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Isthmus arts critics rate 2010 in Madison culture
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Credit:James Gill

Thanks to the economy, the arts scene faced disaster in 2009. But you would never have guessed that in 2010, when local groups forged ahead with ambitious schedules and praiseworthy performances. Our writers share some highlights.

Jennifer A. Smith

While the opening of the Chazen Museum of Art's new wing is still 10 months away, 2010 proved plenty eventful for the museum. In November, it announced the donation of the Terese and Alvin S. Lane Collection, consisting of over 70 sculptures and 250 preparatory drawings by first-rate modern artists like Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.

In terms of exhibitions, the Chazen had a strong year, even with part of the facility off limits during the construction process that will effectively double the museum's size. "Automata: Contemporary Mechanical Sculpture" was whimsical, highly inventive and accessible for all ages. A John Wilde exhibition paid homage to the late, great Wisconsin surrealist.

But, for me at least, the highlight of the Chazen's year was "Imaginary Architecture," featuring the work of Belgian photographer Filip Dujardin, who uses Photoshop to remix his photos of bleak, nondescript buildings into fantastical, impossible structures. Both technically of-the-moment and art-historically rich, Dujardin's photos are mesmerizing and unsettling.

Elsewhere in visual art, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art produced a rich and varied Wisconsin Triennial, its signature show of homegrown contemporary art. The James Watrous Gallery hosted a fantastic show by Hudson-based photographer Carl Corey and the thoughtful "Stitched Ground" show of contemporary textiles. It explored humans' relationship to the land through the work of exceptional Wisconsin artists like Terese Agnew and Leah Evans.

As for local stages, Forward Theater Company began and ended the calendar year on impressive notes with Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them and Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) - both Midwest premieres of major new plays that were thought-provoking, well cast and thoroughly satisfying.

American Players Theatre in Spring Green also had a fine season; for me, the highlight was George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, directed by APT artistic director David Frank. It was a heady brew of ideology and humor with outstanding performances from core company members Colleen Madden and Jonathan Smoots.

It was also a good year for musicals, from big-budget, splashy hits (Wicked and The Lion King at Overture Center) to angsty ones (Spring Awakening at the Wisconsin Union Theater) to locally produced shows (University Theatre's charming, exuberant 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee).

The year also featured some memorable appearances by singer-songwriters, from established legends to up-and-comers. Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III (both, somewhat incredibly, in their 60s) showcased their friendship as well as their wit and musicianship at the intimate Stoughton Opera House in April.

In November, a performer three decades their junior, Josh Ritter, put on a jubilant, barn-burning show with his Royal City Band at another venue from the dawn of the 20th century, the Majestic Theatre. Ritter has proved that he deserves - already - a place alongside the likes of Thompson and Wainwright for his articulate, incisive lyrics.

Katie Reiser

In David Nicholls' easy-breezy read One Day, a character muses, "no one ever woke up and decided they wanted to be a critic." That may be true, but as a critic I got to see some noteworthy performances this year.

Kanopy Dance Company was invigorated by two visiting artists. This spring, Amat Lahav from England worked with Kanopy to create the sometimes messy but always interesting "Monkey See Monkey Do." More recently, the company hosted Martin Løfsnes, a former Martha Graham Dance Company dancer who now has his own troupe, 360 Dance Company. Løfsnes' performance with Alessandra Prosperi (another Graham dancer now in 360) of Ricardo Flores' "Que Color Tiene el Amor" was some of the best dancing I've seen anywhere, and Flores' inventive choreography astonished me.

Kate Corby & Dancers' October evening of dance, Manifold, included Corby's jarringly beautiful solo "Brute" for Emily Miller and a fascinating piece, "Fever Pitch," from Chicago's Dim Sum Dance.

The UW dance department's Upswing featured Jin-Wen Yu's "March into Sunlight," inspired by the David Maraniss book about the Vietnam War. If this first offering is any indication, the larger work from Yu to be performed this spring is something to look forward to.

Madison has no shortage of skilled dancers, and I was struck by the maturity and stage presence of several young performers this year: Sarah Mitchell at the UW and Heidi Krause and Yoshie Fujimoto Kateada with Kanopy.

It's not a surprise when American Players Theatre does great work, but it's worth noting that familiar cast members still have the capacity to surprise. APT's Waiting for Godot in the Touchstone Theater was intimate and emotional. The entire cast was in top form, but it was the chemistry and comic timing of the two leads that drew me in: James Ridge as a soulful, weary and wide-eyed Vladimir, and James DeVita, who brought a manic impulsiveness to Estragon and revealed some impressive physical-comedy chops. DeVita was also a sly scene-stealer in APT's All's Well That Ends Well as the loutish Parolles. Starring as intrepid Helena in All's Well was Ally Carey, a young and radiant newcomer who gracefully handled the big role.

With 11 one-acts, StageQ's Queer Shorts 5 careened through topics and emotions. There were a few ups and downs in terms of quality control, but the show was always entertaining, and the next installment deserves to be penciled in on your calendar in 2011.

Four Seasons Theatre and Madison Theatre Guild joined forces for a solid production of Side by Side by Sondheim. While Sondheim's songs were the brightest stars, the talented cast members each had a standout number.

Some individual performances in plays or musicals merit a mention as well: Chelsea Burris in Music Theatre of Madison's The Wild Party, Liz Angle in Strollers Theatre's The Playboy of the Western World, and Molly Shulman in Strollers' Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Amelia Cook

This year, I was especially pleased to see the Bricks Theatre grow stronger. Early in 2010, the company christened a new performance space: the former Lussier Teen center on East Washington Avenue. The venue, with its graffiti-covered walls and warehouse-like ambiance, has been a perfect fit for small-scale shows that are professional yet unpretentious.

The Zoo Story was a prime example of the kind of show that Bricks does so well: thought-provoking and intense. Donovan Armbruster and Mark Snowden were thrilling to watch. True West was equally stirring; Jessica Jane Witham beguiled the audience as feisty Lee. The choice to cast Lee as a female (the part is traditionally played by a male) offered a new perspective on the play.

And new perspectives abounded in Madison theater this year, especially in the no-holds-barred approaches of Mercury Players Theatre and Broom Street Theatre.

Broom Street opened the year with Cattywompus, written by regulars Justin Lawfer and Christina Beller. Nearly every show at Broom Street devolves into craziness, and Cattywompus was no different. My favorite moments involved Scott Frazier, whose performances as the family dog and little girl Melonie kept the audience cracking up.

Mercury's The Velvet Sky didn't crack me up, but it sure did shake me up. Icky topics like pedophilia were broached in this tale of a boy lost in New York City. As the evil Sandman, J. Patrick was especially eerie and entrancing, and Dana Pellebon was excellent as a sleep-deprived mom at the end of her rope. Well-done music and light design intensified the spookiness.

On the lighter side, Madison Theatre Guild's The Spitfire Grill, co-produced with Four Seasons Theatre, was charming. Cute musical numbers and a heartwarming story made this a great start to the 2010 holiday season.

MTG's production of The Glass Menagerie was my favorite show of 2010. As Laura, Kate Ewings was captivating, and as her mom, Judy Kimball was imposing and proper with a well-executed Southern accent. The period set got things right - a curio cabinet full of glass animals sparkled throughout the show, and vintage costumes and music clips captured the feel of the Great Depression. But the key to this show's success was that the straightforward approach allowed Tennessee Williams' script to shine.

I wrapped up 2010 with the spirited A Wonderful Life by Children's Theater of Madison. A break from the troupe's tradition of producing A Christmas Carol, A Wonderful Life was a fun change. The enthusiastic performers sang and danced their hearts out, and it's always fun to see local kids on stage. There were over 20 of them in the show, ranging from elementary- to high-school-aged.

A Wonderful Life reminded theatergoers to look on the bright side, and as I look back at 2010, I can say that, indeed, it was a wonderful year of theater.

John W. Barker

Among the big-hitters, our two orchestras had impressive seasons, reaching new levels of quality. The guest soloists varied widely. For the Madison Symphony Orchestra, pianist Stephen Hough brought Tchaikovsky's First Concerto back to life, and Alisa Weilerstein was gripping in Dvorak's great Cello Concerto. But in October Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, under John DeMain, quite upstaged pianist Olga Kern in the shopworn Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. And in February, the charm brought by violinist Pinchas Zukerman and his cellist wife Amanda Forsyth was overshadowed by Saint Saëns' blockbuster Third Symphony. Guest conductor Patrick Strub gave us the welcome novelty of Brahms' "Serenade No. 1."

With the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, trumpeter Ryan Anthony was an artistic disgrace, but pianist Stewart Goodyear brought us a neglected concerto by Johann Hummel, and young sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton were delightful in a rare Two-Piano Concerto by Mendelssohn. Maestro Andrew Sewell showed how the WCO's properly restored string-to-wing balances revitalize standard symphonies: Schubert's Eighth and Ninth, and Beethoven's Eighth.

Madison Opera showed deepened maturity in its three fine ventures: the beloved Marriage of Figaro, but also the subtle The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten and the company's first plunge into Wagner with The Flying Dutchman. The company now faces the departure of its director, the enterprising Allan Naplan.

Opera was also thriving on the campus with the UW Opera's solid productions of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and two of the three components of Puccini's Trittico. Also on campus, having led the UW Choral Union in Beethoven's demanding Missa solemnis in May, Beverly Taylor delivered Handel's great choral epic, Israel in Egypt, with power and style in November.

Of our two local string quartets, the Pro Arte glowed in its regular concerts, with a particularly winning combination of Mozart, Schumann and Dvorak in September. Hardly far behind was the Ancora Quartet, magnificent in Beethoven's Op. 132, and truly inspired by the challenge of a guest pianist in the great Piano Quintet of Brahms.

Madison's growing appetite for early music was shown in the tremendous response to the latest of the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble's regular concerts, in November. Likewise winning public favor were Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians, venturing as late as Haydn and culminating in a lovely program of Bach cantatas.

Robert Gehrenbeck led his Wisconsin Chamber Choir skillfully in Bach's St. John Passion for Good Friday. In July the Madison Early Music Festival made its usual splash in focusing on English Medieval and Renaissance music. And in November it sponsored what I consider the year's outstanding musical event, Bruce Gladstone's stunning direction of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, honoring its 500th anniversary.

If prefacing the busiest autumn season ever, the summer was still lively, framed by challenging programs from the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. In between were the WCO's Concerts on the Square, a vibrant HMS Pinafore by the Madison Savoyards and Opera in the Park.

So much more we could talk about.

Josh Wimmer

Okay, no question: The biggest and best moment of my Isthmus arts writing career this year was interviewing science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison in September, in anticipation of his appearance at the MadCon 2010 convention. In one sense, it was one of the easiest interviews I've ever done - at 76, Ellison is as opinionated, eloquent and loquacious as ever (that is to say, very much so), so for 90 minutes I just let him talk and transcribed as fast as I could. But it was also scary as hell. Basically, I didn't want Harlan to think I was a fool, especially given his well-established reputation for not suffering fools politely. Thankfully, my technique of shutting up and typing while he did his thing worked out splendidly. He was thoroughly gracious, and we had a couple of brief but equally unforgettable conversations later at the con (where he was in typically titanic form).

My next-favorite arts story was my feature on the Project Lodge. Listen, despite loving the idea of ramshackle indie arts collectives, when it comes to consumption, I generally opt for the more polished and packaged products. (I am guilty, for example, of unrepentant devotion to U2.) But every source I spoke to was genuinely thrilled about what the Lodge is doing, and every event I attended there not only went off without a hitch, but evinced real creative vitality. Here's hoping the place is still around and thriving this time next year.

I'll make no bones about it - I like talking to and seeing famous people. So interviewing Bill Maher and reviewing Lily Tomlin's show at Overture Center were fun. (He was forthcoming and unaffected, even if I don't dig his act that much; she was, of course, a hoot.) And seeing American Players Theatre's Another Part of the Forest and The Syringa Tree was a treat any thinking person would be grateful for. But for pure spark and delight, Encore Studio's 9-1-1! sticks deeper in my memory - I laughed a lot. And not to condescend or get clichéd; it's just true: The honesty of the mostly disabled troupe's material was, yes, heartwarming and inspiring.

Finally, so glad Dar Williams played the Barrymore, so I could take my longtime-fan wife, who is generally underwhelmed with the plus-ones I can offer her. The theater staff was strangely sour, but I can't recall a more lively, likable, solid musician.

Laurie Stark

For me, the highlights of 2010 were individual performances more than productions as a whole.

Katy Conley's performance in StageQ's Last Summer at Bluefish Cove was transcendent, bringing warmth and depth to a sweet show that sometimes failed to connect. And Richard Ganoung brought a rich inner life to his Hollywood producer-cum-sociopath in the company's The Dying Gaul.

Leah Isabel Tirado stole my heart as the headstrong Aldonza in Strollers Theatre's Man of La Mancha last spring. I was impressed with the entire cast of Strollers' 84 Charing Cross Road, but Andrea Kleiner and Kathy Lynn Sliter were standouts in smaller supporting roles, elevated by their nuanced performances.

Jessica Bess Lanius was radiant as a frustrated Victorian housewife in Forward Theater Company's In the Next Room, a thoughtful, moving play with the sweetest love scene I've ever seen on stage.

Whitney Derendinger and Patricia Boyette were the highlights of University Theatre's ambitious but slow-moving Grapes of Wrath. Peter Hunt brought down the house as a disgruntled Macy's elf in Bricks Theatre's Santaland Diaries. Anya Matanovic was breathtaking as Susanna in Madison Opera's The Marriage of Figaro, a visually stunning production that made me laugh more than I'd expected.

Jamie England, Christopher Younggren and Matthew A. Schrader made a side-splitting trio as the narrator, the detective and his assistant in Mercury Players Theatre's You've Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery, the funniest play I saw all year.

Overall, this was a year of hit-or-miss productions, peppered with exceptional performances that give me hope for what's to come.

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