Argument is good for art. But today, it's my day. I get to celebrate what I think was the local theater season's best by handing out my 11th annual "Tony" awards -- "Tony" referring to this writer, a committee of one.
I admit it. I'm tough on local theater. There's so much out there that deserves to stand out that I think it's mean for a critic to try to be nice to the mediocre. Of course, reviews are just one person's opinion -- hopefully, an intelligent opinion -- and readers are always encouraged to chime in.
Please don't take these awards too seriously. "Best" lists are arbitrary, subjective, and, for some of us, fun.
I saw 102 local-area theater-related productions this past season (September through August) and reviewed 80 of them. Twenty-five received ratings in the "A" range ("outstanding"), 22 received "B" ("above average"), 15, "C" (average), 12, "D" ("below average"), and six, "F" ("failure"). That means most shows were at least above average, which I think is a surprising and admirable statistic. It suggests that fulfilling theater experiences, no matter what the naysayers claim, are readily available in Sin City.
Listed below are the winners and runners-up of the major categories. I haven't included educational institutions, because of their access to bigger budgets and talent pools. They'll be saluted in an upcoming Theater Chat column.
Outstanding Theater Group: We've always known that the folks at Las Vegas Little Theatre were doing something right, business-wise. How else to explain their survival in this town for 30 years? But this season, under the leadership of board president Walter Niejadlik, the playhouse has become as sound artistically as it apparently is fiscally. We were gifted with one outstanding production after the other, with major titles such as "Bleacher Bums," "Dog Sees God," "Purple Hearts," "Rabbit Hole," "Orpheus Descending" and "The Hot L Baltimore."
They also nurtured the local scene by making their two stages available to others, and by sponsoring talk-backs featuring celebrity playwrights. Up next is a new playwrights' competition.
LVLT has grown into a leadership role, and the board members have proven they respect, and are worthy of, the challenge.
Outstanding Production: Las Vegas Little Theatre's November mounting of David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" (directed by Walter Niejadlik), about a couple dealing with the death of a child, featured a professional-level cast; sensitive, seemingly effortless direction, and a slew of moments of self-recognition. Despite its subject matter, the evening wasn't a downer. It's upbeat message was that despite our fears, we're capable of growing through just about anything.
First runner-up: Insurgo Theatre Movement's "Cannibal! The Musical" (directed by John Beane in March at the Onyx). Second runner-up: LVLT's "Autobahn" (directed by TJ Larsen in November at the Arts Factory).
Outstanding Actor: As the grieving father, Howie, in LVLT's "Rabbit Hole," Mark Brunton was a strong, authoritative figure, so that he was able to fool us into thinking his character was handling his pain well. When the dam finally broke and he wept uncontrollably, it made for maybe the most devastating moment of the season. Brunton's one of the few local actors who doesn't seem to have an actor-y bone in his body. He's a genuine human being onstage.
First runner-up: Justin Rodriguez in the title role of Signature Productions' "Peter Pan" (directed in October by Steve Huntsman at the Summerlin Library). Second runner-up: Matt Jordan as Lewis in LVLT's "Purple Hearts" (directed in November by Paul Thornton).
Outstanding Actress: Francine Gordon delivered the performance of a lifetime in Test Market's November production of Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" (directed by Ernest Hemmings at the Arts Factory). She made total sense of the difficult role of Winnie, a woman who spends her life trying to be content while buried in dirt and babbling to her incoherent husband. It was fully realized nuanced characterization rich in comic vitality. She reminded you of how funny Beckett can be.
First runner-up: Barbara King as Lady Torrance in LVLT's "Orpheus Descending" (directed in January by Walter Niejadlik). Second runner-up: Erica Griffin as Nan in LVLT's "Three Days of Rain" (directed in March by TJ Larsen).
Outstanding Supporting Actor: Paul Besterman, in the Insurgo Movement's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (directed by John Beane in July at the Onyx) made the fairy Puck mischievous, boisterous, manipulative, self-absorbed, and ultimately loyal and harmless. He was a delightfully devious child/man with a Fellini face always worth reading.
First runner-up: Will Klundt as Marvin in LVLT's February "Bleacher Bums" (directed by Paul Thornton). Second runner-up: Jim Williams as Zig in LVLT's "Bleacher Bums."
Outstanding Supporting Actress: In Off-Strip's June production of Christopher Durang's "Betty's Summer Vacation" (directed by Rob Kastil at the Onyx), Barbara King played this frantic mother trying to prove to imaginary voices that her daughter, because of an unhappy childhood, wasn't legally responsible for cutting off a man's private parts. So she became a no-nonsense attorney who interrogated her daughter, then interrogated herself to prove she's been an evil mother, and then produced a secret witness who proved, much to the mother's chagrin, that the mother was indeed responsible for her disturbed daughter's hatred of penises. King made the moment a mad aria to a mad Gotterdammerung of a play.
First runner-up: Mary O'Brien as Mama in LVLT's "Purple Hearts." Second runner-up: Erica Griffin as Carol in LVLT's "Orpheus Descending."
Outstanding Director: In November, LVLT's Walter Niejadlik took what could have been mere soap opera in "Rabbit Hole" and turned this tale of parents having trouble mourning properly into an in-depth exploration of human possibilities. He found a nifty balance between humor and tragedy, and seemed to know just how far to go with the tears. His work was a skilled feat of restraint.
First runner-up: John Beane for Insurgo Movement's "Cannibal! The Musical." Second runner-up: Rob Kastil for LVLT's September "The Hot L Baltimore."
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.