We're So Happy, We Could Scream!

The third annual OC Weekly Theater Awards

Approximately 200 productions graced, plagued and cluttered Orange County stages last year. So it's absolutely pointless and utterly impossible to pick the best performances and shows of the year, right?

Yep.

Which is why for the third year, we have called to order the best and brightest of local theater for the OC Weekly Theater Awards. We polled the masses, we conducted exit interviews with theater patrons, we canvassed neighborhoods, and we reamed conductors-er, conducted reams of research to discover the most deserving productions. After all that failed to generate anything except a bunch of opinions-and really, who cares about those?-we resorted to the most accurate and scientific measure of determining qualitative worth: me.

Oh, sure, I asked the Weekly's dedicated reviewing staff for its insight, but these awards are ultimately bestowed upon the people and productions that most moved me.

This year, the Weekly deemed it necessary to expand the annual awards ceremonies. While past awards at Mark's Restaurant in Laguna Beach and Lucianna's in Dana Point were generous and warm and provided tasty cuisine, they're just not huge enough to contain the hordes crashing the theater-award gates.

So we moved the awards to a real theater-South Coast Repertory's Second Stage-got Twin Palms to cater, Memphis Soul Cafe to provide the beer and wine, and pursued the most charming, eloquent and downright handsome host this side of the Santa Ana River. And because Commie Girl was busy, the honor fell to me.

Last Monday evening, recipients and invited guests from all the professional, community, storefront and college theaters in the county assembled at SCR's Second Stage.

And the winners are . . .

Best New Play

Mystery Play, Garrett Omata, Actors' Playhouse

This could also be titled Biggest Tragedy of the Year. Omata, the 29-year-old playwright behind this compelling study of spiritual faith and temporal reality, killed himself months before the play was produced by Deep Yellow. His play was warm and human, deep and funny-convincing evidence that had he staved off his internal demons, he was destined for a successful career.

Best College Production

Cal State Fullerton, 1998 season

Name the CSUF show, and chances are a Weekly reviewer saw it and thought it excellent enough to put on his or her Best Of list. Whether it was Uncle Vanya directed by Dan Kern, My Married Friends directed by Todd Kulczyk, Measure for Measure directed by Dean Hess, or Blood Wedding by MFA student Monica Leite, the shows were universally wonderful. Critic Dave Barton tabbed My Married Friends as his favorite show of the season. So rather than choose among them, we grant them all a collective OC Weekly kiss.

Best Ensemble Acting

The Importance of Being Earnest, Hunger Artists

This show could just as easily have won an award for naughtiest and funniest revival of the year. Kelly Flynn directed a riotously funny cast punctuated by brilliant performances throughout. It was scandalous and scatological but also fascinatingly in-sync with playwright Oscar Wilde's rebelliously literate political and moral sensibilities.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Bill Mondy, Dimly Perceived Threats to the System, SCR

The role of the psychiatrist in Jon Klein's take on dysfunction in the contemporary American family is the through line between the characters who make up the fragmenting family unit at the play's center. Mondy played his character with verve and gusto, tossing in ample doses of surreal psychosis, manic energy and impeccable comic timing for good measure-all proof that he is a brilliant, physically fascinating actor.

Best Male Performance

Mark Coyan, The Metamorphosis, Hunger Artists

A guy who plays the lead role in a play about a man who turns into a bug can't help but turn in a terrific performance, but what actor would have the cojones to tackle it? Coyan was not only good, he was also fascinating and eerily human. Like the aforementioned Mondy, Coyan is a very physical actor: he's lithe, agile and a fearless risk taker. This performance proved it.

Honorable Mentions: Richard Doyle and Greg Stuhr, But Not for Me, SCR; Bob Wilkinson, Hospitality Suite, Changing Masks.

Best Female Performance

Carolyn Barnes, Sylvia, Laguna Playhouse

A woman who plays the lead role in a play about a woman who is actually a dog can't help but turn in a terrific performance, but Barnes was also funny, charming, smart, sexy and sympathetic. In short, she's everything a woman, a dog and a human can be. Hers was a rich, rewarding performance.

Honorable Mentions: Carla Harting, What the Butler Saw, SCR; Lynsey McLeod, Oleanna, SCR.

Best Direction

David Emmes, Arcadia, SCR

A richly textured, deeply nuanced production of perhaps the most complex and certainly the smartest play produced on a local stage this year. From his firm hand with actor portrayals to the absolutely gut-wrenching final image, Emmes clearly understood Stoppard's brilliant play and gave us an illuminating production.

Best Production Not Seen by Joel Beers

The Adding Machine, Grove Theater Center

I can't be everywhere, and I'm not so vain as to think that I never miss a terrific production. Among our staff, Brook Stowe convinced me that his favorite play of the season was the most worthy. "With its morphing set and swirling flash pots," Stowe says, "this highly theatrical revival by Kevin Cochran of Elmer Rice's seldom-produced 1923 Expressionistic drama about creeping obsolescence proved to be creepily relevant to this Information Age." Wish I'd seen it.

Helen Modjeska Award for Contribution to Orange County Theater

Robert Jensen

Without Jensen, it's quite possible that neither Stages, the now-defunct Tribune Theater or the OC WeeklyTheater Awards would ever have existed. Jensen, a theater teacher at Fullerton College, is also a nationally prominent educator; last year, he was named one of the top theater teachers in the country by a national organization. The Fullerton College theater department isn't all about Jensen. Past and present colleagues such as Tom Blank, Gary Krinke, Pamela Richarde and many other Fullerton College faculty members deserve credit for their contributions. But Jensen is the one we regard most fondly this year. Brian Kojac, Stages' artistic director, gave a heartfelt speech about Jensen's impact not only on those theater students (quoting Jensen's twofold mantra that theater should be about people rather than product and that all it really takes to produce theater is "two boards and a passion") but also on those he turned on to theater. "Training young people to be theater audiences is just as important as training young people to be theater artists," Kojac said.

Best Production

Last Session, Laguna Playhouse

A director recently said that she knows a production has worked for her as an audience member when she walks out of the theater "proud" about what she's just experienced. And that sums up this production. No other play came close to capturing the joy, sorrow and wonder of being alive than this musical by Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin. The sensational cast, groovy soundtrack and thoughtful words yielded a production that worked as both pure entertainment and deeply felt happening.

Honorable Mentions: Arcadia, SCR; Hospitality Suite, Changing Masks; Oklahoma!, Huntington Beach Playhouse; Our Town, SCR.

Best Compliment to a Theater Critic on the Staff of an Alternative Newspaper in Orange County

Delivered by Edith Schwartz

After the awards ceremony, a nattily-dressed senior walked up to me and introduced herself as Edith Schwartz. She's the person behind Readers' Repertory Theatre, a group of theater enthusiasts who read literary pieces at local libraries. My first thought was that we had offended her along the way. Turns out it was my ageism showing. Schwartz grew up in New York; was an avid reader of our sister paper, The Village Voice; loves and appreciates the OC Weekly; and really enjoys it "when you start your columns off with the F-word." Edith, that could be the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.

And Then There's These . . .

Here's what the Weekly's theater reviewers thought were the highlights of 1998 (and not one negative reference to Rent in the whole lot!):

KELLY FLYNN

Productions

The Birds, South Coast Repertory. Culture Clash brought a wild, anarchist energy I've rarely found on a professional stage. The anything-goes spirit was anchored by Victor Mack's remarkably centered performance.

Private Lives, SCR. The most perfectly constructed piece of theater I saw all year. From the performances to the costumes to the sets, everything was exactly right.

Working, Orange Coast College. The cast put so much heart and soul into the performance that it transcended the material. Mark Palkoner contributed the most heartfelt and touching performance of the year.

Performances

Matt Tulley in Roscoe Spitzer Is Afraid of Dying, Suicidus Interuptus, God of the Odd, Stages. Viva variety! Whether he was playing a cranky Edgar Allen Poe or a suicidal nerd, Tulley was memorable for his commitment.

Tees Cooper in There's Always Room for Pie, Stages. Cooper kicked ass. Funny and tough, she added a dangerous and sexy edge to the campy proceedings.

DAVE BARTON

Productions

My Married Friends, Cal State Fullerton. Perfectly directed by Todd Kulczyk, this outstanding world premiere about a gay man whose close friendship with a married couple is torn asunder by the husband's infidelity also boasted endearing performances by Jim Shine and Kristina Leach.

Eleemosynary, Vanguard Theatre Ensemble. Lee Blessing's brain-teasing glossary of a play was sure to make you pore over your dictionary after seeing it. That you'd have to view it a couple of times to get all of it was an added bonus.

Suburbia, UC Irvine. Director Dudley Knight's even-handed, realistic staging and his young cast worked some real magic here.

It's Only a Play, Stages. Aided by a cast of Stages' vets, director Amanda DeMaio never allowed the pace to slow in this frenetic, wildly accessible production.

Fool for Love, Ensemble Theatre. Sam Shepard's violent one-act about incest, under Roosevelt Blankenship Jr.'s direction, was a hurled chair in the polite drawing-room comedy genre.

Performances

Jennifer Autumn Lyons in A Shayna Maidel, Menorah Theater. Lyons never resorted to cheap effects, delivering a powerful, fragile performance as a concentration-camp survivor whose memories have come back to haunt her.

Cynthia Ryanen in It's Only a Play, Stages. Ryanen's bitter, foul-mouthed actress was the effortless standout of a nearly perfect cast. Somebody give this woman a sitcom.

BROOK STOWE

Productions

Gift of God, Actors' Playhouse. Richard Freedman's play metamorphosed from a darkly hued thriller about disembodied voices and blood sacrifice by barbecue fork into a sweet, boy-meets-girl romantic comedy highlighted by Morgana Rae's performance as Ted and Shannon C.M. Flynn's well-balanced direction.

Happy Days, Rude Guerrilla Theater Company. This staging marked the first time I was able to see beyond the façade of Beckett's infuriatingly difficult play into the heart of its characters-and saw some of myself looking back.

His Majesty Mr. Kean, California Repertory Company. A sparkling production of a surprisingly bright and witty play by Charles Higham that made fine use of language and repartee.

De Donde, University Players, Cal State Long Beach. An ensemble of remarkable depth and cohesiveness for an undergrad company nearly sustained an overlong and underwritten play through its damn-near three-hour running time.

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