Announcing the 2022 Houston Theater Awards

The Houston theater community started putting some meat on those old bones.
The Houston theater community started putting some meat on those old bones. Photo by Max Burkhalter; props courtesy of The Wilde Collection / Photo illustration by Susie Tommaney and Sarah Wood

Have you heard the roar of jubilation, the music of revelry? Have you smiled in gratitude when you entered the theater? Have you heard that ultra-excited hum of the audience before the curtain goes up?

Then you've heard the gleeful sounds as our theaters opened their doors after the dark shuttering from the pandemic. What glorious noise.

It's been 17 months that our stages stayed in the dark. The shadows began to fall March, 2020, when the Alley Theatre canceled performances one day after the premiere of 1984. “until the end of March.” In a rush, other companies began closing down. The “end of March” optimism morphed into brooding reality. The news was too grim to contemplate. The spring season was over before it had begun. But as the months piled by and the pandemic raged, it became painfully obvious that perhaps the fall season would be held captive, too. The entire 2020 season disappeared. Not until September, 2021, did a kind of tentative life return, with staggered seating, mandatory masking and vaccination cards required. It was surreal.

Behind the scenes our companies, though, stayed as busy as possible, entertaining us as best they could with streaming productions. This push into new technology strained even the best of them. Actors filmed themselves solo at home, with lighting equipment hastily arranged, and then video editors stitched these disparate elements into one. It was a crazy quilt of Hollywood Squares and Brady Bunch title sequences. It was a valiant attempt, imaginative at times – Houston Grand Opera's Vinkelsport and Houston Ballet's Restoration were prime examples of how to film drama under tight restrictions – and if not entirely successful, these productions on the small screen whetted our appetite for live. They kept the actors honed, employed as many stagehands as possible, and did their best with limited resources.

COVID has not waned entirely, but it has become manageable. By the 2021 winter season, all theaters were back, and joy was infectious instead. Our calendar for October 2021, was covered with dates of all the many shows playing.

Theater did not “come back,” did not make a return, it was resurrected. It was as if all the pent-up energy and angst of the last year-and-a-half burst out in a blaze. (Unfortunately, our favorite grunge theater Obsidian, in association with SRO Productions, did not survive the economic turmoil. No more exhilarating Green Day's American Idiot, an S&M Cabaret, or sprightly The Mystery of Edwin Drood. They will be missed.) But what has returned has been a surfeit of riches in finely etched portrayals, detailed productions, and grand entertainment. It has been a bumpy year, too, as companies manage refigured schedules and the bottom line. Finances are in limbo, subscriptions down, some theaters are running deficits, but most have rebounded with renewed spirit and confidence. It's what theater does best.

You may notice that there is no award this year for Best Season or Best Artistic Director. Coming out of darkness, and a bit shaky from it all, no company truly stood out. There was pyrite among the gems, but companies are still getting their legs, accommodating to the light. But the list of finalists and winners this year proves what miracles can be wrought after such virulent disruption. We applaud them all and thank them for indomitable courage, the undying spark of imagination, the messages they gave us, and that unquenchable need to perform. Theater is here, and Houston's got it!

For an added bonus to your theater going, August 22-29 is celebrated as Houston Theater Week. Most companies offer buy-one-get-one-free tickets. With recession rearing, now is the time to go to the theater at reduced prices. There's no better way to forget your troubles, live someone else's life for a while, or hum along to favorite songs (not too loud, of course.) Theater has the power to change you for the better. Why not try it? — D.L. Groover

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Matthew Amendt and Dylan Godwin's in the Alley Theatre's production of Born With Teeth.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Winner: Born With Teeth (Alley Theatre)

The setting is the back room of a pub. A long table takes center stage There are only two actors. They’re wearing old-timely costumes. It’s kind of dark and it would be easy to fall asleep in one of the seats in the Neuhaus Theatre downstairs at the Alley. Especially when you learn one of the two characters is William Shakespeare.

Except. Except. Except that won’t happen.

In 84 power-packed minutes, playwright Liz Duffy Adams’ Born With Teeth grabs audience members by the throat and doesn’t let go. As Dylan Godwin who plays the young Shakespeare said in an interview before the opening, this is an edgy, punk imagining of a collaboration between Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe that combines all the elements of a good story and brings them to life on stage.

“I think it is shedding light on a subject matter that a lot of people may relegate to the boring file in their brain or the high school English files in their brain but it's not,” he said.

Besides Godwin’s Shakespeare and Matthew Amendt’s Marlowe – in a pair of sparkling performances – there is the shadow of Queen Elizabeth I lurking in the background throughout the play. This is not the winsome lass morphing into Virgin Queen of so many film and TV depictions, but a despotic ruler in the last years of her reign, desperate to hold onto her power by any means necessary. Including having anyone who plots against her killed.

There have been debates and discussion for years over whether Shakespeare actually wrote all the plays attributed to him. Recently a scientific analysis of the choice of words in some of these plays showed that Marlowe and Shakespeare (and a few others) did collaborate on some of the history plays. Adams used this information as starting point for her play.

And what a play it is. There’s genius, rivalry, attraction and betrayal. Like a deadly game of chess the two rivals and confederates circle each other, at times filled with longing and what ifs, at other times scheming for their own survival. The tension at times is excruciating.

You don’t have to have read Shakespeare to grasp the plot points. This is a thriller at its core and like all thrillers, the motives and true designs of the characters are not all revealed till the very end. Conflict abounds throughout and there’s no guarantee that you won’t walk out of the theater feeling conflicted yourself.

It’s rare to walk out of the theater and feel that a brand new play you’ve just seen is something incredibly special. Born With Teeth delivered that experience which made it the best play we saw in the 2021-22 Houston season.

Clybourne Park (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Gloria (4th Wall Theatre Co.), Hurricane Diane (Rec Room Theatre), King Lear (Houston Shakespeare Festival) and Sweat (Alley Theatre)

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Theatre Under the Stars had a winning musical in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Winner: South Pacific (Theatre Under the Stars)

Rodgers and Hammerstein's magnificent South Pacific (1949) is in a class by itself, peerless and iconic. Theatre Under the Stars' production was all that, too. In theme, staging, structure, music and lyrics, of course, and, most importantly, story. Using a few juicy incidents and characters from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winner Tales of the South Pacific, authors Hammerstein and Joshua Logan fashioned an adult musical tinged with war, racial and class prejudice, colonialism, an autumn/spring romance, premarital sex, chaste nurses and randy sailors. What's not to love. There's nothing in the canon like it

This sparkling revival was its own rush. TUTS' production mirrored the Tony-winning 2008 Lincoln Center Theater revival with its bamboo-slatted sets, misty-sea lighting, snood and military mufti. Director Taibi Magar, whose powerful and perceptive work on TUTS' Spring Awakening, the Alley's Skeleton Crew and Dry Powder were Houston theater highlights, kept the show in fine fettle with deft hand. Natalie Ballenger's Nellie Forbush had a more-knowing naivety than usual. Still a bit of a hick from Arkansas, she held her own against the slick overtures of older French planter Emile de Becque, an impressively seductive James D. Sasser. They made a prickly couple destined to be together, even though she's repulsed by his libertine prior life. She's “in love with a wonderful guy,” and it takes the entire musical for her to see it.

All our favorite characters – ruthlessly capitalistic Bloody Mary (Melody Butiu), innocent and biased Lieutenant Cable (Nigel Huckle), rowdy Seabee Luther Billis (Trey Harrington) were beautifully limned by the pro cast who kicked up sand or “washed that man right outa my hair” under choreographer Courtney D. Jones’ spirited routines. The songs are magic all by themselves, a cornucopia of the Great American Songbook. After 73 years, this musical remains fresh and relevant, eternally tuneful, fragrant and moving. South Pacific is musical theater at its best, one for the ages. TUTS’ splendid production proved it.

Finalists: Fiddler on the Roof (Broadway at the Hobby), Frozen (Broadway at the Hobby), The Little Mermaid (Theatre Under the Stars), The Sound of Music (A.D. Players) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stages).
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Actors Dylan Godwin and Matthew Amendt held the stage in Born With Teeth.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Winner: Matthew Amendt as Kit Marlowe and Dylan Godwin as Will Shakespeare in Born With Teeth (Alley Theatre)

After seeing Matthew Amendt and Dylan Godwin on stage as Kit Marlowe and Will Shakespeare in Liz Duffy Adams’ Born With Teeth, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.

The young Shakespeare has just arrived in London and he is trying so hard to stay focused, to write and in the process make a name for himself and provide financially for his family. Marlowe, famous for his play Tamburlaine, is farther along in his career, more full of himself, and as we come to find out, playing a dangerous political game on the side. Is he dedicated to a cause or just bored and inclined to dabble?

The two have come together to collaborate on some of the Henry VI plays, a not uncommon practice of the time. Initially Marlowe dismisses Shakespeare and his attempts at flattery, but is intrigued by him as well.

Although they are almost exactly the same age, Shakespeare is in awe of Marlowe and the success he has already achieved, but he grows wiser about his fellow writer– certainly when Marlowe tries to entangle him in his own political machinations by threatening Shakespeare’s life in a very serious manner.

As for Shakespeare, he may not be as flashy about it, but he too thinks well of himself. Adding to the political dangers (in the Elizabethan Age people were killed for perceived disloyalty to the throne) and the writing one-upsmanship, the two men are sexually attracted to each other. It’s a lot to portray in 84 minutes.

Amendt, a visiting actor, commands the stage from the moment he strides onto it. In turns dismissive, charismatic and absolutely chilling as he seeks to manipulate Shakespeare into doing what he wants, he makes us believe in a celebrated writer trapped by his own betrayals and poor judgment who at the same time makes his spider’s web of deceit look almost attractive. And there again, there is that incredible writing talent.

It falls to Alley Theatre Resident Company member Godwin to deliver a nuanced performance as a young Shakespeare determined to make his way in the world. Godwin, often cast in some of the Alley’s zanier roles, delivers his best performance to date and makes us believe the yet-to-be-famous writer who is not as soft as he first appears with a sense of self that reveals an iron core. This is no meek country boy easily led astray but someone who can concoct his own schemes and surprises.

Word of mouth on these two actors was overwhelmingly positive, making true believers of almost everyone who saw the show. Yes, the play as written is most impressive. But adding these two actors to the mix lifted it to the next level and made it the kind of theater you have to see. An event. A chance to see two memorable actors at the height of their powers. A chance to say, you were there when it happened.

: Orlando Arriaga, as Billy in 72 Miles to Go (Alley Theatre), Donald Curren, as Captain James Hook in Hook's Tale (Stages), Luis Galindo, as Vet in The Book of Grace (Catastrophic Theatre), David Matranga, as Jeff in Amerikin (Alley Theatre), Jack Young as Lear in King Lear (Houston Shakespeare Festival) and Abraham Zapata, as Bob in Bob, a Life in Five Acts (Firecracker Productions)
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Patricia Duran and Bryan Kaplún in The Book of Grace
Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Winner: Patricia Duran, as Grace, in The Book of Grace (Catastrophic Theatre)

We knew Patricia Duran was set to play the character of Grace two years ago, that is, before COVID scuttled those plans. We're also fairly certain she'd be great at playing the role of the always sunny yet dread-filled wife in an abusive relationship.

Because, when hasn’t Duran been terrific in a production?

But we had no idea the heights we were in for.

Maybe it was the heartache of having a role so dear to her stripped away. A loss she expressed to us as part of our pandemic theater shut-down coverage. Maybe it was the excitement when, at long last, the show would finally go on. Perhaps it's because, unlike the usually composed and tough-talking characters we've seen Duran take on, Grace was a different kind of artistic flex.

Whatever elixir it was she threw into this performance; it was a revelation. One that showed us we’d only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Duran’s immense talent.

Outwardly a positive champion for the men in her family, secretively Grace catalogs her thoughts diary-style in a book we're let in on through a series of monologues. A book that on the surface seems filled with trifles like “evidence of nice things” or uplifting stories collected from newspapers. Scratch the surface, however, and Grace's writing is motivated by the fear that populates her marriage.

The brilliance comes as Grace attempts to convince us that all is fine. That her happy observations nourish her soul. Duran masterfully boils over with conflicting emotions. We go from bathing with delight in her sweetly perky stories to emotional collapse when she reveals the tragic nature behind her need to write at all.

When Grace tells us that she spells out her curse words so as not to upset the inner child she’s been told we all harbor, our hearts melt for her. When she finally does swear forcefully, our melted heart is too damaged to even break, it simply disintegrates. Duran is in total artistic control of our journey in this show and her steering yields an utterly masterful performance.

Elizabeth Bunch as Jean in Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Alley Theatre), Shannon Emerick, as Isabelle Arc in The Mother of the Maid (Main Street), Claire Marie Spencer, as Maria in The Sound of Music (A.D. Players), Bridgjette Taylor Jackson, as Sarah Vaughn in Sarah Sings a Love Story (Ensemble), T Lavois Thiebaud, as Woman in 4:48 Psychosis (Catastrophic) and Kim Tobin-Lehl, as Nora in A Doll's House Part II (4th Wall Theatre Co.)
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Crystal Rae, shown here with Kevin Daugherty in a 2019 Dirt Dogs Theatre production, was called to fill in at the last minute for a sick actor in Clybourne Park.
Photo by Gary Griffin
Winner: Crystal Rae as Francine/Lena in Clybourne Park (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.)

Some productions have swings, actors whose job it is to learn parts, rehearse scenes, and be ready at any moment to go on for an absent performer. Most shows don't. There simply isn't a budget for this kind of padding.

So, what's a company to do when one of their actors is out sick? If her last-minute yet scene-stealing performance in not one, but two roles in Clybourne Park is any indication, the answer is, hire Crystal Rae.

Playing Francine, a 1950s Black maid to a well-meaning but privilege-blind white couple, Rae gets some of the largest laughs in the first act with her surface elegant calmness and side-eye rolling reactions. As neighborhood activist Lena in the second act, Rae channels a far more aggressive yet unspoken annoyance that once again, has us roaring with delight.

So natural is her comic timing in both these roles, we barely notice she’s holding a script in her hand, referring to it between and sometimes during her lines. It’s only after the show’s done that the amazement sets in and we realize what she’s managed to pull off with so little prep time.

Rae is a seasoned actor; one we’ve appreciated in past productions. But witnessing her ease in this daunting situation and resulting prowess, we have a new appreciation for her talent and the elegance with which she shows her trooper abilities.

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Wesley Whitson in Gloria at 4th Wall Theatre
Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Winner: Wesley Whitson, as Fool and Cordelia in King Lear (Houston Shakespeare Festival) and as Dean/Devin in Gloria (4th Wall Theatre Co. )

Wesley Witson is a sly subtle actor with, what Shakespeare would muse, “infinite variety.” He sneaks up on you, then unloads. If he portrays a misfit, like his creepy nerd Hugo in Feathers and Teeth, or when very young, as idiosyncratic Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the obnoxious store clerk in The Christmas Shoes, you can be assured you will experience a plethora of insight, characterization, and intelligence in his playing. He's been nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice by us – for Hugo in Feathers and as vengeance-seeking Dennis in From White Plains – but this year is his.

He was spellbinding in Lear, as both The Fool and Cordelia, time-tripping us directly to Shakespeare's Globe and its “roaring boys,” where young men played all the women's roles. Whitson's Cordelia, whose refusal to bow to her father's childish demand sets the tragedy in queasy motion, was regal, smart, cunning, and looked great in long curls. She is the daughter of a king, you know. The recognition scene in which mad Lear regains sanity when Cordelia touches him and gently speaks was eye-watering theater at its best. There was redemption and great forgiveness in her manner.

As the Fool, Whitson scampered about the stage, dripping the Bard's catty asides to prick old Lear, full knowing he was a favorite and would not be punished for his wicked audacity. He sang and pranced with a deep love for the old man that was genuine and heartbreaking, loyal to the last.

Then there is Dean, in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' dysfunctional office drama Gloria. He's a writer working for a slowing collapsing magazine house, and he knows he's better at his job than any of his colleagues. He's also aware that he has nowhere else to go, and will be stuck here until the magazine folds and then stuck somewhere else. Swiveling in his chair, he snidely addresses his workmates in over-the-shoulder remarks, barely looking at them, dripping in sarcasm and heavy on the booze.

But when unspeakable tragedy strikes at the office, it hits Dean hard. He shoulders guilt for what happened, but is not above turning the headline into a book. Hey, there's profit in this, but his shaking leg and assorted tics when talking to his co-worker give the game away. It's a masterful portrayal, again subtle and holding much variety. Whenever Whitson is listed as cast member, go see him. No disappointment ever.

Finalists: Travis Ammons, as Donner, in The Eight: Reindeer Monologues (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.), Caleb Clark, as Edmund in King Lear (Houston Shakespeare Festival), Rutherford Cravens, as Samuel Wilberforce in Darwin in Malibu (Main Street Theater), Christopher Hutchison, as Gordon in Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Alley Theater), Mark Ivy, as William Barfée in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stages), Jose E. Moreno, as Dog in Dog Act (Main Street Theater) and Blake Weir, as Robot in R.U.R. (Classical Theatre Co.)

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Malinda L. Beckham and Trevor B Cone in Clybourne Park
Photo by Gary Griffin

Winner: Malinda L. Beckham as Bev/Kathy in Clybourne Park (Dirt Dogs)

Two very different women in two different acts are what lands Malinda L. Beckham the award this year.

First up there's Bev, a vapidly babbling, not terribly bright, standard 1950s housewife in the anxious
machinations of packing up to move houses with her husband. And then there's Kathy, a modern self-assured lawyer who seamlessly hijacks and personalizes every topic of discussion, no matter how socially charged.

While the characters may differ wildly in this play that uses humor to riff on race and property rights in America, Beckham’s talent is a constant that grounds the two distinct acts together in absurdly hilarious social commentary.

As Bev in Act 1, Beckham perfectly plays the ditzy straight woman to her husband’s strange musings, simultaneously annoying and amusing us equally with her constant chatter. When her husband’s reveries turn darker, Beckham organically allows Bev to fall apart in a simultaneously funny and sorrow-tinged performance.

Beckham’s Bev also jauntily trips over her white privilege without a second thought, offering her Black maid a chafing dish she’s convinced would come to good use while assuming she’ll stay late to help. We should be turned off by Bev’s ignorance/impudence. But that’s not what the play calls for. It wants us to see Bev while keeping hold of the ability to laugh at her. A subtle difference that Beckham navigates with perfect elegance.

Nothing however is subtle about Beckham’s character or performance in Act 2. As Kathy, Beckham gets to be unapologetic narcissistic sass on full display. As the adviser to her white clients trying to move into a historically black but quickly gentrifying neighborhood, Kathy uses the small talk amongst the group to insert herself relentlessly.

Race, rape, travel, disability…. it’s all about her and Beckham’s audacity and dry delivery is astonishingly funny and superbly timed throughout.

Both roles are women on the outside inserting themselves without invitation or understanding. We love to hate them and hate that we do love them for their ridiculousness. No question though that we love to love Beckham in both these roles, even if our sides hurt from laughter.

Michelle Britton, as the Maid, The Real Inspector Hound (Main Street Theater),Pamela Garcia Langton as Valeria in El Huracán (Mildred's Umbrella, Caroline Johnson as Winter Moon in Sunrise Coven (Stages) and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy as Pam in Hurricane Diane (Rec Room).

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Choreographed stage movements and dancing up a storm in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Winner: Mitchell Greco for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stages)

Composer and lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin's Spelling Bee is one delight of a musical. Drama Desk and Tony Award winner, the show spins its snarky humor and pleasant tunes around six middle school misfits, the anxious contestants for the eponymous bee. We get to know them, their fears, their crushes, their erections, their absent or overly doting parents, in wonderful vignettes that whisk us straight back to junior high school like a Proust madeleine. You could practically smell the musky gym in Stefän D. Azizi's pungent set.

The six kids and three pseudo-adults who oversee the contest were perfectly cast, as natural as kids caught up in competition, one-upping each other, playing little psychological games, warped by their parents, or self-destructing all on their own. It's a pleasure to watch them – and hear them – belting out their anthems to pre-teen angst (innocent Leaf's “I'm Not That Smart” – Christopher Scurlock); pressure (Logainne's “Woe Is Me” – Reghan Scott); warfare advantage (Barfee's “Magic Foot” – Mark Ivy); self awareness (Olive's “My Friend, the Dictionary” – Anna Maria); regal self assurance (Marcy's “I Speak Six Languages” – Amber Gray); and budding sex nerd (Chip's peaen to his wayward penis “Chip's Lament” – John Ryan Del Bosque).

But for all the charm the musical inherently possesses, it's pale in the water without the Broadway pizzazz brought to it by choreographer/director Mitchell Greco. The show is imbued with movement, patterns, swirling sidesteps, and old-fashioned bounce and verve. It's Broadway-infused, just on a more intimate scale. All because of Greco.

Finalist: Courtney D. Jones for South Pacific (Theatre Under the Stars).

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Anthony Quinn Berry as Benji, shown with Jordan Merritt in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them.
Photo by Aaron Alon
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Kasi Love, top, in Hurricane Diane.
Photo by Tasha Gorel
Winners: Anthony Quinn Berry as Benji in Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them (Thunderclap) and Kasi Love as Diane in Hurricane Diane (Rec Room)

There's something special when a young, up-and-coming actor serves up a killer performance. It's as though you can see the shadows of all that's to come as that initial spark launches their career forward.

In Anthony Quinn Berry’s case, that spark was more like a fireworks show. One with multiple effects. As Benji, a hot-to-trot, nerdy gay high schooler just learning the sexual ropes, Berry is instantly loveable, wildly funny, and remarkably assured in his character's emotional grandness.

Mostly though he is pure joy.

We can’t help but smile when Berry’s energy is on stage. Sometimes because he’s giving up great comedic work. Other times it’s because he’s slayed with a song and dance rendition of George Michael’s "Faith" (take note casting directors, the man has moves and he can sing!) Even in his more serious moments of love and hurt, the light still shines from within him.

Talent you are born with and can hone. Charisma is an ineffable thing. We saw both when Berry took the stage. We look forward to seeing more.

More is also something we’d like to see from Kasi Love. Although in her case, again might be the better descriptor. After all, her turn as Greek Demi-God Dionysus returned to earth disguised as the charming butch lesbian permaculture gardener Diane, was Love’s very first role on the stage ever.

And boy was it a debut.

Diane spends much of the play telling us how her character plans on using her godly powers of seduction to recruit humans to save the earth from impending environmental ruin.
Fourth wall-breaking moments like these can be tricky. But Love, often in front of the stage, microphone in hand, falls into none of the cringey traps. Rather she takes the more intimate opportunity to connect with the audience and showcase her natural ease.

That ease also translates into confidence as she seduces four suburban women to her cause. Love plays the sexual energy like a smooth operator. She’s cool, she’s calmly powerful and she’s magnetic.

Love has spent 15-plus years working behind the stage. Surely some of her actorly talent and knowledge has been gleaned from watching her colleagues. But watch as one might, doing is a different animal altogether and Love has shown us that acting skill has been lurking inside her all this time.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Love could continue to come out of the shadows, making her a behind and on the stage double threat performer.
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Carolyn Johnson in Sunrise Coven
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Winner: Stages for producing six world premieres and four plays written by Houstonians.

As thrilled as we all were when theaters opened their doors after almost two years of pandemic shutdowns, there was worry.

Would audiences come back? Had everyone lost the joyful muscle memory of attending a live performance? Did theater still matter to Houston?

The safe programming choice for Stages would have been a season full of crowd pleasers. Familiar territory that could allow audiences to easily push the yes button.

Instead, Stages did the opposite and gave us a season with no less than six world premieres: Hook’s Tale, Panto Little Mermaid, McGyver: The Musical, Sunrise Coven, You Are Cordially Invited to Sit-In, and Song of Me.

New plays are always a risk. But Stages didn’t just leave it at that. Four of the new works presented were penned by local playwrights: ShaWanna Renee Rivon and Elizabeth A.M. Keel (Panto Little Mermaid), Brendan Borque-Sheil (Sunrise Coven), ShaWanna Renee Rivon (You Are Cordially Invited to Sit-In) and Mai Lê and Dat Peter Tôn (Song of Me).

It was a bold move that believed Stages audiences were sophisticated and loyal enough to embrace new theatrical experiences. As importantly, it fulfilled the company's promise to nurture and develop our local artistic community.

In total, it was a big fat love letter to theater and to Houston and that’s a risk worthy of a standing ovation.

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Derrick Brent II as Albert, Malinda L. Beckham as Bev in Clybourne Park.
Photo by Gary Griffin

Winners: Malinda L. Beckham, Derrick Brent II, Trevor B. Cone, Amanda Marie Parker, Crystal Rae,
Blake Weir and Wesley Whitson, Clybourne Park (Dirt Dogs)

There’s a lot more to creating an award-winning ensemble cast than simply gathering a group of terrific actors and throwing them into a show together. When it comes to ensemble work, to reach excellence, it’s all about how individual talents behave together in service of the script.

Do they know how to play off each other, when to shine, when to step back and how to share the stage?

There’s no question that the cast of Clybourne Park is rife with acting talent. But it’s how they used their talent together, as a unit, that elevated this show from a comically biting play on race and property ownership into something quite magical – an unforgettable production.

So tuned in was this cast, so humming was their collective energy on stage that we greedily wanted to focus on everyone all of the time.

Trevor B. Cone and Malinda L. Beckham quibble brilliantly as the 1950s couple getting ready to move house. Scenes with Beckham and Crystal Rae as housewife and Black maid leave us cringing. Rae and Derrick Brent II as husband and wife have us in hysterics as they quietly roll their eyes at the white family. Wesley Whitson as a priest come a calling, perfectly collides with an irritated Cone, and Amanda Marie Parker playing a deaf neighbor plays straight-woman to Blake Weir, her racist husband who most everyone in the play comes to resent.

That all of this goes on, often simultaneously, and has us in fits of socially aware laughter is a feat of both acting prowess and generosity.

And that’s just the first act!

When the play tasks the ensemble with playing decidedly different roles for the second half of the play, this group is no less electric in their ability to play off of and elevate each other.
We hated them, we laughed at them, we rooted for them. We were just so lucky to have them all.

Finalists: Justin Doran, Adam Gibbs, Shawn Hamilton, David Matranga, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Raven Justine Troup and Teresa Zimmermann in Amerikan (Alley Theatre), Patricia Duran, Luis Galindo and Bryan Kaplun in The Book of Grace (Catastrophic Theatre), Elizabeth Marshall Black, Kasi Love, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy and Jasmine Renee Thomas in Hurricane Diane (Rec Room) and Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers, Brandon Hearnsberger, Skyler Sinclair, Brooke Wilson, Tadrian White and Wesley Whitson in Gloria (4th Wall Theatre Co.)

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Malinda L. Beckham as Olympe de Gouges and Jasmine Renee Thomas as Marianne Angelles.
Photo by Gary Griffin

Winner: Malinda L. Beckham, Clybourne Park and The Revolutionists (Dirt Dogs Theatre)

Over the years, we have known Malinda L. Beckham, co-founder and artistic director of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., as actor, director, set designer, and costumer. She is equally proficient in all these categories, but this year she particularly shone in costumes.

The Revolutionists is Lauren Gunderson's ripe fantasia on the women of the French Revolution, their choices, desires, their fire and passion, and their powerlessness when the men rule. It's both comedy and drama, and when Madame Guillotine is in the foreground, tragedy raises its head. If history is always written by the winners (males), then Gunderson is here to set things right.

Beckham, also playing Olympe de Gouges, the foremost female philosopher, pamphleteer, playwright of her generation, sets things right in her punk-inspired designs. Take flighty doomed queen Marie Antoinette who wants de Gouges to write her better press. Dripping pearls and wearing a transparent pannier and outlandish towering wig with galleon, she oozes noblesse oblige and petulance. Firebrand activist Marianne Angelles boasts a blood-red sash with Liberté embossed on it. De Gouges skitters about on high heels in a great coat of black and white stripes that flaps in the breeze.

Such perfect choices. These are theatrical clothes that define the women. Ripe and fresh, like Gunderson's prose, the clothes have enough hints of ancien-regime but wouldn't look out of place in Tootsie's window.

Bruce Norris' modern classic Clybourne Park is much more down to earth. Act 1 takes place in 1959 as the couple Bev (Beckham, again) and Russ finish packing before they move out of their Leave-it-to-Beaver neighborhood. Bev, with pearl strand and sunny crisp apron, is the ideal housewife, but on slow boil. Russ schlumps about in worn plaid shirt on his recliner eating ice cream, haunted by something not yet defined.

The choices Beckham makes in the clothes are spot-on. Act 2 is set 50 years later, when the same house, now derelict and forlorn, is about to be sold to the ultimate yuppies, who plan on changing everything about it. Negotiations are fast and furious, for the neighbors, now black, don't want whites moving in and gentrifying the historic neighborhood they fought so hard to obtain many years ago. But ghosts don't leave, not for gentrification, white folks, or racism. You see, Bev and Russ's guilt keeps those memories there forever. The play is madcap as dialogue overlaps, people shout at each other not ever listening, and festering racism is a boil.

And the clothes again tell the characters. Not as distinct as in Act I, but very much of today. Power suit for the female lawyer (Beckham), preppy garb for the yuppies. Not flashy or showy, but in keeping with Norris' sharp satire. Fine choices all around, we say.

Finalists: Harri Horsley for Hurricane Diane (Rec Room), Kristina Oritz Miller for MacGyver (Stages),
Leah Smith for Nevermore (Classical Theater) and Alejo Vietti for Born With Teeth (Alley).

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Donald Corren in Hook's Tale at Stages .
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Winner: Steven C. Kemp, Hook's Tale (Stages)

You knew you entered a special place when you saw a full-rigged pirate galleon filling the Stages' theater and spilling over the stage. This was the setting for John Leonard Pielmeier's two-hander, Hook's Tale, a Wicked-like retelling of J.M. Barrie's immortal Peter Pan. This fantasy is told by the right honorable Captain Jas. Hook (Donald Curren), graduate of Eton, and foe to that annoying little boy who wouldn't grow up. Needing to make amends for years of approbation and waiting to tweak Barrie's nose, Hook, with assistance from snarky second banana Smee (Ryan Schabach), loyal to the end, tells his fishy tale.

Chock full of fantasy, magic sea sand, the Bermuda Triangle, puppetry (the iridescent crocodile gets applause upon his exit), daring-do adventures, video projections cast on the main sail, and those glorious sea shell footlights, Neverland comes into childlike focus. But it's the Jolly Roger that impresses. Solid and secure, even its intricate rigging and coiled lines on deck are accurate depictions of a seagoing vessel. She's a mighty ship. And could probably fly away if sprinkled with Tinker Bell's fairy dust. All aboard.

Finalists: Afsaneh Aayani for The Christmas Shoes (A.D. Players) and for R.U.R. (Classical Theatre Company), Stefan Azizi for Hurricane Diane (Rec Room Theatre), Kirk A. Domer for MacGyver (Stages),
Michael Locher for Born With Teeth (Alley) and for Dead Man's Cell Phone (Alley Theatre) and Kevin Rigdon for Gloria (4th Wall Theatre Co.) and Apollo 8 (A.D. Players)

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Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl in A Doll's House, Part II.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Winner: Christina Giannelli for A Doll's House Part II (4th Wall Theatre Co.) and MacGyver (Stages)

Christina Giannelli is no stranger to the Houston Theater Awards, winning in 2018 for her cold clinical overlay in the sci-fi Replica (Stages), a 2019 finalist for Jesus Hopped the A Train (4th Wall), winning in 2017 for Saint Joan (Stark Naked Theatre Co.) and Striking 12 (TUTS Underground). She's a winner throughout her career, giving each work a specific charge, a special hue, a grand design.

This year's productions were equally served by her discriminating eye and fastidious light plots. Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part II takes Ibsen's classic and updates it 15 years later. Nora, who scandalously slammed the door on her bourgeois life, her children, her husband at the end of Ibsen's classic, has returned home. The why isn't as important as are the former effects her leaving imprinted on everybody in the household. Giannelli bathes the Helmer home, itself bathed in Ryan McGettigan's blond wood and minimalist décor, with an autumnal glow like gaslight. But look at the baseboards, you'll see a very modern ring of fluorescent. We're not quite in Oslo, anymore.

Hnath updates, but Giannelli ups the ante, too. When Nora leaves a second time, she no longer slams the door – the most famous sound effect in theater – but flings it wide open as she goes to find herself again. Giannelli blasts us with a shaft of sunshine, a blast of the future into which Nora strides. It was wondrous.

And MacGyver, a total blast all its own, was a '80s TV dream, neon and pounding rock, while anchorman Peter Jennings, Jane Fonda in sexy leg warmer gym wear, and I think the Brady Bunch flashed by in the opening projections. It was cheesy fun, with a new MacGyver every performance chosen from the audience. It actually worked. With book by Kate Chavez, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, Robin Ward Holloway, and Lee David Zlotoff, creator of the iconic TV series, and music and lyrics by Peter Lurye, the show is bad taste made good.

Giannelli washed the East German locales with bright swathes, then toned it down for the intimate scenes. There were plenty of ominous shadows for the evil Stassi, and much punchy lighting for the rock numbers. Let there be light, Christina, your light.

Finalists: Carolina Ortiz Herrera for Born With Teeth (Alley Theatre) and Madeleine Reid for Hurricane Diane (Rec Room Theatre).

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A Steady Rain - with Trevor Cone and Kevin Daugherty - benefited from a winning sound design and score.
Photo by Gary Griffin
Winners: Jon Harvey and Hescher for A Steady Rain (Dirt Dogs Theatre)

Keith Huff's police drama about a bad cop (Trevor B. Cone) and a worse one (Kevin Daugherty) is a study in classic noir. The streets of Chicago glisten under rain water, or so we think, for Jon Harvey's lush sound design is persistent. It's got to be raining. Police sirens wail forlornly in the distant. It's atmospheric and all inclusive. We're in a special world, even if we've seen this story on TV for eons.

But it's made fresh and relevant by the insistent steady sound. But as good as the subtle sound work, it's Hescher electro-tinged music score that sets off the crime melodrama and puts it into the heavens. A wondrous mix tape of Alex North's jazzy film writing, a bit of Alfred Newman's high violins for Fox, and snippets of Nelson Riddle's lush '50s arrangements for Sinatra. Sometimes it underscores the drama, sometimes it noodles ominously, sometimes it precisely captures the mood, girding the hardscrabble dialogue between the cops who find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Hescher's score is the best of the season: atmospheric, incredible moving, absolute perfection. Who is he, and why hasn't he been heard everywhere in Houston's theater? We know his name is Cory Sinclair, an electronic musician from Houston who lives in Austin, but what a revelation. Please sir, can we have some more?

Finalists: Jon Harvey for Nevermore (Classical Theatre), Robert Meek for Hurricane Diane (Rec Room Theatre) and Philip Owens for Apollo 8 (A.D. Players).

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Born With Teeth wins best new production in 2022.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Winner: Born With Teeth (Alley Theatre)

It’s always risky for a theater to commit to doing new plays. Some potential audience members resist buying tickets if it’s not a show name they recognize or can look up online to see what reviewers said about it in other cities.

Theaters are asking ticket buyers to take it on faith that this is indeed worth their time and money. In Houston, many of our local theaters are willing to take this risk, especially as seen during the 2021-22 season. And Houston audiences are all the richer for it.

Yes, sometimes there are disappointments. Sometimes a spark is there but the play doesn’t quite fit together, needs more polish, needs to be longer, needs to be shorter, has too many distractions.

However, in the case of Born With Teeth the planets aligned to present a dazzling new work by playwright Liz Duffy Adams. It was an intense, thought-provoking, fast-paced one-act that gripped the audience from the start. It was not only this year’s Houston Theater Award choice for Best New Play/Production but the Best Play/Production of the season.

But make no mistake, this was not by happenstance. Alley Theatre first shepherded the play through its Alley All New Reading Series where it was workshopped in 2019. Alley Artistic Director Rob Melrose scheduled it after the height of the pandemic in spring 2022 and handled directing duties with a top-level cast and crew working with him.

Alley Theatre deserves every bit of applause it gets for producing this play.

And so does playwright Liz Duffy Adams, whose catalog of plays includes Or and Dog Acts (both seen at Houston’s Main Street Theater) who has taken a snippet of history and come up with a wonderful play. Language is ever important in her work which means, yes, you have to pay attention or you’ll miss a joke, a historic reference, a play on words.

In Born With Teeth she faces off two of the greatest wordsmiths ever: William Shakespeare and Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, placing them at a time when Shakespeare was just starting his career and Marlowe was the established star. Collaborators and rivals, their story is in turn funny and poignant, joyous and heart-breaking, and just so smartly written.

Adams has already received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for the play which has now moved on to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. There will be more awards, more plays of hers to come. Let's hope those plays come to Houston.

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Stages debuted a splendid new musical with McGyver.
Photo by Melissa Taylor

Winner: MacGyver, the Musical (Stages)

When a world premiere musical debuts, all bets are off. When it's been inspired by a cult TV action-adventure show with a sweet handsome hero (Richard Dean Anderson) with a magnificent blond mop of well-coiffed mullet, who gets out of any dilemma with a Swiss army knife, a roll of duct tape, and his phenomenal wits, we have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

MacGyver was perhaps the nicest guy on TV. Smart, ingenious, lovable, a vegan if you will later in the series, non-violent (he never carried a gun), and only hurt the villains in self-defense. He speaks multiple languages, works for the clandestine Phoenix Foundation, knows semaphore and Morse code, is afraid of heights, and has remarkable powers of adaptability and improv.

Put him in a locked room, set it on fire, and leave a bomb inside to detonate in five minutes, stand back and watch him go to work. He'll be out of there, all hair in place, right after the commercial break. The show was goofy fun, and touched some kind of zeitgeist. MacGyver's no ordinary guy, but his personable style and ability to get out of any dire situation made him a pop icon.

So now we have a musical by Peter Lurye (music and lyrics) with book by Kate Chavez, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, Robin Ward Holloway, and Lee David Zlotoff, creator of the original TV show. Part of the camp esprit is voting for who plays MacGyver each performance. Intrepid wannabes audition before the show, the audience votes, and after a few minutes the show begins with the non-pro in MacGyver gear who reads his lines off cue cards. It's all nice, clean fun, for we laugh along with the actor, and by the end the poor schlub is dancing and laughing with the rest of the cast. He/she thoroughly MacGyvers it.

Lurye's music is standard fare, except for the expressive “On the Other Side,” sung by the punk rock sister who's stranded behind the Berlin Wall, who MacGyver is sent to rescue. It's incredibly silly, a whirligig of family-friendly entertainment.

Director Kenn McLaughlin planted his tongue in his cheek and went all out, as did the wildly talented cast that included Mark Ivy, Jay Aubrey Jones, Mike Dorsey, Brandon Grimes, Katrien Van Riel, Caroline Johnson, Hanna Levine, Keivon Akbari, all having the time of their lives. The arena lighting from Christina Giannelli, day-glo sets by Kirk Domer, wailing sound work from Joel Burkholder, and punk/Goth costumes from Kristina Ortiz Miller smacked us in the face with '80s sensibility.

We thought we had forgotten all that – oh, the colors, the colors – and those evil Commies. They can't possibly win the cold war, not with MacGyver and his troupe of zanies singing and dancing as they pull down that damn ugly wall.
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Caroline Bowman as Elsa in Frozen.
Photo by Deen van Meer
Winner: Jeremy Chernick, et al., for Frozen (Broadway at the Hobby)

When Disney Theatricals produces a show, money is no object, so when it creates a live-action version of its mega-blockbuster Frozen, you know it's going to look great. Frozen did not disappoint, as a matter of fact it was rather brilliant, awesome.

There were snowstorms, a wall of ice that grew like kudzu over the ramparts of Arendelle, a sparkly bed when Elsa pommels Anna with magic and almost kills her, and an impressive CGI aurora borealis that swans about on the cyc like a theme song. (Yes, like that one.)

But the real stunner was the effect that depended on physical magic of the kind that's been lurking around backstage since wrinkled cycloramas and looming ghosts seen in windows. Elsa has banished herself after turning Arendelle into a cryogenic Hyatt, once again almost killing her estranged sister, and she rushes off into the great mountain peaks of Norway where a storm rages.

This is the place in the show where she belts the showstopping signature piece, “Let It Go.” She stands in a swirl of snow, when her glove flies off, then her other one. Her cape is blown up and away, offstage. Then there's a roar of thunder, a crack of lighting, and suddenly, magically, awesomely, she's wearing a crystal-laden white gown, like Celine Dion in Vegas, an ice goddess. It happens in a split second. It's most impressive, and we still can't figure out how the Disney magicians did it.

These are special effects of the highest order: lavish and colorful, full of drama and physically wondrous. They're eye-popping and greeted with roaring appreciative applause. It's quite a show technically. Any Disney production employs a phalanx of worker bees, so we can't be sure who else should share our award, but perhaps Chernick will happily pass it around to Technical Supervision, Aurora Productions; Video Design, Finn Ross; Scenic and Costume Design, Christopher Oram; and the numerous, anonymous animators and video programmers. Let it go, Mr. Chernick.

Finalist: Brandon Cho for Hurricane Diane (Rec Room).

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Director/choreographer Mitchell Greco helmed a production that ran like a fine Swiss watch.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Winner: Mitchell Greco for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stages)

A director puts his stamp on a production by pacing, performance, theme, tempo, and personal vision in the mise en scene. He or she sees the final product in their mind's eye before the set is built, costumes designed, or sometimes who's been cast. It's the vision we see, massaged by his/her team of stage wizards to make it realized on stage.

Mitchell Greco must have seen a carousel, for he has overlain Spelling Bee with a delicious gloss of naivete and simplicity, but one that runs like a fine Swiss watch. Yet he also knows exactly where the snark lies, where the beat for each line should land, how to move the characters in the round. Bee (Broadway, 2005) is the most delightful show (see Best Choreography). It gently mocks the perils, the fears, the challenges, the hopes, the humor inherent in teen spirit.

Six goofy oddball middle schoolers compete in their local spelling bee, overseen by three clueless adults. As they're eliminated, the losers are given a juice box as consolation prize. The kids have problems, daddy issues, two-daddy issues, a distant mom on an ashram finding herself, and one horny embarrassed young man with a wayward penis. Not even a visit from Jesus comforts one girl missing her parents.

But the joie de vivre is infectious, baked into the show in its comic songs, wicked banter, sympathetic characters (we all remember such times), showing off, and getting it wrong when we think we've gotten it right. The kids are us, and when played by adults all the more funny.

Greco choreographed and directed, so the show has a lovely cohesion with constant bursts of energy and surprise. Stefän D. Azizi's gym set with wood basketball floor and net is nostalgic, Kristie Chiyere Osi's eclectic costumes reek of dubious teen fashion choices, and Steven Jones' musical direction, a bit overpowering, has spirit and heft. The cast was ideal, and Greco's choreography glistened with Broadway verve. Charm is a rare commodity in the theater, but Bee reeks of it. What an aftershave Greco wears.

Finalists: Taibi Magar for South Pacific (Theatre Under the Stars) and Kenn McLaughlin for MacGyver (Stages)

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T Lavois Thiebaud in 4.48 Psychosis
Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Winner: Best Director
Jason Nodler for 4:48 Psychosis (Catastrophic Theatre)

If you’ve spent even five minutes talking about theater with Jason Nodler there’s a good chance he’ll bring up Sarah Kane. Not just bring her up, but explain in passionate detail why the mother of “in yer face” disruptive theater who unnervingly challenged British theatrical norms in the '90s is one of, if not his absolute, favorite playwright.

So, it seemed obvious when Catastrophic tapped Nodler to direct Kane's radical, subversively lyrical, and final play 4.48 Psychosis to kick off their post-pandemic season.

Obvious, but not a slam dunk.

First, because being obsessed with a writer and her work can sometimes cloud a director's judgment about how that work should translate in their space and place.

More importantly, 4.48 is a free-form ride into the abyss of mental illness, a 75-minute suicide note.

It’s an unformed ball of clay just waiting to be sculpted into whatever shape the director chooses. There are no characters, no defined scenes, and no set suggestions or stage directions. Except for the inevitable end, it’s all open to interpretation. Stage this as you will, Kane implies.

But staging it is too meek a term for the magnificence Nodler births in this imaginative bulldozer of a production.

With a fine-tuned hand, Nodler forcibly stewards the production's themes of disturbing psychosis, medical ineptitude, belligerence, and sorrow while allowing for moments of gallows humor that twinge us away from discomfort for necessary respite.

Then there’s the simplistically haunting way the show itself looks. A smart director knows not to overly embellish when the material itself is this thrumming, and Nodler attunes to this by employing sharp but un-flashy video work and lighting.

To perform in this work is daunting, to say the least. It's a role that requires incredible emotional strength as an actor and just as importantly, a director who can safely support the journey. The fiery, elemental performance by T. Lavois Thiebaud as the haunted protagonist then becomes a testament to the collaborative work that happens when two theater artists are performing at the top of their game.

Kane would be proud. We’re proud. And we hope Nodler himself is proud of all that he accomplished.

Finalists: James Black for Gloria (4th Wall Theatre Co.), Rob Melrose for Born with Teeth (AlleyTheatre), Ron Jones for Clybourne Park (Dirt Dogs), Jeff Miller and Luis Galindo for The Book of Grace (Catastrophic Theatre), Brandon Weinbrenner for Dead Man’s Cell Phone (Alley Theatre) and Lily Wolff for Hurricane Diane (Rec Room)
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