It's the critic's dead horse: What's good cannot be local; what's local cannot be good.
Thankfully, it's also patently false: What's kept me most fascinated with our theater community for—yikes—almost 20 years now? It's not some unassailable distance between our standards and those in the regional centers I've visited (including Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Connecticut, Louisville, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York).
Quite the contrary: It's because I realized, years ago, that the very best in our performances fully meets or exceeds the level of professional work I see whenever I travel. Our best meets with excellence, with regularity.
Which is actually why we hold this artistic community to the standards we do, and celebrate them here. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it can achieve them—and that those standards are worth achieving.
All winners listed in chronological order.
Two factors disadvantaged this stage adaptation of Palestinian human rights activist Raja Shehadeh's diaries during the Israeli Army's 2002 occupation of Ramallah. A scheduling gaffe conducted its one-weekend run during Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of Ramadan. And if Ellen Hemphill's direction was historically accurate, it still left Joseph Haj's solo turn too much a lecture: too professorial, distant and dry.
And yet, the night we saw it, the view from Kenan Theater stretched to a room in the Palestinian territories, as a man wrestled with conflicting desires for compassion, justice—and revenge—as he grappled with everyday life under occupation. This first show in Playmakers Rep's second-stage series, PRC2, proved again that theater can lift up a distant population and bring them closer to us.
Was it an original script—or score? The answer was yes when applied to Universes' spring Kenan Theater showing. This PRC2 precursor took both hands theater's notions of multi-layered spoken rhythms way uptown, fusing hip-hop, rap, soul and R&B with the grittiest testimony from New York to New Orleans. Later, Murphy's Afropop-tinged score made sunset on the desert even more of a synesthetic experience in Playmakers' vivid Prince.
After the sparkle of Urinetown's "shimmering solos" and "bombastic crescendos" wowed critic Kathy Justice in April, McCrae Hardy coaxed plaintive blues, sophisticated disdain and sinuosity from Tina Morris-Anderson, Nina Gunnell and Jason Dolby in a commendable Fats Waller revue. Sound designer Jonathan Parke tamed Raleigh Memorial Auditorium's barn-like acoustics for maestro David Andrews Rogers' La Mancha turn, before Taharqa Paterson's exemplary work with Funky Girl Jamyl Dobson made funky musical magnificence in the touring version of Death.
Rather than repeat them over and over, cut to the chase: These productions featured this year's most impressive designs overall across categories.
Not, however, that that was always enough. Game's opulent, Orientalist set and Victorian costumes were more polished than that show's once Broadway hopeful script, while Hamilton's singularly stunning achievements in costume, mask and multi-level set based on Chinese culture and folk myths lacked similar support in direction and acting. When Clark wasn't nailing a best lead performance of the year, she was constructing pitch-perfect costumes to match Sonya Drum's urbane mid-century mid-town living room for A Doll House, before McKay Coble's minimal set—and vivid siroccan costumes—recalled Julie Taymor's work in The Little Prince.
Mauney and Su's chilly little containment zone echoed the February chill—and futuristic subject matter—of A Number, while Amir Ofek's crevassed stone predicted the split between characters in Duke's spring Shadow. Bernier and Adelson's cold, comfortless Widow set suggested a dilapidated rural motel room used for a rest home, shortly before Kate Dobbs Ariail noted that Dehmer's tributes to photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard added dimension to Blackwell's Vanishing Point set. Megan Stein credited the screens and lighting that "created an entranceway into something intangible, like memory" in Deep Dish's Story. And millions of grains of rice covering the floor of Davis' Oppenheimer set made every movement sound like a Geiger counter reading—beneath an almost ghostly suspended pyramid of starched white kimonos.
Sweezy's elaborately luscious—and ludicrous—costumes threatened to turn the Rivals' women into mismatched sofas, before a similarly mischievous McIlwee took a goth-inspired spin around the ancien régime styles of Liaisons Dangereuses. An octet of costumers were required to roast the catty catwalk set in Petra von Kant. Before and after it, Kathy Justice applauded Gudas' tongue-in-cheek threads for Urinetown, and the "gorgeous skirts in shimmering pastels with high-belts cinched delicately around the waist" in a period-perfect Pajama Game.
Overachievers first. (That would be you, Ms. Hill.) What could possibly follow her audacious springtime solo, a nervy marriage of silent film and autobiographical performance art? An even more audacious—and successful—satire on that Fassbinder film, two months after. Bell's gritty Gilgamesh adaptation showed us how new men still are to this civilization thing, the same month we called home after both hands theater's moving compilation on parents. Hamilton's Balzac brought another world and time closer, as it caught the wistfulness and pain of remembered young love. And in another production whose script excelled the acting therein, Megan Stein commended Gratch's "clever concoction of layered complexity and simplicity" in a skillful weaving of Tennessee's Bell Witch legend with real-life stories of family abuse.
The Bluest Eye gave us two unforgettable side roles: Williams' no-nonsense Mama and Ferguson's abominable trickster figure. As uncanny: McElvogue's shark-blood detective and Detwiler's festering associate, encountered before Robinson's innocent psychopath in The Pillowman. The Founding Family was filled out by a world-weary Kelly and an alert Rausch as mother and son in The America Play. As Megan Stein counted, Derrick Ivey "masterfully transformed" among 21 characters during May's Story, before Lozoff's "wide-eyed sincerity grabbed hold of the audience"—and critic Kathy Justice—during Miss Firecracker in October.
Walker's return to regional stages demonstrated greater subtly and range as a South African civil rights activist in Aloes, just before Nagel nailed a catty Kitty Oppenheimer and James Anderson's nuclear scientist served revenge just above absolute zero in Love Song. Jamyl Dobson got the nod for physical acting from his first 180-degree split, and then took Funky Girl well beyond the stage in November's Natural Death. At the last, Marriott added another reprobate soul—Goethe's—to his resume, while Burton made a splash upon reentry as two of Kleist's more unobtainable desires: his inconveniently female sister Ulrike, and prospective suicide partner (on the down low), Henriette.
Two-handers first: Honeycutt got the Michael Caine character, a deceptively avuncular father, while Brock quick-changed among unhappy sons in a chilly little Number, half a year before Brock and Gephardt got at the teenaged heart of darkness in columbinus. Sheldon and Heidt effectively conveyed the affection/disaffection cycle in a truly bittersweet Jack & Jill, after Alley and Friedlander—one UNC student, one pro—gave us the world of rural Irish filmmaking, morphing between more than a dozen characters in Stones.
Ivey and Katja Hill repeatedly conquered, both separately and together: he (according to Ariail) as the photographer witness in Vanishing Point; she, in her fascinating silent film star/ mimetic/ autobiographical hybrid Cornucopia; and both as the freezing, grieving couple of Rabbit Hole.
In the comedies, Klem wallowed in the weltzschmertz of Petra von Kant, after Donohue made lemon meringue of Sheridan's Rivals.
In dramatic leads, Megan Stein reported that Clark's "remarkable performance" as Albee's alcoholic battleaxe "held the audience in her grasp through the end of the performance," while Kathy Justice applauded the "poetic vulnerability and earthy, brave-hearted determination" of Suchanec's blind Suzy in the thrilling Dark.
Before that, Gourley kept Liaisons on the razor's edge as the cunning Marquise, and newcomer Williams broke our hearts as the falling schoolgirl in Bluest Eye. And though her interpretation occasioned artistic differences between author Allan Gurganus and director Jerry Davis, Hawkesworth's desolate remembrances in Oldest Confederate Widow haunt us still.
O'Berski's Katurian endured police state goons before finding something even more horrifying, while Lester Hill's African-American Lincoln surrogate mesmerized us. Linden was elegant, alienated and possibly something of a monster as Oppenheimer. And when Megan Stein caught Alguire in Streetcar she concluded, "I not only believed he was Stanley Kowalski during the performance; I still do."
Since the category recognizes a standard of excellence across all roles of a production, it remains our most difficult to achieve. Throughout Bluest Eye, the merest of bystanders shared full complicity with the principals across the long trajectory of schoolgirl Pecola' fall. A quintet of wickedly defined (and entirely deserved) Eurotrash companions surrounded Petra von Kant. Kathy Justice admired the vaudevillian chemistry between Eric Carl, Mike Raab and Adam Twiss in mid-summer's Reduced Shakespeare vehicle. In October, an octet including Lormarev Jones, Eric Morales and Justin Schwartz made sure we were all counted present in the hellish high-school world of columbinus. James Anderson, Fred Corlett, Lucius Robinson and Julie Oliver populated Oppenheimer's fast-moving world with a cavalcade of characters, just before the Classical Theater's actors took a monologue curse offstage and into the audience of A Natural Death—without breaking the bubble of the world they had created.
What does it take to get an underutilized actor to the next level, or nurture an ensemble until it's ready to grill an audience? Ask Matthews: We saw his most accomplished work in carefully crafted characters in A Number and his colombinus confrontation crew. Beverley's ensemble work similarly distinguished Bluest Eye, before the natives returned when Ketch and Ranii came home—one from college, one shortly after—to astound us; Ketch with four different pairings of UNC alumni in Jack and Jill, Ranii with a firm grasp on the theatrically treacherous metaphysics of Oppenheimer. See how they've grown.
Theatrical treachery didn't daunt TeKay's take on Suzan-Lori Parks, or Katja Hill's comedic transformation of Petra von Kant—or her amazing solo Cornucopia. Late news: She's just received a Durham Arts Council grant to submit it for the New York Fringe Festival next summer.
Indy theater writers Megan Stein, Kathy Justice, Kate Dobbs Ariail and V. Cullum Rogers contributed assessments to this survey.
Correction (Jan. 3, 2007): In print, the production credits to Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All were incomplete. The play was a joint production by Burning Coal Theatre and Theatre of the American South.