Best in Shows? An alternative to the critics’ picks

“Best of” issues are an exercise in pragmatism as much as hyperbole. If you’ve named the same place or person the best for three years running, you may be obligated to consider another, just to keep things moving–even if the mainstay still reigns. So with that in mind, here are a few offerings in agreement or contrast to another local publication’s picks for the “best” in local arts.

Best Exhibition: They chose “Frida Kahlo” at the Walker. This seems instead like the “smartest” exhibition–the 100th anniversary of her birth, 2007 was Kahlo’s year (and still is, it seems) from here to South America. A Walker rep admitted privately that the show was perhaps a better fit artistically for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts–it’s hardly contemporary, after all, even if it’s modern–but was too good an opportunity to pull crowds into the new building. It worked, but was hardly the best art I’ve seen all year. I’d go with Frida’s quieter counterpart last year, Georgia O’Keeffe at the MIA, or even the Museum of Russian Art’s terrific retrospective of Geli Korzhev, the socialist realism painter whose work, ranging from Communist glorification to mutant bugs, gave a new perspective on the Soviet world.

Best Art Gallery: They chose First Amendment Gallery, a super-hip collective with their finger on the fickle pulse of poster design/screenprinting. These kids are talented; they make money commercially by day, bring in big, young crowds by night to see their work and that of likeminded artists–great for them, great for art appreciation. But let’s face it, it’s a pretty narrow genre, especially if you’re not shopping for a album cover for your indie band. For similarly price-conscious local work, I’d keep my finger on Yuri Arajs’s Placement Gallery–woodcuts, paintings, sculpture, prints, from a variety of hip local artists.

Best Actor: James Craven. No argument here–his work as Doaker in Penumbra Theatre’s “The Piano” would have earned him an Oscar nomination if it’d been filmed.

Best Actress: Sarah Agnew. No question she was one of the best things about “The Home Place” at the Guthrie (it wasn’t the script). And she got her one-woman performance off cleanly at the Jungle (“The Syringa Tree”). Of course, she’s always been good, even when she was frequently overshadowed by overacting boys at Jeune Lune. I’m going to suggest that the past year was simply not the best for plum women’s roles on any stage in town–when the biggest might have been Jane Eyre at the Guthrie and the most provocative–where? Women were too often second-fiddle–Agnew got the best of what there was. Emily Gunyou Halaas will, I hope and expect, be getting more of these roles–she’s smart, quirky, and always acts as if she has nothing to lose.

Best Director: Joel Sass. Sass has done the remarkable, going from a small-theatre and design background to Sass Inc. He’s everywhere and he’s consistently good. He’s redefined quality theater is in this town, and his expectations are now our own. Yet that’s just the thing: He and us deserve a break. Sass does a lot of things well, both designing and directing with a clean, smart approach, but by now the aesthetic is starting to feel familiar: you want a certain feel, you get Sass. I was more impressed by the unexpected tapping of, say, Wendy Knox to direct the Ordway’s “The Sound of Music.” Can we start to use Sass the same way–that is, the way we’d least expect?