6 great plays to warm your heart on a cold January day

Wade A. Vaughn and David Mann prove that eulogies can be funny in <i>The Best Brothers.</i>

Wade A. Vaughn and David Mann prove that eulogies can be funny in The Best Brothers.

It’s January in Minnesota. That means the weather is frightful. The (insert local sports team here) are an unwatchable mess, and everyone is starting to go a little stir crazy.

January also used to be slow on the theater front, but that’s changed in recent years. Here are five recommendations for this week and beyond to get you out of the house. (Or you can stay in, listen to the Smashing Pumpkins or other ‘90s faves to get ready for the return of the X-Files Sunday night. I won’t judge.)

The Best Brothers

As we all learned in the "Chuckles the Clown" episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, death and funerals can be funny. Daniel MacIvor’’s The Best Brothers, the latest absorbing production from the Loudmouth Collective, isn’t a sidesplitting farce, but it does mine plenty of awkward humor amid the heartache.

This quickly paced piece centers on Hamilton and Kyle, a pair of brothers with an uneasy relationship. When their mother dies in a… bizarre accident (it involves a gay pride parade, their mother’s beloved dog, and a clumsy drag queen) the pair are forced to work together to take care of the arrangements, the funeral, and the will.

<i>Great Expectations</i> at Park Square Theatre.

Great Expectations at Park Square Theatre.

The characters are sharply drawn, aided by strong performances by David Mann and Wade A. Vaughn. Both also get to step into the gloves and hat of mother, Bunny, to give us a full portrait of the wedges driven between the brothers and the path they can find to renewed friendship. The piece is also funny when you least expect it (such as during the eulogy).

Performances run through Sunday at Open Eye Figure Theatre. Call 612-643-1231 or visit online for tickets.

Country Roads, The Music of John Denver

Dennis Curley has loved John Denver’s music since he was a kid. So developing a jukebox musical dedicated to the beloved pop singer was a natural. He didn’t realize how many others loved the man’s music until they started selling out performances, first at the Bryant-Lake Bowl as a Table Salt production, then at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres for a two-night run.

The show previews this week at the Plymouth Playhouse before opening for a winter and spring run.

The show isn’t a biography. “It’s me singing John Denver songs and my experiences with his music,” Curley says.

Curley remembers nights as a youth when his musical family would gather to sing. “They would send me to bed. A couple of hours later I would go downstairs and listen to them sing. All of that folk music soaked in,” he says.

It isn’t just Curley sharing his memories of “Annie’s Song” and “Sunshine on my Shoulder.”

“I pass out cards at the beginning of the show and invite the audience to share if they have any memories of him. There is a Minnesota connection. His wife was here and he lived here for a time. I heard stories about playing racquetball with him,” Curley says.

The show runs through May 1 at Plymouth Playhouse. Call 763-553-1600 or check online for showtimes.

Great Expectations

A few seasons back, Joel Sass struck gold with a gritty and dirty Oliver Twist at Park Square Theatre. He returns to Dickens this winter with Great Expectations, giving the tale of Pip and company a fresh coat of paint.

If you skipped over this one in school, Pip is a young man who dreams of being a gentleman. When that dream comes true, he discovers that money doesn’t solve the problems of life. In fact, it can make them worse.

The cast is packed with top local talent, including Ansa Akyea, Barbra Berlovitz, Ryan Colbert, and Cheryl Willis. The adaptation promises a mix of drama, action, and music, all tied together by Sass’s vivid and stylish approach to classic literature.

The play is in previews through this week, opens Friday, and runs through February 7 at Park Square Theatre. Call 651-291-7005 or visit online for tickets.

Out There Festival

So far, I’m batting .500 on this year’s month-long theater festival at the Walker Art Center. Opener RoosenElvis was a delight. Last week’s mix of David Foster Wallace and tennis balls was a dire exercise in boredom. That’s about average for this festival.

The final two weeks offer up international works. This Thursday through Saturday features Riding on a Cloud, a piece by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue. In the play, Mroue explores the life of his brother, who was shot by a sniper’s bullet in 1987. That experience altered the way he sees the world, which Mroue delves into using live action, music, and film. 

The festival ends with Germinal. Sorry Emile Zola fans, it's not an adaptation of his book. Instead, we have a quartet of performances that arrive on an empty stage and build a language and way to communicate via the evolving world around them. The work comes via French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. (Jan. 28-30)

The festival runs through January 30 at the Walker Art Center. Call 612-375-7600 or visit online for tickets.

Beauty Queen of Leenane

If you are determined to make January feel completely like January, there is Theatre Pro Rata’s excellent production of Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, a darkly comic tragedy following a mother and daughter living in a perpetual cold war in the hardscrabble landscape of rural Ireland.

The script is terrific, and lead performers Sally Wingert and Amber Bjork completely buy into every dark twist and turn the story takes. You may not feel good about humanity afterwards (and may even be a bit wary of children and parents offering to cook a meal) but it is worth the trip to St. Paul to see.

The show runs through Sunday at Park Square Theatre. Call 651-291-7005 or visit online for tickets.