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Theater and Gangsters: A Holiday Weekend in the Twin Cities

A weekend of theater, sculpture, and street caves.

Thanksgiving Thursday
Both the Boston and Minneapolis airports were all-but-deserted, and we had smooth sailing. My brother-in-law lives in a young, hip neighborhood on the fringes of hopping Uptown. This is our first time seeing his new house, a 100-year-old Victorian with lots of elegant woodwork, some nifty stained glass, and original plumbing fixtures in the only bathroom. His Minnesota family is large and gregarious, and we had a very nice time even though we knew practically no one.

Friday
We strolled to the sculpture gallery at the Walker Art Museum. The thing I liked best was the greenhouse conservatory, with its orange trees and other tropical plants. The sculpture garden curator tends to favor harsh, angular pieces with little sense of beauty to my eye. The most famous piece, a large spoon with a red cherry on the end, is unattractively reminiscent of an explosive device when I first see it-but as we walk around and the angle changes, I see it with the pond and city skyline behind it and it's actually quite charming. From the garden, we go Uptown for some shipping-great, hip stores and some fine-looking restaurants. In the evening, we head downtown for Holi-Daze, a large night-time parade with many floats of familiar characters: the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This is opening night, and it's jammed. The kids can't see a thing from street level so we seek refuge in the skyways above Nicollet Mall. We have a great view, but it's almost soundproof. Without the band music, it's like watching a parade on a distant TV with the sound turned off. The boys think it's great, and the adults welcome the chance to stretch out, take our coats off, and sit down.

Saturday
We start off with a trip to Saint Paul and a tour of the Wabasha Street Caves-this is something really cool! They started out as sandstone quarries, mining rock with a 99% silica content and forming the basis for a local glassmaking industry in the 1840s and 1850s. Later, they were used as mushroom farms, a speakeasy, an upscale restaurant with a medieval European castle facade and a mobster clientele (and once, an on-premises triple murder), and even a city dump! Now, it's rented out for weddings, business meetings, and banquets. At $4 per head, it's fun and affordable. The tour is offered Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Thursdays at 5 p.m., put on by a group called Down in History Tours; they also do motorcoach runs of all the gangster sites, at $18 per ticket. (651-292-1220).

From the caves, we hop local buses to Grand Avenue, home of Macalester College and the world-renowned Ruminator Bookstore (formerly called the Hungry Mind, before they sold their name to the publisher of the Dummies guides). Its crowded jumble of wonderful books includes a terrific poetry section, excellent cookbooks, and a small but interesting remainder area with many elegant-looking novels and poetry collections by unknown and well-known authors alike.

Across the street is the Pad Thai Grand Cafe, fairly tired looking on the outside, but nicely decorated within. We are great lovers of Thai food, and this turns out to be some of the best we've ever eaten. We thoroughly enjoy the tofu with cashew nuts and hot pepper, fried rice in a spicy basil-mint sauce, and, of course, Pad Thai (a popular rice noodle and peanut dish).

Sunday
The Twin Cities are known for their big theater and literary scene. While we didn't get to take in any readings, today we saw two plays-both walking distance from my brother-in-law's house, as are several other theaters we passed along the way.

Two of my nephews had parts in the Guthrie Theater production of "A Christmas Carol"; the younger, age 7, played Tiny Tim, and his 10-year-old brother had several small but crucial roles. The Guthrie claims to be the first to adapt the book for the stage, and this was the 25th annual production. We knew how hard they'd been working, with up to six hours of rehearsal at a time, sometimes spending hours on a single scene. Still, we weren't prepared for just how incredibly good this production was. There were no discernable flaws. The acting, the complex and continuous tech work, the staging and special effects all ran with supreme quality and precision. It was at least as good as anything I've seen on Broadway, and the Guthrie's more intimate space and fantastic acoustics added a delicious feeling of being right there in the midst of the action. It was one of the very best theater experiences of my life. If you're visiting Minneapolis, go see one of their productions.

In the evening, my wife and I checked out the Jungle theater production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. This theater company runs well-known intellectual plays and keeps them in repertory revivals for years. They strive to keep the same casts and sets, so that they are, in a sense, archival productions. About half the cast were Equity actors. They have a lovely new theater space (which they opened in February, 1999), and had a near-capacity crowd.

Because of the type of play it was, a narrative poem emphasizing voices and characters rather than dramatic action, one can't really judge the company's sense of staging. In this production, the actors are seated in a row of chairs, and many of the lines are delivered from their chairs. Other times, one or at most, two actors stand to deliver their lines. Each actor played a range of characters; their delivery was entertaining and the humor and music of Thomas's script came through strong and clear. They did not attempt Welsh accents-probably a good thing, since the play itself can be hard enough to follow.

All in all, it was a wonderful day, rich, stimulating, and an excellent conclusion to a fine weekend.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign. This piece was written in 1999.


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