; Trevor Stevenson's Madison Bach Musicians; Jerry Hui's vocal ensemble Eliza's Toyes; Codrut Birsan's Candid Concert Opera - so much more deserving mention!
This year, almost every show I saw ended with a standing ovation. However, I wasn't on my feet as much as my fellow audience members were.
American Players Theatre's Glass Menagerie was a respectable production, and Marcus Truschinski's portrayal of enthusiastic Jim O'Connor was delightful. It ended, of course, with a standing ovation. It was a fine show, but not nearly as moving as Madison Theatre Guild's 2010 version of the Tennessee Williams classic. Another ovation followed APT's Of Mice and Men. While Jim DeVita was wonderful as George, Brian Mani's Lennie was a bit cartoonish, and the audience, which seemed unfamiliar with the tragic story, spent the first half of the show laughing at any line resembling a joke.
Children's Theater of Madison celebrates a banner year. The American Girls Revue dazzled its young audience and proved to be one of CTM's most successful shows ever. The troupe's new version of A Christmas Carol was a nice way to ring in the holiday season. And, yes, you guessed it, more spirited ovations.
The production that had me standing was Children's Theater of Madison's Most Valuable Player. This show took some big risks in order to authentically tell the story of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Trevon Jackson captured Robinson's determination, and Sam White was perfect as Robinson's mentor, Branch Rickey. Most Valuable Player was an excellent example of a small-scale production done right, showing off Madison's talent with a cast of locals and telling a meaningful story.
Overall, 2011's theater didn't wow me, but I was blown away by the enthusiasm of theatergoers. While I am a bit stingy with my ovations, it's a good thing to see seats filled by excited audiences. Here's hoping that 2012 offers more shows that bring me to my feet.
Reflecting on a year's worth of theater and dance, I realize that sometimes it is the overall production that stands out to me, like Forward Theater Company's good-looking, well-acted Moonlight and Magnolias. Sometimes an individual performance moves me, like Molly Shulman's in Mercury Players Theatre's Peep. And on occasion what I remember is the way my state of mind affected my connection to the work, as with Jen-Win Yu Dance's heartbreaking duet "Spiegel im Spiegel" for Collette Stewart and Yun-Chen Liu, which I saw soon after learning that a friend had died.
American Players Theatre is always admirable, and I was lucky to see Tracy Michelle Arnold shine in The Taming of the Shrew as Kate, who was both shrewish and shrewd. More recently, Arnold was good-hearted Della in The Gift of the Magi.
The more I see from UW dance department professors, the more I like. Chris Walker, a compelling performer himself, choreographed the quicksilver "Dubwise," which featured the dancing of Guy Thorne, now a guest lecturer at the UW. I still smile when I think back on that. Thorne's slight frame was made huge on the stage by the sheer force of his talent and power. Li Chiao-Ping's multimedia solo "RE: Joyce" was thoughtful and evocative, like so much of her work. Kate Corby's In Whole or in Part was compelling as it explored themes of genocide and empathy with both rawness and beauty. Corby's intelligence and the work she creates in collaboration with her dancers make her a force to be reckoned with at a national level.
Yu and visiting artist Robin Becker both choreographed works inspired by the David Maraniss book They Marched Into Sunlight, and while Becker's resonated with me more, I imagine both artists made Maraniss proud.
Four Seasons Theatre's My Fair Lady was a solid show that benefited from excellent work by leading lady Sarah O'Hara as well as a talented supporting cast. The latter included the very rascally Tom Hensen and appropriately uptight Whitney Derendinger.
StageQ's Ghost of a Chance, a Halloween ghost caper set in a lesbian-owned haunted bed-and-breakfast, turned out to be very funny indeed. It made me a big fan of dynamic Laura Varela, who played dual roles as a wealthy grande dame and a Confederate soldier's ghost.
Madison Ballet gave us A Midsummer's Night Dream as a fun spring diversion. Marguerite Luksik as Puck and Jennifer Tierney as Hippolyta were both great, in very different ways.
My review of Mercury Players Theatre's The Last Supper, in which left-wing students kill dinner guests whose views are diametrically opposed, generated more discussion and comments than usual. That made me a bit squeamish. Even though I'm a critic, I realize I can't handle criticism myself.