Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "The Nominations Please"

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Wednesday, 17 February, 1999: The Nominations, Please

Last year a crew of people who review plays in and around Boston gave out a series of awards for excellent theatrical work for that year. This year that “Outer Critics’ Circle” has expanded in two ways: first we’ve attempted to include many more local reviewers, and inspired by PROSCENiUM Magazine we have attempted to expand our idea of rewarding excellence throughout the New England area. That spurred a name change, and awards will come this year from THE INDEPENDENT REVIEWERS OF NEW ENGLAND. Nominations for these “Irne’s” were just closed, ballots are being prepared, and once votes are final we’ll give a party for everyone nominated (or nominatING).

I’m going to list my own nominations in all categories, and try to explain the thinking that went into these choices. It’s not as simple as some people think.

We are thinking of changing the way we vote --- eliminating the nominations step, but allowing for weighted voting. Next year, for every 20 shows a reviewer has Seen (not necessarily reviewed) there will be one vote in each category. For instance: I saw 140 plays last year; in each category then I’d have seven votes, and I could put all seven on one, or strew them around. (The rationale for this is that the more plays you’ve seen, the more weight your opinions should have.) THIS year, that was translated into seven NOMINATIONS per category. Once the ballot has been sent out there will be the final vote still to come, and in each category there will be only one vote per reviewer.

Now, let me take one category as an example of how I think about “best” :

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY

Jennifer Gillis WEST SIDE STORY @ City Lights Dinner Theatre PAWTUCKET R I
Bob Fosse FOSSE @ The Colonial Theatre
The Company TAP DOGS @ The Shubert Theatre

For me this one was easy. Neither of the big Broadway touring companies were doing original work, while Jennifer Gillis was. In fact, her work made this old chestnut completely new for me, in a way the other shows couldn’t. And “West Side” wasn’t a package sent up from New York, it was manufactured locally, and produced without the big publicity mills that Broadway shows can always afford. Even if the show was not here in the Boston area, I’ll probably vote for it on a final ballot.

And let me lump all the acting awards together because I have difficulty with them. Acting doesn’t happen in a test-tube, and good acting is hard to separate from good script, good directing and good ensemble playing. It’s harder for me to see an actor’s outstandingly good performance --- much harder than to see an outstandingly bad one. And for that reason I couldn’t separate the two actors who shared star billing in “M. Butterfly” or the two actresses in “Marvin’s Room” . Also, it’s hard for me to separate out “Supporting” roles. Was J. C. DeVore a supporting actor in “Marvin’s Room”? Obviously, I didn’t think so. That was Such a good show!

But since I am willing, nay eager to be fooled by theater, I usually see the role rather than the actor, and for me the best actor is the one who always looks like a new performer in each new show. For that reason --- since I had seen her in one, maybe two other shows --- Candace Hopkins gets my vote for best actress hands down. And I’ll say more about the other two productions later on.

BEST ACTOR
James Grana (Renee Gallimard) / P. Wang (Song Liling) M. BUTTERFLY by The Arlington Friends of The Drama
J. C. DeVore (Hank) MARVIN'S ROOM

BEST ACTRESS
Candace Hopkins (Bananas Shaughnessy) in THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES @ The Footlight Club, Jamaica Plain
Johanna Winfield (Lee) / Shelley Brown (Bessie) in MARVIN'S ROOM

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jonathan Silver (Charlie) MARVIN'S ROOM

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Bernice Bronson (Aunt Ruth) MARVIN'S ROOM

And now for the technical awards. Unlike acting, good sets or costumes or lighting are immediately apparent --- and really outstanding designs are, frankly rare. Those who do things well here get lots of work, until the terms “Best Lighting Design” and “John Malinowski” have becomes synonyms for one another, in the way “Janie Howland” and “Best Set Design” are. They are people for whom saying their designs were “merely average” means they stole the show. I think I am going to elevate them to “brand name” status and demand not merely excellence but magnificence before they get another award from me.

But “Alice Underground” breaks fresh ground here. Were the three-foot-long ears of the March Hare’s face-mask costume, or set? Did the soft-sculpture Caterpillar with was it four or five people inside it qualify as a set or a prop? That show had so many technical innovations that cross boundaries it deserves a technical award all its own.

The Costume Design award will be a tough call, because everything about the Boston Conservatory’s “Three Sisters” --- acting, directing, lights, sets, and particularly costumes illuminated the text. David Cabral made excellent contributions to what had to be a “standard staging” show. Did his work within those boundaries top that of the “Alice” crew who broke them? (And you thought picking “Bests” was Easy, didn’t you!)

BEST LIGHTING
Jeff Gardiner for MARVIN'S ROOM
John Malinowski for (among other things) THREE SISTERS at The Boston Conservatory

BEST COSTUMES
Andrew Poleszak & Jeff Burrows for ALICE UNDERGROUND by The Underground Railway
David Cabral for THREE SISTERS

When it comes to sets, though, every one of these nominees deserves the “best” award for a different reason. Harry Feiner’s opulent sets for “Earnest” filled the big stage out in Worcester with color and light and detail; Janie Howland’s sets made “Molly Sweeney” magnificent; the Boston Conservatory pair helped make “Three Sisters” new; Henry Celli’s gauzy wall diagonally across the “Midsummer” stage separated dream from reality; Doug Desilets and Jeff Gardiner both put excellent sets in impossible spaces; and “Alice” created a whole new ballgame. I find myself flipping a seven-headed coin here!

BEST SET DESIGN
Will Cabell & David Fichter for ALICE UNDERGROUND
Maureen Lilla & Margo Zdravkovic for THREE SISTERS
Doug Desilets for M. BUTTERFLY
Henry Celli for MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM by The Other Theatre at THE ACTORS' WORKSHOP
Harry Feiner for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST @ Worcester Foothills Theatre
Jeff Gardiner for MARVIN'S ROOM
Janie Howland for MOLLY SWEENEY by The Nora Theatre @ THE PLAYWRIGHTS' THEATRE

Jonathan Kuntz is a “brand name” in solo performing around here (with Paula Plum), and Jeff Shade did wonderful things with his autobiographical presentation of his dancer’s life, but everything about Erika Batdorf’s performance piece --- part of the CentaStage/Underground Railway BOSTON WOMEN ON TOP series for last year --- was new, and interesting, and complicated, and moving. I am eager to see what she does in that series this year. Also, she is giving classes here in Boston in physical, movement-oriented, mime-centered approaches to theater, and I hope that has an effect on the kind of work being done here.

BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE
ERIKA BATDORF’s Facing East @ The BCA
JEFF SHADE’s Watchin' My Hair Grow @ The BCA
JONATHAN KUNTZ’ Actorz... With A Z @ The BCA

For me, the “Best Ensemble” award is the most important in the list. Just as theater happens as a dialogue between the play and its audience, acting happens between players if it happens at all. Again, every one of these companies deserves the award, from people doing familiar-looking plays to perfection to companies trying new ways or new plays. The fact that I could find nominees for this award at professional houses, community theatres and dedicated shoestring collectives means the art of theater is alive and well in my city. Thank Thespis!

BEST ENSEMBLE
ANNA WEISS by The Delvena Theatre Company @ The BCA
MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by The Other Theatre
MARVIN’S ROOM by The Peabody House Theatre Collective
M. BUTTERFLY by The Arlington friends of The Drama
A CHORUS LINE by The North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly
THE RAINMAKER by The Hovey Players
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST by Worcester Foothills Theatre Company

When I see good actors doing better work, I know a good director had a hand in it. And I have found good directors on all levels of theater. On the community theater level, I saw Nancy Curran Willis take an all but unplayable movie-like-a-look sow’s ear of a script and make it work. Celia Couture and Lisa Engvall used the community theater system excellently. Jeremy McCarter at Harvard and Scott Gagnon at MIT got superb productions out of student casts. Milton Coykendall and H. Alex El-Ali both played the tiny Beau Jest space like musical instruments. Steve McConnell’s production of “Three Sisters” was everything a theater-school production ought to be, and Todd Olson, Fran Weinberg and Todd Hearon, all grappling with shoestring budgets, could compete with old pro’s like Michael Murray and Rick Lombardo who worked with secure companies of Equity actors. In every case, they got good, integrated, shaped performances from good actors. Hooray!

BEST DIRECTOR
FRAN WEINBERG for MARVIN’S ROOM @ The Peabody House
CELIA COUTURE for M. BUTTERFLY @ The Arlington Friends of The Drama
NANCY CURRAN WILLIS for A FEW GOOD MEN @ Arlington Friends
JEREMY McCARTER for CLOTHES FOR A SUMMER HOTEL & SLAVS for the Harvard/Radcliffe Dramatic Club
H. ALEX EL-ALI for EASTERN STANDARD & A NIGHT FOR AMNESTY by Theatre7 @ The Beau Jest Theatre
MILTON COYKENDALL for his ACTORS' SHOWCASE @ Beau Jest
LISA ENGVALL for THE RAINMAKER @ The Hovey Players
STEVE McCONNELL for THREE SISTERS @ The Boston Conservatory
ALSO IN THE RUNNING
TODD HEARON for THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE by The Bridge Theatre @ The BCA
TODD OLSON for DEATH AND THE MAIDEN by Todd's Hammer @ The BCA
SCOTT GAGNON for INTO THE WOODS by The MIT Musical Theater Guild
MICHAEL MURRAY for VALLEY SONG by The New Repertory Theatre
RICK LOMBARDO for SKYLIGHT also by The New Rep

Actors, designers and directors don’t really need new plays, but theater does --- and what a joy it is to see something you’ve never seen before come alive before your eyes!
All of my seven nominations here are not just new scripts, but new approaches to what can happen on a stage --- and all of them were fascinating. But there were others that may have been new only to me, that deserved consideration. Again, such a flood of new works says a lot about the health of theater in and around Boston.

BEST NEW PLAY
ALICE UNDERGROUND by THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY @ The BCA
WAR OF THE WORLDS by THE BEAU JEST THEATRE @ Emerson’ Brimmer Street Theatre
NOBODY’S HOME by ELI CHAPMAN for THE OTHER THEATRE @ Actors' Workshop
TALKING TO MAYBE or THE GREAT PROMISE OF ARTHUR C. CLARKE by DAVID HANBURY for THEATREZONE @ Actors’ Workshop
THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD by JEAN-CLAUDE VanITALLIE for THE PILGRIM THEATRE @ The BCA Cyclorama
FOUR BABOONS ADMIRING THE SUN by JOHN GUARE for BOSTON THEATREWORKS
THE NEW PLAYS PROGRAM by EMERSON STAGE @ Brimmer Street
ALSO IN THE RUNNING
THE HOPELESS ROMANTIC by DOMENIC TESTA @ FRENCH’S OPERA HOUSE
SEASCAPE WITH SHARKS AND DANCER by DON NIGRO by THE BAOBAB THEATRE COMPANY @ The Actors’ Workshop
DAMN YOUR EYES by JEFFREY HERMAN @ Playwrights’ Platform Festival
WATCHING MY HAIR GROW by JEFF SHADE @ The BCA
FAMILILY by CHARLES DEEMER @ THE WHARF RATS’ Crossing Borders New Plays Competition, in Salem

And when you put everything together, you get The Best Production!
I will vote for “M. Butterfly” not just because it was a magnificent production of a brilliant play, but because it represents a courageous break with the general conservatism of community theater companies. This play took on complicated political and sexual ideas, involved complete nudity and impolite words, and asked the company to portray intricately complex characters --- in other words, exactly the kind of play you’d expect adult audiences and mature actors would fight to experience. Yet this (and the upcoming Footlight Club production of “Equus”) are surprising exceptions to the usual Neil Simon comedies and old musicals that are the usual community theater fare. Brave --- Bravo!

The rest of this list, again, represents the entire spread of local theater, from dinner theater to Broadway theater to resident companies. If I knew what kudos were, I’d give some to every one of these shows!

BEST PRODUCTION
M. BUTTERFLY @ Arlington Friends MARVIN’S ROOM @ Peabody House
MOLLY SWEENEY @ The Nora Company
MRS. KLEIN @ The New Repertory Theatre
FACING EAST by Erika Batdorf
WEST SIDE STORY @ City Nights Dinner Theatre, Pawtucket, R I
A CHORUS LINE @ North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly
ALSO IN THE RUNNING
VALLEY SONG @ The New Rep
CHICAGO @ The Colonial Theatre
WASHED-UP MIDDLE-AGED WOMEN for Underground Railway
JACK & JILL @ The New Rep
FOSSE @ The Colonial Theatre
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST @ Worcester Foothills

Okay, there are my lists of "bests" for 1998.

I showed you mine, now you show me yours!

Love,
===Anon.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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