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The best theater of 2006



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We tend to remember magic. It's a good thing we do: As an antidote for cold days, friendless winds and iron skies, the memory of it can warm the soul as well as any soup. There's no coincidence that the major, "franchise" winter rituals—like Hanukkah and Christmas—speak as much to resilience as they do to rebirth and hope in forbidding times; no mystery that to do so, they invoke the miraculous.

This is my winter ritual—or one of them, at any rate. I remember recent magic, each time I saw it on a stage. I recollect it here, in part, to remind us all that it still happens. Even in this age, magic isn't merely possible: Though we can never entirely predict where and when, it regularly happens when people pursue their visions of the world together, with deep commitment. The proof lies below.

Yes, we regularly joust with the terms of rarified technique in this high talk we do—but, just for this moment, let's be very clear on what it is we're actually about in all of this. We go to the theater in the hopes of experiencing wonder. It's magic that we're after, and nothing less: Synaptic magic, the lightning bolt of understanding that unifies an audience and makes us, for those moments, one.

In their afterglow, we remember these exquisite visions that now have passed. New visions will come. Happy new year.

Best Productions
Music for moderns? Little Green Pig's five-star Cherry Orchard - PHOTO COURTESY OF LITTLE GREEN PIG THEATRICAL CONCERN

By now, we've come to expect excellence on a number of levels in regional practice. 2006 was no exception. The works you'll see below confirm that our best regularly appeared on union stages and in converted warehouses, in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, on budgets ranging from somewhere in the hundred-thousands to the pennies it took to procure a little papier-mache, tempura paint and coat hanger wire. Some shows took three hours to convince us of their genius; one only had 10 minutes. New scripts stood beside the classics, as professionals, students, social activists and independent artists put what they saw—and felt—on stage.

A bunch of Duke undergraduates simply made us squirm as Loyal Women demonstrated how a group of Ulster women weren't just imprisoned by the social expectations of resistance—they proved to be their own jailers as well. Director Connie Shafer made NCT's Cabaret her own, before the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern extracted Anton Chekhov from the cold, dead hands of Constantin Stanislavsky in a risible roller coaster called Three Sisters (on Ice). Afterward, Mike Wiley's gripping one-man theatrical documentary on the death of Emmett Till proved too intense for some audiences.

Excellence flourished in other possibly unexpected vehicles as well. Those who think 10-minute theater is the province of cheap laughs and flimsy sketchwork were floored when Holy Hell's dark story of misshapen love disclosed a sightless woman who was horrifyingly blind to the facts that actually connected her to her husband. Advanced UNC undergraduates presented a Closer that topped better-funded department offerings.

But, a world away from theatrical glitz and technical hoopla, Rebecca Tennison and Kate Sheehy used the humblest of handmade puppets and props—and what looked like a feltboard from an old Sunday school class at one point—to tell the shattered love story of an environment similarly shattered after a 1999 gas pipeline disaster in Bellingham, Wash. Their Horseshoe Bend was clearly one of the most haunting works of the year, though it used little more than recycled cardboard and fabric, string, a few words from William Faulkner—and a deep belief in their audience's ability to hear a very simple truth, spoken quietly.

(All lists are in chronological order.)

  • Loyal Women, Duke Theater Studies
  • Ancient History, Glass House Theater, Common Ground Theater
  • Cabaret, North Carolina Theater
  • Three Sisters (on Ice), Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • "Master Harold"...and the Boys, Triad Stage
  • Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till, Ebzb Productions, Deep Dish Theater
  • Holy Hell, 10 x 10 Festival, ArtsCnter
  • As the Crow Flies, Paperhand Puppet Intervention, Forest Theater
  • Horseshoe Bend, Rebecca Tennison & Kate Sheehy, Radicackalacky Puppetry Convergence
  • Closer, UNC DDA, Kenan Theater
  • The Exonerated, Deep Dish Theater
  • The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Manbites Dog Theater
  • The Cherry Orchard, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Manbites Dog Theater
Special Achievement in the Humanities
  • Radicakalacky Pupptery Convergence

This award traditionally honors productions and companies whose impact extends far beyond the walls of a theater. When Paperhand Puppet Intervention invited Philadelphia-based puppet artist Morgan Andrews to convene a group of activists who use puppetry and music to work for social change, more than 60 artists from as far away as Washington state and Canada answered the call. Over five days, they showed 30 works whose passion was a necessary antidote to the far more calculated offerings we regularly see. Just in time, their fresh, unconventional visions reminded us that, even without big budgets (or favorable notice in The New York Times), art can change the world. Without doubt, we must have these people, in our theater and in our community. We hope August's convergence becomes an annual event.

Best Ensembles

"Best Ensemble" recognizes excellence across all roles in a production, acknowledging that when actors and directors come together at their best, they don't just create a scene—they create a world instead. More than one Little Green Pig production amazed us with the depth and breadth of their bench, after a nonet of Duke students fueled a pressurized reading of Loyal Women. While exploring three hospice families, a colony of actors demonstrated that 1972's The Shadow Box was the theatrical precursor to Margaret Edson's Wit, before the 10 in The Exonerated portrayed pardoned death row inmates and their families without judging them. Ironically enough, it's harder than it looks.

  • Loyal Women, Duke Theater Studies
  • Three Sisters (on Ice) & The Cherry Orchard, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
  • The Shadow Box, Flying Machine Theater, Common Ground Theater
  • The Exonerated, Deep Dish Theater
Best Direction

Marc Williams' The Shadow Box challenged a number of actors on stage to find something new within them, after Joseph Megel crafted another career-defining performance with Derrick Ivey in Edward Albee's The Goat. Prior to that, Megel effectively navigated Vanishing Marion's challenging script. Gregory Cable drew one of the year's top shows out of a quartet of advanced UNC undergraduates, after Manbites Dog founder Jeff Storer made the most of Joel Drake Johnson's modest drama The Fall to Earth. Whether you call what Jay O'Berski does with casts unchaining—or unhinging—them, we just hope he keeps doing it. And though it easily could have been a treacly mess, Joan Darling made Tuesdays with Morrie a play from the heart.

  • Jeff Storer, The Fall to Earth, Manbites Dog Theater
  • Joseph Megel, Vanishing Marion, StreetSigns Center & The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
  • Jay O'Berski, Three Sisters (on Ice) & The Cherry Orchard
  • Rob Hamilton, Holy Hell
  • Gregory Cable, Closer
  • Marc Williams, The Shadow Box
  • Joan Darling, Tuesdays with Morrie, Playmakers Repertory Company
Best Lead Performances
Fragile museum pieces, both: John Feltch in Playmaker Rep's I Am My Own Wife - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER

Didn't an inexperienced critic ask, not long ago, how many good actors there actually were in the region? I'm happy to oblige: The incomplete answer here, when combined with the ensemble and supporting performance categories, puts the absolute minimum at 70—with overlapping roles and visiting artists accounted for. When their number is increased by a host of usual suspects (whose last names include Dooley, Faison, Field, Finlayson, Rowland and Smith, among others), that party grows again, about by half. They constitute a broad range of actors who, for years now, have made our regional theater a high and vital art form—and one that is still growing.

  • James Kennedy, Julie Fishell and Deborah Hazlett, Frozen, Playmakers Rep
  • Dana Marks and Marcia Edmundson, The Fall to Earth
  • Dana Marks and Jay O'Berski, Ancient History
  • Kelly Cae Hogan, Salome, Opera Company of North Carolina
  • Rita Glynn and Krystal DeSantis, The Children's Hour, Peace College
  • Junious Leak & Lucas Blondheim, "Master Harold" ... and the Boys
  • Troy Mink, The Haint, Theater of the American South
  • Jenny Gulley, The Wizard of Oz, North Carolina Theater
  • Barbette Hunter & Greg Hohn, Holy Hell
  • Patrick Link, Closer
  • John Feltch, I Am My Own Wife, Playmakers Rep
  • Derrick Ivey, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
  • Nicole Farmer, Faith Healer, Little Green Pig
  • Jackie Marriott & Byron Jennings III, The Cherry Orchard

Honorable Mention:

  • Adam Twiss and Jessica Kaye, Miss Julie, Burning Coal Theater
  • Chris Chiron, Text for Nothing #4, On Greed and Loneliness, Wordshed Productions
Best Supporting Performances

This category this year featured a number of breakthrough performances where actors who'd achieved lesser results previously simply vanished into the roles they were playing, leaving artistic crutches, mannerisms—and critical expectations—well behind in the process. Both John Honeycutt and Mariette Booth clearly took matters to the next level as a sanguine, terminally ill man and a not-so-young woman saddled by guilt in The Shadow Box. Though we'd seen notable work from Jeri Lynn Schulke over the years, her bright, brittle Vivien Leigh in Deep Dish's Orson's Shadow was a career-defining achievement. Marilee Spell's jaded harridan was worth seeing by itself in Bury the Dead, and Gabriel Griego distinguished in very different roles in two Burning Coal productions. Finally, keep an eye on young Lucas Campbell, who gave us all the shivers as the distrustful, institutionalized teenager he portrayed in Deep Dish's Marvin's Room.

  • Gabriel Griego, Map of the World & Miss Julie, Burning Coal Theater
  • Lucas Campbell, Marvin's Room, Deep Dish Theater
  • Gregor McElvogue, Three Sisters (on Ice)

  • Jeri Lynn Schulke, Orson's Shadow, Deep Dish Theater
  • Marilee Spell, Bury the Dead, Raleigh Ensemble Players
  • Donnis Collins & Chaunesti Lyon, The Cherry Orchard
  • Mariette Booth, John Honeycutt and Marta King, Shadow Box, Flying Machine Theatre

Honorable Mention:

  • Meisha Gourley, The Laramie Project, University Theatre
Best Original Scripts/  Adaptations

"Adapted" is not the appropriate word for what the cast of Three Sisters (on Ice) did to Brian Friel's translation. Try "liberated" instead, in a production that was freed to explore the absurdity of what Chekhov, after all, always insisted was comedy. Before that, Jeanmarie Williams' Vanishing Marion provided a knowing forensic examination of a struggling—and emotionally centerless—lower-class family. If you don't have economy of expression, you don't have 10-minute theater. But in Holy Hell, Barbara Lindsay's taut, foreboding drama suggested a cross between Raymond Carver and Sam Shepard. Weeks later, Tennison and Sheehy used about as many words to let us preach to ourselves the still unfolding moral of the environmental disaster at Horseshoe Bend.

  • Rebecca Tennison & Kate Sheehy, Horseshoe Bend
  • Jeanmarie Williams, Vanishing Marion
  • Barbara Lindsay, Holy Hell
  • Adaptation by the cast, Three Sisters (on Ice)
Best Original Music

The appealing patina of Appalachian roots music in Laurelyn Dossett's original scores to Brother Wolf and Beautiful Star did not disguise a mind awake and actively interrogating the stories from the Good Book. Rhiannon Giddens' banjo and vocals gave particular savor to the latter work. Between those productions, puppeteer Beth Pulcinella gave one of the strongest songs of the year to a little puppet representing an old woman in a neighborhood threatened by gentrification. Her simple testimony, in simple words: "Dreams are important/ But we know/ by the way they run this show/ That their dreams might mean/ that we will have to go." Joshua Marcus' soulful banjo and voice recalled early Neil Young in another part of the Radicackalacky Puppetry Convergence.

  • Laurelyn Dossett, Brother Wolf & Beautiful Star, Triad Stage
  • Beth Pulcinella, From My Porch, Legends Walk the Earth, Radicackalacky Puppetry Convergence
  • Joshua Marcus, Radicackalacky Puppetry Convergence

Honorable Mention:

  • Mikel Rouse, The End of Cinematics, Carolina Performing Arts

Best Musical Direction

  • Creighton Irons, Diamond Studs, Mojo Productions, Fearrington Barn
  • John O'Neill, Cabaret, North Carolina Theatre
  • Robert Gailbraith, Salome, Opera Company of North Carolina
  • Jill Baldwin, Kevin Brock, Lea Clayton, Paul Ford, Gabriel Pelli, John Waken and Donovan Zimmerman, As the Crow Flies
  • Behrooz Monstafavi, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Company Carolina

Best Costume Design

  • Sonja Drum, The Special Prosecutor, Duke Theater Studies
  • Amir Ofek, House of Desires, Duke Theater Studies
  • Dana Marks, The Cherry Orchard

Best Scenic Design

  • Jim Findlay, The Special Prosecutor, Duke Theater Studies
  • McKay Coble, Cyrano de Bergerac, Playmakers Rep
  • David Fellerath, Jay O'Berski and Emily Hower, Three Sisters (On Ice)
  • Richard Crowell, "Master Harold"... and the Boys, Triad Stage
  • Jan Burger & Donovan Zimmerman, As the Crow Flies
  • Marion Williams, The Underpants, Playmakers Rep

Honorable Mention:

  • Patrick Link, Alec Wells & Kristen Ehlert, Closer, UNC DDA
  • Anissa Clarke & Elizabeth Nelson, Elements, an Enchantment, Wordshed Productions

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