Photo by Jack GouldWhen the OC Weekly launched the Theater Awards five years ago, the goal was to help foster a sense of community in a part of the arts world that often doesn't feel like much of a community. To the best of our knowledge, the annual Orange County Theater Awards show (as we've come to call it) is still the only gathering of professional, storefront, community and college theater companies in the county.
The nominations and awards we give to standout productions and performances aren't designed to reward a handful of people at the expense of others. They're meant to celebrate hard work. From the people who sweep the floors and take the tickets to those who stride the boards and sign the checks, it takes enormous energy to keep a theater alive. This evening is our way of saying thanks to all those people who put in all those hours.
Lovingly dubbed the OCIES, after both our geography and our sisterly link with The Village Voice (whose annual awards are called OBIES), the awards ceremony for the best and brightest in theater 2000 was held Feb. 12, at the Grove Theater Center in Garden Grove. More than 100 nominees and theater-related people attended the festivities.*
In the Beckett Project
Photo by Keith May THE MAS HUEVOS AWARD
Grove Theater Center, The Beckett Project
Our semiannual award honoring the most courageous theater goes to our host—not for letting us into their building but for producing this bill of four short plays by Samuel Beckett. The four plays—Not I, Rockaby, Act Without Words I and Ohio Impromptu—were all written late in Beckett's career, when he was focused on short, fragmented works that featured utter precision of movement and equally strict economy of language. It was theater as strange as it was fearless. Whether bewildered, bothered or bored, no one left this production thinking, "I've seen that before."
BEST NEW PLAY
Howard Korder, The Hollow Lands, South Coast Repertory; Stephen Ludwig, Accidental Dancers, Long Beach Playhouse
In an average year, our judges struggle to find five deserving new plays to nominate. This year, we were confronted with an embarrassment of theatrical riches. And when the fighting ended, we settled on two. Howard Korder's The Hollow Lands was a sprawling epic following some 40 years in the turbulent life of an Irish immigrant in America. Whatever limitations it had in its debut production at South Coast Repertory, none could dispute that this was a searing, powerful examination of some of America's darker corners by one of our leading contemporary playwrights. Steven Ludwig's Accidental Dancers, produced at the Long Beach Playhouse, was the antithesis of Korder's play. It was a small, emotionally compelling and uncompromising look at relationships. It rejected easy answers and choices; it was beautifully and profoundly real.
BEST YEAR FOR A LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT
No local playwright had a more prolific or diverse year than Mittler. The revival of his punk rock saga So Alone, based on the life of Johnny Thunders, was followed by a sensitive treatment of the life of poet Hart Crane, Paradise. Mittler capped his year with Nipping at Your Nose, a poignant look at a family on the emotional edge during the holidays.
MOST INTERESTING NEGOTIATION OF YOUR SPACE'S SHORTCOMINGS AS A SCENIC INSTALLATION
Hunger Artists Theatre
The closest thing we have to a design award goes to the company that works in the smallest performing space in the county, one that sits right alongside the always colorful and busy Fourth Street in downtown Santa Ana. The Hunger Artists always creatively manage to overcome any environmental deficiencies in their space. You never know what you're going to get each time you walk in. But you know it's always going to be different.
BEST ENSEMBLE subUrbia, 6 Chairs and a Couple of Artists
It's rare to see a cast so large and so young so thoroughly inhabit the characters and the world of this Eric Bogosian play. There was something almost Chekhovian in the deep, collective longing of this sad, desperate group as they fought and fucked one another (and themselves) on a squalid little patch of trash-strewn asphalt deep in the buttcrack of Nowhere, USA. Kudos to director Michael Serna for expertly guiding his cast in the confines of the small Long Beach space.
Jay Michael Fraley, History of the Devil, Rude Guerrilla
It'd be tempting to say that Fraley gets the nod this year in large part because of the string of excellent work he's done over the past five years on myriad Orange County stages. But that would discount his magnetic and charming portrayal of the hellish despot in Clive Barker's entertaining play. Rarely has such calculated evil felt so good.
Patricia Boyette, The Beckett Project, Grove Theater Center
Boyette's performance as the disembodied mouth in Not I is seared into the memory of anyone fortunate enough to have seen it. Described variously as an inner scream, an endless nightmare or a fall back into hell, this 20-minute monologue delivered at the speed of thought makes enormous mental and physical demands upon the actress—who was suspended 12 feet above the ground and strapped into a harness that immobilized every part of her body but her mouth. It was grueling, brave and incredibly captivating.
All My Sons BEST DIRECTION
Martin Benson, All My Sons, South Coast Repertory
Arguably the most important attribute of a director is his or her ability to cast well. On that point, Martin Benson's staging of Arthur Miller's drama about hypocrisy and ghosts from the past was superlative. But just as important when dealing with a recognized classic is a director's ability to make a play we've all seen, read or heard about feel as vibrant and compelling today as when first performed. This production's honesty and emotional energy forced the audience into a re-examination both of this play and of this country's collective history.
BEST PRODUCTION All My Sons, South Coast Repertory
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It was tempting to give this award to one of the four other nominees, all of them produced by theaters that don't have the firepower or reputation of South Coast Repertory and all of which mounted fantastic shows: the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, Rude Guerrilla, Huntington Beach Playhouse or 6 Chairs and a Couple of Artists. But though we tried very hard, our conscience would not allow us, for all the reasons listed above.
The Kentucky Cycle BEST COLLEGE PRODUCTION The Kentucky Cycle, Fullerton College
How ambitious was the decision to stage Robert Schenkkan's epic play cycle? It spans 200 years and comprises nine one-acts that must be produced in two separate three-hour chunks. Somehow, co-directors Robert Jensen and Daniel Lemieux managed to wrestle all that into a play that was comprehensible and engaging while guiding their very young and very capable actors to mature, fully realized performances. The ultimate compliment? At play's end, our reviewer was ready for six more hours.
Hal Landon Jr.
Photo by Jack Gould THE HELEN MODJESKA AWARD FOR CONTRIBUTIONS TO ORANGE COUNTY THEATER Hal Landon Jr., South Coast Repertory This award is our version of a lifetime achievement award, with one exception: our recipients remain intimately involved in theater. No one better embodies the breadth of work and hunger for the new than Hal Landon Jr., one of South Coast Repertory's five founding artists. His annual reprise of Scrooge in SCR's holiday chestnut A Christmas Carol makes Landon the poster boy for Orange County theater. But it's his range and diversity in the multitude of other roles that make him such a luminous figure. —Joel Beers and theater staff*For a list of all nominees, click on "archives" and go to the issue for Jan. 5. Click on the story called "More Honest Than the Supreme Court!" That's it.