Presenting The 2016 Houston Theater Awards

Herman Gambhir was stunning in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
Herman Gambhir was stunning in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.
Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre

If there was one phrase that best described the state of Houston’s theater scene last season, it would be “in flux.” Companies came and went or merged; some renovated their existing sites or changed names and popped up renewed and reinvigorated. There haven’t been this many new theater companies in our memory, while the oldsters (the Alley, Main Street, Queensbury) moved into their freshly Botoxed digs and came of age. That’s a good thing, a very good thing. The more the merrier, we say.

Actors, naturally, are always in flux, their careers peripatetic (another favorite word), as they bounce around from one company to another. The Alley remains the only rep theater in town, although Main Street, Catastrophic, A.D. Players and Theatre Southwest usually veer into that territory with their favorite rosters of performers and backstage designers and artists.

Then there’s the emergence of MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston), a surprising success on Main Street, which houses four stages and is now home to many small companies without the resources to continue where they were or who couldn’t possibly afford to build theaters of their own. Continuously booked, it’s a beautiful space for theater, dance and solo shows.

Though constantly on the move, last season saw a continual upswing toward excellence, experimentation and good old showbiz pow. Who could forget the Alley’s shivery The Nether, a virtual reality tour of very bad manners, made eerily ethereal with that stage descending from on high? Or Main Street’s regional premiere of Silent Sky, a bio of turn-of-last-century astrophysicist Henrietta Leavitt scanning the light-dotted heavens. Look up, we cried ecstatically with her. Or Stark Naked’s (newly rechristened as 4th Wall Theatre Company) brutally honest Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The paint’s still blistering over on Spring Street. Or Stages’ two body slammers: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity — the aftershow masseuses worked overtime on that one, coupled with Caroline Johnson’s exceptional roller-coaster interpretation of Judy Garland’s last months in End of the Rainbow. A.D. Players wowed us with a superb 12 Angry Men, while Ensemble lived up to its name with a stunningly acted Fences. And some new faces in town transitioned into major players. We reeled after Standing Room Only’s wildly original American Idiot, with its druggy haze and middle-finger protest; Hune Company vividly sketched its production of Blackbird in acid; while Lott Entertainment carved a cameo with The Other Mozart.

With everyone in constant motion, though, the stars aligned over our Bayou City stages, as witnessed by our Houston Theater Awards finalists and winners. All of the following make our city stronger and worth living in — and infinitely brighter.

We love the flux that’s going on. Now it’s up to the audience. Whither will they go? Into the light, we say. There’s so much good work from which to choose — and find yourself. — D.L. Groover

BEST PLAY/PRODUCTION:
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Stages Repertory Theatre)

You gotta love a show that started pre-curtain with a knock-’em-down wrestling match during which audience members were encouraged to cheer and boo at the performers in between scarfing down mouthfuls of the popcorn they got in the theater lobby.

There’s no doubt these rowdy and mood-setting moments were superbly created, as was the authentic-looking wrestling ring stage that took up almost the entire theater. However, neither of these elements prepared us for the body slam of comedy, social commentary and just plain good storytelling we got from Stages’ production of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Told through the compelling narration of an underappreciated wrestler whose job it is to take the fall and keep his mouth shut, Diaz’s play examined the hot-potato issues of racism, political inequality and social activism. Better yet, the examination employed side-splitting humor in the form of one outrageous character after another and incredible physical prowess thanks to some honest-to-goodness wrestling. Under Josh Morrison’s exuberant direction and a cast that knew how to both play the absurdity of their characters and yet still nail the messages Diaz wanted them to deliver, this show went all the way to the 12th round and was our uncontested champ this year.

Finalists: Fences (The Ensemble Theatre), Grounded (Alley Theatre), How I Learned to Drive (Landing Theatre Company and Obsidian Theater), Small Mouth Sounds (Stark Naked Theatre Company) and 12 Angry Men (A.D. Players)

BEST MUSICAL:
American Idiot (Standing Room Only Productions)

Can you say “electric”? Add to that “exuberant and exhilarating.” Standing Room Only’s stunning production of Green Day’s rock paean to rootless millennials without a cause hit nothing but highs. The intimate Obsidian Theater, on White Oak, literally exploded with twitchy angst, druggy debauchery and lovesick, wayward youth. Thrillingly adapted from the band’s 2004 concept album and larded with other appropriate Green Day numbers, this uniquely American musical, written by Green Day front man/lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong and original director Michael Mayer, is replete with destructive post-teen spirit and rebellion. These aimless representatives of future America are filled with rage, but all they really want is love as they drag us vicariously through the horrors of the journey, its vein-pumped highs, demonic lows and tantalizing glimmers of hope. A cultural lodestone, the show lures us into its dark, unforgiving world with a score of unstoppable gravitational force and lyrics of shrieking desperation. These characters do not go gentle into the good night. Everything in this production worked, and the cast was superb, top to bottom, cemented by the charismatic John Forgy’s deliciously wicked and seductive Saint Jimmy as the darkest force on the planet. Chris Patton’s deft direction had this musical flowing like the smoky wisps of a pipe dream, then screaming in frustration, pounding like a heart about to break. Who knew such numbed souls could exude so much propulsive radiance? Choreographer Eric Dano found the most perfect movement for those desperate lyrics and slashing chords. Under the musical direction of Tamara Robertson, the raucous band sounded like a punk philharmonic. Hard rock never sounded so heavenly. SRO caught the essence of this classic musical and rode the wave to the shore. It was pure rush, man!

Finalists: Bat Boy (The Kaleidoscope Theater), Heathers (TUTS Underground), Striking 12 (TUTS Underground) and Working (Main Street Theater)

BEST ACTOR:
Tom Stell as Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive (Landing Theatre Company and Obsidian Theater)

In a grand start to the theater season, Paula Vogel’s searing family portrait of child abuse, which won a deserved Pulitzer Prize for drama (1998), opened last September, but its theatrical blazing heat refuses to abate, primarily thanks to Tom Stell’s corrosive charisma as our heroine’s beloved, twisted Uncle Peck. It’s a satanically rich, subversive role, for Uncle Peck is both abuser from hell and absolutely genteel in his method. Slathered in wry country-fried charm, Stell, with his distinctive baritone drawl, seduced us at the same time he weaseled himself ever closer to Lil’ Bit (a superlative Kara Greenberg), his favorite niece. Uncle Peck will indeed teach her to drive, seriously so, but his motives have nothing to do with auto safety. As family outsiders, these two are drawn to each other. Lil’ Bit can’t understand her exploding body, but who else is there in her crazed family to lend a sympathetic ear? She knows full well what her beloved uncle wants; could a little grope, fondle or glam photos in the basement be so bad? Precocious and not too innocent, Lil’ Bit likes the attention she gets from the older man and the power she wields over him. He treats her like an adult, is always respectful and is willing to wait until she concedes, preferably when she’s 18 and fully legal. He has all the time in the world. Stell made the waiting acutely dangerous and horribly inevitable. His own demons, never condemned in Vogel’s laser-focused yet sly drama, rot the family from the inside. Superlatively directed by Paige Kiliany, Vogel’s disquieting look into life’s seedier side breathes an intoxicating fire. It warms the skin just enough before scalding. Stell made us shudder in anticipation, but we couldn’t look away, mesmerized with dread by a thrilling best performance of the season.

Finalists: Philip Lehl as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Stark Naked Theatre Co.), Bob Maddox as Vanya in Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike (Theatre Southwest), Brendan Marshall-Rashid as Henry V in Henry V (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Alex Morris as Troy in Fences (The Ensemble Theatre), George Parker as Thom Pain in Thom Pain (The Catastrophic Theatre) and Joel Sandel as Mother Superior in Divine Sister (Celebration Theatre)

BEST ACTRESS:
Elizabeth Bunch as The Pilot in Grounded (Alley Theatre)

Elizabeth Bunch is The Pilot, an F-16 pilot with swagger to spare. She lives to fly, drop bombs, be one of the guys. Her circumstances change suddenly when she gets pregnant, marries and has a baby. Afterward, ready to return to the cockpit, she’s directed instead to drone work — the “chair force” she calls it. Day after long day, she sits in front of a computer terminal watching the ground and people in a far off desert land. No longer able to leave bombs and be miles away before the carnage below occurs, she is brought face to face with the people she is targeting for death through the eyes of an unmanned aerial vehicle. In the 85 minutes Bunch is onstage alone with a chair, we watch her go from wry wisecracks to disintegration. She goes home at night to her family, but it’s not enough; in fact, it somehow makes things worse. Bunch maneuvers through these changes with expert care; her body language changes; she grays before our eyes. She is our conscience, our prophet and an ordinary person driven by mind-numbing horrors into madness. We never take our eyes away from her. She commands the stage and our attention. It is a bravura performance.

Finalists: Caroline Johnson as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow (Stages Repertory Theatre), Valentina Olarte as Uma in Blackbird (Hune Company), Samantha Steinmetz as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan (Stark Naked Theatre Co.), Kim Tobin-Lehl as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Stark Naked Theatre Co.) and Detria Ward as Rose Maxson in Fences (The Ensemble Theatre)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
Herman Gambhir as VP in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Stages Repertory Theatre)
VP is a streetwise Indian from Brooklyn, a photogenic force of nature who as played by Herman Gambhir generates so much energy that it’s easy to forget there are other actors onstage. He can shoot ball, speak Japanese and handle bullies with ease, and when told about the money he could make as a pro wrestling star, signs on gleefully. But somehow, the brains behind this enterprise decide that the best thing to do is to transform this outgoing hip-hop creature into “The Fundamentalist,” a silent, deadly, whacked-out fighter trained in the deadly Muslin martial arts. The play is already running along merrily at this point, but Gambhir jump-starts it to the next level. He’s a sympathetic character from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean we have any idea what he’s going to do next. All of which kept us riveted on a stunning performance.

Finalists: Jason E. Carmichael as Gabe in Fences (The Ensemble Theatre), John Forgy as St. Jimmy in American Idiot (Standing Room Only Productions), Shawn Hamilton as Pastor Joshua in The Christians (Alley Theatre), Jeff Miller as Ned in Small Mouth Sounds (Stark Naked Theatre Co.) and John Tyson as Hugo Birch in Spider’s Web (Alley Theatre)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS :
Lyndsay Sweeney as The Female Greek Chorus in How I Learned to Drive (Landing Theatre Company and Obsidian Theater)

Supporting actresses have more fun. They don’t have to carry the show on their shoulders; that’s for Medea, Martha and Lady Macbeth — you know, the star parts. But without them, the stars couldn’t shine so brightly, and the play might not be so memorable. Lyndsay Sweeney, a stalwart actor who’s played a repertory theater’s range of characters from Shakespeare to Shaw, never fails to delight. By day she teaches children how to act; by night she teaches us. In Classical Theatre’s The Birds, she stole the show as the gibberish-spouting Triballian. It was pure comedy genius, as when a silent-film funnyman rules by gesture, eye rolls and a boneless, rubbery face. But in Paula Vogel’s uneasy drama Drive, Sweeney sinks her impressive theatrical teeth into a frenzy of portraits on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or so it seemed. She’s the female family surrounding, perhaps suffocating, Lil’ Bit, but most definitely not understanding her. How could they when boobs and men’s members are passionately fought over as if the folks are asking someone to pass the mashed potatoes? Sweeney has the juiciest role and the most impressive monologue, a two-parter titled “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” wherein Mom proceeds to get progressively smashed as she warns her daughter about men’s ultimate intentions. Lil’ Bit, of course, has already experienced and succumbed to her beloved Uncle Peck’s deviant intentions. Mom’s frenzied list of what drinks not to order on a date is as loopy as she is, a patter song of mai tais, martinis and Bloody Marys. Blowsy, belligerent and drunk as a skunk, she must be led off stage at the end. It’s one of Vogel’s most subversive moments, a litany of a woman’s fall from grace, full of heartbreak and cluelessness, rage and helplessness. Sweeney invests this “supporting” role with awe-inspiring command and effortless technique. What a teacher she is; what a star.

Finalists: Michelle Britton as Mrs. Levinson in Divine Sister (Celebration Theatre), Emily Brown as Ellie in The Whale (The Kaleidoscope Theater), Jemma Kosanke as Iris in The Nether (Alley Theatre), Jenna Morris as Izzy in Rabbit Hole (Theatre Southwest) and Teresa Zimmermann as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Stark Naked Theatre Co.)

BEST BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCES:
Melissa Molano as Maggie in Book of Maggie (Stages Repertory Theatre), as Caroline in I and You (Stages Repertory Theatre) and as Valeria in El Nogalar (Obsidian Theater)

Is there anything more exciting than seeing a young talent give a standout performance in a production? Yes, there is, apparently. How about that same actress knocking our socks off three separate times in one season. As Maggie, the sassy and sarcastic trailer-trash outcast in Book of Maggie, Melissa Molano railed against God with comedic aplomb, played off heavy-hitting characters like Saint Peter and Judas as if it were no big thing and also managed to deliver incredibly thought-provoking and heartfelt ideas about faith and destiny. Taking on an altogether different type of tough-girl, smart-mouth persona, Molano shone brightly as Caroline, the sarcastic and terminally ill teenager in I and You. Beginning the show with her emotional walls firmly up, Molano expertly let them down bit by bit to reveal a fragile, scared and oh-so-human soul. That she did so with perfectly believable teenage countenance and cadence made for an incredibly affecting and emotional ride for everyone lucky enough to see the performance.

Finally, as Valeria, the party-pooping, responsible sister in El Nogalar, Molano showed us a more subdued side to her outstanding talent and proved that range is not something she’s struggling with in the slightest. Bravo to Molano for such a terrific season, and we can’t wait to see what she’ll do to impress in future.

BEST TROUPER:
Luis Galindo in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Stages Repertory Theatre)
Night after night and sometimes twice in one day, Luis Galindo was pounded, thrown about and power-bombed — all in the name of art as he took on the role of Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra, a second-tier fighter in the world of professional wrestling. Dressed in tights and the kind of costume that only the truly devoted would employ, Galindo portayed a man whose job in life is to make other people look good and, as such, often played the villain in the matches. As Galindo said while in rehearsal: “This is probably the hardest I’ve worked on something in quite a long time because not only do I have to learn how to wrestle, but I have to get in shape. I’m a 42-year-old man. I’ve got to get in good enough shape to have a man who’s six foot five body-slam me into the mat.” Galindo went beyond that — even learning how to take a chair to the back and not get hurt. Well, not too much. And just like his character, Galindo made everyone around him look good.

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN:
L.A. Clevenson for American Idiot (Standing Room Only Productions)

You’d think costuming a punk musical would be easy. Throw some safety pins on ripped clothes, spike up the hair, finish it off with shit-kicker ankle boots and call it a day. Thing is, American Idiot isn’t just a punk musical; it’s more complicated than that. It’s actually a second-wave punk/pop punk musical, and that means knowing the difference so as not to screw the look up. And then even if you can figure that part out, how do you make it look authentic so that we don’t all think, yeah — that’s a bunch of clean-faced, sweet young performers running around pretending to be punk? L.A. Clevenson figured it out. And then some. Along with everything else about this production that made it feel raw and gritty and exploding with angry, youthful, often delinquent energy, Clevenson’s costumes felt like the real deal. Sure, the hair was spiked a bit and we saw a rip or two, but Clevenson uses those tropes carefully and mixes them with a healthy dose of skinny-jeaned, untucked-shirted grunge to offset all the black leather and dark, heroin-chic eyeliner. The result was characters that individually looked cool, unwashed and strung out while together morphing into a beautiful tableau of mid-’90s rebellious youth.

Finalists: Macy Lyne for The Birds (Classical Theatre Company), Donna Schmidt for Little Women (A.D. Players), Leah Smith for Henry V (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Amber Stepanik and Ananka Kohnitz for 13 Rue de L’Amour (Theatre Southwest), Alejo Vietti for Around the World in 80 Days (Alley Theatre) and David Woolard for One Man, Two Guvnors (Alley Theatre)

BEST SET DESIGN:
Kevin Rigdon for The Nether (Alley Theatre)

The time is in the future, the two places are an interrogation room and an online realm for pedophiles. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill design gig. Minimalism mixed with mechanics was how Kevin Rigdon answered the challenge, creating a terrifically moody, eerie and chilling environment that beautifully complemented this complex and disturbing piece of theater. The minimalism we saw right away. Rigdon populated the dark set with nothing but a table and a chair. Yes there seemed to be ramps and risers leading we knew not where, but otherwise Rigdon’s cold set felt as calculating as the grilling going on between actors onstage.But it was when the mechanics kicked in that we really saw the brilliance of Rigdon’s ideas. That table? It wasn’t just any table; it was a kind of futuristic smart screen that could come to life and reveal all sorts of digital information. It was so cool that for a moment, we all forgot just how squirm-inducing the play was and instead marveled at the creativity of the effect. However, nothing prepared us for the ace-up-the-sleeve design Rigdon employed to conjure the distasteful online realm. Like a loading-dock elevator falling gracefully from the sky, a second stage magically descended, fitting perfectly with all the ramps below like a missing puzzle piece found. Adorned with nothing but a ghostly Lucite gramophone and the young cyber girl around whom the play revolves, this second stage perfectly took the action to that other nefarious online place and took it away again when it would occasionally rise back up into the rafters. It was a bold creation for a bold play, and it was by far the most memorable set design of the season.

Finalists: Colton Berry for Bat Boy (The Kaleidoscope Theater), Kevin Holden for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Stages Repertory Theatre), Brad Kanouse for Shear Madness (Stages Repertory Theatre), Trey Otis for Hay Fever (The Texas Repertory Theatre Company) and James Youmans for The Christians (Alley Theatre)

Colton Berry in the title role of Bat Boy won for makeup.EXPAND
Colton Berry in the title role of Bat Boy won for makeup.
Photo by Nicole Norton Photography

BEST MAKEUP:
Colton Berry as Bat Boy (The Kaleidoscope Theater)

It’s the ears; it’s always the ears. They looked so real, as did Colton Berry as the feral bat child “Edgar,” who’s found in a West Virginia cave and adopted by a veterinarian and his sympathetic wife, who may harbor a darker secret than the sympathetic half mammal/half chiroptera now living in their house and making googoo eyes at their horny daughter. Berry lost weight to look appropriately young and batty, and we swear he probably could have hung from the rafters by his sharp little toes. Channeling Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film Nosferatu, his frightening visage grabbed us like a nightmare, intensely real, like some wounded animal. Bobbing his head, bleating tiny primal screams while caged or just poking up a crooked hand while tied in a sack, his Bat Boy was raw instinct. Impressively physical, he got our attention, and from then on we never let go. This rambunctious musical from composer/lyricist Laurence O’Keefe (later famed for Legally Blonde and Heathers), with book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (neither of whom ever again reached such heights), is both terribly earnest and terribly tongue-in-cheek. Basing their tale on the completely faux yellow-journalism story from Weekly World News about a “bat child found in cave,” the authors fly with the juicy details, supplying satiric texture — stereotypical, backwoods, toothless yahoos — but also adding a surprising amount of outsider empathy — love your inner bat boy is the show’s final uplifting sampler message. Berry, a true Broadway baby in whose veins flows the American Songbook, may howl like an A-list rock star, but it’s his pre-Eliza Doolittle transformation that gives Kaleidoscope’s little musical the bite it had. Okay, it’s the teeth; it’s always the teeth.

BEST LIGHTING:
Christina Giannelli for Striking 12 (TUTS Underground) and Saint Joan (Stark Naked Theatre Co.)
How appropriate that this year’s lighting award go to someone handling two plays in which light is so essential. In Striking 12, a modern-day retelling of the Little Match Girl story brought to Houston by TUTS Underground, a waif of a girl shows up at Grumpy Guy’s apartment selling strands of “full-spectrum holiday lights” designed to fight off seasonal affective disorder. He’s at a bad point in his life, and depressed, and sends her away, but finally goes after her. There’s candlelit windows, bare lightbulbs and falling snow. Christina Giannelli’s ravishingly effective lighting is soft and radiant, warm, then icy and chilling to the bone. In the Bedlam Theater Co. production of Saint Joan, brought to Houston by Stark Naked Theatre Co., Giannelli surrounds actress Samantha Steinmetz, who plays Joan of Arc, in crisp chiaroscuro, adding just the right touch to the aura that naturally emanates from her portrayal of the saint in godly light.

Finalists: Clint Allen for Henry V (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Kevin Holden for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Stages Repertory Theatre), Frank Vela for The Danube (The Catastrophic Theatre), Jaymi Lee Smith for The Nether (Alley Theatre) and Andrew Vance for Small Mouth Sounds (Stark Naked Theatre Co.)

BEST SOUND:
Alex Worthington for Love and Information (Main Street Theater) and Working (Main Street Theater)
Laptops, texting, video cell phones. That’s the world of today, and in Love and Information at Main Street Theater, whose actors had to negotiate some 60 different scenes lasting from seconds to minutes. Alex Worthington was in charge of the sound, especially crucial in the short time that we have with each group of actors coming on and off the stage. In the background, additional sounds were busy dropping hints along the way. Worthington also oversaw the sound in Working at Main Street, and while the actors there didn’t have to deliver quite so quickly, there were constant changes as one after another, they came onstage to tell their stories about their work in word and song. Busy and exuberant, they love their jobs or hate them, are resigned or still dream about the future. Add in dancing, and the degree of difficulty just goes up. Worthington handled all of it like a master.

Finalists: Andy McWilliams for Dollface (Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company) and Mark A. Lewis and Ryan Carlson for Little Women (A.D. Players)

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY FOR A MUSICAL:
Eric Dano for American Idiot (Standing Room Only Productions)

The secret of great choreography is matching movement to music. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Just how do you show Green Day’s slashing rock score? What movement do you give these hopeless, angst-filled, drug-addled youths? How do you show despair, dashed dreams, unrequited love? It’s a question as old as Petipa, as relevant as Balanchine, as today as Stanton Welch at the Houston Ballet. Eric Dano handily solves the problem not with steps but sweeping action. With his deft eyes and equally superb ears, he keeps the entire production in a constant swirl. Our disaffected heroes and the women who love them never stop twitching, or maybe they move in a slo-mo funk, or kick their feet like deranged Rockettes. They march toward us in a great phalanx, middle fingers raised in mock salute, and we involuntarily lean to the side to avoid them. They’re going to confront us, one way or the other, whether we like it or not. Dano creates movement that perfectly captures the mood of each song’s particular essence, whether it’s the marching in lockstep to “Favorite Son”; the writhing in calligraphic exotica in “Extraordinary Girl”; Tunny’s hallucinatory trip under morphine in an army hospital; or the leg kicks and punching moves of the girl-power platoon of “21 Guns.” When the show does stop for aching ballads like “When It’s Time” or the iconic “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the blowback from arrested motion is palpable. Dano’s dynamic work is spectacularly imaginative, as it suits the anomie, the rawness, the “we don’t give a fuck” attitude. This is theatrical choreography on a high plane, dancing with a buzz.

Finalists: Shay Rogers for Heathers at TUTS Underground and Daria Allen for Working at Main Street Theater.

BEST VISITING PRODUCTION:
Saint Joan (Stark Naked Theatre Co. in association with Bedlam Theatre Co.)

Go into the light, theatergoers, go be dazzled. If you were fortunate enough to experience Bedlam Theatre Co., a young New York-based company that slaps awake classic tales with an irreverent relevance that borders on blinding radiance, then you will know what we’re talking about. George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923), which won for the curmudgeonly Irish playwright a Nobel Prize in literature, was truly incandescent in Bedlam’s hands. Anchored by an atomic blast of a performance by Samantha Steinmetz as Shaw’s feisty and incorruptible peasant girl who butts heads with cardinals, soldiers and kings, Bedlam illuminated Shaw’s wit with wit of its own. Bedlam likes intimate, reconfigured spaces, limited sets (if any), contempo costuming of jeans and T-shirts, and audience immersion. In the court scene, you’re likely to have had one of the actors sit next to you, look at you, react to you as he drew you right into the action. In Joan, three actors mix and match characters — Steinmetz stands alone as Joan, inviolate. The impressive trio, all equally bright but with slightly less wattage than the Steinmetz sizzle, were Spencer Aste, John Russell and Stephan Wolfert. Sometimes the same character in the same scene was swapped among all three. They borrowed each other’s accents or physical traits to let us know we were watching the same character but played by someone else. It was inventive, quirky and oil-slick smooth, with plenty of attitude and deconstruction. Bedlam added grunge and zing, tossing in bucketfuls of metatheater. In Bedlam’s hands, Shaw, sublimely directed by artistic director Eric Tucker, emerged fresh and clean, scrubbed of barnacles and ready for the next millennium. An unmistakably uplifting production. Thank you, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, artistic directors of Stark Naked, for the foresight.

Finalists: Daniel Koren: The Most Important Thing (Lott Entertainment Presents), The Other Mozart (Lott Entertainment Presents), Remote Houston (University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Alley Theatre) and Wiesenthal (Jewish Community Center)

BEST NEW PLAY:
Dollface (Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company)

Medusa as the original slut-shamed victim, that’s the brilliant concept behind Katharine Sherman’s poetic, relevant and important new play, Dollface. What better way to show audiences that present realities of sexual violence victim-blaming have roots as far back as Roman mythology itself can reach. But while this tale riffs on the Ovid myth, Sherman brings a distinctly cool, contemporary feel to the production with modern language, music and technology. Think a young Medusa saying things like “OMG,” ripping up the dance floor to a Kesha song and being cyber-bullied on social media, all the while trolled by a psychologically abusive chorus that’s anything but old-fashioned. Commissioned specifically by Mildred’s Umbrella and given a gloriously funky and fierce production under the astute direction of Jacey Little, Dollface never lectures or makes us feel as if we’re watching a “good for you” agenda play. Instead, we become invested thanks to smart characters, beautifully inventive writing, über-creative concepts and a whirlwind one-hour running time that chew us up and leave us dying to discuss what we’ve just seen with our seatmates. Dollface may be a new work, but to us it already feels like an important part of the creative output Houston has to offer.

Finalists: Silent Sky (Main Street Theater) and The Book of Maggie (Stages Repertory Theatre)

IN MEMORIAM:
Scott Holmes

As the versatile actor he was, veteran Scott Holmes invented his characters from the head down. He was a regular at Theatre Southwest, and when he was in a show, he never failed to make an impression, nor did we ever fail to be impressed. A throwback to those famed character actors of golden-age Hollywood, he always discovered just the right tone for whomever he was playing, be it Saul, the obsequious Hollywood producer in Sam Shepherd’s True West for Country Playhouse (now Queensbury Theatre); Uncle Jim, a corrupt attorney out to stifle his nephew’s dreams in Steven McGraw’s Rougher Stuff at Theatre Southwest; obtuse Frank in Alan Ayckbourn’s time-bending farce How the Other Half Lives at Theatre Southwest; the sax-playing cool cat Winston in Rose-Mary Harrington’s Many Miles for TSW’s Festival of Originals; the sputtering Elizabethan impresario Henslowe in Charles Marowitz’s Murdering Marlowe for Queensbury; another wolfish Hollywood producer in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite at Theatre Southwest; the snooty French film critic in Joseph Goodrich’s Hitchcock homage Panic at Theatre Suburbia; the harried one-percenter dad in A.J. Gurney’s Wayside Motor Inn at Theatre Southwest; or the second-rate theater ham Harrison Marlowe in Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing, one of his juiciest roles, again for Theatre Southwest. He could sputter in confusion with the best of them, find menace in the quietest of lines, and make us marvel at his effortless command. He wasn’t showy or actory, but his presence bespoke comic dignity even when his character acted the fool; and our heart always went out to him when his Everyman hit the wall. No matter the part, he was immensely likable as an actor, empathetic, and an audience favorite for years. His rotund and rich voice will be missed; so will his grace and charm and easy way with a role. There are not many like him anymore, and now there’s one less. Here’s to you, Mr. Holmes.

HAPPIEST THEATER NEWS:
The increased output of small companies thanks in large part to MATCH

Does it still hold that everything is bigger in Texas? Well, it’s true that Houston has some well-known large theater companies, but our happy news this year comes in a smaller artistic package — namely all the small companies that have recently sprung up or spread out thanks to an evolving landscape here in the city. From holding shows in the artistic director’s living room (Hune Company) to keeping the schedule hopping at Obsidian Theater (Standing Room Only, Cone Man Running, Melissa Flower and Obsidian itself), smaller companies have been ramping up their output and filling a much-needed artistic space in our city. Nowhere is this more evident than at the recently opened Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston, which has played host to a great number of small companies this season. Old favorites like Catastrophic and Theatre LaB, newer companies like Next Iteration Theatre, and brand-newbies like Dirt Dogs have taken advantage of the spiffy new space to advance or launch their companies. And even if they decide to move on — Lott Entertainment Presents, for instance, is moving to the Alley Theatre — if it weren’t for MATCH, many of these newly formed, smaller companies might not even have had a stage to perform on. A vibrant and healthy theater community is built on the diversity of the companies in a city. We are thrilled that our smaller players are finding their footing in old and new homes so that they can keep creating work and showing that small can be mighty.

BEST ENSEMBLE:
Around the World in 80 Days (Alley Theatre)

A London gentleman decides to undertake a trip around the known world in Victorian times, betting he can do it in 80 days. He takes along his trusted valet, Passepartout. In Around the World in 80 Days, the plot’s fast-paced action demands a group of actors who can hit their marks and deliver their lines in seamless fashion as they conjure up travel by steamer, elephant, train and ice sledge. In the Alley production of Around the World in 80 Days, actors Jeffrey Bean, Jay Sullivan, Emily Trask and Evan Zes morphed into a cast easily five times their numbers, as with a change of dress, hat or hair they moved easily from character to character, including a Brahman priest, a widow, a London newsboy, an opium den owner and a train conductor. Todd Waite rounded everything out playing Phileas Fogg. Everyone was perfectly over the top, devouring scenery right and left and delivering a wonderful night of theater.

Finalists: Fences (The Ensemble Theatre), Love and Information (Main Street Theater), Shear Madness (Stages Repertory Theatre) and 12 Angry Men (A.D. Players)?

BEST DIRECTOR:
Eileen J. Morris for Fences (The Ensemble Theatre)

“I urge you to experience this production through the lens of Rose.” This from Eileen J. Morris’s director’s notes in her superlative production of August Wilson’s masterpiece Fences. It was a daring move to ask her audience to pay closer attention Rose, the long-suffering wife, than to Troy, the play’s charismatic but flawed protagonist. But Morris made sure the plea was well-rewarded. By focusing our attention in this manner, Morris was able to unlock numerous layers of empathy, hurt and frustration, and in turn got us more intimately involved with each and every character onstage. And what characters they were! Wilson’s roles in Fences are nuggets of gold, and this certainly was an ensemble up for the task. But great performances begin with great direction, and there is no question that Morris wrung every last drop of incredible talent from her cast. At times she accomplished this by taut staging and controlled emotion, and in other moments she had the confidence to get out of her performers’ way and let Wilson’s strong words and ideas carry them where they would. The result was a thrilling night in the theater that did Wilson proud and made us proud that Morris’s talents are part of the Houston theatrical community.

Finalists: Lenny Branovez for Henry V (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Jennifer Dean for 12 Angry Men (A.D. Players), Philip Hays for Love and Information (Main Street Theater), Paige Kiliany for How I Learned to Drive (Landing Theatre Company and Obsidian Theater), Chris Patton for American Idiot (Standing Room Only Productions) and Marley Wisnoski for Striking 12 (TUTS Underground)

BEST CABARET:
Bayou City Concert Musicals’ Cabaret Series

If you’re in the mood for a neglected musical treasure from the past and know your Houston theaters, then you probably know exactly where to go in September for your fix: Bayou City Concert Musicals. But did you know (you probably already did) that BCCM also puts on two slick and fun cabaret evenings (usually Mondays in February and May) that pin-spot the American songbook composers? Past shows have included tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin in the ’30s, Hoagy Carmichael, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter in the ’30s, Jerome Kern in Hollywood, Harold Arlen, and Arthur Schwartz. A panoply of Houston’s best musical performers grace the Performance Center of The Ensemble Theatre, where tables encircle the stage. This is cabaret without frills, although there’s a cash bar — always welcome — and free dishes of mixed nuts to enjoy along with the soignée attitude. In true cabaret style, the evening is accompanied by piano, but that’s all that’s needed when the roster of performers kicks into high gear: Zach Bryant, Adam Gibbs, Jennifer Gilbert, Grace Givens, John Gremillion, Danica Johnston, Joe Kirkendall, Amanda Passanante, Joel Sandel, Susan Shofner and Tamara Siler have all headlined in the past. But it’s the emcee who really ties everything together—BCCM’s founding father and veteran Alley and TUTS star Paul Hope, who knows more Broadway dish than any of us and is all too eager to tell us. His wry intros to the songs are worth the price of admission, but the love of showbiz that he and all of the star vocalists share when performing some of the greatest pop songs from Broadway and Hollywood is deeply affecting and instantaneously infectious. There’s nothing like this series in Houston, an evening of nonpareil joy. Now, did you hear about the time Ethel Merman walked into the men’s room at Paramount?

BEST TOURING PRODUCTION:
Pippin (Broadway at the Hobby Center)

When a classic show is reimagined, the update can reveal much that lay under the surface of the original. Sometimes the concept is a little like Botox, a bit of nip and tuck, just a tightening. Sometimes the deconstruction is Trump-size, a brand-new show, new bling and flash. While Pippin (1972) is no classic, its famous, or infamous, Bob Fosse original production was something new at the time, a Fellini-esque vaudeville, dark and bleak. It wasn’t at all what composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell and, years before, megahit Wicked) envisioned. When he complained that Fosse was ruining his soft-focus pacifist intentions, Fosse had him banished from rehearsals. Schwartz never saw the completed show until opening night. Edgy and filled with showbiz tropes that hearkened to an old-time trouper’s revue — albeit a trouper with hip flask, rheumy eyes and sinewy sleekness — Pippin was all Fosse. When the show was revived (2013), director Diane Paulus overlay Fellini with Barnum & Bailey. This circus idea works like gangbusters, giving the soft show a showbiz edge without the ironic blackness of Fosse. It’s popcorn and tinsel instead of Scotch shots and razzle-dazzle, but it brightens the palette considerably, and offers the gymnastic cast a chance to really fly. This is still stagecraft camouflage, and much of Fosse’s choreography remains in evidence: “in the style of,” is prominently displayed next to Chet Walker’s credit. Paulus, like Fosse before her, diverts while wildly entertaining us. We don’t have time to think about paper-thin characters, simple story structure or hoary jokes when we’re being pummeled by mighty impressive gymnastic feats, tumbling routines and death-defying leaps (the entire cast seems able to shimmy up poles and hang perpendicularly while singing). With breathless gusto, muscular acrobats (male and female) handstand, backflip, juggle, zoom across gigantic exercise balls, balance on one arm, vault through hoops, toss each other around like beanbags — one of the performers is swung like a jump rope — and slide perilously headfirst down bolts of silk, only to stop inches from the floor (if you’ve seen Peter Pan 360 or any Cirque du Soleil show from the last, what, 300 years, you know what we’re talking about). This high-octane revival does have its charms, for when Paulus and “circus creator” Gypsy Snider, co-founder of Montreal’s Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers of the Hand), get on the same wavelength, Pippin flies high indeed. The chorus gyrates, the acrobats bound like frisky puppies, the lights pulsate, and lovely, leggy Fosse chorines strut and undulate in high heels. The energy is relentless, the allure of showbiz intoxicating and the entire cast glows with the glamour of it all. Loving them is the exhausting part. But if this is Pippin on amphetamines, that’s just the jolt this old show needs.

Finalists: Beautiful (Broadway at the Hobby Center), Cabaret (Broadway at the Hobby Center), Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Theatre Under The Stars), Matilda (Theatre Under The Stars) and Wicked (Broadway at the Hobby Center).

BEST UTILITY PLAYER:
Philip Hays

In this season alone, Philip Hays has directed two plays and written and acted in another, all to great critical acclaim. As far as we know, he didn’t sing and dance, but with versatile talent such as his, he might just be nifty at that too. Hays is no stranger to us here at Houston Press. Last year he was a crucial reason we gave Horse Head Theatre a MasterMind Award, and this year he continued to wow us on many fronts. First came his turn in the director’s chair for Classical Theatre Company’s The Birds. Here he didn’t simply give us an expert interpretation of the classic Aristophanes story; he gave us a flashy, colorful, funny, contemporary and exciting take on the great work. When asked to direct Love and Information, a distinctly modern tale for Main Street Theater, Hays once again knocked it out of the park. Stickhandling a cast of 13 through dozens of scenes, some lasting only a minute or two, is a tricky proposition, but Hays made it seem like gliding on smooth ice. His timing, his mood-setting and his ability to give each cast member the space to shine allowed us to sit back and be utterly swept away by this tale of how and what we communicate. Then, just when we thought that a director’s life was for him this season, Hays up and co-creates and co-stars in things missing/missed (along with Melisa Flower and Justin Locklear). In what is assuredly one of the oddest but most oddly compelling shows of the year, Hays gives a standout performance as a hermit thief and delivers a final monologue that was as beautifully written as it was performed. We are lucky to have him here in Houston, wearing all his many hats.

Jemma Kosanke as Iris in The Nether occupied a frightening and thought-provoking world.EXPAND
Jemma Kosanke as Iris in The Nether occupied a frightening and thought-provoking world.
Photo by Lynn Lane

BEST ARTISTIC DIRECTOR:
Gregory Boyd (Alley Theatre)

Like a fine sculptor, an artistic director molds the season. The repertory’s product must please the board, promote the actors and fill the seats, and if possible resemble what the playwright envisioned. Or is an artistic director more like a lion tamer, with whip and chair at the ready, herding his wild, unpredictable beasts into action? Will they actually jump through that hoop of fire as he commands? Or is he maestro, a volcanic Toscanini leading his diverse orchestra through classic standards and new, untried music, and always playing in tune? How do you balance Beethoven with Stockhausen? Naturally, an artistic director is all of the above and then some. He’s also pliant lover, cooing and cajoling, whispering sweet nothings to get what he wants, as well as jilted suitor, unrequited friend, mom and dad, and confrere of Freud. At the helm of the august Alley for two decades, Gregory Boyd is obviously a combo platter, mixing and matching his style to suit whatever ends he’s aiming for. He was exceptionally stylish last season—witness the well-rounded rep from his steady hand, full of spice and pop, never failing to showcase in the best possible light his amazing roster of actors and backstage wizards. Take something as frivolous as Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, which he directed for the Alley’s annual Summer Chills series. Not only did it look as solidly handsome as a BBC television special, but the production perfectly caught Christie’s mildly subversive comedy of bad manners with a charming undertone. He played it for laughs, but never forgot the chills. Grounded, directed by Jackson Gay, and The Nether, directed by Boyd and James Black, both provocative and contemporary, challenged everyone involved, but mostly the audience as the plays looked into the forbidden heart of darkness in all of us. Elizabeth Bunch hit the heights as the macho Iraqi war pilot slowly becoming unhinged, and youngster Jemma Kosanke sent radiant shivers through us as the virtual desire of very bad men. Then there was Richard Bean’s silly farce, One Man, Two Guvnors, again directed by Boyd with a pie-in-your-face attitude that gave prince of players Jeffrey Bean a shining role in which to romp — and he did, spectacularly so. Also memorable was Around the World in Eighty Days, Mark Brown’s delicious sendup of Jules Verne’s classic adventure, with a quintet of comic gem roles mined by Bean, Emily Trask, Jay Sullivan, Todd Waite and that silent-film throwback Evan Zes, who deliciously devoured the scenery as if it were a box of bonbons. Add the LBJ bio All the Way; Garson Kanin’s classic rom-com Born Yesterday with a breakout performance by Melissa Pritchett as Billie Dawn; Sharr White’s intimate medical drama The Other Place with Josie de Guzman on a steady downward spiral; and The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s exposé of faith and unfaithfulness, again directed with subtle power by Boyd, all topped by the annual Victorian pudding, A Christmas Carol, and you have quite a season. Oh, and let’s not forget the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts coproduction with the Alley of Rimini Protokoll’s Remote Houston, an audio walking tour through downtown that’s both creepy and innovative, as well as the company’s new showcase series, All New, a festival of works-in-progress. Boyd outdid himself last season, and the benefits were enormous.

Finalists: Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl (Stark Naked Theatre Co.) and Kenn McLaughlin (Stages Repertory Theatre).

BEST SEASON:
Alley Theatre

The big fish in our bayou city has had a banner year. How can anyone doubt the range, the power, the glamour of the Alley as it presented a theatrical cornucopia that was like Theater 101? There was something for everyone, whether your tastes ran from contemporary to classic. And all productions were presented with this company’s rich, patented gloss, thick acting talents, and glorious design. One might not appreciate everything the Alley presented — and the staid patrons in the audience weren’t entirely pleased with all the choices — but for theater mavens, as Spencer Tracy said about Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, it was choice. Consider what artistic director Gregory Boyd gave us through the season (in no particular order): Grounded, George Brant’s searing contemporary one-woman show about drone pilots in the Iraq war, a stellar vehicle for Alley stalwart Elizabeth Bunch; Around the World in Eighty Days, the delightful vaudeville spree based on the Jules Verne tale, with five actors playing everybody from elephant mahout to elephant; One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s delirious farce with Jeffrey Bean channeling Benny Hill; The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s faithful portrait of today’s megachurch; The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s pitch-dark, creepy virtual-reality tour of child abuse; Spider’s Web, Agatha Christie’s twisty-turny murder mystery; Sharr White’s The Other Place, a deep-dish emotional portrait of a woman going mad; Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, a ’50s classic rom-com that giggled with glee; and All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s political bio of LBJ during the civil rights movement. To top it off, the Alley presented Berlin’s Rimini Protokoll, who staged another of their Remote X series, a live art experience that takes 50 guests on an audio walking tour of our city that’s like no other walking tour you’ve ever experienced. The Alley has deep pockets, and it spent its money well this season.

Finalists: Stages Repertory Theatre and Stark Naked Theatre Co. 


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