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The year in theater 

Indy critics on the best of what they saw

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.

Special Achievement in the Humanities

  • When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, PRC2, Kenan Theater

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.

Best Original Scores

  • Universes Poetic Theater Ensemble, PRC2
  • Matthew Murphy, The Little Prince, Playmakers Rep

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.

Best Music Direction

  • Jessica Dean, Urinetown, Pauper Players
  • McCrae Hardy, Ain't Misbehavin', Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
  • David Andrews Rogers and Jonathan Parke, Man of La Mancha, North Carolina Theatre
  • Taharqa Paterson, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Classical Theatre of Harlem

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.

Best Production Design

  • Derek McLane (set), Gregory Gale (costumes): The Great Game, Duke Theatre Previews
  • Rob Hamilton (set, masks, puppets, costumes): Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Wordshed Productions
  • Sonya Drum (set), Lynda Clark (costumes): A Doll House, Peace
  • McKay Coble (set, costumes): The Little Prince, Playmakers Rep

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.

Best Scenic/Lighting Design

  • Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su: A Number, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Amir Ofek: Shadow of Himself, Duke Theatre Studies
  • Chris Bernier (set) Matthew Adelson (lights): Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Burning Coal Theatre and Theatre of the American South Festival
  • Jonathan Blackwell and Alan Dehmer, At the Vanishing Point, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Paul Stiller (set), Elizabeth Grimes-Droessler (lights), How I Got That Story, Deep Dish Theater
  • Vicki Davis: The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Burning Coal Theatre

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.

Best Costume/Makeup Design

  • Sue Sweezy: The Rivals, Deep Dish Theater
  • John McIlwee: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, N.C. State University Theatre
  • Skylar Gudas, Urinetown, Pauper Players
  • Eight—count 'em!—costumers, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Little Green Pig
  • The Pajama Game, Hoof 'n' Horn

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.

Best Original Script/Adaptation

  • click to enlarge Katja Hill, in character for her solo show Cornucopia of Me - PHOTO BY JASON FAGG
    Katja Hill, Cornucopia of Me & The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Manbites Dog Theater and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Neil Bell, Shadow of Himself, Duke Theatre Studies
  • Tamara Kissane & Cheryl Chamblee, The Parent Project, both hands theater
  • Universes Poetic Theater Ensemble, PRC2
  • Rob Hamilton: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
  • Ariel Gratch: The Bell Witch: A Haunting Tale of Love and Abuse, Wordshed Productions

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.

Best Supporting Performances

  • Lou Ferguson (Soaphead Church), Kathryn Hunter Williams (Mama): The Bluest Eye, Playmakers Rep
  • Gregor McElvogue (Tupolski), Jeffrey Scott Detwiler (Ariel), Lucius Robinson (Michal): The Pillowman, Manbites Dog
  • Jasmé Kelly (Lucy), Steven Rausch (Brazil): The America Play, New Traditions
  • Derrick Ivey (Historical Event), How I Got That Story, Deep Dish Theater
  • Melissa Lozoff (Popeye), The Miss Firecracker Contest, Ghost & Spice
  • Dante Walker (Steve), A Lesson from Aloes, Deep Dish Theater
  • Morissa Nagel (Kitty), James Anderson (various roles): The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Tom Marriott (Goethe), Flynt Burton (various roles), My Lovely Suicides, Little Green Pig
  • Jamyl Dobson (Funky Girl), Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Classical Theatre of Harlem

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.

Best Lead Performances

  • click to enlarge David Alley (left) and David Friedlander in Playmakers Rep's Stones in His Pockets - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER
    • Photo by Jon Gardiner
    • David Alley (left) and David Friedlander in Playmakers Rep's Stones in His Pockets
    David Alley and David Friedlander (all roles), Stones in His Pockets, Playmakers Rep
  • Anna-Caitlin Donohue (Lydia Languish), The Rivals, Deep Dish Theater
  • John Honeycutt and Ryan Brock (all roles), A Number, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Danika Williams (Pecola), The Bluest Eye, Playmakers Rep
  • Meisha Gourley (Marquise Mertuiel), Les Liaisons Dangereuses, N.C. State University Theatre
  • Katja Hill, Cornucopia of Me, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Jay O'Berski (Katurian), The Pillowman, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Lynda Clark (Martha), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Theatre in the Park
  • Rachel Klem (Petra), The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Little Green Pig
  • Quinn Hawkesworth (Lucy Marsden), Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Burning Coal Theatre and Theater of the American South Festival
  • Lester Hill (Founding Father), The America Play, New Traditions
  • Derrick Ivey (Photographer), At the Vanishing Point, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Jeff Alguire (Stanley Kowalski), A Streetcar Named Desire, Little Green Pig
  • Jen Suchanec (Suzy), Wait Until Dark, Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
  • Seth Sheldon (Jack) and Amy Heidt (Jill), Jack and Jill, A Romance, Ground UP Productions, PRC2
  • Ryan Brock (Eric Harris) and Jesse Gephardt (Dylan Klebold), columbinus, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Brian Linden (Oppenheimer), The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Derrick Ivey (Howie) and Katja Hill (Becca), Rabbit Hole, Manbites Dog Theater

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."

Best Ensembles

  • The Bluest Eye, Playmakers Rep
  • The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Little Green Pig
  • The Complete History of America (Abridged), Theatre in the Park
  • columbinus, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Classical Theater of Harlem

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.

Best Direction

  • John Feltch: Stones in His Pockets, Playmakers Rep
  • C. Glen Matthews: A Number & columbinus, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Trezana Beverley, The Bluest Eye, Playmakers Rep
  • Katja Hill, Cornucopia of Me & The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Manbites Dog Theater & Little Green Pig
  • Jody McAuliffe, Shadow of Himself, Duke Theater Studies
  • TeKay, The America Play, New Traditions
  • Megan Ketch: Jack and Jill, A Romance, Ground UP Productions
  • Joan Darling, A Lesson from Aloes, Deep Dish Theater
  • Emily Ranii, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Jeff Storer, At the Vanishing Point & Rabbit Hole, Manbites Dog Theater

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.

Best Productions

  • Stones in His Pockets, Playmakers Rep
  • A Number, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • The Bluest Eye, Playmakers Rep
  • Cornucopia of Me, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Universes Poetic Theater Ensemble, PRC2
  • The America Play, New Traditions
  • Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Burning Coal Theatre and Theatre of the American South Festival
  • At the Vanishing Point, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Jack and Jill, Ground UP Productions, PRC2
  • columbinus, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Burning Coal

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.

  • The very best in our performances fully meets or exceeds the level of professional work I see whenever I travel.

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