Arts » The Year in Arts

The best in local live theater in 2009

Much ado about everything

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Jenn Suchanec as Beatrice in Burning Coal Theatre's "Much Ado About Nothing," which ran earlier this month - PHOTO BY RIGHT IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY

The reviews of Kate Dobbs Ariail, Belem Destefani, Sarah Ewald, Sylvia Pfeiffenberger, Adam Sobsey, Zack Smith, Megan Stein and Byron Woods were consulted for this article.

It's a question fit for the math part of some strange GRE test for the region's performing arts:

Unleash eight Indy critics on at least 130 theater productions over 345 days. Poll them and pore over their written findings to arrive at a preliminary group of 195 individual nominations over 15 categories. Then refine that set to a final list that effectively conveys the very best of what they saw. (Time limit: one week.)

Ready? Begin.

Unless otherwise mentioned, shows are listed in chronological order.

Special Assistance to the Theater

  • The Process Series, UNC-Chapel Hill

When the third playwright we interviewed kvetched about what a shell game "play development" can be, we knew director Joseph Megel was providing special assistance to dramatists sharpening their works for stage. But when gifted student and professional actors give brand new works their voice—and the group then solicits the audience's most thoughtful responses in after-show skull sessions—performers, public and creators ultimately get a lot more than the (free) price of admission from the process. If you want in on the last two presentations in the spring, go to eda.unc.edu/programs/theprocessseries.

Special Achievement in the Humanities

  • The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, Burning Coal Theatre

You don't need deconstruction theory coursework to get how contingent the meanings of political events are. A TV remote control that flips between Fox, MSNBC and Comedy Central will do the trick. As Tectonic Theater Project members realized that parts of our culture were rewriting the death of Matthew Shepard, the creators of The Laramie Project got curious—and returned to Wyoming to see what its people thought now. Joining more than 150 theater companies worldwide, Burning Coal helped Tectonic premiere a new epilogue to the project in an all-star staged reading on Oct. 12. That sobering update spoke to large-scale cultural progress. It also candidly admitted the true difficulty of quantifying the amount of hatred that still remains. Ten Years Later had the courage to remind everyone how the dark side got its name to begin with: because sometimes it's hard to see.

Best Original Music

  • Jeremy Schonfeld, Drift, Hot Summer Nights
  • Johnny Waken, Paul Ford and Chris Johnson, Hungry Ghost, Paperhand Puppet Intervention/ Theatre of Performing Objects

Honorable Mention:

  • Trevor Wignall, The Glass Menagerie, PlayMakers Rep
  • Michelle Wang, Metamorphoses, Raleigh Ensemble Players

The clear winner: Schonfeld's courageous rock and soulful song-cycle sensitively articulated a series of moments in a divorce, largely from the husband's point of view. What could have been a bad SNL sketch is a prismatic set of rocking, thoughtful, raging, aching—but ultimately joyous—confessions: the perfect thing to play after an Aimee Mann CD to get the other point of view. Waken, Ford and Johnson's atmospheric washes conveyed the darkness and light of Hungry Ghost.

Best Musical Direction

  • Jeffrey Scott Detwiler, George Lam and Timothy Garbinsky, A Dog From Hell, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Ron Melrose, Jersey Boys, Broadway Series South
  • Jeremy Schonfeld, Drift, Hot Summer Nights
  • Edward G. Robinson, West Side Story, North Carolina Theatre
  • Sarah Pickett, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, PlayMakers Rep

It's impossible to imagine Dog without the band Kate Ariail said gave "part of its life force," or Jersey Boys without the nonstop musical pulse that propels us through the show. If we criticized some of Pickett's substitutions in Nicholas Nickleby, there's no denying her achievements with this cast of 25, a number of whom served as instrumentalists before the show was over.

Best Choreography

  • Joy Javits, Pride and Prejudice, PlayMakers Rep
  • Sergio Trujillo, Jersey Boys, Broadway Series South

Honorable Mention:

  • Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, Psycho Beach Party, Elon University

Trujillo's razor-sharp moves sold the touring show about The Four Seasons. Ariail praised Javits' "excellent dance sequences" in April's Pride, before I applauded Formato's toothsome zombie/ beach dance fusion in October.

Best Production Design

  • The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: McKay Coble, scenic design; Jan Chambers, costumes; Tyler Micoleau, lights. PlayMakers Rep

Wrap 'em up, send 'em home: clear superlatives in all areas of design for PlayMakers' six-hour-plus spectacle.

Best Costume/ Puppetry Design

  • Tori Ralston and Donovan Zimmerman, Hungry Ghost, Paperhand Puppet Intervention/ Theatre of Performing Objects
  • Johannah Maynard, The Cherry Orchard, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Basil Twist and Tori Ralston, Exit the King, Duke Theater Studies
  • Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger, The Living Sea of Memory, Paperhand Puppet Intervention
  • John C. McIlwee, Amadeus, N.C. State University Theatre
  • Deb Bigsby, Flee This Place, The Distillery

It's as if Bigsby clothed Place's archetypal figures in dreams that could suddenly change: Her fascinating garments transformed—literally—as some characters wore them. Maynard's sometimes subtle fusion of Asian and European garb impressed, before McIlwee's tour de force of 18th-century costumery in Amadeus.

Three entries recognized achievements in puppetry: If we had trouble decrypting the plot of Tori Ralston and Donovan Zimmerman's Hungry Ghost, we easily recognized the art in the haunted creatures we encountered. Later in the year, Zimmerman teamed up with Paperhand partner Jan Burger for their company's annual end-of-summer pageant, this year's The Living Sea of Memory. Finally, Zack Smith noted the puppetry in Exit the King created "an atmosphere Tim Burton would envy."

Best Scenic Design

  • Rob Hamilton, Jitney, Deep Dish Theater Company
  • Chris Bernier and Vincent Marini, Drift, Hot Summer Nights
  • Rebecca Buck, Flee This Place, The Distillery
  • E. D. Intemann, Much Ado About Nothing, Burning Coal Theatre

Honorable Mention:

  • Derrick Ivey, The Receptionist, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Thomas Mauney, Metamorphoses, Raleigh Ensemble Players

Hamilton placed the ancient dust and cracked linoleum of a run-down taxi stand in Deep Dish's space. In a Hot Summer Nights show, Bernier and Marini's set pieces and projections quickly drifted among places in the heart. Rebecca Buck's forbidding dreamscape combined sand, brick, columns and barbed wire in Flee This Place, and Intemann created an urbane poolside setting in the same theater, two months later, for Much Ado About Nothing.

Best Dramaturgy

  • Marshall Botvinick, Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, Manbites Dog Theater

In interviews, playwright Howard Craft credited a number of discoveries he made while writing Caleb to the dramaturge and former Duke student who worked with him.

Best Original Script/ Adaptation

  • Cheryl Chamblee, Tamara Kissane, up styx creek/A Dog From Hell, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • John Justice, Goodnight Everything, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Matt Casarino, Green Eggs and Mamet, 10 by 10 in the Triangle
  • Donovan Zimmerman and Jan Burger, The Living Sea of Memory, Paperhand Puppet Intervention
  • Carina Cortese, After-Images of the Disappeared, The Process Series
  • Howard Craft, Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Ashley Lucas, Doin' Time, Solo Takes On Festival, UNC

Honorable Mention:

  • Johanna Maynard, Flee This Place, The Distillery

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern served two potent dystopias—the vivid anti-Sartrean underworld Ariail witnessed in February and Justice's grimly comic riff on al-Qaida in July. Cortese searched the generations of a family of Argentine dissidents for her own lost kin in this tender but clear-eyed act of political and personal remembering.

Midsummer, Casarino took 10 witty minutes to convince Bel Destefani of what a Mamet collaboration with Dr. Seuss would sound like. In August, an openly moved audience wept at the potent metaphor embodied in Living Sea's "Memory" sequence.

Best Direction

  • Libby Appel, The Glass Menagerie, PlayMakers Rep
  • Dana Marks, A Dog From Hell, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Tom Marriott, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ghost & Spice
  • Emily Ranii, Nine Parts of Desire, PRC2
  • Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Jitney, Deep Dish Theater
  • Kevin Ewert, Age of Arousal, Manbites Dog Theater
  • C. Glen Matthews, Metamorphoses and Shakespeare's R&J, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Brendon Fox, Opus, PlayMakers Rep
  • Paul Frellick, Glengarry Glen Ross, Deep Dish Theater
  • Joshua Bergasse, West Side Story, North Carolina Theatre
  • Joseph Megel, Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Joseph Haj and Tom Quaintance, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, PlayMakers Rep

Directors have to see the world of the work before the audiences—or the actors—get there. Sylvia Pfeiffenberger praised Appel's nuanced interpretation that "let [Menagerie] breathe, unlocking its full dimensions like the prisms in ... Laura's treasured glass animals," while Ariail lauded Marks' "subtlety, musicality and sense for mercurial timing" in Hell. Matthews' August adventures probed a different underworld after helping four prep school brats humanize one another in R&J. Ewart's enviable vision invoked another time—and ancestors bearing disturbing similarities to us. Frellick and Hunter-Williams urged regional newcomers and veterans alike to fully inhabit the denizens of different urban business sites. Megel sculpted newbies and pros into a disciplined platoon in Caleb. In Nine Parts of Desire, the very-busy Ranii liberated nine different Iraqi women—in one actor.

Best Ensembles

  • The Glass Menagerie, PlayMakers Rep (John Tufts, Ray Dooley, Judith-Marie Bergan, Marianne Miller, John Brummer)
  • A Dog From Hell, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern (Sean Mongo Murnane, Quinn Henderson, Chris Burner, Nicole Quenelle, L.A. Rogers, Rajeev Rajendran, Tony Hughes )
  • Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ghost & Spice (Tracey Coppedge, Travis Edgerton, Jennifer Evans, Bethany Fannin, Lenore Field, Katja Hill, Rachel Klem, Hope Hynes Love, Melissa Lozoff)
  • Jitney, Deep Dish Theater (Lester Hill, Connie McCoy, Gil Faison, Prince Bowie, C. Delton Streeter, John Rogers Harris, Mike Wiley, Mike Goolsby, Thomasi McDonald)
  • Age of Arousal, Manbites Dog Theater (Jay O'Berski, Dana Marks, Kristin Elliott, Lenore Field, Nicole Quenelle )
  • Shakespeare's R&J, Raleigh Ensemble Players (Jack Benton, Shawn Stoner, Ryan Brock, L.A. Rogers)
  • Drift, Hot Summer Nights (Christian Campbell, Andrea Schulz Twiss, Gregory Dale Sanders, Yolanda Rabun, Dave Barrus, Melvin Tunstall III, Sean Jenness, Michelle Kinney)
  • Opus, PlayMakers Rep (Ray Dooley, Scott Ripley, Jimmy Kieffer, Marianne Miller, Jeffrey Blair Cornell)
  • Glengarry Glen Ross, Deep Dish Theater (David Ring, John Murphy, Harvey Sage, Joshua Purvis, Byron Jennings, Michael Goolsby, Jonathan Leinbach)

Any group of actors can make a scene. These artists created whole worlds for us to navigate and get lost in that inspired audiences to make new discoveries—about our own lives, our own worlds.

Best Lead Performances

  • Julie Fishell (Lisa), Brenda Wehle (Anna), Well, PlayMakers Rep
  • Sandi Sullivan (Jean), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Raleigh Little Theater
  • Marcia Edmundson (Beverly), The Receptionist, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Chaim Topol (Tevye), Fiddler on the Roof, DPAC
  • Tamara Farias Kraus (Lyuba), Stephen LeTrent (Lopakhin), The Cherry Orchard, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Kristin Villanueva (Eliza Bennet), Pride and Prejudice, PlayMakers Rep
  • Catherine Cheng Jones (Maria), Josh Young (Tony), West Side Story, North Carolina Theatre
  • David Pittsinger (Emile), Carmen Cusack (Nellie), South Pacific, Broadway Series South
  • Justin Adams (Nicholas), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, PlayMakers Rep
  • Jenn Suchanec (Beatrice), James Anderson (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Elizabeth Huffman (all roles), Nine Parts of Desire, PRC2, PlayMakers Rep
  • Jane Hallstrom (Mary), Age of Arousal, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie), Jersey Boys, Broadway Series South
  • Andrea Schulz Twiss (various), I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy

Honorable Mention:

  • Bryce Davis (Reuben Clark), Blue, N.C. State University Theatre
  • Sarah McAvoy (Chicklet), Psycho Beach Party, Elon University
  • J. Alphonse Nicholson (Caleb), Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, Manbites Dog Theater

Best Supporting Performances

  • Michael McElroy (Tom Collins), Gwen Stewart (vocalist), Rent, DPAC
  • Joy Jones (various), Well, PlayMakers Rep
  • Quinn Henderson (Persephone), Tony Hughes (Charon), A Dog From Hell, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Joy Jones (Caroline), Pride and Prejudice, PlayMakers Rep
  • Matt Bailey (Tommy), Jersey Boys, Broadway Series South
  • David McClutchey (various), The Turn of the Screw, Hot Summer Nights
  • Meredith Sause (Isotta), Chris Burner (Fred Ozaki), The Italian Actress, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Amy Lee McNabb (Berdine), Psycho Beach Party, Elon University
  • Fred Corlett (Creon), Benji Taylor Jones (Medea), Flee This Place, The Distillery
  • Freddy Ramirez (Bernardo), Leo Ash Evans (Riff), West Side Story, North Carolina Theatre
  • John Harris (SFC Thomas Jefferson), Gil Faison (Did It), David Greenslade (Rizetti), Lucius Robinson (Dresner) and Jeff Aguiar (Sgt. Vasquez): Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders, Manbites Dog Theater
  • William Byrd Wilkins (Leonato), Much Ado About Nothing, Burning Coal Theatre
  • Ray Dooley (Uncle Ralph), Scott Ripley (Wackford Squeers), Didi Corvinus (Mrs. Squeers, Mrs. Crummles), Jimmy Kieffer (Mulberry Hawk), Jeffrey Blair Cornell (Vincent Crummles), Weston Blakesley (Newman Noggs) The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, PlayMakers Rep

Best Productions

  • The Glass Menagerie, PlayMakers Rep
  • A Dog From Hell, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Ghost & Spice
  • Jitney, Deep Dish Theater
  • Age of Arousal, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Shakespeare's R&J, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Opus, PlayMakers Rep
  • Glengarry Glen Ross, Deep Dish Theater
  • The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, PlayMakers Rep
  • Much Ado About Nothing, Burning Coal Theatre

Corrections (Dec. 30, 2009; Jan. 3 and Jan. 4, 2010): The text has been corrected to distinguish between Chris Burner and Chris Bernier; see comments below. Also, Basil Twist was not involved with Paperhand Puppet Intervention's The Living Sea of Memory, and Tori Ralston should have been credited as co-designer and -fabricator of Exit the King.

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