Announcing the 2020 Houston Theater Awards

A plague came upon us, but still the Houston theater community soldiered on as best it was able.
Photo by Max Burkhalter; props courtesy of The Wilde Collection / Photo illustration by Susie Tommaney
A plague came upon us, but still the Houston theater community soldiered on as best it was able.

When Hurricane Harvey smashed into Houston in August 2017, its destruction to our theater community was horribly awesome. The devastation was mighty and biblical. Theaters were wrecked, props lost, costumes stank from mildew, schedules hastily shuffled or postponed, jobs lost, budgets thrown out of whack.

The world had turned, and the effects were still being felt when, last March, we all were besieged by a more insidious destructive power – the coronavirus. Ironically, its power to destroy had no effect on theatrical items like tutus, musical instruments, auditoriums; no, it only hurt people. It is ongoing throughout the world as you read this and shows no hurry to be gone from our sheltered lives. We live with it daily, weekly, monthly.

This plague has decimated our theaters. Social distancing and the ubiquitous use of face masks has no place in our shared communal space where audiences gather together to witness and enjoy the blissful healing power of live theater. There have been no performances since early last spring, and the curtain will not rise until early next year, at the earliest. And even that hope is only a prayer. We cannot foresee what the future may bring, but our theater world will be irrevocably altered. It's already been changed.

The theater season abruptly stopped in late March, half done, yet it promised to be one of our greatest seasons in memory. Stages had just opened its sparkling new facility, The Gordy, only steps away from its worn-out home near Allen Parkway, and this was very welcome news indeed. The Alley, of course, had rebuilt its home after Harvey with state-of-the-art stages; and MATCH continued as home to our smaller venues, making grand use of its more intimate spaces.

And what shows everyone gave us. From bedroom farce, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Coward, there were solo performances galore, and contemporary works that blew us away with their ferocious righteousness.

Think of the range; from the plight of displaced Vietnamese immigrants (Alley's Vietgone), welfare blacks living on deferred dreams (4th Wall's From Riverside to Crazy), surrealistic cataclysm (Catastrophic's Baby Screams Miracle), a delightfully loopy rendition of Norway's folk hero (Classical's Peer Gynt), an urban racial retelling of Waiting for Godot (Rec Room's Pass Over), glittering Broadway (TUTS' Elf and Spring Awakening), a quartet of Becket rarities (Mildred's Umbella's Ladies Night), and Jane Austen, too (Main Street's The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley) The gifts kept coming, each wrapped in glorious productions and acted to perfection. What a start to the season!

Then it was all suddenly over, dark and gloomy. The Alley shuttered after the opening night performance of George Orwell's 1984. The companies, still hopeful, put on a brave face – the show must go on, you know – but the pandemic's reality was too overpowering. Like dominoes, one after another, the theaters closed. To return to some vestige of normalcy, many companies via video shared personal messages from actors during the lockdown or they performed readings from favorite scenes. Although it's good to see everyone up close and looking well, it's not live. Nothing beats that.

In an aborted season with half remaining, the Houston Press decided not to bestow awards for Best Season or Best Artistic Director in this year’s Houston Theater Awards. With more productions set to go, it wouldn't be fair to what might have been. It's happened before where a company starts high then takes a surprising, deflating nosedive.

But what remains is choice. The first half of the year was exceptionally strong. It's a diverse, ecumenical crowd, full of radiant talent that Houston theater has in abundance. We applaud all our winners and nominees. You keep theater fresh and alive. May you come back soon, stronger than ever. We need you. — D.L. Groover
Drake Simpson, Vaishnavi Sharma, Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl in The Realistic Joneses at 4th Wall Theatre Company.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Best Play/Production
The Realistic Joneses (4th Wall Theatre Company)

How do you go about the mundane tasks of living when you or the person you love has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease? A story about mortality and relationships, whose everyman theme was reinforced by its ironic title, with all four cast members sharing the same last name, The Realistic Joneses was the best play we saw this season in Houston.

When 4th Wall Theatre Company co-artistic directors Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl saw playwright Will Eno’s work on Broadway they liked it a lot – but thought they could do it better. Its lines and nuances were getting lost on a big stage and that wouldn’t happen they felt if they brought it down to earth in the more intimate environs at their theater venue, Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios.

So there we sat, mere feet away from the backyards of Bob and Jennifer Jones (Lehl and Tobin-Lehl) and their suddenly intersecting lives with their new and younger neighbors, John and Pony Jones (Drake Simpson and out-of-towner Vaishnavi Sharma). From the start, nothing goes smoothly between the two couples yet they find themselves together again and again, sharing secrets, presenting fronts, dealing in very different ways with their presents and possible futures.

The carefully crafted humor, moments of despair and true confessions had audiences leaning in throughout the one act, trying hard not to miss a word or a glance. All four cast members rendered strong and distinct performances: one caregiver is an Energizer bunny, taking care of all the details and (almost) forever calm. The younger woman is annoying zany at time and doesn’t seem quite up to the task, at least not ready to embrace it. One of the men is gruff, abrupt, unpleasant to be around. The other is nonchalant and funny, his words filled with deflections.

Gathered around a picnic table in a suburban setting, the four people we watched weren’t always likable, but they were real and absorbing and memorable. Take your pick on how you would handle something similar, what protective scenarios you would sketch out for yourself to make it through. Safe to say, no one who saw the 4th Wall production left the theater without thinking about how they would take on any of the roles they had just seen so expertly portrayed.

Finalists: Baby Screams Miracle (The Catastrophic Theatre), Diary of Anne Frank (Main Street Theater), Empanada Loca – (Obsidian Theater), From White Plains (Thunderclap Productions), Pass Over (Rec Room Arts) Peer Gynt (Classical Theatre) and Vietgone (Alley Theatre)

A Chorus Line at Theatre Under the Stars
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Best Musical
A Chorus Line (Theatre Under the Stars)

As the dancers line up, we know what’s coming. It’s winners and losers time with no Plan B for those who can’t even pick up parts in the ensemble. Only eight of them will make the final cut. It’s A Chorus Line, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that never seems to lose its heartbreaking pizzazz, especially when treated with loving, spot-on care as Theatre Under the Stars did with its production.

Aided by some of the funniest (“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”) and haunting music (“What I Did for Love”), in a Broadway show starting with the urgency of “I Hope I Get it” to the grand finale of “One” with its dazzling footwork and sparkly costumes, A Chorus Line is one of those musicals that resonates with the audience, dancers or not. Who hasn’t desperately wanted something and sometimes gotten it but just as many times not? Who hasn’t been put on the spot in a make or break moment?

The musical’s characters get by on alternate doses of acceptance and rejection, knowing all the while that at some point their bodies are going to break down and they won’t be up on any stage anymore. They hope to stave off the and-then-what decision one more time. To do so they have to pass through a gauntlet of personal questions from the director, the god who decides their fate.

We cheer them on, hoping the best for all these gypsies of the theater, roving from show to show, hoping for another chance to be – not the stars – but the crowd behind the leads, the dancers who amaze us with their precision, talent and dedication with high kicks and confident struts. TUTS brought in a first rate group of triple threats who acted, danced and sang their way through the show, proving that they were all worthy of our undivided attention.

Finalists: Elf (Theatre Under the Stars) and Spring Awakening (Theatre Under the Stars)

Atseko Factor and Brandon J. Morgan in Pass Over
Photo by Tasha Gorel
Best Actor
Brandon J. Morgan as Moses in Pass Over (Rec Room Arts)

It was just a scant six months ago that we wondered if there were any positive adjectives left to describe the immense talent that Brandon J. Morgan possesses after a stellar performance in the Rec Room production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over. In Nwandu’s racial conflict-infused Waiting for Godot variant – with a dash of the Book of Exodus – Morgan tackled the role of Moses, bringing with him everything we look forward to in his performances cranked up to 11.

The things, both tangible and intangible, that make us want to stick by him, root for him, grieve for him in whatever role he plays – and even when it is in a play so hard to watch, such as Pass Over. Though Director Mekeva McNeil rightly chose to forego the curtain call at the end of the show, we hope to let this award stand as the much deserved standing ovation Morgan should and would have received after each and every performance. So are there words left to describe Morgan on stage? There better be, because as long as he graces the stages of Houston, we’re going to need them.

Finalists: Greg Cote as Ethan in From White Plains (Thunderclap Productions), Atseko Factor as Kitch in Pass Over (Rec Room Arts), Philip Lehl as Bob Jones in The Realistic Joneses (4th Wall Theatre Company), Carl Masterson as Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank (Main Street Theater), Byron Jacquet as Pops Washington in Between Riverside and Crazy (4th Wall Theatre Company), Gerardo Velasquez as Elliot in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue (Main Street Theater) and Wesley Whitson as Dennis in From White Plains (Thunderclap Productions).
Kevin Daugherty as Ray and Crystal Rae as Shatique in White Guy on the Bus, a Dirt Dogs Theatre production
Photo by Gary Griffin
Best Actress
Crystal Rae as Shatique in White Guy on the Bus (Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.)

It’s likely we all agree that Bruce Graham’s White Guy on the Bus, staged this season by Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., is shocking, provocative, and convention-defying. Now, whether you view this non-linear revenge drama as an insightful evaluation of morality, political correctness and, of course, race, or as something a bit more exploitative, well, that’s probably within the eye of the beholder.

The one thing we definitely agree on, however, is that Crystal Rae, who played Shatique in the production, was a force to be reckoned with. Rae’s Shatique, a black single mother and aspiring nurse with a nine-year-old son, shared a seat with the older, out-of-place finance guy – the titular white guy – on the titular bus as they rode a line from the ‘burbs to the city and back on a trip destined to make a stop by the state penitentiary. There, as the man inquires about her life, her hopes, and dreams for unknown reasons, we learn about the woman as much through Graham’s dialogue as we do through the weariness worn on Rae’s face and seemingly in her bones.

Rae commands the stage, playing standoffishness, vulnerability, pain, and rage while deftly mining the emotional depths of her character, the push and pull for power, and the brutality of Graham’s work – all which, if you were lucky enough to see the show – were guaranteed to stick with you long after.

Finalists: Shannon Emerick as Narrator in Every Brilliant Thing (Houston Equity Festival), Nan Gurley as Corrie in The Hiding Place (A.D. Players), Jenna Morris as Mouth in Not I, Part of Samuel Beckett’s Ladies Night (Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Co.) and Briana Resa as Dolores in Empanada Loca (Obsidian Theater).

Best Supporting Actor

Drake Simpson, as John Jones in The Realistic Joneses (4th Wall Theatre Company)

When we meet John Jones, it’s easy to like him. He has a laid-back manner, looks like the neighbor you’d like to sit around with in the backyard just talking about normal things like gas prices, sports teams and general observations on the state of the world.

In a perfect casting decision for 4th Wall Theatre Company. Drake Simpson plays John, the guy with the clever turn of phrase, the self-deprecating manner, the relaxed style that you only catch up on a bit later as deflections from a harsher reality. He’s protecting his wife; he’s protecting himself.

in The Realistic Joneses, Simpson employs all his considerable talents of charm and an underlying edginess that puts his fellow actors and the audience on notice. He’s married to Pony Jones, who seems a bit lost and more than a little self-absorbed. They’ve just moved in next to Bob and Jennifer Jones and as it turns out, the situation the younger Jones couple finds itself in is not that different than the older married pair – except, of course, in how they handle it.

Simpson, a founding member of the now defunct Horse Head Theatre, has been and continues to be one of the finest, most watchable actors on the Houston stage. In 4th Wall’s 2016 production of True West, he delivered explosiv, slovenly delight as the beer-drinking brother who thought there wasn’t all that much to writing a movie script, driving his brother to madness.

This is a quieter role, less bellicose with less physical humor. Hang onto his words; they can be interpreted in so many ways. Simpson is portraying a man far deeper than he first appears and doing it so effortlessly that we might miss the outstanding nature of this memorable performance. That's if we're not looking — but, of course, we were. 

Finalists: Alan Brincks, as Cop and White Gentleman in Pass Over (Rec Room Arts), Luis Gallindo, as Grandpops in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue (Main Street Theater), Paul Hope as the Old Actor in The Fantasticks (Stages) and Jayden Key as The Witness in Tragedy: a Tragedy (The Catastrophic Theatre).

Best Supporting Actress

Lindsay Ehrhardt as Emma in Fefu and Her Friends (The Catastrophic Theatre)

What is it about Lindsay Ehrhardt that makes her such an appealing presence on stage? There's that lovely piquant quality, of course, that natural flair that's an actor's mother's milk: see her Gwendolyn Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest (Classical Theatre). There's a slight loopiness about her, too, a wide-eyed innocent (who may actually not be so innocent), and when she delves into this aspect, she soars comically. That would be her Clem in The Fair Maid of the West (Classical). She also possesses unbanked urbanity and wit, a free spirit floating just this much above the stage. Grace in Tigers be Still (Black Lab Theatre) comes instantly to mind. She can be imperious, too, witness her Anne de Bough in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Main Street Theater), dripping witticisms as if each one were dipped in acid. While always grounded, she seems about to float away. She'd make a great Peter Pan.

This season she positively radiated on stage as Emma, in The Catastrophic Theatre's beguiling production of Maria Irene Fornes' wily feminist phantasmagoria, Fefu and Her Friends. Fefu, a proto-feminist, has invited her seven friends to her swanky Hampton's estate. It's 1936, and a woman's place in the world and their ties to men are on all their minds. Some of the characters are little more than ciphers, but Fefu, the wounded Julia, and the bubbly Emma are most distinct personalities. Under Ehrhardt's moony glow and comic laser-timing, Emma is terrifically chipper. Wearing a shockingly vibrant apple-green dress with canary-yellow gloves (thank you, costume designer Macy Lyne), she's been colorized. Jaunty and full of positivity, she won't allow any man to hold her back. Her wondrous vignette about male anatomy steals the show, as it should. She's intensely funny. Her Emma is fresh air and sunshine, a balm within Fefu's somber symbolic home. No one else could have brought such pleasure to Emma, and to us. Here's to you, Lindsay Ehrhardt.

Finalists: Rebecca Brooksher, as Rosalyn Carter in Camp David (Alley Theatre);
Chiemeri Osemele, as Paulina in School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play (The Ensemble Theatre); and Rebecca Greene Udden, as Louise in Private Lives (Main Street Theater )

Gerardo Velasquez in Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue at Main Street Theater
Photo by Bryan Kaplun
Best Breakthrough
Gerardo Velasquez as Elliot in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue (Main Street Theater)

It’s like discovering a pearl in an oyster. You know it may be there, yet still, it's unexpected. Like a gift you didn't know you'd be given, made all the more joyous thanks to the surprise. This is what it was like discovering Gerardo Velasquez's amazing performance as the young Iraq war veteran, Elliot in Main Street Theater’s production of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. A joyous gift that left us scrambling to figure out, who IS this actor?

Turns out, Velasquez has been plying his talent in film more so than on our Houston stages, but we’re hoping he’s caught the live performance bug so we can see more of his astonishing range. Oh, so charming and likable one minute as the war hero returned home. Then bringing us to tears with heartbreaking vulnerability while grappling with haunting past and future demons.

We couldn’t keep our eyes off him. Which is saying a lot considering the powerhouse performances that his castmates delivered.

Elliot is a tormented war hero awarded a Purple Heart. Now, thanks to his terrifically commanding performance of this complicated character, Velasquez is our winner for Best Breakthrough.

Best Choreography
Dan Knechtges for Elf (Theatre Under the Stars)

It’s not exactly as old as Dickens, nutcrackers, or even Red Ryder BB guns, but there’s a little seasonal story about a baby who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag one year and is unknowingly spirited away to the North Pole, where he’s raised by elves. It was a film, Elf, which spawned a musical that’s become a newer holiday classic. And when Theatre Under the Star's Artistic Director Dan Knechtges decided to put his own choreographic stamp on that musical, well, we’re betting he changed the trajectory of future holiday seasons in Houston, too.

Knechtges mounted a production in perpetual motion (on feet, on ice skates, on wheels) and good cheer, wrangling his cast, a ten-person ensemble, and more than two dozen children from the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre onto the stage to display an energy we can only compare to the hustle and bustle of last-minute shoppers trying to find the perfect gift. And amidst it all, two genuine showstoppers that we were ready to talk about through New Year’s Eve: the festively dynamic “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” in the first act and “Nobody Cares About Santa,” a blues-based Act Two-opening number which featured a dozen embittered Santas on Christmas Eve congregating at – where else – a Chinese restaurant.

Finalists: Marlana Doyle for Spring Awakening (Theatre Under the Stars), Jessica Hartman for A Chorus Line (Theatre Under the Stars) and Krissy Richmond for The Fantasticks (Stages).

Best Lighting
Hudson Davis for Baby Screams Miracle and Tragedy: a Tragedy (The Catastrophic Theatre)

It's should come as no surprise that lighting designers paint with light. They show us where to look, they also paint the mood, and hide things from us when appropriate. They give a show its own special character – sunny and vibrant, or dank as a cistern. They are theater's Rembrandts.

This season's master painter is Hudson Davis, responsible for the inky, lightning-lashed apocalyptic storm in Baby Screams Miracle (see Best Special Effects) and then a wholly different apocalypse in Will Eno's Tragedy: a Tragedy. This time, the sun has not risen, plunging the world into Stygian doom. The last surviving television news program covers this new horror. Everyone's in shock, except the fatuous anchor Frank, who covers the very real catastrophe as if reporting a puff piece. Reporter John's in the field scared of every animal noise, Constance reports from a creepy deserted house, Michael, the station's legal adviser, reports breathless remarks from the ineffectual governor, and then there's the Witness, a young teen who's lost his way in the dark. Not surprisingly, everyone has lost their way.

Davis plays with light, usually using a camera operator's flat face-front lighting. It's bright and glaring, leaving no shadow. It's also the only light, casting the rest of Ryan McGettigan's American gothic-like sets into shadowy forms of primary color. In one particularly incandescent moment, Jayden Key, as the wounded fawn Witness, appears from the darkness to relate, as if in a dream, his childhood memory. We see only his face, expressive and haunted, while the rest of the lights go out on the world. It was one of the most piercing, electric moments of the season, made immensely moving not only by Key's performance, but by master lighter, Hudson Davis.

Finalists: Christina Giannelli for Peer Gynt (Classical Theatre Company) and Grey Starbird for Samuel Beckett's Ladies Night (Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Co.)

Best Sound
Shawn W. St. John for Baby Screams Miracle (The Catastrophic Theatre) and Diary of Anne Frank (Main Street Theater)

For his exemplary sound work on Diary of Anne Frank (Main Street Theater), Shawn W. St. John shares our Best Sound award with himself. Unlike the bizarre surrealism of Baby Screams Miracle, with its pandemonium of frightful weather, whipped into a cacophonous frenzy by St. John, Diary is softer, more natural. Based on the colossal best-selling, posthumously published diary of Nazi death camp victim Anne Frank, the play by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Pulitzer, Tony and Academy Awards) has been newly adapted by Wendy Kasselman to give more voice to teenage Anne's budding sexuality and play up her Jewishness, which had been tempered in the early Broadway run.

The play is nonetheless fraught with tension as the family and four others hid in the attic of Frank's former spice factory and warehouse, unable to make any sound during working hours below. Each unintentional bump and noise rattles you, for you know how this story ends. And St. John augments the suspense with just the right bump and noise. His exemplary work here is crisp and eerie, from the song of the gulls seen from Anne's hideaway to the shrieking finality of those European sirens coming ever closer.

Finalists: Jon Harvey for Lysistrata (Classical Theatre Company) and Sam Martinez for Empanada Loca (Obsidian Theater)
Arianna Bermudez, Callina Anderson and Katherine Rinaldi in Come and Go — part of Samuel Beckett's Ladies Night at Mildred's Umbrella.
Photo by Gentle Bear Photography
Best Costumes
Laura Moreno for Samuel Beckett’s Ladies Night (Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Co.)

Minimalist short plays in a black box theater with barely a prop to be found save for the occasional chair. Not much to look at. And yet thanks to Laura Moreno’s sumptuously evocative and at times, downright creepy costume design, Samuel Beckett’s Ladies Night (a series of Beckett’s short female-centric plays) looked like nothing else we saw on Houston stages this year.

There was the primary color hat/coat wearing trio that seemed to light up the stage like some kind of acid trip traffic light in Come and Go. Covered in layers and layers of grey tatters that looked as though they would release dust from the ages if so much as patted, the woman in Footfalls was rendered mad and alone even before she spoke a word. And then Rockaby, perhaps Moreno’s greatest design, featuring an elderly woman so elegantly gothic in her head to toe lace and satin black, Marilyn Manson would bow at her feet.

So surprising and wonderous was each costume as it came into view that it took a minute to switch from just looking to actually paying full attention to each short play.

Beckett, a control freak who meticulously dictated all things for these plays, including costumes, would no doubt have approved. After all, he described them, but it was Moreno who brought them to life, winning her this year's Best Costume award.

Finalists: Colleen Grady for Elf (Theatre Under the Stars), Donna Southern Schmidt for The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (Main Street Theater) and Leah Smith for Peer Gynt (Classical Theatre Company)

Best Cabaret

Poppa Don't Preach to Me: Frank Loesser from Hollywood to Broadway (Paul Hope Cabaret)

If you ever want to know anything at all about Broadway musicals or the Great American Songbook, just ask Paul Hope. If you want to know the juicy parts, he's your man. A former Alley Theater resident company member, Hope has performed all his life, mostly here in Houston.

For years he was artistic director of Bayou City Concert Musicals, a yearly concert presentation of forgotten or rarely performed musicals, first staged at Ovations Nightclub until it moved to Heinan Hall at the downtown Houston Community College campus. Financial difficulties led to BCCM's passing years ago, but Hope bounced back with his one-man lecture demos on the Great American Songbook, deconstructing the work of individual songwriters.

Now he's taken this concept up many notches in his current series of cabaret shows. He added singers, some of Houston's musical best. Back in the intimate space at Ovations you sit snuggled up against other patrons in club chairs, drink in hand, all focused on the small stage with its phalanx of microphones and a glistening grand piano.

The shows are still full of gossip and lore, thanks to the charmingly devilish intros to each song by Hope. We hear the song, sigh in appreciation, and we're off to another one, following the chronology of whomever Hope is celebrating. This time it's Frank Loesser, perhaps the only composer to go from Hollywood to Broadway, along the way winning an Academy Award, a Grammy, multiple Tonys, and a Pulitzer Prize. He made his name with a string of Betty Hutton musicals for Paramount, and that got him to Broadway, where he always wanted to be.

Poppa's cast included Grace Givens, Whitney Zangarine, Seth Daniel Cunningham, John Gremillion, Brian Chambers, Tamara Siler, and Katie Fridsma. All bring showbiz razzmatazz to Loesser's peerless lyrics and wide rhythmic styles

An added attraction in this cabaret was a hot performance by Krissy Richmond of “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble,” from Hutton's The Perils of Pauline, a rambunctious specialty number about a noisy neighbor keeping her awake with his piano playing. Hutton – and Loesser – specialized in these manic songs, and Richmond (a Houston Theater Award-winner two years in a row for her choreography) brought her distinctive Broadway/Houston Ballet chops to this rousing comedy song. With a sympathetic pianist (Eduardo Guzman), performed by incomparable talent, and emceed with Hope's wicked flair and inprov lightness, the evening flew by.

Wesley Whitson (left) as Dennis and Greg Cote as Ethan in Thunderclap Productions' From White Plains
Photo by Aaron Alon
Best Trouper
Greg Cote as Ethan in From White Plains (Thunderclap Productions)

Actors are people and people have habits. Affectations. Actors also have directors who work with them to sound a certain way, move a certain way, and have ticks that they think will work to enrich the portrayal of the character.

So, it was with great curiosity that we asked Greg Cote about the fingernail biting he so enthusiastically performed whenever his character, Ethan, was anxious or upset or trying his best not to freak the hell out. Which was pretty much the whole damn play.

Was that Cote being Cote or Cote being Ethan?

Turns out it was the latter with a large dollop of the former layered on top.

Biting his nails was in fact a director’s note for playing Ethan. But Because Cote is an all-in kind of performer, no way he wasn’t gonna give it his all.

Night after night, gnawing away at his nails until there was almost nothing left to gnaw at. Thankfully the show had a short run or the term raw performance many have had a more gruesome meaning.

For not half-assing it, despite the personal disfigurement (dis-fingerment?) we award Greg Cote this year’s Best Trouper Award.

Best Set Design
Ryan McGettigan for Baby Screams Miracle and Fefu and Her Friends (The Catastrophic Theatre)

It's easy to spot quality. Just go to any show that Ryan McGettigan designs. He is definitely a Houston theater treasure, our own Boris Aronson, Jo Mielziner, and a bit of Adophe Appia. He has won numerous Houston Theater Awards – in 2019 for six varied productions as wondrous as the withered farmhouse in Curse of the Starving Class or as glitzy as that Christmas Elf – and we had been told that he was off to Broadway to seek fame and fortune. But that was before COVID-19 put a stop to all theater anywhere, so we hope he's back home in Houston and doing well.

Before he left for the Big Apple, he put his distinctive stamp on two Catastrophic productions, each as different as the plays themselves. Clare Barrow's Baby Screams Miracle is basically a gargantuan storm that rages throughout the Pacific northwest and plays havoc with the Christians. It's the mother of all storms, and is the reason to see the show. In fact it's the reason to see it. Beautifully designed by a talented team of stage prestidigitators (see Best Special Effects and Best Sound), the apocalyptic fury literally blew us out of our seat. Windows cracked, the house fell apart, trees were downed, lightning flashed, thunder crashed, rain cascaded. It was the end of the world. McGettigan designed the house to collapse, the window to shatter when the tree fell upon it, and the pile of rubble afterward. It was quite an achievement, and made us thankful when we walked outside to breathe in a warm moonlit evening. It was a stunning coup de theatre.

Fefu and Her Friends, from the neo-feminist Marie Irene Fornes, a darling of New York downtown theater in the '60s and '70s, is a contemporary look at '30s feminism. The play's been called the first immersive theater experience, as the audience moved from set to set for each scene. In one striking image, the broken Julia lay under a pane of glass while the audience stood over her listening to her monologue through headphones. This new adaptation keeps everyone in their seats, which allows us to fully bask in McGettigan's scenic magic.

Fefu's Hampton's estate is a skewed box of walls, wallpapered with torn cutouts of famous female portraits, or parts of them – a graceful bit of Botticelli, Grant's pinched American Gothic farm woman, a rosy and plump Renoir – as if to say this is where we've come or what we might become. It's strange and subversive, just like Fornes' semi-comedy. There's nobody better in Houston as a set designer than McGettigan. We pray he stays here and keeps designing his incredible theatrical wonders.

Finalists: Stefan Azizi for The Children (Rec Room Arts), Kirk A. Domer for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (A.D. Players) Torsten Louis for Diary of Anne Frank (Main Street Theater) and Kevin Rigdon for Fully Committed (Alley Theatre)

Detria Ward
Photo by Timothy Eric
In Memoriam
Detria Ward and Wayne Barnhill

Actor Detria Ward lived for Ensemble Theatre. You might say she lived at Ensemble. Although she performed all over town, Ensemble was her resident home since 1984. For years she lit up its stage, and any time she was listed in the playbill you knew you were in for a treat. She died last November from cancer, and just like her, she didn't tell anyone about it. Her final role was the swanky beauty pageant rep Eloise in Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls; The African Mean Girls Play – last September and October.

But Ward could effortlessly switch gears and dive deep and deliver a knockout punch that moved us to tears, as did her multi-faceted Rose in August Wilson's Fences, a crown jewel in the Ensemble rep. Her indomitable Rose earned Ward another nomination as Best Actress in our Houston Theater Awards (2016). She was equally adept at comedy, perhaps her specialty, because of her velvety contralto and her whiplash timing that would do Patek Phillipe proud. Reed-thin, she was a big presence on stage, radiating her own special light. Sophistication and soignee snap were her patented trademarks.

Often her roles were those of the wise woman who knows exactly how the world works. Never an ingenue, she could deliver a withering quip with the flick of her slender manicured hand. It always landed. She was the exemplar of the sassy woman in Celeste Walker's Sassy Woman; she had style for days as ultra-confident Eve in Pearl Cleague's What I Learned in Paris; and an abiding family strength as Grace Dunbar in Cleague's warm comedy The Nacirema Society. She won our Best Actress in 2013 for this signature performance. An alumna of Texas Southern University (a B.F.A. from the theater department, naturally), when she joined the Ensemble family she immediately starred in Don Evans' It's Showdown Time, a free-spirited adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ensemble's founding artistic director George W. Hawkins. She had found home.

You may also have heard her musically fragrant voice presiding over halftime shows at Texas Southern University football games, or recently as the gracious pre-performance host at the Ensemble. But once you saw her on stage, you never forgot her. I imagine her waving a leopard-print scarf our way, wishing us well in that throaty voice, and giving us a sly wink over a well-turned shoulder. Imagine what she's teaching the angels. She once said, “I'm so blessed to be a performer.” Ms.Ward, so were we.

Wayne Barnhill
was a company member with Infernal Bridegroom Productions and The Catastrophic Theatre. When IBP moved into its own permanent home, The Axiom, Wayne became a full-time technical director, building beautiful sets for IBP and, later, for Catastrophic. He acted with both IBP and Catastrophic in dozens of productions and played drums for many musicals and rock shows, including Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood.

Wayne was also a company member of Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company where he not only acted but was active in designing and building for the company as well.

He was a multi-talented, fiercely loyal, hard-working, cantankerous fellow with a heart of gold. Wayne's long battle with cancer took him away from our sets and stages far too soon.

Jordan Lage and Stephen Thorne in Camp David at the Alley Theatre.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Best New Production
Camp David by Lawrence Wright (Alley Theatre)

Middle East politics. Oy, what a mess. Where to even begin figuring whose side to tell, what event to focus on, how to unravel the years and years of arguing, killing, and manipulation? And then even if you do figure out an angle for the narrative, will it work on stage?

In Camp David, Lawrence Wright not only managed to take this geopolitical hornet’s nest and find an inclusive way in, he gave it to us in a thriller will they or won’t they one-act play. No small feat given that we know how the narrative goes even before we set one foot in the theater.

In a historical fly on the wall treatment, Camp David introduces us to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as they’ve been brought together at the U.S. Presidential country retreat, Camp David, by President Carter to negotiate peace between the warring countries.

Yes, it’s a talkie play, with plenty of grueling political arguments, tantrums, exasperations, and endless negotiations. But Wright’s room-where-it-happened tale is far from boring.

The politics are there, but so is character. Lots of it. Camp David shows us the men behind the negotiations. Who they are as leaders, sure, but more intriguingly, who they are as people. The political may not be completely personal in Wright’s script, but it sure gives us a fascinating, at times humorous, and thoroughly entertaining insight into how this monumental historical moment might have unfolded.

A good script often lives or dies with the production, and here Camp David was cemented as greater than the page. Staged as prop-less theater in the round, directed with precision by Oskar Eustis, the treatment smartly focused us on the action, performed superbly by actors that got it so bang on, they seemed popped right out of a newsreel.

It was an exciting debut all around, and for that, Camp David gets our award for Best New Production.

Finalists: The Hiding Place by A.S. Peterson (A.D. Players) and Override by Elizabeth A.M. Keel (Landing Theatre)

The cast of Come From Away
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Best Touring Production
Come From Away (Broadway at the Hobby Center)

Would a Canadian musical about the aftermath of 9/11 capture the hearts of Houstonians? How would local audiences react to a story about how planes, from all over the world, 38 in total, were ordered out of the sky by emergency decree and forced to land in Gander, a small Newfoundland town on the very east coast of Canada.
Sure, Come From Away was already an award-winning show, Tony-nominated even. But would it play to the same acclaim here?

You bet your Newfoundland cod it would!

In 90 minutes, Come From Away affected its audience in ways most shows only dream of doing. We laughed with joy, we cried gulping sobs, we foot-stomped to the Celtic fiddle and percussion sounds of traditional Newfoundland music, we fell in love with the whole cast of characters.

But most importantly, we felt something different. Something so simple, yet so missing in our lives. We felt the goodness of humankind. Come From Away showed us how to believe in our fellow human beings again. How kindness and caring are not only noble, but life-changing for all parties.

We walked out of the show wanting to do and be better. And we in Houston now know that the Rock isn’t just some wrestler turned super celebrity, it’s also a place in Canada where kindness reigned, reminding us that we’re all in this thing together.

Finalists: The Band’s Visit (Broadway at the Hobby Center) and Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway at the Hobby Center)

Guy Roberts in his one-man Hamlet adaptation
Photo by Kaja Curtis
Best Visiting Production
Hamlet (Prague Shakespeare Company at Main Street Theater)

Whenever Guy Roberts comes to town it's an event. An exceptional actor – if you saw his Michael Bakunin in Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia (one of Main Street Theater's most stirring productions in memory) you lived with him through the turbulence of Russia's mid-19th century's most prolific period as the intellectuals, landed gentry, and philosophers, still wet behind their theories, founded a revolution which eventually would sweep them all away. Or, if you were fortunate to witness his brilliant An Iliad, his retelling of war's history through the lens of Homer, you would have felt weak-kneed but fully invigorated.

But it's as a Shakespearean interpreter where he particularly shines. Did you see his spider-influenced Richard III, his thrillingly inebriated Sir Toby Belch, his flag-waving manly Henry V, his frightful and scheming Macbeth? Tis a pity if you missed them, for these were definitive performances. He's always fresh as an actor or director or adapter, bringing Shakespeare alive in special ways: a cock of his head, a wave of hand, a piercing insight into character that is without equal. He makes the most knotty passage in Shakespeare comprehensible, as if holding a lexicon.

For his exemplary work with the Prague Shakespeare Company, in collaboration with Main Street Theater, he was awarded Honorary Houstonian by the Houston Theater Awards in 2013. In 2016 he won Best Actor for An Iliad.

Last season he brought his one-man performance of Hamlet to Main Street, and it was a beauty. Playing all the characters, assisted by Brad Caleb Lee's sparse set upon which lines from the play were projected around him, Eric Sammons' lush sound design, and David Gipson's subtle lighting – flash bulbs for Claudius' press conference, a lone pin spot for “To be or not to be” – Roberts literally played through the immortal classic as if the Bard were standing, watching from the wings. He would have approved. We certainly did.

Best Everywhere We Looked Player
Patricia Duran as Yaz in Water by the Spoonful (Stages), Lysistrata in Lysistrata (Classical Theatre Company), and Mara in Miracle on 34th Street (A.D. Players).

We’re almost too lucky that Patricia Duran is a Houston theater mainstay. Too lucky in that we may begin to take for granted that seeing her name on a program means we’re in the presence of greatness. This season was no different, as Duran popped up across the city turning in great performances in three very different roles. There was her turn as prosecutor Mara fighting the legal (if not good) fight in A.D. Players production of Miracle on 34th Street.

Her inclusion in the biggest theater partnership of the season – the commitment of Main Street Theater, Stages and Mildred’s Umbrella to stage the three plays in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot Trilogy – when she played the role of Yaz (and essentially delivered the play’s thesis in a monologue that college professors everywhere should aspire to) in the Pulitzer prize-winning Water By the Spoonful. But it was Aristophanes Lysistrata, irreverently and topically adapted by Classical Theatre Company’s executive artistic director John Johnston, that Duran commanded the stage, powerfully leading a supremely talented ensemble in an all-white pantsuit for the ages. With such varied choices, we can only wait with bated breath – for who knows how long – to see what might come in the future.

Best Special Effects
Baby Screams Miracle: Alexandra Hooper (SFX coordinator), Hudson Davis (lighting), Shawn W. St. John (sound), Tim Thompson (video design), and Ryan McGettigan (set) (The Catastrophic Theatre)

When your play is one grand tour de force and consists of a continuous coup de theatre, it had better be something special and spectacular. The backstage wizards of The Catastrophic Theatre outdid themselves – and everyone else in the running – for the incredibly immersive experience that is Clare Barrow's Baby Screams Miracle. The audience's hair hasn't stopped blowing.

We're in the Pacific Northwest home of devout Christians Carol and Gabriel, daughter Kayden, grandma Barbara, and sister Cynthia. Plaid flannel is required attire. The parents pray before bed and after arguments, and things are, to say the least, a bit edgy. There's an air of dread about the place, a something-wicked-this-way-comes overlay. Gabriel is ineffective and rather goofy, and you're not quite sure if Carol wants out of the marriage or has tacitly become resigned, but something's off. Then the wind starts to blow. An epic storm approaches, a 500-year sort of epic. It will become mythic. Surrounded by shaking trees, the audience is immersed in the frightening adventure. Wind howls and glass shatters courtesy of sound designer Shawn W. St. John, rain pelts down in striking projections from video designer Tim Thompson, lighting flashes with terrifying force thanks to lighting designer Hudson Davis, and the house literally shakes in two when a tree crashes through the plate glass window, under Ryan McGettigan's ace set design.

This fantastic piece is under Special Effects coordinator Alexandra Hooper's gimlet eye, and she scared the bejesus out of us. As it goes inexorably forward, the play loses focus and steam, but the storm keeps raging. There's a lull as the eye passes over, and the background twinkles ablaze with a field of blinding stars. Just then, the wind machines kick into overdrive and the storm returns for its final devastating blow. You leave the intimate MATCH theater expecting the heavens to open up and swallow you.

Best Use of Puppetry
Peer Gynt (Classical Theatre Company)

Take a rare Henrik Ibsen fantasy play in verse about Norway's national scamp, Peer Gynt, which at its premiere ran five hours long, condense its essence like fine stock, and add a heaping amount of imagination to its staging, and you might get a reasonable facsimile of what Classical Theatre Company did to the great Norwegian.

But I bet you'd forget to add puppets. Classical didn't forget, they ran with it, and by so doing turned Ibsen's problematic and over-stuffed drama into the stuff of a real fairy tale. It was utterly delightful. All the human actors did a fine job, but it was Kalob Matinez’s troll puppets that stole the show.

Overseen by exuberant Jeff McMorrough's Ghost-of-Christmas-Present-ish King of the trolls, the three little imps, controlled and voiced by Andrew Love, Alli Villines, and Faith Fossett merrily romped like Muppets on uppers, until they turned nasty and troll-like, tormenting Gynt when he refused to marry the King's daughter. The trolls have always been the best part of Ibsen's picaresque story, and they surely brought extra sparkle and life to the production. When they retreated into the hall of the mountain king, cackling all the way, we sorely missed them.

Best Ensemble
Philip Lehl, Vaishnavi Sharma, Drake Simpson and Kim Tobin-Lehl in The Realistic Joneses (4th Wall Theatre Company)

The very title of Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses begs a question about just how real the play’s four Joneses are. If you’re familiar with the ever perceptive writing of Eno, then you know that half the battle is won. But it’s only when you combine Eno’s words with an ensemble like the one 4th Wall Theatre Company put together this year that you’ll find the realness of humanity on display in an absolutely riveting, eye-opening night of theater.

Philip Lehl as Bob, the grouch with no filter. Angry and impolite, befuddled and exasperated, he’s incredibly frustrating but you can’t say he doesn’t have a reason. Vaishnavi Sharma’s affecting portrayal of Pony and what happens when the manic pixie dream girl is grounded, grows up and gets older. Drake Simpson’s contribution as John, an uneven, unknowable energy that makes him feel one step removed (maybe ahead, maybe not) at all times. And Kim Tobin-Lehl, whose need and poignant vulnerability resonate long after the curtain drops. In Lehl, Sharma, Simpson and Tobin-Lehl we recognize our neighbors, our family members – maybe even ourselves at times. What was it that playwright Yasmina Reza once said? “Theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society.” Yeah, that sounds about right here.

Finalists: Elijah Alexander, Rebecca Brooksher, Sam Khazai, Jordan Lage, Stephen Thorne and Mark Zimmerman in Camp David (Alley Theatre); Noah Alderfer, Domonique Champion, Greg Cote and Wesley Whitson in From White Plains (Thunderclap Productions); Callina Anderson, Dwight Clark, B. Connor Flynn, Jessie Hyder, Bonnie Langthorn, Mai Le, Anfisa Maredia, Rhett Martinez, Jordan Tannous and Kallie Vinson in The Hard Problem (Main Street Theater); Alan Brincks, Atseko Factor and Brandon J. Morgan in Pass Over (Rec Room Arts); and Edward Chin-Lyn, Desirée Mee Jung, Jon Norman Schneider, Viet Vo and Kim Wong in Vietgone (Alley Theatre).

Briana Resa in Obsidian Theater's production of Aaron Mark's Empanada Loca
Photo by Dave Snook
Best Solo Show
Briana Resa as Dolores in Empanada Loca (Obsidian Theater)

When does a one-person show cease to feel like a one-person show? When it’s entrusted to a talent like Briana Resa, that’s when. If you were lucky enough to catch Aaron Mark’s Sweeney Todd-inspired Empanada Loca at Obsidian Theater this fall, you probably came to the same conclusion. As Dolores, Resa tells her tale while dwelling in the depths of a long-abandoned New York City tunnel. Dolores went from coed with big dreams and bigger potential to prisoner popped on drug and assault charges. Free again, but alone and gentrified out of her home, Dolores seeks refuge in the one relic still standing from the old neighborhood – an empanada shop run by an old friend. Turns out, it’s the perfect place to be when bodies start to pile up and there’s a lot of meat to dispose of.

Mark’s clever script is grotesque, and in Resa’s hands it grips the audience in a stranglehold. Without any bells or whistles – apt because Dolores is a no-frills kind of woman – Resa proved she didn’t need much to make theater magic. Just a performance that was brutally honest, vulnerable, razor sharp, and at around 90 minutes, too short. We would happily listen to Resa spin a yarn all night long, but if that’s too much, we’ll settle for the chance just to see her on stage again soon.

Finalists: Shannon Emerick as Narrator in Every Brilliant Thing (Houston Equity Festival), Dylan Godwin as Sam in Fully Committed (Alley Theatre), Jenna Morris as Mouth in Not I, Part of Samuel Beckett’s Ladies Night (Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Co.) and Guy Roberts as the cast of Hamlet (Main Street Theater and Prague Shakespeare Company).

Vaishnavi Sharma and Drake Simpson in The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno
Photo by Gabriella Nissen.
Best Director
Jennifer Dean for The Realistic Joneses (4th Wall Theatre Company)

Peter Drucker, dubbed the father of management thinking, once said, "The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said." Though Drucker spoke primarily to the business-minded, luckily, Will Eno speaks to the theater-minded. Eno has carved himself a career out of sharp-eared observation and keen perception, dissecting our strange and complex relationship with language – common, banal, everyday language – to reveal all that lies beneath. Nowhere was this skill better displayed than in 4th Wall Theater Company’s production of Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, a play in which two couples, both named Jones, are revealed to have much more in common than just a surname.

Eno’s work is relentless and nuanced, and 4th Wall found a director who understood with crystal-clear clarity its intricacies: Jennifer Dean. Dean took Eno’s talky little play and made it sing, guiding her actors through the recognizably familiar rhythms of daily life. Dean homed in beautifully on the tonal waves of Eno’s tragicomedy, plucking and strumming the subtle but seismic shifts in her cast’s dynamics like a virtuoso whose instrument was this quadrangle of Joneses. And even when Dean wove in silences, they spoke volumes.

Finalists: Tamarie Cooper for Tragedy: a Tragedy (Catastrophic Theatre), John Johnston and Kalob Martinez for Peer Gynt (Classical Theatre Company), Sam Martinez for Empanada Loca (Obsidian Theater), Brandon Weinbrenner for The Children (Rec Room Arts) and Lily Wolff for From White Plains (Thunderclap Productions).

Dan Knechtges applied some special magic to this TUTS production of Elf.
Photo by Melissa Taylor
Best Musical Director
Dan Knechtges for Elf (Theatre Under the Stars)

This year, the Santa Claus of the Houston theater community looked suspiciously like Theatre Under the Star's Artistic Director Dan Knechtges, who clearly deemed Houstonians deserving of more than a little holiday magic when he decided to try his hand at directing and choreographing his own production of Elf – The Musical on The Hobby Center stage. Knechtges brought flash, sincerity, and plenty of sparklejollytwinklejingley to the new holiday standard about the titular elf Buddy, a human raised by elves in the North Pole who ventures out to the Big Apple to find his family.

With the deftness to handle a rangy score, fresh choreography tinged with the perfect amount of nostalgia for Broadway past, an eye for the big picture realized by a top-notch creative team, and a stellar cast led by Quinn VanAntwerp – who possessed just about every ounce of holiday cheer and likability that green velvet, yellow tights, and curly-tipped slippers could hold – Knechtges proved that even a relatively new kid on the block could be revamped and reinvigorated into something so much more than just a simple holiday feel-good story. It’s sweet like candy canes and fun like rockin’ around the Christmas tree. And made right here in Houston, no less.

Finalists: Michael Greif for Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway at the Hobby Center) and Taibi Magar for Spring Awakening (Theatre Under the Stars).