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Arts 2012: Isthmus critics rate the year in Madison culture
Facets, Marlene Skog's night of contemporary ballet at the UW.
Credit:Kat Cameron

Madison's arts scene was a Petri dish of political commentary in this year of elections, with issues such as health care, gay marriage and global warming landing under the microscope. Other works tried to ignore the campaign-induced commotion by exploring classic themes such as love and transformation. Our writers reflect on the year's most scintillating offerings on local stages, pages and canvases.

Theater and visual art: Jennifer A. Smith

I'm not sure what it says about Madison that one of the most impressive, innovative arts events to come around in a long time was a one-off. Bookless, a one-day-and-night bash to say farewell to the Central Library before extensive renovations began, was a brilliant concept.

On Jan. 28, more than 5,000 people squeezed into the branch to enjoy the work of 100 local artists - many of whom created site-specific installations - and to listen to live music and have a drink or two. Trent Miller, Courtney Davis and fellow organizers created something to be proud of: Bookless raised nearly $29,000 for the library's overhaul, and it gave a much-needed platform to a lot of local talent.

Other notable visual-art events included Compendium 2012 at the Chazen Museum, which showcased UW art faculty's work, and a cluster of intriguing solo shows at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Milwaukee artist Cecilia Condit's Within a Stone's Throw was anchored by a hypnotic seven-minute film of the same name. While I didn't love everything about Leo Villareal's retrospective (still on display at MMoCA through Dec. 30), I appreciated the chance to explore a sizable sampling of his work. And then there's watercolorist extraordinaire Robert Lostutter, a personal favorite of mine, whose surrealistic bird-men remain up through Jan. 6.

As for theater, the most fun I had was probably at American Players Theatre's production of The Admirable Crichton, about how social norms get upended when an upper-crust family and their butler are shipwrecked. J.M. Barrie's 1902 play wears its social critique lightly, and a strong ensemble cast, featuring James Ridge as the butler, made it a summer treat.

Ridge also excelled in Forward Theater Company's Love Stories, a collection of three one-act plays by sharp modern writers: Dorothy Parker, Bertolt Brecht and George Bernard Shaw. Ridge shared the stage with his wife, the prodigiously talented Colleen Madden. Each piece offered a deftly drawn portrait of a relationship that's either just beginning or beginning to fall apart.

Forward also served up a fun evening of nine mini-plays in Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, a benefit for Fair Wisconsin. Particularly memorable was playwright Doug Wright's spoof of inane Facebook debates. In this election year, I got sucked into a few such debates myself.

While I didn't see all the Broadway offerings on tap at Overture Hall, I was underwhelmed by both The Addams Family and Jersey Boys, which were thin on story and cruder than they needed to be. Billy Elliot fared better and was less derivative, pairing athletic dancing with an uplifting message about creating art in hard times.

Theater and dance: Katie Reiser

In previous year-end reflections, my highest praise for theater has usually gone to American Players Theatre. The Spring Green troupe was excellent this year as well, particularly Cristina Panfilio and La Shawn Banks in Twelfth Night, James Ridge as a savage and slightly sexy Richard III, and James DeVita as all sorts of people in In Acting Shakespeare: himself, his father, myriad Shakespeare characters, Jimmy Smits, and Quint from Jaws. But this season didn't have that one show that made me proselytize about APT to anyone who would listen.

My two favorite acting performances came from Judy Kimball and Alisanne Apple in Madison Theatre Guild's Lettice and Lovage. The script wasn't great, but the acting was. I completely believed those women existed, and I bought their unusual relationship, too.

You can count on me to complain a bit about Broom Street Theater's sometimes wacky productions, but this year I was caught off guard by an interesting adaptation of Shakespeare's Pericles and a stylish original work, On the Corner of Clark and Vine.

On the dance scene, Madison Ballet's Marguerite Luksik continues to delight, whether it's as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, a role in which she's grown more confident and compelling, or as a spotlight-stealer in Facets, Marlene Skog's night of contemporary ballet at the UW. Madison Ballet company member Jacob Ashley (formerly Brooks) wins my Most Improved award and is definitely one to keep an eye on. Sierra Kay Powell was a standout with Kanopy Dance Company, and Dance Wisconsin's young Jordan Zweifel was radiant in Nutcracker Fantasy, even when all eyes were on riveting guest artist Ashley Bouder of the New York City Ballet.

The UW Dance Department continues to cultivate a deep bench of student and faculty talent. Student stars include Petra Weith and Henry Holmes, but I could go on and on because I always appreciate the work the department presents and the caliber of the dancers. On a related note, I was happy to see UW grad Sarah Mitchell back in town for Facets. In addition, guest artists Karl Schaffer and Erik Stern brought creativity, levity and intelligence to PULSE: Intersections of Dance and Science.

Theater and more theater: Amelia Cook

The theater I saw in 2012 wasn't bad, but it was depressing. As I look back, I realize that a lot of the shows I saw explored some pretty dark themes. Case in point: At least three shows had suicide attempts in their plots.

I started my year with a play that was literally dark. Strollers Theatre's Black Comedy takes place in an apartment during a building-wide blackout. There were some great moments of physical humor, but it was an entrancing performance by Jessica Jane Witham as the sexy "other woman" that really lit things up.

Equally seductive yet more menacing was Sarah Karon as a manipulative temptress in Mercury Players Theatre's Becky Shaw. Between its captivating performances and a contemporary script full of irreverent humor, this was one of the year's best shows.

Even the productions I saw at Children's Theater of Madison were quite serious. Lord of the Flies was suspenseful and intense. This adaptation of William Golding's famously savage tale portrayed violence in a way that was appropriate for a younger audience but still shocking. CTM's Charlotte's Web offered some silly antics, but it didn't gloss over the challenging topic of death. Devoted and a little spooky, Karen Moeller was perfect as Charlotte. I was again wowed by the abundance of local talent in this troupe's shows, as Madison-area kids made up most of the casts.

Thrilling battles and sexy scenes dominated Troilus and Cressida at American Players Theatre. This play was more than three hours long, but the action kept me on the edge of my seat. In contrast, APT's Heroes wasn't action-packed at all. Instead, it was simultaneously funny and tragic, driven by fascinating characters. Jonathan Smoots was memorable as feisty Gustave, his character's vulnerability shown through his bravado.

I had high hopes for Madison Theatre Guild's production of the rock musical Next to Normal. But between a theme that pounded the audience's emotional buttons - the impact of mental illness - and a disappointing script, I left thoroughly bummed out. Beyond showcasing some heartbreaks, there wasn't much substance.

Fortunately, my year didn't end there. In fact, the last show I saw this year was my favorite by far. Four Seasons Theatre's She Loves Me was a delightful musical about finding love. With professional performances and a fantastic script and score, it was so good that I didn't want it to end. I hope it's an omen for a cheerier 2013 season.

Classical music: John W. Barker

Surveying a full year of Madison's classical musical life is impossible in this small space. Best just to recall some memorable moments.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra had some outstanding soloists: violinists Augustin Hadelich in Prokofiev (January) and James Ehnes in Bartók (October), and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Tchaikovsky (September). The orchestra itself blazed in Strauss' massive Ein Heldenleben (March) and shone inspiringly in two great symphonies, Brahms's Fourth (October) and Schubert's Ninth (November).

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra impressively took on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (April). Call it the minor leagues, but Steve Kurr's spunky Middleton Community Orchestra did itself proud with Holst (November), as well as works by Brahms and Mozart (May), the latter featuring local pianist Thomas Kasdorf.

After the novelty of Philip Glass' Galileo Galilei (January), Madison Opera's travesty of Rossini's La Cenerentola (April) was redeemed by a superlative production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (October). University Opera managed a high-quality Don Giovanni (March) but undercut a bravely able cast of student singers with a needlessly silly setting in Cherubini's Medea (November).

The Madison Savoyards delivered The Pirates of Penzance (July), one of their best Gilbert and Sullivan presentations in years. Meanwhile, Codrut Birsan's brave mini-productions with his Candid Concert Opera brought us some fine young Chicago singers.

The Pro Arte Quartet premiered new works composed for the ensemble, in celebrating a centennial. The feisty Ancora String Quartet did justice to quartets by Beethoven and Schumann (September). Previously, after offering Prokofiev's First Quartet, it joined the Rhapsodie String Quartet for a rousing rendition of the youthful Mendelssohn's dazzling Octet (May). The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society's June concerts featured intense performances of Tchaikovsky's A-minor Piano Trio and Schubert's C-major Quintet.

The Madison Early Music Festival, despite its 2012 theme of Colonial North American music, offered public concerts mainly of 19th-century folk music that proved highly popular (July).

The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and the Madison Bach Musicians continued to present programs of early music, admirably performed. And the amazingly versatile Jerry Hui, after premiering his own first opera, Wired for Love (January), organized his vocal-instrumental consort, Eliza's Toyes, for several performances of a revealing program, "The Three Sch's": 17th-century music by Schütz, Scheidt and Schein (May and November).

Books: Linda Falkenstein

I had a wonderful high school English teacher who suggested to me at one point that a person's recreational reading choices should be related - which I took to mean that if I read one novel set during World War I, I should read a handful more, or, if I read A Tale of Two Cities, I should follow it up with more Dickens. I truly believe this to be a very smart practice, and yet I have never, ever followed it. (Sorry, Mrs. E.) I dart all over the place with my reading, and 2012 was no exception. The only thing that brings these disparate titles together is their relation to Wisconsin (a relationship that also varies wildly).

If I were to urge you to read just one book from 2012, it would be Anthony Shadid's House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Shadid, a UW-Madison alum and friend to many Madison journalists, died suddenly in February from a severe asthmatic reaction to a horse while covering the conflict in Syria for The New York Times. His memoir was published about a month later. What any writer hopes is for his work to be read; the best tribute to Anthony would be to do just that. House of Stone is an account of his reconnection to his Lebanese heritage and reconstruction of his great-grandfather's house in Marjayou. Amid discussion of Middle Eastern politics and the wavering sense of identity that can plague immigrants, there's the compelling, often funny and very human narrative of the rebuilding of the house.

Closer to Wisconsin, The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed by Milton J. Bates (Wisconsin Historical Society Press) won me over. Bates and his wife set out to canoe all segments of the Bark River in southeastern Wisconsin from Bark Lake to Lake Koshkonong, through the Kettle Moraine. Along the sometimes difficult-to-navigate waterway, we see the wild running up against suburbia, nature meeting manufacturing. The river is also a corridor of history. Despite some clumsy narrative from time to time, this is a very winning adventure that really felt like a boots-on-the-ground exploration of southern Wisconsin.

Rounding out my top five in Wisconsin titles for the year:

  • The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen (Gotham). This is an absorbing account of Allen's pioneering work establishing urban farming in Milwaukee.
  • Building Taliesin: Frank Lloyd Wright's Home of Love and Loss by Ron McCrea (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). If you're from Wisconsin, you may think you know all there is to know about Taliesin, but this is an incredible look at Wright, Spring Green and a dwelling that was more than a home.
  • Aldo Leopold's Shack: Nina's Story by Nancy Nye Hunt (Center for American Places). This is a children's book about Leopold's historic chicken coop on the Wisconsin River. But it had me from before the very first page, with the charming hand-drawn map of Leopold's land on the inside cover that makes of the worn-out farmland something akin to the Hundred-Acre Wood. Good for young readers or to read aloud to younger children, it's also very much of southern Wisconsin. The many historical photos should also intrigue and educate adults.

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