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Before we begin, a necessary note of clarification to companies who will choose to mention our superlatives in their promotional materials over the coming year.

Only two of this year's awards go to a single individual or company. Those are our honorees for Best Design--Costumes and Best Design--Sound.

In all other cases it will be factually incorrect (and therefore inappropriate) to either state or imply that a show or individual was the sole recipient of an honor like Best Production, Director or Ensemble--as a number of companies did last year. Those category titles were--and remain--decidedly plural.

In the words of Michael Stipe: See you in Heaven if you make the list.

Special Achievements in the Humanities

  • Justice Theater Project's A Lesson Before Dying
  • Theatre Or's Voices from the Holy Land Festival

    Inaugurated last year to recognize work that goes well beyond the traditional definitions of "community outreach," this award recognizes work whose humanitarian impact clearly extends beyond the walls of a theater, to aid--and, at times, challenge--this region as it grapples with the issues of our day.

    In a killing season, during which our state legislature considered--but failed to enact--capital punishment reform, Justice Theater Project 's inaugural production of A Lesson Before Dying opened a public discussion about the ethics of the death penalty to communities of faith in Raleigh and Durham. Then it extended the conversation to small towns like Dublin, N.C., and invited exonerated former Death Row inmate Alan Gell to join in.

    In September and November, passionate audiences across the Triangle grappled with the weighty issues raised by a quintet of contemporary Israeli playwrights when Theatre Or presented Voices from the Holy Land, a controversial caravan of staged readings in religious and academic venues in Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

    Both of these courageous productions reminded us that theater can help restore voice and visibility to communities far away as well as those placed beneath our sight. It can provide a public forum for citizens to deliberate the crises of this era. It can reduce the distance between people.

    And in this troubled time, it must.

    Best Designed Shows

  • Hedda Gabler, Triad Stage
  • King Lear, Playmakers Rep

    As we considered the candidates for superlatives in the four major categories of design--lights, scenic design, costume and sound--two shows kept coming up: Triad Stage's Hedda Gabler and Playmakers Rep's King Lear .

    In the May production of Ibsen, lighting designer Matthew Richard 's symphony in shadows slowly gave Howard Jones ' icy set a darker, warmer menace. Offhand, I couldn't tell you the last time anyone made suspended single sheets of paper look more ominous than this pair did. April Soroko's costume conveyed the title character as a general's daughter dressing for a different form of combat. Jason Romney's devastating soundscape montage excavated the passion, danger and velocity of characters out of control.

    Before that, in a January Lear, industrial accidents kept occurring on Narelle Sisson 's ironworks set where the ship of state remained constantly in construction. Costume designer Marinia Draghici effectively stratified the social dinosaurs of the warrior generations from the progeny that viewed them with distaste. And M. Anthony Reimer thrilled audiences when his audio montage of war sounds filled the darkness of Paul Green Theatre, placing us all in the blind Duke of Gloucester's shoes. In doing, he covered three centuries of combat in a little under two suspenseful minutes.

    Best Design: Costumes

  • John McIlwee, A School for Scandal, Follies, N.C. State University Theater

    Some folks just don't know when to quit. McIlwee had this thing nailed back in February, when his revival of Christian Dior's black-and-white "New Look" of 1947 favored director Fred Gorelick's Noel Coward take on A School for Scandal . Then came the grace notes of The Man Who Came to Dinner, like Jan Doub Morgan's vampy silent movie tribute. Both preceded a devastating (and seemingly endless) series of fantasies for young showgirls--and their surviving, disillusioned namesakes--in Sondheim's Follies . It's like Durante: He's got a million of 'em.

    Still, more than a note of honorable mention is due Derrick Ivey (who occasionally also acts, we understand) for the imaginative nightmares of his costumes--particularly his hats--for Caryl Churchill's apocalyptic Far Away .

    Honorable Mention: Judy Chang, The Misanthrope, Deep Dish Theater

    Best Design: Sound

  • Kenny Gannon, Eye of God, Peace College

    The best directors aren't all DJs, but Gannon's ambient grooves reinforced the seamless segues of this Peace College production, keeping us in an unsafe vehicle long after we'd entered the kill zone.

    Best Design: Sets

  • Fred Kinney, Bus Stop, Triad Stage
  • McKay Coble, Not About Heroes, Playmakers Rep
  • Rick Young, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Raleigh Little Theatre

    The union houses dominated here. Kinney placed us in a pitch-perfect mid-century diner in the Midwest for Triad Stage. The breached ceiling of Coble's elegiac war memorial for Playmakers was propped up by a Doric column on one side--and a wooden post wreathed in razor wire on the other. Before these, Young checked us into the suitably hellish day room of Raleigh Little Theatre's Gaddy-Goodwin Theater.

    Honorable Mention: Stephen J. Larson, Sweet Bird of Youth, Theatre in the Park; Robert Stromberg , Faust, Shakespeare & Originals

    Best Musical Directors

  • McCrae Hardy, Ragtime, N.C. Theatre
  • Alice Zincone, Millworker, Central Carolina Community College
  • Harrison Fisher, James Joyce's The Dead, Burning Coal Theatre
  • The band, Wood, Stone, Fire & Bone, PaperHand Puppet Intervention

    A snapshot of this region's diversity in one grouping. Hardy whipped the tart meringue of Ragtime's award-winning score into syncopated peaks, leading a full chorus and orchestra through Flaherty and Ahren's Tony Award-winning intricacies. Roots bluegrass musicians including Tommy Edwards, Jim Collier and Virginia Ryan gave Alice Zincone's Millworker its down-home mill town sound. Fisher ably propelled a brace of singers and musicians through the Celtic soul (and sudden, bitter cold) of Shaun Davey and Richard Nelson's vision of Joyce, well after the warmer world-beat sounds of Paperhand's sextet: Claudia Lopez, Jimmy Magoo, Donovan Zimmerman, Stephen Levitin, Wells Gordon and Jil Christensen.

    Honorable Mention: Rick Lonon, Lance Waycaster, Adam Sampieri, Garrett Love, Faust, Shakespeare & Originals

    Best Original Scripts

  • Tales of Doomed Love, Andrea Stolowitz, Streetsigns Center
  • brooms: a play about saying yes, Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane, both hands theater
  • Hangman, Lucas Schaefer, Duke Theater Studies
  • The Rocker, Adrienne Pender, Theatre in the Park
  • Night Before Last, Doug Reed, ArtsCenter Stage
  • Ritual Feast, Jonathan Karpinos, ArtsCenter Stage

    Andrea Stolowitz' startling one-act revision of the story of Agamemnon, part of her evening-length Tales of Doomed Love, was the best original script we saw in this region last year. A staged reading of it was presented during Streetsigns' summertime New Works Initiative at UNC. Its connections to present-day geopolitics were riveting if not prescient, as the fabled warrior and strategist answered to a war crimes tribunal for the sacrificial murder of his daughter, Iphegenia.

    After briefly illuminating the area in 1997, Cheryl Chamblee and Tamara Kissane returned this year with an imaginative but still unsentimentalized fairy tale for adults, one that repeatedly crossed the boundaries Gertrude Stein, Steve Reich and others have explored between music, rhythmic spoken word and dialogue. Word has it they'll be back in 2005. We can't wait.

    Student playwright Lucas Schaefer's suspenseful springtime showing of Hangman at Duke turned a deadly version of the childhood pen-and-paper game into a pointed enquiry into the working ethics of gay empowerment.

    Before that, Adrienne Pender's contemporary variation on Lear forced three daughters to deal with the increasing mental incapacity of their father.

    Finally, Doug Reed and Jonathan Karpinos covered significant ground--in under 10 minutes--as standouts from winter and summer 10-minute play festivals at Carrboro's ArtsCenter. Reed's atmospheric work zeroed in on a fateful hinge moment, the night before the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Karpinos' rewarding comedy gave us something we've often desired: the fast-forward version of two hours' worth of cocktail party chatter, stripped to the essentials.

    Rita Darlene Disroe, who wrote under the pen name of Rita Marie Nibasa, had just begun to enchant theatergoers here after winning awards for her work in Illinois and Alaska. Her untimely death in April underlined an ancient farming exhortation. It bears repeating: Work while there's light.

    Best Ensembles

  • James Joyce's The Dead, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Proof, Triad Stage Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet, Duke Theater Previews
  • The Subject Was Roses, Playmakers Rep

    This remains one of the most difficult awards for a production to receive. It speaks to a consistently high level of achievement in acting, in all roles of a production. It also rewards that group of artists who have come together to convey to an audience a world, entire and intact.

    Best Supporting Performances

  • Nanci Burrows, Sonnets for an Old Century and Voices from the Holy Land, Manbites Dog Theater and Theatre Or
  • Tim Cherry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Raleigh Little Theatre Maria Chrysanthou and Hannah Blevins, A Paradise it Seems, Wordshed Productions
  • Mike Dickison, Hapgood, Duke Theater Studies
  • Wynn Harmon, Some Things that Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet, Duke Theater Previews
  • Barbette Hunter and Jackie Marriott, A Lesson Before Dying, Justice Theater Project
  • Carl Martin, Nixon's Nixon, Manbites Dog Theater
  • David McCain, Hedda Gabler, Triad Stage
  • Kareem Nemley, A Lesson Before Dying and Poor Superman, Justice Theater Project and Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Kenneth P. Strong, Richard II, Playmakers Rep

    Twelve recipients--out of over 40 final nominees: The numbers alone attest to the continued growth and increasing sophistication of the region's community of actors, who made this category the hardest by far of this year's superlatives to adjudicate.

    Honorable Mentions: Thaddeus Edwards, Waiting for Godot, Burning Coal Theatre; Brenda Lo, In the Heart of America, Raleigh Ensemble Players; Kendall Rileigh, Sonnets for An Old Century, Manbites Dog Theater

    Best Lead Performances

  • Ray Dooley, Not About Heroes, Playmakers Rep
  • Sutton Foster, Little Women, Duke Theater Previews
  • Krista Hoeppner, Hedda Gabler, Triad Stage
  • Derrick Ivey, Nixon's Nixon, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Elizabeth Kapplow, Proof, Triad Stage
  • Tom Marriott, The Tempest and Faust, Shakespeare & Originals
  • Caroline Patterson, 35,000 Feet and A Perfect Ganesh, Duke Theater Studies and wendell theater
  • Maggie Rasnick, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Raleigh Little Theatre
  • Lewis J. Stadlin, The Producers, Broadway Series South
  • Michael Winters, King Lear, Playmakers Rep

    Out-of-towners first: Lewis J. Stadlin was majestic in high dudgeon as Max Bialystock, and Sutton Foster made Little Women come alive as an unsinkable Jo March. Krista Hoeppner formed the dark core of vengeance as a martial Hedda Gabler, while Elizabeth Kapplow combined vulnerability with bravado as Catherine, the rough-edged math prodigy with something to prove in Proof. All came after Michael Winters, who scaled the Everest of Shakespeare roles last January.

    Now, the locals: Derrick Ivey seemed possessed by the ghost of the Trickster himself in his breathtaking, career-defining performance in Nixon's Nixon (which returns to Manbites Dog this week). And Duke student Caroline Patterson repeatedly got our attention this year with carefully crafted performances, delivered with assurance and quiet authority. First she impressed as Margaret, a civil British woman in Wendell Theater's A Perfect Ganesh, and then as Anne Lindbergh in Duke Theater Previews' Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet.

    Tom Marriott was a delight as Prospero and Faust in Shakespeare & Originals' final works (at least for now), and Maggie Rasnick's true believer made a true believer of me as Nurse Ratched in RLT's Cuckoo's Nest. Ray Dooley closed the year with a vivid interpretation of protest poet Siegfried Sassoon as a man of conscience, literary taste and action in Not About Heroes.

    Best Directors

  • Rebecca Holderness, James Joyce's The Dead, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Preston Lane, Hedda Gabler, Triad Stage
  • Joseph Megel, Nixon's Nixon, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Deb Royals-Mizerk, A Lesson Before Dying, Justice Theater Project
  • Jay Putnam, Proof, Triad Stage
  • Jeffery West, Hapgood, Duke Theater Studies
  • Mark Wing-Davies, King Lear (First Folio version), Playmakers Rep

    Of course, we value directors like Wing-Davies and Lane whose broad strokes cover large canvases. But more needs be said of directors like Megel, Royals-Mizerk and West, who nurtured--or just reached in and pulled out--performances we didn't know actors had in them. Then artists the caliber of Holderness and Putnam managed to keep big and small pictures in focus simultaneously, crafting finely detailed characters and worlds that opened--and, sometimes, closed--before our eyes.

    Best Productions

  • A Lesson Before Dying, Justice Theater Project
  • A Paradise It Seems, Wordshed Productions
  • brooms, both hands theater
  • Hangman, Duke Theater Studies
  • Hedda Gabler, Triad Stage
  • King Lear (First Folio version), Playmakers Rep
  • Nixon's Nixon, Manbites Dog Theater
  • The Producers, Broadway Series South
  • Proof, Triad Stage
  • Ragtime, North Carolina Theatre

    Do I wish this job had more surprises? Not really. As usual, we found clear excellence in all levels of practice in the region, from the bus-and-truckers (The Producers), through the union house masterpieces (King Lear, Hedda Gabler, Ragtime), the indies (A Lesson Before Dying, brooms, Nixon's Nixon) and the humblest of student productions (Hangman). It cut through comedies, dramas and musicals, favoring original scripts and previously staged works alike. It commuted repeatedly from Durham to Raleigh and Chapel Hill--and summered, in one case, in Scotland (A Paradise it Seems).

    It demonstrated that the center of regional theater is always shifting--literally week to week, month to month.

    Even after all this time, nobody's cornered it. It can't reliably be pinned on a map, locked in one room or stopped at a border.

    Is it a fugitive? A transient? No: It's simply free. And since it is, it moves.

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