The 1999 Okies

A new century, an old art form, a cheap trophysincerest regards

We came. We saw. We ate. We drank. We clapped. And a few even walked away with an attractive bluish triangle-shaped award. It was, of course, the fourth annual OC Weekly Theater Awards—yeah, we call them the Okies!—held Feb. 7 at Alternative Repertory Theatre (ART) in Santa Ana.

This year's shebang was the biggest yet—more people in the audience, more nominees in the field, more general consensus that, at least for one night, there truly is an Orange County theater community. And that's the real point of these awards—not to assign a rating system for theater, but rather to honor Orange County theater from top to bottom, to celebrate the heart that's poured into every production, from the top-of-the-line professional venue to the tiniest storefront theater.

But then again, it's got to be a nice ego stroke to get one of these awards.

COLLEGE PRODUCTION

WINNERS: Deviant Craft, Cal State Fullerton; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, UC Irvine.

NOMINEES: Oklahoma!, UCI; Six Degrees of Separation, CSUF; The Venetian Physician's Magician, UCI.

The two reviewers who saw the bulk of the college shows last year each chose his favorite. Brook Stowe opted for Deviant Craft, the Southern California premiere of hot New York playwright W. David Hancock's play, directed by Terry Walcutt. "As far as a total immersion into a purely theatrical experience goes, there was nothing quite like this interactive anarchy," he said. "Hancock's passionate exploration of the fragile yet resilient nature of the human spirit was unrivaled in maximizing the unique power of live theater."

For Dave Barton, the highlight was Joanne Yarrow's production of Bertolt Brecht's anti-Hitler parable set in gangland Chicago, the most "ambitious, imaginative and relevant production" he saw all year.

ENSEMBLE ACTING

WINNER: Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Rude Guerrilla.

NOMINEES: Blue Window, Vanguard Theatre Ensemble; Deviant Craft, CSUF; Orphans, International City Theatre; Twelfth Night, Troubadour Theatre Company, Grove Theatre Center.

Each of these casts worked in perfect unison, complementing and contributing to the performances of each member. In other words, they all kicked ass. But it was the cast of this production of Brad Fraser's dark, raw play of warped sex and damaged psyches that earns the nod this year. Their portrayals of disturbed, lonely and twisted characters were simply fearless, each of them inhabiting the crawlspaces in these deeply troubled, deeply human characters.

College Performance

WINNER: Sean Hankinson, Equus, Chapman University.

NOMINEES: Rachel Davenport, Dunelawn, Orange Coast College Repertory; Rita Renee, Six Degrees of Separation, CSUF; Kessa Veon Whiting, Much Ado About Nothing, Fullerton College.

Sexism alert: the lone male gets the nod. Sorry, but that's the way it broke. Hankinson's brave, near-perfect performance was especially impressive considering that he performed the last quarter of this play in the nude. Perhaps the finest testament to his performance is that the rather obvious visual was quickly forgotten, as his sheer acting skill drew the viewer into the character beneath the skin.

Best New Play

WINNER: Lucille Deview, My Summer With Hemingway's Twin, ART.

Lucille Deview, a 78-year old playwrighting rookie last year, earns this accolade for her piece, My Summer With Hemingway's Twin. The play, which received its world premiere last year at ART, is a smartly written look at a young woman who works for the famed author's older sister one memorable summer. Deview, the writing coach at The Orange County Register, handled a sentimental subject in completely unsentimental fashion, creating a story with memorable characters and the kind of homespun wisdom that only genuine experience can provide.

MALE Performance

WINNER: Arthur Hanket, Saint Genet, Language of the Wall, Empire Theatre.

NOMINEES: Andrew Barnicle, Gunmetal Blues, Laguna Playhouse; Jay Michael Frayley, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Rude Guerrilla; Patrick Gwaltney, Hate, Stages; Hal Landon Jr., Play Strindberg, South Coast Repertory.

A very tough category comprising a wide range of talent, from two of the finest young actors in the county (Frayley and Gwaltney) to 35-year vets (Landon) and guys who are too busy running their own theaters to work all that often (Barnicle). Each merits the award, but Hanket's absolutely stunning performance of Jean Paul Genet in this one-man show was the consensus pick. This was theater at its best: uncompromising, thoughtful, provocative and flat-out brilliant.

FEMALE Performance

WINNER: Kimberly M. Fisher, White Trash Privit Lives, Hunger Artists.

NOMINEES: Marjory Graue, Moon for the Misbegotten, Laguna Playhouse; Katie Johnson, Measure for Measure, Shakespeare Orange County; Sally Leonard, A Summer With Hemingway's Twin, ART; Jill Remez, Picasso at the Lapine Agile, Laguna Playhouse.

Fisher's performance as Manda in this skewered version of Noel Coward's Private Livesshone brightest among very fine performances. There are many actresses who could play a white-trash diva à la Jerry Springer but very few who could also imbue the character with such vulnerability and intelligence.

DIRECTION

WINNER: David Chambers, Tartuffe, SCR.

NOMINEES: Kelly Flynn, White Trash Privit Lives, Hunger Artists; Dean Hess, Six Degrees of Separation, CSUF; Erin Saporito, Blue Window, Vanguard Theatre Ensemble; Joann Yarrow, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, UCI.

In this category, we have a director who had nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to work with (Chambers), directors with ample university budgets (Hess and Yarrow), and directors who had, what, $100 at most? But regardless of how many bells and whistles their productions had, these directors were nominated for the force of their directorial vision.

With that said, the guy who had the most toys wins. Chambers made us look at Molière's antique comedy in an extraordinary new light: it was somber; it was sobering; it was downright scary. Religious hypocrisy has never felt this important. And it was still funny.

Best Production

WINNER: Orphans, International City Theatre.

NOMINEES: Saint Genet, The Language of the Wall, Empire Theater; Tartuffe, SCR; Twelfth Dog Night, Troubadour Theatre Company at Grove Theatre Center; Two Sisters and a Piano, SCR.

Oh, we can hear the naysayers already. Aren't these the OC Weekly Theater Awards? And isn't the producing agent of Orphans, the International City Theatre, in Long Beach? Yep on both counts. But this production of Lyle Kessler's 1983 dark comedy of two brothers and the mysterious man they kidnap was such a complete and utter joy to watch that it would be a travesty not to honor its brilliance. The three-person cast—Pedro Balmaceda, Joshua Hutchinson and Barry Lynch—was electrifying. Elina deSantos' direction was near-flawless. And the cumulative effect was nigh close to staggering. Did we mention that we really, really liked it?

THE GEORGE JEFFERSON AWARD

WINNER: Stages and ART

This award, bestowed in honor of the famed laundry-store owner who moved from the slums to a deluxe apartment in the sky, was given to the two theaters who took the biggest strides this year in terms of physical space. Both Stages and ART moved into much larger, cleaner and better-located environs this year. In a year when several theaters opened their doors and one—the Theatre District—sadly closed theirs, it's fitting to honor two companies that decided to take big financial risks in their ongoing mission to do theater.

THE GRANDE HUEVOS AWARD

WINNER: Rude Guerrilla Theater

Rude Guerrilla's slate of plays was challenging, disturbing and by far the most provocative of any in the county. From the gruesome raw-liver scene in 'Tis Pity She's a Whoreand the dark broodiness of Unidentified Human Remainsto its risky choice to mount the gay passion play Corpus Christi and the taste of artistic director Dave Barton in inviting Arthur Hanket to Orange County to mount his searing one-man show about Jean Paul Genet, this company never stopped cranking out the surprises. Opinions are just that, and you can take issue with any of these plays in terms of quality and consistency, but you can't argue that few theaters in 1999 were as talked about—or worth talking about—as Rude Guerrilla.

The Helen Modjeska Award for contribution to Orange County Theater

WINNER: Alex and Rick Golson, Orange Coast College

In honor of the Polish-born actress who called Orange County home in the late 1800s, our lifetime achievement award goes to two brothers, Alex and Rick Golson. The Golsons, who launched the Orange Coast College Repertory Theatre in the late 1970s, attended OCC a decade before and have inspired countless students to pick up the theatrical baton. If there's a mantra among their many and varied lessons, it's "Do more with less." Their ability to teach passion and dedication are far more more important than big budgets and has helped spawn at least two of the county's most interesting theaters—Rude Guerrilla and the Hunger Artists. Dozens of other Golson protégés are pursuing their dream elsewhere.

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