All productions are listed in chronological order.
It's hard to imagine a more quixotic subject for stage adaptation than William Vollmann's 2006 National Book Award-winning novel. But Justice and Smith's script, which we called pointed, sprawling and shattered in our January review, somehow kept focus on the humanity in a group of artists and government functionaries in mid-century Europe, while it critically analyzed the relationships between art, conscience and the state. Kate Dobbs Ariail (who covers theater for both the Indy and cvnc.org) and I both selected Europe Central for its achievement. Later in the spring, Europe's director, Jay O'Berski, took Charles L. Mee up on his artistic dare, crosswiring several of the playwright's texts with Virginia Woolf, Charles Bukowski and a pop and soul soundtrack to prove a point Leonard Cohen once made: "Every heart to love will come—but as a refugee."
We'll stay a moment longer with the two productions that gave us the most broken aesthetic pavement of 2008. Nadeau's accordion and Tucker-Williams' cello gave a poignance to Marks' musical settings of the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, while Dixon and Snider's typewriter piano added a John Cage element to Europe Central's soundscape. A three-piece actor's band dressed in the worst tuxedos available got down in the sunshine while serving up straight-faced renditions—mostly—of the Bee Gees, the Floaters, Bobby Caldwell, Dr. Dre and Antony and the Johnsons in Fistful of Love.
Music directors Greg Dixon and Don York ably excavated different eras of Americana in Radio Gals and the touring version of Chicago, while Diane Petteway presided over what sounded like an entire orchestra in A Christmas Carol's pit.
In October, Ariail described Red Clay Rambler Jack Herrick's score to Playmakers Rep's Pericles as "a shimmering aural net" and a "musical aerie" that was "most vital to the overall success of this production."
This year marks our first awards in theatrical film and video design. Blame Jim Haverkamp, whose tongue-in-cheek, Web-based video "trailers" this year have promoted Manbites Dog Theater shows while slyly critiquing gender assumptions—and regional arts funding peccadilloes—with panache. We recognize him here, though, for achievements in two productions. He and Douglas Vuncannon (an Indy contributor) crafted improbably atmospheric projected newsreels that punctuated the plot of Europe Central, before he devised a droll, pitch-perfect tribute to the credits seen on 1970s blaxploitation films in Goin 'a Buffalo. Later, Talenti's projections contributed to what Ariail termed one of the best scenic designs ever seen in Paul Green Theatre, for Pericles.
Ariail also singled out the makeup design that made actor Dorrie Casey an ancient and forbidding Judge Benjamin in Europe Central. And though we appreciated the significant contributions the sextet above made to that show's set design, we couldn't ignore the degree to which it really didn't fit the Manbites Dog space, vertically or horizontally.
Before that, both Ariail and Indy contributor Megan Stein had praise for Dying City's set. Stein cited its stark, New York skyline that "lurked in the shadows like a barricade of ghosts."
Indy critic Zack Smith praised Paperhand Puppet Intervention's elaborate costumes, movement and music, which had "an often-hypnotic effect" in I Am an Insect, before crediting visiting designer Mellema's Gothic vision of "an apocalyptic Victorian London" with giving Hoof 'n' Horn's Sweeney Todd its "nightmarish heart."
Before it, Shannon Clark's deft designs in the restaging of Bent herded audiences through a labyrinth of rooms, buildings and train cars before our final destination: the alkali-encrusted labor yard at Bergen-Belsen. And as the year closed, Mark Pirolo's finely illustrated backdrops for A Christmas Carol made the production seem to jump out of an old children's book.
Since there were so many more superior supporting performances than we could accommodate in this category this year, the rest are covered in our Best Ensemble category. We focus here on exquisite individual character studies, uniquely individual achievements our critics saw during the year. In January, Anderson found a faded love—and a deeper resilience—in a wife and mother trying to hold a family together during the last Great Depression, before Ariail understandably chose Reed's response to an impossible acting challenge—playing Adolf Hitler—in Europe Central.
Baldiga found a vulnerability in the soul of a racist murderer, before Ariail and I both agreed on Tom Marriott's aching tribute to Charles Bukowski in Fistful of Love, and Brock and Popelka's awkward young couple, fresh meat for the carnivorous hosts of Virginia Woolf. Jennings gave comic warmth to a gay chef forced to use a workshed as a kitchen, before Smith chilled us all with a razorblade smile as the imprisoned Cutler in Give it Up, Turn it Loose. Finally, it was hard to take our eyes off newcomer Stark-Menneg's chaotic on-stage choreography and jackknife mood shifts as the surviving daughter of a patient of Sigmund Freud's in Hysteria.
Call it "the year of the ensemble." In 2008, super-sized casts repeatedly swung for the rafters, connecting with critics and audiences alike. We actually consider this category the hardest one to win in, since "ensemble" includes everyone on stage: As the criterion states, one weak link disqualifies.
Ariail nominated Europe Central to no objection, particularly since I'd already "singled out" more than three-fourths of the cast before the start of our deliberations. Smith noted that Angels featured "some of the most complicated acting that a performer can do, involving multiple roles ... shifts from comedy to drama, lengthy monologues and material involving everything from spirituality to sexuality." The cast of 10 was as indelibly a part of the world of Bent as the massive stones Ryan Brock and Sean Brosnahan were forced to carry during its last act. Burning Coal alone took two notices here. The quick changes did not foil the 15 who worked the devil's labyrinth of The Prisoner's Dilemma, while stylish savoir faire defined the delicious crew that kept us up Twelfth Night. In these shows, we loved you, all.
Superior duet roles—except for you, Mike Wiley, who chose to perform more than 20 characters, alone, in your one-man gauntlet in November. LeTrent and Robinson danced a punky verbal tightrope in Howie the Rookie, before Carl's and Gannon's new personal bests in Angels. Farmer brayed repellently while Miller defined a wraithlike, ingrown, arachnid love in Virginia Woolf. Ariail and I both knew how good Edwards and Wright were as South African prisoners split by the possibility of parole in The Island, while Zack Smith complimented Young and Sirois' depiction of the many layers behind "an unhealthy, complicated and strangely loving mother and daughter." Suchanec and newcomer Kraus were perfect foils for one another as the idealistic Finnish negotiator and a middle-Eastern freedom fighter in The Prisoner's Dilemma. Ditto that for Wellington and Thompson, as the black mathematician and a phalanx of his pursuing ancestors, respectively, in Blue Door. Not to mention the brothers Bogart, who played the warring brothers, if anything, too realistically as the audience dodged flying golf clubs the afternoon we saw True West.
Before all these, we held our breath as Jaki Bradley's fierce teenager Pace dared the locomotive to take her life at Pope Lick Creek.
We asked in January: What couldn't Kate Middleton have accomplished with her student cast if she'd had more than eight rehearsals jigsawed out of the end of a New York internship? As it was, Pope Lick Creek boasted enviable achievements in lead and supporting character work—a real communion of director and actors. This likely describes O'Berski's work with a rock-solid ensemble in Europe Central, and Matthews' restaging of Bent as well. Tom Marriott was nominated by Ariail and myself for a hellified midsummer take on Albee's Virginia Woolf, and his accomplishments with all four actors in the work.
Our considerable respect went to directors solving major script and production problems this year: Milliken making impenetrable Belfast slang sound transparent to the ear in Howie the Rookie; Fishell solving the major staging riddle that remains Dead Man Walking; Davis taking on what playwright David Edgar himself called "a complicated, difficult and lengthy play"—actually, one of the thorniest scripts Burning Coal has ever done—and making it cook in The Prisoner's Dilemma.
In the midst, O'Foghludha gave us realism all right, down to the salt rings around the mouths of actors Edwards and Wright in The Island. And Adam Twiss assembled a massive production by very, very carefully assembling the characters within it, for a memorable Angels in America.