The 2015 Houston Theater Awards: The Winners Under the Lights

Usually our annual theater awards concentrate only on what happens onstage, but the 2015 season had plenty of backstage drama. Change is good, most times, especially when the physical results are as spectacular as promised. The big boy in town, the Alley Theatre, its smaller sibling Main Street Theater, and its country cousin Country Playhouse have undergone major renovations, and their home venues were shuttered for the season. The Alley moved its productions eastward down Elgin to the University of Houston’s Wortham Theatre, where the company’s patented gloss lost none of its shimmer or patrons. In the case of Country Playhouse, its theater was completely bulldozed, rebuilt and rechristened, moving only a few feet from its former footprint, where, we’re happy to say, it recently reopened as Queensbury Theatre on the eve of its 60th season in a gloriously intimate, contemporary house of polished cement, wood and metal. The Alley and Main Street’s facelifts will unveil later this fall and, from what we’ve seen through the dust and noise of construction, their results will be equally inspiring.

In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter where good theater is made, for an imaginative production can blow out the stage’s four walls, expanding our souls in the process. We got lost inside a geodesic dome (Horse Head Theatre Co.’s The Whale; or, Moby-Dick), finding ourselves, like Jonah, inside the belly of the beast. Or the most intimate of spaces can contain the world (Black Lab Theatre’s Tigers Be Still) or our most frightening nightmares (Theatre Southwest’s The Pillowman). Although super-effective theater doesn’t need to rely on glitz and sequins, the old “smoke and mirrors,” there’s nothing wrong with an eye-catching design (that pool centerstage in Bayou City Theatrics’ Metamorphoses) or the light-catching design of bias-cut silk and brocade (the Alley’s As You Like It).

Theater’s heart is its people. Who are these characters? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? But the “how are they doing it?” is theater’s most potent magic — and mystery. Within the visible of invisibility, performers turn words on a page into full-color portraits. From monologues to full ensembles, world premieres to classic Shakespeare, this season had a panoply of living paintings, showing us, teaching us, making us empathize and maybe, just maybe, changing us for the better.

We saw clueless Russian landowners (Classical Theatre Company’s The Cherry Orchard), a storm-trooping theater agent (Standing Room Only Productions’ Ruthless! The Musical), upper-crust main liners (Theatre Southwest’s The Philadelphia Story), a family betrayed (Alley Theatre’s All My Sons), two Beethovens (Catastrophic Theatre’s The Hunchback Variations and Stages Repertory Theatre’s The Spiritualist), stoned teens (TUTS Underground’s Reefer Madness), a repressed intellectual (the Texas Repertory Theatre Co.’s Shadowlands), three angst-filled women in tubs (Mildred’s Umbrella’s The Drowning Girls) and fairies on a mission (Stark Naked Theatre Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

It was a season of superlatives, a bit risky, with plenty of juicy roles for women and a showcase for our deep Bayou City talent pool. The Houston Press salutes the following. All of you have given us dreams to last a lifetime. — D. L. Groover

Best Play: stupid f*****g bird by Aaron Posner (Stages Repertory Theatre)

If you were an upper-middle-class character in some classic Russian play at the end of the 19th century, let’s say Chekhov’s The Seagull, your sad but comic melancholy would be worn on your sleeve, the emotions guarded and a bit circumspect. If you’re an upper-middle-class character in Aaron Posner’s sly update of said theater classic, you’d wear your melancholic frustrations emblazoned across your T-shirt. Feelings rule. They’re out there, twittered through the universe. Thoroughly mesmerizing, provocatively entertaining (that title, right?), Posner’s fiery knockoff (2013) is much more a love letter to the theater than to Chekhov. Yes, bird riffs on the 1895 Russian comedy as a starting point, invoking most of the famous characters, plot and situations that are by now almost patented devices, but Posner filters the whole affair through postmodern gimlet eyes until the play becomes a meditation on theater itself. Is your life changed, it asks, by going out to the theater, this theater, Stages, and watching a play, this play, which has been written by one of the characters? And, by the way, are you not a character in your own play right now? Haven’t you ever felt as if you were watching yourself act through life? This kind of thinking isn’t new (remember “All the world’s a stage”?), but Posner keeps the avant-garde hip-hop fresh, dipping into Chekhov as if drinking at the source, using what he needs in this whirligig disquisition on life, art, family and love. He breaks the fourth wall all the time, having the actors or their characters, sometimes both, turn to the audience and ask for advice or to debate the merits of what’s happening, or just to vent. A few brave souls in the audience respond to the questions, and the actors take the advice in stride. You don’t have to know anything about The Seagull to be caught up in bird’s spell. You’ll know these people soon enough. The place is “here,” the time “now.” At the lakeside house of famous actress Emma (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), son Con (Ross Bautsch) stages a play, a site-specific happening that’s something new and modern, he hopes. He pines for lovely Nina (Emily Neves), his amateur actress, but she’s distracted by Emma’s lover, famous writer Trig (Shawn Hamilton), who does nothing to stop the infatuation. Rebel Mash (Elaine Robinson), all in black because “it’s slimming” and because “I am in mourning for my life” (a direct lift from Seagull), loves Con. Mash, in turn, is loved by sweet, innocent Dev (Joseph Palmore), Con’s best friend and confidant. Omniscient and overseeing this round-robin’s nest of would-be lovers is Emma’s brother Dr. Sorn (James Belcher). When he’s not being ignored, he pines for something less tangible: more time. The seeds of Chekhov are deeply planted, and Posner reaps a grand harvest. An adroit choreographer, director Kenn McLaughlin allowed the forces of family dynamics and lovelorn weariness to collide and interact with abundant theatrical flair. Each character was highly individualized, yet no one could exist without the others. It’s a show about equals — equally clueless, lost, hoping — and no one kept the spotlight for long. Jon Young’s scenic design was simple but elegant — planked wood floor, folding chairs, a gigantic desiccated bird wing suspended upstage (okay, we get it!), and a second-act kitchen set that would be the envy of HGTV. Renée Brode’s painterly lighting and Phillip Owen’s plaintive soundscape were, as is usual with Stages, hallmarks of the company’s meticulous production design. The play radiated and soared. With an aerodynamic cast, stupid f*****g bird glided over Chekhov on unique updrafts, a rare bird all its own.

As You Like It (Alley Theatre), Marie Antoinette (Stages Repertory Theatre), The Pillowman (Theatre Southwest) and Tigers Be Still (Black Lab Theatre) 

Best Musical: First Date (TUTS Underground)

A musical comedy about a blind date between total mismatches who in the end just might be right for each other sounds fairly formulaic and tediously predictable. Not in the case of First Date, a 100-minute show injected with smartly insightful and funny killer numbers, great performances, and a load of raunchy sass. Set entirely in a chic bar/restaurant, the scenes play out as we watch the conservative, recently heartbroken, somewhat nerdy guy meeting the smart-mouthed, artsy, bad-boy-junkie girl — all set to pleasingly peppy numbers that operate as refreshingly honest reflections of the inner voices each is hearing. Sometimes the voices are their own, but more often they’re the words of family and friends haunting the characters from inside their heads, dishing out dating advice as if it were candy or a bitter pill, depending. Director Marley Wisnoski’s acutely humorous direction elevated her couple way past the stereotypical and, along with Dana Lewis’s expressive choreography, did a terrific job bringing the other five cast members in and out of the action in a continual loop of varied and visually engaging moments. Show-stopping scenes abounded as we watched a modern musical about dating that actually respected our intelligence while never forgetting that its first job was to entertain and make us laugh. For us, First Date was the fabled frog we kissed and that, behold, we got a prince out of. Warts and all.

New Girl in Town (Bayou City Concert Musicals), Reefer Madness (TUTS Underground), Ruthless! (Standing Room Only Productions) and Waiting for Johnny Depp (TUTS Underground)

Best Actor: Greg Dean as Quasimodo in The Hunchback Variations (Catastrophic Theatre)

The Oscars are often accused of awarding Best Actor to the performer who underwent physical transformation for the role regardless of the performance. We assure you that had the Academy seen Greg Dean as the huffing and puffing, humped, goggle-eyed, tongue-darting, speech-slurring, corporeally maladied Quasimodo, they would have given him the statue not simply for what he did physically for the character, but how he brought emotion and inner life and a sense of profoundly funny sadness to the role. Yes, we did say funny. This wasn’t your grandpa’s hunchback. Playwright Mickle Maher gives us a Quasimodo (in company with Beethoven) as part of a 40-minute panel discussion on the impossible stage direction sound effect in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Dean takes the surreal premise and runs away with it, delivering a simple seated performance that says far more about his character’s moods and temperament than any amount of lumbering around the stage could have elicited. Vacillating between pissed off and distraught, Dean shows us a character who plays straight while we are all invited to laugh at him. But it’s Dean’s sensitive underpinnings that make us slightly uncomfortable in finding humor at his expense. Not just because we feel guilt laughing at a man with such obvious physical challenges, but because we’re shown the struggle within. Masks and prosthetics and good makeup and a bag of comedic tricks as props are just the icing on this truly memorable performance.

Jeffrey Bean as Charlie Baker in The Foreigner (Alley Theatre), Kregg Dailey as Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard (Classical Theatre Company), Aaron Echegaray as Katurian in The Pillowman (Theatre Southwest), Philip Hays as Philip in The Whale; or, Moby-Dick (Horse Head Theatre Co.) and Jack Young as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (Houston Shakespeare Festival)

Best Actress: Christy Watkins as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (A.D. Players)

Iconic roles are catnip for actors, with rewards and challenges in equal measure. What actor doesn’t relish and sweat through Hamlet? Who wouldn’t want to sink her teeth and psyche into Albee’s harridan Martha? When the character happens to be based upon a real person, and then is also portrayed so indelibly and iconographically onstage and in the movies by one of America’s finest actresses, who wouldn’t be a trifle intimidated? Christy Watkins didn’t seem the least bit fazed in dispelling the looming specter of Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, teacher and savior of deaf-mute Helen Keller in William Gibson’s bio-drama. She stirred us to our core. Never once did Bancroft pop into our minds. Watkins made this indomitable, yet naive, young Irish lass her own. One of the most physically demanding roles in theater, Annie gets whacked in the face by Helen with a porcelain doll, slapped about, stabbed with a needle, doused with a pitcher of water, then, in the play’s classic “dinner scene,” has to wrestle a recalcitrant, equally headstrong and thrashing Helen back to the table, picking her up and forcing her back in her chair each time she tries to escape confinement. Plates, food and fists fly in this visceral staging from director John Tyson, astonishingly choreographed by Leraldo Anzaldua. Physical demands on an actor are tough enough, but Watkins adds deep layers of emotional tough love to her characterization. Strong and resilient, she battles her own inner demons when thoughts of her brother she could not save bombard her. She knows there’s a spark of life in feral Helen (a beauty of a performance from youngster McKay Lawless), and she’s going to light it up, whatever it takes. Shrouded by gnawing doubt that she can accomplish anything more than bring a shred of decorum into Helen’s dark life, she will not give up. You can see it on Watkins’s expressive face, even under those antique sunglasses. You can hear the bottomless strength in her voice. When the water from the pump gushes over Helen’s hand in the penultimate scene — the play’s other classic sequence — and that connective electric spark blazes through the deaf, dumb and blind girl as she realizes that everything around her has a name, Watkins pulses with radiance, too. It’s a gangbuster scene of incredible emotion, joyous and rhapsodic in its effect on us. Both sides of the footlights have been drained. We’re wet with tears, and our standing ovation doesn’t seem enough for Watkins.

Elizabeth Bunch as Rosalind in As You Like It (Alley Theatre), Amy Herzberg as Rose in The Spiritualist (Stages Repertory Theatre), Emily Neves as Marie in Marie Antoinette (Stages Repertory Theatre), Lisa Schofield as Sister Aloysius in Doubt (Theatre Southwest) and Samantha Slater as Sherry Wickman in Tigers Be Still (Black Lab Theatre)

Best Supporting Actor: Joseph Palmore as Dev in stupid f*****g bird (Stages Repertory Theatre)

The seven cast members in this modern “sort of” version of Chekhov’s The Seagull all got their moment to shine in this exemplary production. But it was Palmore as Dev, the sweetly innocent buddy character who stole our hearts with his spot on comedic timing and emotional availability. While every other character mines the depths of angst or longing or importance, Dev lives in the moment, finding joy in simple pleasures, and Palmore gave us a delivery that felt like a cool mint next to the harder to digest but equally enjoyable performances of his cast mates. He loves hard and he plays hard, and we sat up a little straighter in delighted anticipation every time Palmore came onstage. Plus, if an award could go to the best monologue about a waddling pair of goslings, we’d give that to Palmore as well.

Justin Doran as Joseph in Tigers Be Still (Black Lab Theatre), Philip Lehl as Matt in The God Game (Stark Naked Theatre), Jay Menchaca as Sylvia St. Croix in Ruthless! The Musical (Standing Room Only Productions), Giovanni Sandoval as Henry Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth (Theatre Southwest) and Drake Simpson as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Stark Naked Theatre)

Best Supporting Actress: Elizabeth Ann Townsend in stupid f*****g bird (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Nudity onstage is no small matter. Would you want to bare all? Elizabeth Ann Townsend, playing egocentric Emma in Aaron Posner’s quilt woven from strands of Chekhov’s The Seagull, drops her robe to entice her lover’s prying libido away from a young actress. She goes au naturel to remind philandering Trig of what he may lose if he strays, but it’s also an act of desperation by someone, shall we say, “of a certain age.” She knows full well she can’t compete with nubile Nina, but she’s got to try. At this moment, this is all she has to fight with. There’s defiance in Townsend, a brittle determination for Emma to get this right, but there’s also much sadness in her. It’s humiliating to stand in the kitchen in half-light, pleading for another chance, and then be rejected. The courage Townsend displays is meager reason for our accolade, for this consummate actor bares much more: a lifetime of stage technique, a commanding voice pitched somewhere between Mt. Vesuvius and Tallulah Bankhead, and the ability to crawl into someone else’s skin and stay there. Whether we approve of Emma or not is not her concern. Her Emma is imperious the way a second-rate provincial actress would take the room — I’m here now, pay attention! She intimidates the others, especially her son, withering them with sarcasm, putting them down before they have a chance to see through her. The ensemble was carefully cast and they meshed in memorable ways under Kenn McLauglin’s powerful, theatrical direction, but Townsend’s support pulled them together. Buffeted and tattered around the edges, she was the flame that drew them all near. She’s another of Posner’s lost souls just looking for connection, but Townsend struck us as imbuing this rich, resonant role with the most Chekhovian of hearts.

Shelby Bray as Joanne in Vanities (Theater LaB Houston), McKay Lawless as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (A.D. Players), Molly Searcy as Millicent/Laurie in Stage Kiss (Stark Naked Theatre), Pamela Vogel as Janet Braid in Peace in Our Time (Main Street Theater) and Kristin Warren as Mae in Reefer Madness (TUTS Underground)

Breakthrough Performance : Mark Ivy as Reggie in First Date (TUTS Underground)

Six years ago, while still a Sam Houston State college student, Mark Ivy caught the attention of audiences with his poignant performance as Jason, the teen responsible for the death of the couple’s young son in an auto accident in Rabbit Hole at Stages Repertory Theatre. He followed that up with other performances both serious and comic, also occasionally making good use of his strong tenor in Little Shop of Horrors (Theatre Under The Stars), Reefer Madness (TUTS Underground) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Bayou City Concert Musicals). In 2012, his performance as Henry in Next to Normal (Stages Repertory Theatre) caught the eye of several reviewers, with Broadway World saying he “stole the show.” Ivy’s breakout role this year, though, was as Reggie, the gay friend of lead character Casey, who is on another blind date. His signature moment — well, actually there were three of them, performed with appropriate levels of increasing hysteria — was the “Bailout Song,” in which he’s trying to get Casey out of what he assumes is another bad time, or something even worse. Local theaters Stages and TUTS have done a fine job of spotting talent early on and are due kudos here. But it takes a determined actor like Ivy to profit from those opportunities. He makes us laugh, cry and sit mesmerized — just like a veteran actor with years of experience. The increasing demands he’s getting for his work show that his peers recognize this as well. And you have to admire someone whose college résumé included this line under special skills: “Various dialects, amazing dinosaur impression, flexibility, can elongate neck.”

Zachary Leonard as George in The Blackest Shore (Catastrophic Theatre), Gabriel Regojo as Stuart in The Blackest Shore (Catastrophic Theatre) and Justin White as the Younger Man in Putting It Together (Main Street Theater)

Best Trooper: Tasha Gorel in Bad Jews (Black Lab Theatre and Stages Repertory Theatre)

Oy, the brushing, the constant hair brushing. And we aren’t talking silky-straight, benefits-from-100-boar-bristle-strokes-a-night kind of hair. This is a mane of massive kinky Jew-fro glory as described by Bad Jews playwright Joshua Harmon for his characterization of Daphna Feygenbaum, an in-your-face “super Jew” who sheds aggressive opinions as easily as hairballs. Tasha Gorel certainly had the look for the part with her long, leonine, curly dark mane, but it’s what she had to do to it night after night for the role that won her this award. Daphna is called upon to incessantly brush, sweep, pin up, take down, twist, knot and fling her hair into a frenzied state, and Gorel gamely stepped up to the hair abuse in true trooper fashion. Shunning shampoo for the run, Gorel used only conditioner to get her hair in a brushable onstage state, but as any curly-haired woman knows, brushing this kind of hair quickly turns it into a frizzy mess no matter how you prep it. As Gorel’s hair grew bigger and wilder with each stroke, we watched in fascinated horror the spectacle of it all, silently realizing that Daphna’s hair was in effect its own character onstage. Apparently she went through a whole post-show ritual with oils and clips to try to get some semblance of calmness back into her hair. We hope once the show was over, Gorel went back to wearing her hair rather than her hair wearing her.

The cast of Metamorphoses (Bayou City Theatrics) and the cast of The Drowning Girls (Mildred’s Umbrella) for spending the entirety of their respective shows soaking wet.

Best Costume Design: Barry Doss for Marie Antoinette (Stages Repertory Theatre)

We have a soft spot for period design, because fashion always seems much more interesting the farther away in time it is from us. Jeans and T-shirts might be iconic and ubiquitous, but as character study and pure fashion, not so much. Look what Barry Doss achieves with the richness of 18th-century French couture. Those panniers wide as door frames, those towering wigs (assisted by Amanda Mitchell’s coy creations), those jewels that would cause a scandal, the exquisite needlework of appliquéd silk on silk, bodices laced tight enough to stifle. It’s all on opulent display, yet tinged by David Adjmi’s almost hip-hop look at Marie’s life and times. Pastels, vivid as Easter eggs, lend credence to the fame of Parisian shops; pillowy blouses add romantic exuberance to the men; while the unfortunates in the lower class must do with ragged stained breeches and patched hand-me-downs, all wondrously detailed in the ateliers of Stages. Facing the last runway in her short life, Valley Girl Marie wears a white chemise to face the guillotine. (The historic queen had hidden this last piece of clothing under her bed for just this occasion, knowing full well she’d appear to the masses as an innocent.) The blade falls with a whoosh, but there she stands before a triple mirror, which reflects her image around the theater. She looks angelic, for sure, but more, she looks famous and sly. And that she’ll be forever. Thanks to Doss, Marie’s world is quite a looker.

Tricia Barsamian for As You Like It (Alley Theatre), LeeAnne Denny for Ruthless! The Musical (Standing Room Only Productions), Macy Lyne for The Cherry Orchard (Classical Theatre Company) and Pat Padilla for Vanities (Theater LaB Houston)

Best Set Design: Ryan McGettigan for Marie Antoinette (Stages Repertory Theatre)

The ill-fated queen of France sashays down the halls of Versailles to a heavy techno beat. Gigantic neon fleurs-de-lis flash blindingly on the set’s back wall. Looking as tasty and pastel as any of those luscious macarons piled into a decorous pyramid on the acrylic table, she could be a classy runway model: cool, vacant and relishing the ego kick that comes when everybody is looking at you, just you. Then she opens her mouth. Out pours pure Valley Girl. In David Adjmi’s contempo take, everybody is looking at her, but we’re also relishing set designer Ryan McGettigan’s chic minimalist palette of visual delights that surround this .001 percenter. France’s most notorious and misunderstood queen, the original material girl, is pampered, spoiled and rich beyond imagining. This vacuous celebrity has everything a teen idol could dream of, and McGettigan gives it to her with a look that wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of Elle or, perhaps, on the small screen of Famous Housewives of Versailles. That neon installation is worthy of the Menil. The tsunami of revolution that drowns clueless Marie is the play’s tipping point and McGettigan’s high-water mark with its awesome, terrifying coup de théâtre. The floor is ripped up, macarons scattered, acrylic chairs overturned, as a scruffy revolutionary thug tears the paper from the walls and marches ominously toward us with arms outstretched, as if holding an unending list of grievances. Directed by Leslie Swackhamer, the scene made a shattering impact. Designing with flair and unending imagination, McGettigan gave us a glorious Marie that gave us the shivers.

Malinda Beckham and John Stevens for The Philadelphia Story (Theatre Southwest), Colton Berry for Metamorphoses (Bayou City Theatrics), Kevin Holden for Detroit (Catastrophic Theatre) and Trey Otis for Shadowlands and Of Mice and Men (Texas Repertory Theatre Company)

Best Lighting: John Baker for The Pillowman (Theatre Southwest)

While it’s true that Martin McDonagh’s plays are creepy enough without the aid of lighting effects, we all know that it’s the drizzle of truffle oil on top of the already delectable wild mushroom pizza that makes the dish truly come to life. Not that there’s pizza in the show, but if there were, John Baker would make it look atmospheric and moody and like the play couldn’t go on without it. From the moment we walk into the theater, the space is a visual cacophony of shadow and light and secrets and dark places. But it’s the second act of this disturbing tale of the power and responsibility of storytelling where Baker’s work ascends to a higher plane. Here he swathes terribly disturbing scenes of violent abuse and neglect with suffocating and claustrophobic lighting to brilliant, gasp-worthy effect. We are riveted and uncomfortable just as McDonagh wants us to be. In this already terrific production, Baker is the truffle oil that makes this play even more delicious.

Renée Brode for stupid f*****g bird (Stages Repertory Theatre), Devlin Browning for Marie Antoinette (Stages Repertory Theatre), Philip Rosenberg for All My Sons (Alley Theatre) and Greg Starbird for Pollywog (Mildred’s Umbrella)

Best Sound: Matt Crawford for The Spiritualist (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Exemplary sound designer Matt Crawford hears dead people. Dead composers, actually. Beethoven and Liszt, foremost. He makes physical what English nobody Rosemary Dunn hears in Robert Ford’s exhilarating drama. This schlub of English middle-class propriety professes to channel the music of the great dead ones. Dunn hears them, but also sees them and talks to them. (We see them, too, so who’s crazy here?) Clara Schumann drops by for tea; egoist Liszt never wants to leave his most devoted acolyte; Beethoven blusters in and asks, What?! Charlatan or naïf, Dunn wrote down the music she heard from her visitors. Eminent musicologists could neither deny nor confirm these “found” compositions. The works dictated to her mimicked the exact style of the composers, down to phrasing and musical idiosyncrasies. Eerie indeed. Could this mild-mannered, self-effacing woman, with no more music knowledge than a rudimentary piano student, be a fake, a con artist deluxe? She was ordinary, they said; she couldn’t have such glorious music in her. We believe her, though, partly because Crawford makes her world come so alive through sound. Yes, actor Amy Herzberg played the piano herself, no mean feat, but all the rest was conjured through Crawford’s aural magic: the backstage buzz of television, the street noises outside her modest little bed-sitting room, the whoosh of air whenever her “friends” appeared. Ford’s play stayed long in our imagination because of Crawford’s exact sound of reality. Or was it the exact sound of madness?

Colton Berry for Metamorphoses (Bayou City Theatrics) and John Peeples for The Hunchback Variations (Catastrophic Theatre)

Best Choreography for a musical: Kristin Warren for Mack and Mabel (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Mack and Mabel
tells the story of actor-director Mack Sennett and the star Mabel Normand, who came together in the early silent film days and created comic movie mayhem, before, well, departing from each other in acrimony. Director Kenn McLaughlin greeted audience members with projections of the real reels on hanging sheets, drawn back only when the live action commenced and made its way to an alternative-universe semi-happy ending (Normand’s career was cut short by a series of unfortunate alliances, drugs and her desire to be her own boss). An unexpected pleasure in the Stages production was the spirited choreography throughout by Kristin Warren, who also took on the role of Lottie. She’s a one-woman Busby Berkeley dancer in her 11th-hour number, the vulgar and exuberant “Tap Your Troubles Away.” Group choreography hit a high point with the cakewalk anthem “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” making strategic and full use of the varied dancing talents of the cast and making everyone look like hoofers of the first order. It was smart, engaging and jaw-droppingly good.

Michelle Gaudette for Smokey Joe’s Cafe (Theatre Under The Stars) and Dana Lewis for Reefer Madness (TUTS Underground)

Best Visiting Production: Tristan & Yseult (Kneehigh presented by Alley Theatre)

Some shows are so wondrous and unexpected and unique and thrilling and beautiful and smart that all you want to say about them is wow so as not to spoil the theatrical magic with mere words. Tristan & Yseult was one of those shows. But since we’re in the business of words and since we’re awarding the show so highly, some things do need to be said. Kneehigh (based in Cornwall, England) may have told the traditional Wagnerian story in this show, but that’s where any comparison to tradition begins and ends. Emma Rice’s adaptation and direction, along with Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s sumptuous writing, gave us a fantastical modern orgy of lust, heartbreak, comedy, dance, high-flying acrobatics and audience interaction that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go for two whirlwind acts. Oh, and did we mention the onstage band of hoodie-wearing, knit-vested and bespectacled musicians looking like a hipster version of Devo, playing everything from Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” to some decidedly sweeping orchestral music. Sound odd? Well, yes, it was in an industrial-style, elegant manner that’s truly difficult to describe. We think of it as a mashup of Cirque du Soleil, Shakespeare, Blue Man Group, Monty Python, Robert Lepage, rave culture, Revenge of the Nerds and alt rock all tied into an emotional bow that left us swooning one minute and nursing a broken heart the next. It was risky and funny and energizing and emotional and exhausting in all the right ways.

Best New Play: The Whale; or, Moby-Dick (Horse Head Theatre Co.) by Timothy N. Evers

Feeling fully absorbed by The Whale; or, Moby-Dick was both a state of mind and a state of being thanks to the thrillingly creative minds behind this cleverly beautiful piece of new immersive theater. Conceived by Philip Hays as a one-man play (starring himself) and written by Timothy N. Evers, the show took Melville’s famous tale, condensed it down to an hour and set the whole thing inside a purpose-built, 44-foot projection-filled dome resembling the inside of a whale’s belly. Actually, “resembling” is too faint a description. Thanks to Clint Allen’s visually robust projections, we sat amazed as our intestinal surroundings gurgled with whale-like digestive intent and Philip (swallowed a few days before us, we were told) welcomed us to the show and pondered how we had all come to be in this mess. Riffing on our situational chaos, Kevin Holder gave us an elegantly ramshackle set consisting of the flotsam and jetsam accrued through years of sea-mammal gorging. Fishing nets, suitcases, lanterns and dolls lay about in peptic debris. To navigate among this ruin, there was a maze of wooden, rotted-looking plank catwalks of various heights and lengths. It’s on these runways that the action takes place. Wonderfully, the play itself lived up to the splendor of the set and technical design. Upon realizing that our only hope of getting spit out may be to read Moby-Dick to our whale host, Hays begins a dexterous and magically engaging highlight-reel re-enactment of the novel. Accompanied by yet more of Allen’s terrifically specific and atmospheric projections, Hays delivers the story by playing Ishmael, Starbuck, Elijah and Ahab while occasionally popping back to his own persona to check in with both the whale and the audience. All of it worked: the technical goal of transporting the audience, the pure enjoyment of a famous tale told well, Hays himself offering up a stellar performance of a tightly written and uniquely interesting script. The Whale; or, Moby-Dick was a huge risk on every level and it was a risk that paid off big. When it comes to new, exciting theater, the bar has been set.

The Spaghetti Code (Horse Head Theatre Co.) by Abby Koenig

In Memoriam

This past season saw the deaths of two people who were very important to the Houston Press and to the Houston theater community at large: Houston Press theater critic Jim Tommaney and the founding director of Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco, Sandra Bernhard. Both had an intense dedication to bringing young people to the theater arts. Bernhard worked in community outreach, taking opera to schools and inviting students to performances at the Wortham. When the was looking for nominees for its annual MasterMind Awards, she was quick to point out young talent and, as anyone knows who attended our Artopia party last January, her suggestion, the mariachi band from Jefferson Davis High School, stole the show. At his own request, Tommaney reviewed college theater performances in Houston and delighted in pointing out young talent. His work became so well-known that we were approached by colleges many miles away from Houston, asking if he could come assess their performances.

This past year, two Houston-area high schools came together to put on Memphis, the Musical, which needed a diverse cast thanks to its plotline centering on race relations in the beginning days of rock and roll. One school had mostly black and Hispanic students, the other white; they were not located near each other, but thanks to their advisers, Roshunda Jones and Nicole Morgan, who had previously worked together on the Texas Thespian Festival — it all worked out. In honor of Jim Tommaney and Sandra Bernhard, and for the fine example these two schools showed us all, the Press is happy to announce a grant of $750 each to the theater departments of Carver Magnet High School in Aldine ISD and Memorial High School in Spring Branch ISD.

Happy Theater News

What could be better news than four brand-new Houston theaters? Both Alley and Main Street are in the final weeks of a much-needed redesign. The Alley’s extensive Botox applies to the lobby, the stage and auditorium, and the entire backstage area. It’s state-of-the-art all the way, with the audience on more intimate terms with the thrust stage, the actors pleased with enlarged dressing rooms, and the patrons celebrating more restrooms. Main Street has almost finished its renovations: removing those two dreaded stage columns that blocked views if one happened to be so unfortunately seated behind them, enlarging the lobby, adding needed studio and office space, and generally sprucing up its home on Times Boulevard. Both the Alley and Main Street open this fall, and we are ready!

Queensbury Theatre, formerly known as Country Playhouse, one of Houston’s oldest companies, recently inaugurated its new home after being dark for a season. Just a few feet down the block from its previously worn-out theater, the new home gleams in Town and Country Village with an entire wall of glass to lure theatergoers. The auditorium is cozy and warm, and no longer has that CinemaScope-wide proscenium that was the bane of directors and choreographers. Now, the theater is a beacon for Beltway 8 patrons or those who live farther afield than downtown.

To top off our happy news, Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston, a.k.a. MATCH, 3400 Main, is merrily humming through final construction. When the almost 60,000-square-foot facility is completed next year, there will be at least two fixed-seat theaters, two black-box theaters, office space and studios for rent. Smaller dance and theater companies will find that an inviting new space awaits.

Houston has always been a theater town, and all this construction puts a smile on our faces. 

Best Ensemble: The Old Friends (Alley Theatre)

You know an ensemble cast is truly superb when not only are they greater than the sum of their parts, but the cast outperforms and outdelights the play itself. Such was the case with the cast of The Old Friends, Horton Foote’s lesser-known play about long-hidden family secrets and longings. While the writing occasionally lacked crispness and currency and the plot itself was wobbly and downright silly in places, this cast came out firing on every dramatic and comedic cylinder. Working in an almost balletic tandem, the well-oiled but never dull or predictable cast fought and griped and cried and wallowed and retrenched and drank and bitched some more with such entertaining presence that all we saw was the talent onstage. Director Michael Wilson smartly gives wide berth to the performances of Hallie Foote, Betty Buckley, Cotter Smith, Jeffrey Bean and Jay Sullivan and, in doing so, lets the actors be the thing we remember with glee. We might not want these folks as friends, new or old, but for the night, we were oh so glad to be in their presence.

All My Sons (Alley Theatre), The Cherry Orchard (Classical Theatre Company) and Women in the Pit (The Ensemble Theatre)

Best Director: Leslie Swackhamer for Marie Antoinette (Stages Repertory Theatre)

A theater director wears many hats. She is traffic coordinator, ogre, psychiatrist, maestro, painter, designer, conductor, actor, tightrope walker and first among equals. She must know the play inside and out, injecting the playwright’s intent into her vision, especially if she forces the text to her will. She’s also got to know when to let go, when to let the performers take over the play by themselves. Rhythm, spacing and texture play a part, as do architecture and atmosphere. Ultimately, it’s the director’s show, even though the audience may never know exactly what she does. Audiences may be aware of a bad performance, but bad direction can stick out like a sore thumb. Good direction is seamless, effortless, flowing. A play breathes under good direction; it ebbs and flows like life. The best director in the world can’t save a bad play or incompetent acting. She may improve it, or hide its shortcomings, maybe even fix it a bit, but the evening will never be completely right and the audience will know it instinctively. With David Adjmi’s pop-bio Marie Antoinette, Swackhamer proves she is a good director. No, she’s the best director. Adjmi’s Valley Girl take on France’s ill-fated queen flowed like the Seine, bubbled like one of Le Nôtre’s gigantic fountains at Versailles, and cascaded through the shoals and eddies of characters trapped by history, but mostly trapped by their own demons. Under Adjmi’s worldview and Swackhamer’s pinpoint dissection, the profligate queen is the world’s first material girl, heedless until headless. In this season’s most impressive coup de théâtre, when the revolution exploded, the entire minimalist stage was ripped apart, seam from seam, even the floor, until Marie’s privileged world was shredded into tatters. Pastel macarons, one of the play’s potent symbols, lay scattered and trampled to crumbs, much like the airheaded, puffy monarch. Rich tableau followed rich tableau, mixed with a lot of anachronism and a tasty dash of surrealism (that talking perfumed sheep) that Swackhamer treated as if it were an everyday occurrence. Marie has the last laugh, of course, because she will be the one everybody remembers. She defies history with a sly smile, for she has reached ultimate divadom: She has become the most famous person ever. Like, OMG, I’m Queen of France! Director Swackhamer delivers all of this intimate epic with affection and slight irony, moving these historic pawns as if they’re in a music video, balancing the sweeping ensemble scenes with jewellike tête-à-têtes. The physical production, starkly abstract, was ravishing to behold: the opulent fashions, Ryan McGettigan’s wondrous neon installation, searing lighting, impressionistic sound — Swackhamer held it all together and gave it a big wet air kiss. We in turn bestow one on her.

Jon Harvey for The Drowning Girls (Mildred’s Umbrella), Jordan Jaffe for Tigers Be Still (Black Lab), Kenn McLaughlin for stupid f*****g bird (Stages Repertory Theatre), Scott McWhirter for The Pillowman (Theatre Southwest) and Marley Wisnoski for First Date (TUTS Underground) 

Best Cabaret: The Music Box Theater

When you think of cabaret, perhaps you immediately conjure cocktail tables, lamplight from tiny lampshades, or maybe cigarette girls in high heels selling their wares from a tray. You might think of today’s foremost practitioner, Michael Feinstein, crooning Gershwin, or the extinct Cocoanut Grove during Hollywood’s golden age. You might even think of Joel Gray and “Willkommen.” This lost art still exists thanks to five fabulously talented actors/singers who decided to put on a show. (Granted, the cigarette girls are long gone, but the troupe meets patrons at the door and later takes drink orders.) When the Fertle family from Dumpster, Texas, decamped from their little venue on Colquitt (how we miss Steve Farrell, Vicki Farrell and Rich Mills and their Radio Music Theatre), their building became available to five former Masquerade Theatre veterans (how we miss that musical place, too). Performing is in their blood, so why not take over RMT as their own? Crazier ideas have spawned in the minds of actors. This turned out to be a wise investment for everyone. Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Kristina Sullivan and Luke Wrobel are Houston’s superlative Fab 5 revue. They produce five or six original shows each season, and we’ve yet to see one that didn’t lift our spirits or chase our blues away. Each has a theme: Broadway, Academy Award-winning songs, country/western, the ’60s, a Christmas show using Beatles tunes. There’s light patter, silly gags, perhaps a slight plot, but everything comes down to the music. It is incomparably performed. These five have the best voices around and know exactly how to put across a song. Each of the five is distinct, with his or her own shtick, and when they sing together, their voices blend in honeyed harmony unheard anywhere this side of heaven. Dahl wails with passion and innate theatricality, Scarborough croons sweet and sexy, Taylor purrs and struts, Sullivan caresses with crystal tone, and Wrobel resounds with an earthy, rich baritone. It’s all a lark, and a visit is required hearing. Next up for them, Autumn in New York, a songbook collection of singers associated with the Big Apple. They heartily deserve our support, and this honor.

Best Touring Production: Once (Broadway at the Hobby)

It was easy to see why this show was the winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards including Best Musical. Set in a seedy Dublin music club, Once tells the story of a street musician, Guy, who thanks to the help of an oddball, Girl, a Czech immigrant, decides to continue pursuing his career in music. The music is haunting — “Gold,” performed by all a cappella in a stunning reprise, the Girl’s tender piano rendition of “The Hill, and the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly” — and all was used in an earlier Irish indie movie version of the story. The dancers and actor-musicians changed the action with a push of a chair or table, sliding in and out of center stage. The leads who came to Houston, Stuart Ward as Guy and Dani de Waal as Girl, kept things moving with humor, but stopped to take a breath when life’s past commitments overtook them both. The romance, all the more affecting for its bittersweetness, adroitly avoided the meets-cute-happily-ever-after easy plotlines of too many shows and delivered something more memorable and, in its own way, both hopeful and heartbreaking.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Theatre Under The Stars), Kinky Boots (Theatre Under The Stars) and Newsies (Broadway at the Hobby Center).

Best Revival: The Foreigner (Alley Theatre)

Alley Theatre Artistic Director Gregory Boyd ended the home-away-from-home season for the Alley with a real crowd-pleaser: The Foreigner, which had been done ten years before that and ten years before that. Never mind the plot flaws (the Klan needed to be in there, really?); what the comedy turns on is the wonderful premise: How would people react to you if they thought you couldn’t speak their language? Jeffrey Bean, reprising the role of Charlie Baker, finds himself privy to all sorts of secrets — most fairly sensitive (an unexpected pregnancy), some chilling in their danger (a charade of a minister). It would be hard to imagine how anyone could sit through Bean’s retelling of a “story” in his made-up foreign language, especially the patter parts, without laughing throughout this combination of fairy tales told in baby talk with a Slavic accent. It was a master at work. The rest of the cast fit together seamlessly under the direction of James Black, proving once again that the Alley knows how to put on ensemble shows. And knows how to prime an audience as the Alley prepares to resume work this fall in its newly refurbished home on Texas Avenue.

Full Gallop (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Best Artistic Director: Kenn McLaughlin (Stages Repertory Theatre)

Artistic directors have one of the hardest jobs in the business. They have to plan an overall program that puts behinds in seats, keeps the lights on and satisfies critics as well. They have to attract talented actors and directors. They not only have to make the right picks (or mostly right) but also make sure the people working on a production are good matches for each other and the parts they’ll play, raising the odds on a successful outcome. Kenn McLaughlin is a sometime actor and nearly full-time working director (stupid f*****g bird) but where he also excelled this season was as a practical visionary, an artistic director who balanced crowd-pleasers like Panto Rapunzel (and Zombies) with chances to see some remarkable and daring plays with actors and designers doing some of their best work. Memorable moments included Emily Neves’s spot-on work as the spoiled, entitled monarch who caught on too late in the title role of Marie Antoinette, Joseph Palmore’s nuanced performance as the devoted Dev in stupid f*****g bird, and Tasha Gorel’s hair-brushing antics in Bad Jews. And then bringing Leslie Swackhamer back to Stages, where she made the most of directing Marie Antoinette. McLaughlin’s touch can be seen threaded through this year’s Houston Theater Awards, even to this year’s young breakthrough performer Mark Ivy, whom McLaughlin not only had the good sense to spot years ago, but gave a job to in his box office. He’s not afraid to see new possibilities in people — he went to Sally Edmundson and insisted she begin directing — and he clearly is not afraid to share center stage with his people. We’re looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Gregory Boyd (Alley Theatre), Jennifer Decker (Mildred’s Umbrella) and Bruce Lumpkin (Theatre Under The Stars and TUTS Underground).

Best Season: Stages Repertory Theatre

What a breakthrough year Stages had! A strikingly original, cheeky Marie Antoinette; the poignant effervescence of stupid f*****g bird; the successful co-production with Jewish Community Center of Bad Jews; an audience-favorite revival of Full Gallop starring audience-favorite Sally Edmundson; the pleasing musical telepathy of The Spiritualist. Is it any wonder that Stages deserves our praise? Okay, we’re well aware that Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel wasn’t the greatest show on earth for a variety of reasons; and Stages’ penchant for programming the easiest of choices for ready money (those cheerleaders and that nun!) is all too obvious a ploy to pay the rent; and the cheesy Christmas Panto should be retired post-haste. But nobody’s perfect. The rest of Stages’s season was ideal, filled with adult fare that teased our minds and made us think. We forgive any theater company for lapses in judgment when: Marie Antoinette is backlit by neon fleurs-de-lis; Chekhov is updated with brilliant repartee and character study; Diana Vreeland with rouge sweeping up her cheekbones like an airport’s runway intones her own name, Dee-ahh-na; and a Liszt étude we’ve never heard before propels us to another world. Unlike any other experience on earth, the mystery and majesty of live theater lived this season at Stages. Congratulations!

Alley Theatre, Broadway at the Hobby, Theatre Southwest and TUTS Underground