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UPDATED The 2014 Houston Theater Awards: A Year Filled With Sound, Fury and Laughter

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Oh, the places we've been! The people we've met!

We've gone to Hell with Satan in Doctor Faustus (Classical Theatre Company); suffered with the Frank family in their Amsterdam garret in The Diary of Anne Frank (A.D. Players); time-traveled backward and forward with ex-wives and new wives in Communicating Doors (Alley Theatre); romped through the deconstruction of fairy tales in Into the Woods (Main Street Theater); had our hearts trampled and seared in an African brothel in Ruined (Obsidian Art Space); wept in sympathy with a puppet horse more alive than the human actors in War Horse (Gexa Energy Broadway); prowled the waterfront with Anna Christie (Theatre Southwest); brawled and got drunk with Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I (Houston Shakespeare Festival); stormed the Parisian barricades with Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (Houston Family Arts Center); learned that size does matter in Cock (Theater LaB Houston); reeled under too much eggnog in A Very Tamarie Christmas (Catastrophic Theatre); fooled the Irish yokels and suffered the consequences in Faith Healer (Stark Naked Theatre Company); laughed as two proper English wives succumb to a former French lover in Fallen Angels (Main Street Theater); disbelieved a petulant prophetess in Cassandra (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company); and more and more and more. Plus we had the privilege of attending multiple regional premieres and ten world premieres! What an incredible year of theater, full of sound and fury and laughter, too. So many riches.

For our third annual Houston Theater Awards sponsored by the Houston Press, we give you the best of the best. We debated long and loud; the choices difficult because there was so much good stuff to ponder. Theater smacks us awake by showing us the world in all its diversity, a crazy quilt of emotion and enlightenment. The 2013-14 Houston theater season was extremely alive and kicking. We sincerely thank all the following nominees for enriching our lives with their sublime work. Please, sir, kick me again. D.L. Groover

This story was written by Olivia Flores Alvarez, Margaret Downing, D.L. Groover and Jim J. Tommaney.

Best Play/Production: The Whipping Man (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Matthew Lopez's thrillingly theatrical The Whipping Man smoldered inside Stages Repertory Theatre before it burst into scalding flame. Replete with resignation, acceptance and forgiveness, raucous then enigmatically quiet before the storm, three disparate men -- desperate, too -- survive as best they can in their ruined Atlanta house in the waning days of the Civil War. Two are former slaves; the third is the gravely wounded son of the master. Lopez's finely-etched period drama crackles and spits with exceptional fragrance and acidity. Under Seth Gordon's tightly-paced direction, the past haunts the present. Freedom, so much desired and killed for, can become another set of chains if one doesn't know which path to take. Matthew Lopez thrillingly lays open the road, the festering wounds, the giddy rush of liberation toward that beacon now within reach. You can almost smell the smoke and mold of the once-fine house laid bare in Jodi Bobrovsky's nuanced set design; Claremarie Verheyen's masterwork costumes composed of threadbare fabric, blood and soil; and Renee Brode's ex-quisitely detailed lighting that echoed dim -candlelight and rainy dusk. As stalwart house-steward, Shawn Hamilton anchored the production with a magnificent performance that was wise, stoic and seething beneath the surface with a prophet's righteous anger. He was matched by Ross Bautsch's guilt-wracked son and Joseph Palmore's scallywag former slave terrified of freedom. The young men have more in common than they think, as Lopez's dramatic revelations fall with shattering effect, like Sherman's bombardment of Atlanta. Perhaps the most surprising twist of all is that the family and their former slaves are Jewish. Deep faith drives the characters, whose celebration of Passover ironically occurs when victory is declared at Appomattox but tempered by the news that Lincoln has been assassinated. The drama ends on a quiet gesture that sums up the great themes Lopez has intertwined -- freedom, liberation, personal choice, religious belief, and, most important, scars from the past, both psychic and graphically physical. The healing has just begun. Stages sang Lopez's impassioned siren song in triumph.

Finalists: clean/through (Catastrophic Theatre), Doctor Faustus (Classical Theatre), Freud's Last Session (Alley Theatre), Rome (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company), Ruined (Obsidian Art Space), The Good Thief (Stark Naked Theatre Company) and Venus in Fur (Alley Theatre).

Best Musical Into the Woods (Main Street Theater)

Contemporary musical master Stephen Sondheim is justly celebrated, but none of his works is as beloved as his and James Lapine's deconstruction of classic fairy tales, Into the Woods (1987). This flavorsome musical takes us back to our childhood in Act I, where we meet Jack of beanstalk fame, Rapunzel in her tower, woeful Cinderella, feisty Little Red Riding Hood and a witch who has enchanted her neighbors The Baker and His Wife. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White make cameo appearances, too. They all have dreams for the future. Then, in Act II, the musical slaps us into adulthood when the characters get exactly what they wished for. Haunting, thought provoking, and very pleasing, this grownup musical about childhood received a magical four-star production at Main Street Theater. Director Andrew Ruthven worked his own magic as he enlarged Main Street's intimate stage space into a WW II fairytale world of the mind, filled with atmosphere amply supplied by set designer Ryan McGettigan, lighting designer John Smetak and tuneful musical direction from Claudia Dyle. Featuring a panoply of exceptional Houston musical talent (Christina Stroup, David Wald, Amanda Passanante, Crystal O'Brien, Kregg Dailey, Scott Gibbs, Marco Camacho, Rutherford Cravens, Lauren Dolk, Amy Garner Buchanan, Kasi Hollowell, Katie Porterfield, in multiple roles), the impeccable cast delightfully insinuated themselves right into our innocent, not-yet-broken heart.

Finalists: Godspell (A.D. Players), The Little Mermaid (Theatre Under the Stars) , Murder Ballad (TUTS Underground) and The Pajama Game (Bayou City Concert Musicals).

Best Actor Shawn Hamilton in The Whipping Man (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Making a story like The Whipping Man work on stage requires a linchpin -- an actor who centers the show, whose actions and emotions serve as the core while other characters and their pain, deceits and disappointments swirl about him. Shawn Hamilton answered every demand that the role of the house steward Simon required in his heart-wrenching portrayal of someone newly free who doesn't quite understand how that works. As the faithful retainer of the scattered Southern family at the end of the Civil War, he holds the house together even when nobody's there. He's proud, secretive and street smart, and his faith -- a big reveal in the play -- holds his humanity tight. And that voice! Deep and resonant, it's like America singing.

Finalists: James Black in Freud's Last Session (Alley Theatre), Kevin Daugherty in Equus (Frenetic Theatre), Phillip Lehl in The Winter's Tale and Faith Healer (Stark Naked Theatre Company), Santry Rush in The Good Thief (Stark Naked Theatre) and John Tyson in Faith Healer (Stark Naked Theatre Company).

Best Actress: Qamara Black in Ruined (Obsidian Art Space)

Qamara Black, an alumnus of Michigan's Blackbird Theatre, made her Houston debut in Lynn Nottage's fiery drama Ruined, and our Bayou City hasn't been the same since. We always hope that an actor will completely envelop her character, but we never anticipated such a tremendous transformation. Without doubt, this was a rare performance in any theater season: the most human, the truest, the most fearless. She didn't make her character easy to like her. As opportunistic Mama Nadi, she runs a brothel/bar in the jungles of the Congo. Surrounded by warring militants, she must play both sides to survive. To do so, she sells the services of young girls. If times were less harsh, she'd probably own a restaurant and get married, but unable to escape the horrors, she does what she can. Hell is having no choices. Black depicts the fiendish road one has to travel. While the physical production suffered slightly from a lack of resources, Black supplied all the atmosphere needed -- you could feel the equatorial heat and suffocating gloom in the very way she swept the grimy bar floor. This place may be a dilapidated shack, but, damn, it's gonna be clean. Her no-nonsense approach buoyed the supporting cast, and her "girls" (Uju Edoziem, Miatta Lebile, Arianna Day and Teri Mills) had their own moments of power and truth. But Black was searingly alive and untouchable. Radiating star presence like an exploding supernova, she lit up the sky. We were fortunate to have her here in Houston, and we hope she returns soon, as soon as our eyes stop dilating.

Finalists: Elizabeth Bunch in Good People (Alley Theatre), Nicole Rodenburg in Venus in Fur (Alley Theatre), Kelly Walker in Anna Christie (Theatre Southwest) and Detria Ward in Old Settler (Ensemble Theatre).

Best Supporting Actor Jay Sullivan as Spike in Sonya and Vanya and Masha and Spike (Alley Theatre)

Besides physical charisma and low body fat, Jay Sullivan as Spike brought the ability to bound like a gazelle. His high energy and gifted performance transformed a perhaps clichéd role of "boy toy" into a wonderful portrait of a real human being -- cheerful, charming and exceptionally proud of a hilarious audition piece that almost got him a role. The other characters can't stop talking about him, and, for all we know, some of the audience still are. Count us among them.

Finalists: Curtis Barber in Little Shop of Horrors (Rice University), Atseko Factor in Ruined (Obsidian Art Space), Adam Gibbs in Doctor Faustus (Classical Theatre Company), Scott Gibbs in Into the Woods (Main Street Theater), Octavio Moreno in Lucia di Lammermoor (Opera in the Heights), David Rainey in Henry IV Part I (University of Houston Shakespeare Festival) and Jim Salners in Heartbreak House (Main Street Theater).

Best Supporting Actress Elizabeth Marshall Black in Fallen Angels (Main Street Theater)

Maids on stage tend to come from one of two camps. They either fade into the woodwork, providing little more accent than the oh-so--necessary answering of the phone or delivering the cocktails on a tray. Or, as in the case of Jasmine, the maid played so adroitly by Elizabeth Marshall Black in Fallen Angels, they take over the stage providing point and counterpoint to whatever the other characters are up to. In this Noel Coward farce, Jasmine has somehow had every experience known to humankind which provides her with an opinion on everything -- which she is more than willing to share whether anyone wants to hear it or not. Even surrounded by a good cast, Black steals every scene, including the priceless moment when she sits down to play the piano -- feeling fully entitled to whatever life has to offer her.

Finalists: Lindsay Ehrhardt in The Importance of Being Earnest (Classical Theatre Company), Uju Edoziem in Ruined (Obsidian Art Space), Haley Hussey in Cock (Theater LaB Houston), Christina Stroup in Into the Woods (Main Street Theater) and Kim Tobin in Faith Healer (Stark Naked Theatre Company).

Best Breakthrough Dylan Godwin in Good People (Alley Theatre)

For many past seasons, Dylan Godwin has appeared in a variety of supporting roles for numerous Houston theater companies, and we would like to honor his work. He constantly delivers, whether ominously whispering juicy slander in Amadeus; delightfully lifting the fun quotient as lost-boy Toodles in Peter Pan; displaying nerdy charm as one of the AltarBoyz; creeping us out in striped long johns and Louise Brooks wig as the weirdest of Palcontents in Ubu Roi; or wistfully engaging us with his swell singing pipes in the forgotten Sondheim ballad "I Remember" from A Little Sondheim Music. In David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, his character sets the plot in motion by firing friend Margie from her low-paying job at the Dollar Store. A master manipulator, she tries to talk him out of it by insinuation and employee gossip. He plays bingo, you see, and that means only one thing: he's gay. The ploy doesn't work -- she's got to go or else he'll be fired too -- but the disappointment and shocked hurt that play across his puppy face say everything. It's a scene of betrayal, and Godwin works miracles with that distinctive mug and ultra-expressive eyes. Later, in an act of forgiveness, he saves the day -- and Margie's monthly rent -- by giving her his bingo winnings. Godwin plays it with embarrassed self-effacement, a perfect little moment. He's given us so many perfect little moments, we thank him and can't wait to see even bigger moments ahead for him.

Best Risk TUTS Underground

What an idea. Take over Zilkha Hall, a 500-seat downtown theater that was dark more often than not. Throw up a wine and craft beer garden right outside. Bring in edgier plays and musicals with up and coming playwrights and performers and then put ticket prices well within the reach of a younger crowd. Okay, most of these elements are employed by several mid-size theater companies throughout town, but it was TUTS Underground that pulled it all together, covered it with glamour and glitz, and made it work by adding extras such as the on-stage working pre-show bar at Murder Ballad (whose one unintended side effect, as noted by our critic Jim J. Tommaney, was that not everyone could make it through the 80-minute one-act that followed without a bathroom break). Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin started talking about using the smaller theater and the need to appeal to younger audiences when he took over his new duties in 2012, making them a reality in 2013. The first four shows were successful enough that TUTS Underground started offering a subscription service and has already announced its second season.

Best Trooper Philip Lehl in The Winter's Tale (Stark Naked Theatre Company)

Philip Lehl, the co-founder and co-executive director of Stark Naked Theatre Company, is recognized as an authority on William Shakespeare. He can talk him, walk him and teach classes about him. All of which helped immeasurably last season when he decided to direct the little seen The Winter's Tale at Studio 101. The crew was deep into rehearsals when the actor playing not only King Leontes but the Shepherd as well had to withdraw right before the production was to open. Stark Naked pushed back the opening by a week while Lehl memorized his lines and the show opened. As our critic D. L. Groover observed at the time: "One of Houston's most admired interpreters of Shakespeare, here [Lehl] directs his first Shakespearean production, which he does with flare and an inspiring touch...Is there any line in the Bard he can not make clear and easily comprehended? His invisible craft at creating an emotion, showing it to us without fuss and moving us to tears as he does so is art at its most sublime. One of his many wonders is how much fun he has while acting. His love is infectious, and the others in the cast -- and we, too, in the audience -- take up his mission. How easy Shakespeare sounds in their capable hands." Juggling two crucial parts and a director's duties, Lehl made it look easy.

Best Costume Design Donna Southern Schmidt for Diary of Anne Frank (A.D. Players)

Costumes say many things in a play, but the two most important roles are setting the period and revealing character. Within limits, it's the director who sets the tone, so if he wants Hamlet moping on the moon, more likely than not the costumes will not be Danish Renaissance. Schmidt has been director of the costume shop at A.D. Players for many seasons, and her sharp eye and skill with a needle have always elevated their shows with taste, refinement and good judgment. Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett's heart-wrenching period drama of a family in crisis is site-specific: WW II Amsterdam. Hiding from the Nazi invaders, the middle-class Franks take refuge in an upstairs secret annex in Frank's spice warehouse. They are everyday people whose clothes are unshowy, drab and utilitarian. Entering the apartment, they take off the outer layer to reveal another set of clothing underneath. To not attract attention as they walked through the street, they wore as much as they could so as not to carry suitcases. Nothing looks like it was just made in the costume shop; these clothes are used and somewhat threadbare. That's the way they read from the stage anyway, and it's a perfect look. Simple sweater sets or brighter day dresses for Anne and her sister, unfitted suits for the men, sombre grays for their mother, and better quality dresses and that beloved fur coat for Mrs.Van Daan, who lives above her means. She makes such a scene over that coat, her last link to her family, that we know the coat's going to come to no good. These functional costumes, so apt, serve the drama without shouting, just what great costumes should do.

Finalists: Amy Clark and Mark Moss for The Little Mermaid (Theatre Under the Stars), Claire Hummel for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Rice University), Amber Stepanik for The Breaux' Strategem (Houston Family Arts Center) and Claremarie Verheyen for The Importance of Being Earnest (Classical Theatre Company).

Best Set Design Jodi Bobrovsky for The Whipping Man (Stages Repertory Theater)

Designer Jodi Bobrovksy had quite a challenge in The Whipping Man. The story, which takes place at the end of the Civil War, is set in a southern mansion that's been sacked and ruined. She had to provide an appropriate backdrop to an emotional confrontation between three men without distracting in any way from the action on stage. Bobrovsky created ruined grandeur. Spare, but clearly indicating a past luxury and elegance, the set sufficiently fades into the background while providing a distinct ambiance (here, one of loss and regret). The world, in chaos, waits right outside the once stately doors of the mansion. Battered pillars stand guard for the almost empty mansion, overseeing the drama between a Confederate soldier and two newly freed slaves who have to face the future together.

Finalists: Mark Glover for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Stage Door, Inc.), Laura Fines Hawkes for Murder Ballad (TUTS Underground), Mark Krouskop for Little Shop of Horrors (Rice University), Mark A. Lewis for Arsenic and Old Lace (A.D. Players) and Ryan McGettigan for Doctor Faustus (Classical Theatre Company) and Middletown (Catastrophic Theatre).

Best Lighting Renee Brode for The Whipping Man (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Renee Brode's lighting is exceptionally exquisite, echoing dim candlelight in sensitive scenes that include both a brutal detailed description of an upcoming amputation, and quiet, wordless scenes as a bottle of whisky is shared, as well as capturing the pale light of rain, rain, rain that resonates with the heart of this powerful play. Even when the lighting was appropriately low, it was incandescent with significance.

Finalists: Christina Giannelli for Murder Ballad (TUTS Underground), Michael Lincoln for Communicating Doors (Alley Theatre) and Matthew C. Logan for Equus (Frenetic Theatre).

Editor's note: After hearing from various parties we are now giving the Best Sound Away to two people for Ruined. Best Sound Mary Faler and Tom Stell for Ruined (Obsidian Art Space)

The jungle sounds helped anchor the setting as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, caught in a civil war. The sounds of bitter offstage arguments and the offstage screams of young girls amplified the tragic tension as victims struggled for survival and entrepreneurs schemed for advancement, spiders in a web not of their making, where a dance tune can exemplify the survival of hope, against all odds.

Finalists: Chris Bakos for Middletown (Catastrophic Theatre), Trevor B. Cone for Anna Christie (Theatre Southwest) and Mark A. Lewis for The Diary of Anne Frank (A.D. Players).

Best Choreography Braden Hunt for Godspell (A.D. Players)

Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz's first hit, Godspell (1971), is a warm and fuzzy counterculture take on the teachings of Christ, as if performed by a bus-and-truck tour from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. Originally played in clown make-up -- sweet Jesus! -- it boasts one his most famous songs "Day by Day," as the parables are made manifest by actors "playing themselves." Act II takes the inevitable tragic, yet triumphant, turn to Christ's final days. Emotion mounts steadily. The show has a genuine down-home sweetness, depending upon the actors' willingness and believability to portray golly-gee innocence. A true song-and-dance man, Hunt, who plays both John the Baptist and Judas, cut his musical teeth at the former Masquerade Theatre. While a beguiling actor, he is also a tremendous dancemaker. Under Kevin Dean's physical direction, Godspell never stops moving. The cast practically pole vaults over, around and through Robin Gillock's jungle gym set of scaffolding and moveable boxes. But, also, the cast never stops dancing, whether gyrating or soft-shoeing. They form a rumba line and sashay across the stage, perform a two-man ragtime vaudeville with cane and hat, or sit in a circle and simply sway to Schwartz's ecumenical tunes. Nimble and fleet, Godspell reveals its simplicity naturally. What moves us so powerfully is not so much his music, but His music. The cast sings both exceedingly well, while they dance to a higher beat thanks to Hunt.

Finalists: Melissa Pritchard and Kristy Richmond for The Pajama Game (Bayou City Concert Musicals).

Best Visiting Production Little Mermaid (Theatre Under the Stars)

This is that rare production that in some ways outdoes Broadway, as it found a way to simulate underwater swimming that eluded Broadway. It is enormous fun, with show-stopping performances by Alan Mingo Jr. as Sebastian and Liz McCartney as the villainess Ursula, whose multi-tentacled octopus costume is almost a play in itself. It has a sumptuous design, thrilling special effects, a sterling cast, wit and buoyance, a fascinating plot, music to savor and choreography to delight. It was a visiting triumph.

Finalists: War Horse (Gexa Energy Broadway) and Peter and the Star-catcher (Gexa Energy Broadway).

Best Gem of a Theater Studio 101

Home to Stark Naked Theatre Company and Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, Studio 101 is a large space with an intimate feeling. We've seen dozens of productions there -- from full out Shakespeare to bare bones readings -- and the stage accommodated both very well. There's space to add seating for sold-out houses (which are frequent), but a smaller audience isn't left feeling like it's sitting in an empty cavern. One feature Studio 101 has that's missing from most other production spaces is artistic neighbors. Most shows at Studio 101 include a themed art exhibit with work by other artists in the Spring Street Studio complex. (For example, a production of Body Awareness, a show about female body image, was accompanied by paintings and photographs exploring the same theme.) Did we mention Studio 101 has plenty of free, safe parking? A small thing, yes, but a rarity for many Houston production venues.

Best College Season Rice University

Rice added several triumphant productions to its season, with a superb A Midsummer Night's Dream staged outdoors under a giant oak tree, with Daniel Burns as a gymnastic Puck, directed with panache by Christina Keefe, and with a great set and lighting to boot. And they revitalized the perennially popular Little Shop of Horrors with a wonderful set that gave us the entire slum neighborhood, with Curtis Barber making Mr. Mushnik human and not a cartoon, and Bryce Willey nailing Seymour, showing us the love and not just the nerd. It was wonderful.

Finalist: University of Houston

Best New Play clean/through by Miki Johnson (Catastrophic Theatre)

Many Houston fans (us included) miss seeing Miki Johnson, an extremely talented actor, perform on stage. These days, she's Catastrophic Theatre's playwright-in-residence. The trade-off has been that she's written some breathtakingly beautiful and well-crafted plays, including this year's winner for Best New Play, clean/through. (Johnson previously won this award for her debut play, American Falls.) The story of a couple struggling to stay together as they get clean and sober wasn't pretty (drug addition rarely is), but gosh was it powerful. Directed by Jason Nodler, Catastrophic's artistic director, the obviously complex story was seamless. Johnson kept the construction of the work -- the nuts and bolts of how she created living, breathing characters and how she built intricate, intense scenes -- firmly beneath a layer of emotion and, at times, desperation. There wasn't a happily-ever-after ending; instead, Johnson left her characters at a new beginning.

Finalists: Middletown by Will Eno (Catastrophic Theatre) and Rome by John Harvey (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company).

Best Ensemble Theater Cast You Can't Take It With You (Alley Theatre)

Ensemble casts, by their nature, have many elements, many chances for most of the actors to have star turns. Sometimes it's a band of car thieves, military men or spies working in carefully sequenced, precisely choreographed movements. In the case of You Can't Take It With You, it's a bunch of loonies whose delightful if unusual approach to living life to its fullest initially disguises the ultimate craft that went into making this work by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Alley Theatre company actors embraced this comedy-drama with elan to open their 2013 season. Characters rush about, doors slam, people enter, fireworks erupt in the basement, gags are set up and the confusion is comforting. People come to dinner and end up staying for years. As critic D.L. Groover wrote in his review: "This is a play for actors, and Hart and Kaufman supply a fabulous who's who of nonconformists for the Alley regulars to sink their teeth into and gobble up. The large company, on the same wavelength thanks to director Sanford Robbins and his whiplash pacing, has a very good time. We do, too."

Finalists: Anna Christie (Theatre Southwest), Into the Woods (Main Street Theater) and Rome (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company).

Best Director Seth Gordon for The Whipping Man (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Anyone who recently directed an Arabic production in Cairo of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the most American of plays, deserves our attention. If that same man recently directs Matthew Lopez's blistering The Whipping Man (2011), theater's newest all-American play, he deserves our honor (see Best Play/ Production above). Associate artistic director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Gordon previously oversaw Stages' production of Yazmina Reza's interior monologue-heavy The Unexpected Man. There's nothing interior about The Whipping Man. All psychic scars are definitely on the exterior, paraded for all to see. Three men -- two former slaves, one former master's son -- confront the past and the future in a world turned upside down. Slaves are suddenly free, rudderless; masters are impotent, clueless. No one knows which way to go. Blazing and dramatic, intimate yet epic in theme, The Whipping Man transforms dry history into the personal. With a sure hand, Gordon allows the play to spark and roar on its own terms. Comedy bubbles to the surface -- the horse meat dinner scene is a marvel of slapstick timing, growing funnier as each new chew gets a bigger laugh, but it's the interactions of the three men that's always on the front burner: Simon (Shawn Hamilton, see Best Actor, above), stalwart, faithful house servant; John (Joseph Palmore), opportunistic petty thief and boyhood friend of Caleb (Ross Bautsch), the bedridden master's son whose leg will be amputated in a strikingly horrific scene that's all the more gory for not depicting Simon's rusty saw operation but by Simon's bloody description of what will happen. Lopez's drama gets resplendent, truthful treatment under Gordon's exceptional watchful eye. Everything has coalesced -- acting, set, lighting, sound and especially direction -- to give us an unforgettable portrait of a country growing up.

Finalists: Jennifer Decker for Rome (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company), Tom Stell for Ruined (Obsidian Art Space), John Tyson for The Good Thief (Stark Naked Theatre Company) and Brandon Weinbrenner for Venus in Fur (Alley Theatre).

Best Artistic Directors Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin (Stark Naked Theatre)

Artistic directors have one of the toughest jobs in theater. They provide the company's vision. They oversee productions and bring actors, directors and designers (each of which has a vision of his or her own) together in a cohesive, functional family for the length of the show's run. And, as the case with Stark Naked Theatre's Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin, they also act, direct and teach. Oh, and sometimes they work the ticket booth or staff the concession stand at intermission. We've seen Lehl and Tobin, winners of the Houston Press MasterMinds Award in 2013, nurture and grow Stark Naked Theatre Company from a small company with ambitious artistic goals to a powerhouse leader in the theater community. One of the most noteworthy productions of the last season was Stark Naked's Faith Healer. It was a three-person show, with Lehl, Tobin and John Tyson (who also directed) as characters telling different versions of the same story. It was a signature Stark Naked production. It gave Tyson the opportunity to both act and direct (he did both wonderfully), and its goal wasn't to fill the seats, but to fill the stage (which it did especially well). Lehl and Tobin care about their audiences. More importantly, they don't underestimate them. They produce smart, challenging work. Oh, and they care about their actors, too. Stark Naked is one of the few small theaters in the city that pays all of its actors.

Finalists: Jennifer Decker (Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company), John Johnson (Classical Theatre), Jason Nodler (Catastrophic Theatre) and Patrick Summers (Houston Grand Opera).

Best Season Alley Theatre

Beginning with the Pulitzer-Prize winner You Can't Take it With You with its Alley Company cast that hit all its marks, and the sexy and provocative Venus in Fur with its startling twists of personality and perspective, Alley Theatre started its 2013-14 season strong and rarely faltered along the way. The Alley followed up with the gripping Other Desert Cities, equal parts politics and parenthood, and the compelling Freud's Last Session with just two actors, James Black and Jay Sullivan, parrying in a Victorian room. Theresa Rebeck's new play Fool came to town as a world premiere and there was time out for a fun step into Alan Ayckbourn's science fiction comedy Communicating Doors before 2013 Tony's winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike gave us Chekhov with a twist as well as a look at the amazing flexibility of one of its stars. And then Good People took us into a sad South Boston setting with Elizabeth Bunch as Margie Walsh, negotiating a tough world as best she can with grace in unexpected places. Throughout, audiences were seeing consistently compelling works performed by actors who clearly know, understand and love what they are doing. The Alley is known as the big dog in town; this year it lived up to that moniker.

Finalists: Houston Grand Opera, Main Street Theater, Stages Repertory Theatre and Stark Naked Theatre Company.

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