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Theater 2002: The Best of What We Saw 

Best Original Script

Howard L. Craft, The House of George, NC Central University

"I want to go right up to God, look that cracker dead in his face and say, 'What the hell did I ever do to you?'" George, a complex and irascible African-American barber, voiced even stronger opinions in Craft's first full-length play, which documented uneasy transitions in one life, one community and African-American culture as a whole. Craft's powerful play premiered at NC Central, and went on to the American College Theater Festival.

Honorable Mention: Erin Pushman, Moonshine, New World Stage

Best Original Music

Penka Kouneva, And Mary Wept, Archipelago Theater

Kit Weinart, Twelfth Night, Open Door TheaterOur critic found that Kouneva's score of "lullabies and laments, in a variety of languages," a fusion of original material with traditional music from foreign countries, formed the heart of And Mary Wept. Weinart's ambient soundscape of gongs, chimes and percussion was one of the things that made design the strongest element of Open Door's production, staged last Twelfth Night.

Honorable Mention: Scott Lindroth, Mao II, Duke Drama

Best Design

Morag Charlton, Travesties, Burning Coal Theater

Sonya Leigh Drum, Little Eyolf, Peace College

Rob Hamilton, Nora Pedersen, Alyson Tytell, Twelfth Night, Open Door Theater

Jan Chambers, And Mary Wept, Archipelago TheaterThe region has gradually accumulated a formidable group of scenic, lighting and costume designers. Their overall level of achievement actually makes this category one of the hardest to judge: only a small degree of accomplishment separated most of the honorable mentions from the leads.

Charlton's Travesties set, the latest in a series of environments she's realized for Burning Coal, was a cerebral playground, a knowing homage to Dadaism and the Fluxus movement in particular. The impact of Drum's hellish visual haiku for Little Eyolf was considerable: its strengths as an artwork in its own right upstaged other weaker elements of the production.

In the same vein, Rob Hamilton's multi-level set for Twelfth Night evoked a magic attic that morphed into a shoreline on which civilization's detritus had washed up, before both segued backstage at a carnival in decline: an "eccentric, shadowed playspace of the mind," indeed. Nora Pedersen and Alyson Tytell's costumes and makeup sometimes helped define characters more than anything else in this production.

Jan Chambers' surreal achievement in fabric, projections, water and uneven landscapes gave Archipelago's And Mary Wept an alkaline, otherworldly feel. While other elements in this production made us wonder, Chamber's environments made us thirsty.

Honorable Mention: Miyuki Su, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Lebensraum, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Raleigh Ensemble Players;

Michael Heil, Proof, PlayMakers Repertory Company;

Jan Chambers, William Noland, Mao II, Duke Drama

John McIlwee, Jitney, University Theater (N.C. State)

Ida Bostian (costumes), The Game of Love and Chance, Deep Dish Theater

Best Supporting Performances

Lissa Brennan, Jeffrey Scott Detwiler, Derrick Ivey and Lance Waycaster, Love's Labours Lost, Shakespeare and Originals

Jeffrey Scott Detwiler and Meredith Sause, Prufrock, Shakespeare and Originals

David McClutchy and Farrell Reynolds, Glengarry Glen Ross, Bull City Players

Yolanda Batts and Megan Day, Anton in Show Business, Theatre in the ParkCredit much of the magic in director Jay O'Berski's old-folks update of Love's Labours Lost to this quartet of supporting actors. Detwiler made a fantastical Dadaist Spaniard of Don Armado, and we called Waycaster's commedia clown, Costard, "an improbable amalgamation of Emmett Kelly Sr. and Smashmouth's Steve Harwell." Meanwhile, Brennan did amazing double duty as the overcaffeinated Holofernes and the sweet (and nasal) Moth, while Derrick Ivey set up camp--in more than one sense of the word--as Boyet.

Before that, the schizoid lyricism of Sause as Vivien Eliot and Detwiler as a character who's both her husband, T.S. Eliot, and his literary character J. Alfred Prufrock, made one of the most striking moments of February's Prufrock and of the year. Sause's body writhed with an unrequited sensuality all but totally unmoored from sanity, while Detwiler scribbled dry words on small page--with an obviously sexually symbolic little pencil--as a choir sang "Balm in Gilead" in negative hymnody. Yet another brilliantly conceived O'Berski tableau.

Both McClutchy and Reynolds gave mesmerizing performances as sharky Chicago real-estate salesmen on the make--one in his Machiavellian prime, one well past his--in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Finally, Yolanda Batts gave Anton in Show Business a lot of its in-your-face cachet as Andwyneth, a righteous minority theater director about to rain hellfire, as Don Blounts, an upbeat, unethical tobacco company executive--and as an illusionless stage hand who knows what the score for African Americans is when they're trying to get a break in theater. Megan Day amused and touched as gay brit Ralph and aging Polish auteur Wikewich, the first and last directors to bite the dust in this addled theatrical odyssey.

Honorable Mention: Ian Magilton, And Mary Wept, Archipelago Theater

James Fleming, Juno and the Paycock, Burning Coal Theater

Bobbi Vinson, Moonshine, New World Stage

Best Leading Performances

Alice Cannon and Elissa Olin, The Road to Mecca, Burning Coal Theater

Lakeetha Blakeney and Nathan Crocker, Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown, Theatre Alliance for Social Change

Gil Faison, The House of George, NC Central University

Glen Matthews, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Raleigh Ensemble Players

Katja Hill, Arms and the Man, The Game of Love and Chance, Deep Dish TheaterWe'll have more to say about Cannon and Olin below, but for now, this: of all the characters in all the shows I've seen this year, I have to say I miss these two the most. They're the ones I most felt I'd actually personally met and spent some good time with. I'd call that a substantial acting--and directing--accomplishment.

As two aging minstrels totally illuminated with self-respect, Blakeney and Crocker came close behind them in the roles of Yas Yas and Sho'Nuff, witnesses to the historic lynching, in Minstrel Show.

Playwright Howard Craft found the perfect lead in Gil Faison's gritty, combative, and secretly wounded interpretation of The House of George's title character. Glen Matthews would still have taken top honors in the REP production of Hedwig, even if he hadn't broken his wrist during a performance--and just kept going. And finally, it was refreshing to witness Katja Hill's emergence this year as one of the region's most accomplished comic actors in two productions at Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theater.

Honorable Mention: Jennifer Hirsch, Kit FitzSimons, and Dorothy R. Brown, A Mislaid Heaven, Open Door Theater

Best Productions

10. Aida, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, November

Our correspondent surrendered to the overwhelming spectacle, from first to last: Elton John and Tim Rice's music, Bob Crowley's award-winning, eye-popping sets and costumes, Robert Falls' direction, and Paulette Ivory and Jeremy Kushnier's lead performances in something way bigger than the both of them.

9. Jitney, University Theater (N.C. State), NovemberIn a dingy, run-down, inner-city gas station-turned-gypsy cab stand, a vivid group of otherwise unemployed African-American men talk, hustle, argue and try come to grips with a mid-seventies version of urban renewal about to make them all unemployed. How these and other threats play against the characters' dreams of stable employment, families and futures gives this show its drama. Patricia Caple's direction, an excellent ensemble and John McIlwee's set design all gave this show the indelible stamp of authenticity.

8. Glengarry Glen Ross, Bull City Players, DecemberA theater company most folks had discounted came off the mat and scored a TKO with this pugnacious show. David Mamet's theatrical vivisection of the shady world of high-pressure sales gave holiday theater-goers a break in the process. Strong ensemble work closed the deal, in an intense production that turned a mid-'80s Chicago real estate sales office into something between a low-rent Ocean's Eleven and an unusually active episode of Big Cat Diary.

7. Minstrel Show, The Lynching of William Brown, Theatre Alliance for Social Change, Manbites Dog Theater, NovemberMaybe something in the title told you to skip it. Or perhaps the largely non-existent publicity didn't reach you 'til it closed. Either way, a small company from Greensboro staged what was easily one of the year's best shows. The problem is, they only did it twice, over one November weekend at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater. In Minstrel Show, two aging, dignified professional entertainers revisit the site of a historic lynching to give their testimony about it to us, an audience cast as a citizen's tribunal. If Manbites Dog lives up to its legacy, they'll bring this riveting work of conscience and drama, with finely-nuanced performances and direction back to Durham, publicize it--and give it a bit more than a two-show run.

6. Anton in Show Business, Theater in the Park, FebruaryDirector Eric Woodall's sharp, warm take on this left-handed theatrical valentine trumped that play's Humana Festival 2000 world premiere. How? With excellent supporting actors (mentioned above), and a memorable trio at the center of an improbable version of Chekhov's Three Sisters--Kimberly Wood as sexy starlet Holly on a relentless quest for stage cred, Liz Knight as Lisabette, a young schoolteacher naif, and a superb Nancy Burrows as Casey, the theater veteran who's seen it all but still dares to dream.

5. Lebensraum, Raleigh Ensemble Players, AprilTheater sometimes serves best when it's most controversial. The April-May run of Lebensraum coincided with an escalation in tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories, a situation whose ethical ambiguities threatened to completely outstrip the comparatively black-and-white, good-guy/bad-guy politics of Israel Horovitz's speculative drama. No one could have predicted the timing, or that it would give audiences a lot more to talk about in the wake of what was already a provocative play. Glen Matthew's direction was superb, as we saw in the bravura performances by Betsy Henderson, David Henderson and Ben Tedder.

4. Travesties, Burning Coal Theater, OctoberDirector Rebecca Holderness took in stride Tom Stoppard's comic--and occasionally all but impenetrable--speculations on the historical fact that James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Dadaist Tristan Tzara lived in Zurich during the same year. At the time we called it the chewiest show of the season. Make that the year. And then congratulate the amazing group which also takes this year's honors as Best Ensemble: David zumBrunnen, Serena Ebhardt, Sean Brosnahan, Jared Cosetlia, Terry Milner, David Dossey, Wade Ferguson Dansby III, and Gabrieal Griego. In the immortal words of Margaret Hamilton, "What a world."

3. Copenhagen, Broadway Series South, MarchJust a little father-son argument that got out of hand--and almost destroyed the world. That's what we called this fascinating, prismatic take on the historic conversation Nils Bohr and Werner Heizenberg had one evening during World War II in the city of the title. Michael Frayn's script somehow capsuled quantum theory so audiences could understand it without becoming dull, and William Cain, Sean Arbuckle and Tammy McDonald turned three sides of a secret into something infinitely bigger in this challenging touring production.

2. Art, PlayMakers Repertory Company, JanuaryAs it turns out, it's a guy thing. In Yasmina Reza's comedy, three male friendships come apart when one of them spends a lot of money on an all-white painting. But deep down, director Ted Shaffner knew that Art's conflict had a lot more to do with how uncomfortable men are talking about their feelings for one another, and not mere aesthetics. Philip Davidson, Ray Dooley and Kenneth P. Strong proved that dry wit makes good kindling in a work we described as part ARTforum, part Lord of the Flies--with a little Donald Barthelme and Walt Kelly added for good measure.

1. The Road to Mecca, Burning Coal Theater, AprilIt's too bad the other paper didn't actually see this production when it opened: Alice Cannon and Elissa Olin's chemistry at the center of Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca was a heartrending achievement. Under Jerome Davis' discerning direction, Cannon's rendition of Miss Helen, an eccentric aging South African folk artist who fears for her vision and her soul, combined the lightness and faith of a child with considerably darker notes. Olin, meanwhile, gave a vital, ethical center to Elsa Barlow, Miss Helen's only avatar against the darkness. As we watched, one woman fought the coming darkness, with a little help, in a singularly human and humane production.

Best Direction

Jerome Davis, The Road to Mecca, Burning Coal Theater

Rebecca Holderness, Travesties, Burning Coal Theater

Glen Matthews, Lebensraum, Raleigh Ensemble Players

Jay O'Berski, Love's Labours Lost, Prufrock, Shakespeare & Originals

Ted Shaffner, Art, PlayMakers Repertory Company

Eric Woodall, Anton in Show Business, Theater in the Park

Dr. Patricia Caple, Jitney, University Theater (N.C. State)

Natalie Sowell, Minstrel Show, Theatre Alliance for Social Change EndBlock

  • Theater 2002: The Best of What We Saw


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