Friday, August 22, 2014

The 2013-14 Ostrander Awards: Picks, Pans, and Who Got Robbed?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 11:40 AM

Tony Isbell in Red
  • Tony Isbell in "Red"
Before posting predictions for this year’s Ostrander Awards I thought it might be nice to talk to the one person who knows more about Memphis theater than just about anybody in the world. That would be me, of course. The interview was conducted this morning between my first and second cup of coffee, and some of the observations I made to myself were both surprising (to me) and informative (to me).

Intermission Impossible: Let’s cut to the chase. Who will this year’s big Ostrander winners be?

Chris Davis: Well, that’s a stupid question isn’t it?

Intermission Impossible: But…

Chris Davis: But nothing. You really are the Ignorant, preening tit they say you are, aren’t you?

Intermission Impossible: I don’t know what this has to do with this year’s Ostrander Awards.

Chris Davis: You don’t know? You asked me who the big Ostrander winners are going to be when the answer should be blindingly obvious. Everybody wins. Especially the losers since they were graciously allowed to work so near, and in some truly magical cases, WITH the actual winners who are the greatest thing to happen to world theater since the invention of fireproof curtains.

Intermission Impossible: I see…

Chris Davis: No you don’t. You see nothing. Have you been to Overton Square lately?

Intermission Impossible: I… Yes, I have.

Chris Davis: Have you eaten the Mexican Street Corn at Babalu?

Intermission Impossible: Yes, I enjoyed it very much.

Chris Davis: What did it taste like to you?

Intermission Impossible: Uh, like corn, and uhhhh some kind of cheese, maybe and…

Chris Davis: No, you infantile twerp. It tastes like winning. The Mexican Street Corn at Babalu tastes like unquantifiable success. Overton Square, in case you haven’t noticed, is a brand new theater district. Let me repeat: A brand new theater district with seven stages, counting Circuit’s cabaret and the new outdoor amphitheater. There’s a nice little boutique cinema to boot. And it’s all growing and thriving. Do you know what this means for the future Memphis theater? Do you have any clue or idea as to what this means for dance, opera, spoken word, mime, foreign language mime, and all manner live performance in Memphis? Even at the theaters that aren’t located on Overton Square?

Intermission Impossible: That nothing will ever be the same again?

Chris Davis: Bingo. Now, can we just end this painful bit and get on with your/my annual list of picks, pans, and who got robbed by the Ostrander judges this season?

Intermission Impossible: ...

Chris Davis: Just don’t say anything. For once in your miserable, lonely, pathetic life filled with jealousy and desperation. Please. Because, in case you haven’t noticed, this is my column too. I say we can move along. And we shall.

As You Like It at Theatre Memphis
  • As You Like It at Theatre Memphis


SET DESIGN


Mark Guirguis took a comparatively minimal approach to Les Misérables at Playhouse on the Square and knocked it out of the park. But Chris Sterling knocked the figurative ball it even further out of the park. His set for Haint, an original play by Justin Asher, used the intimacy of TheatreWorks to its full advantage. Sterling used the smallness and closeness of the experience as an excuse to create one of the most practical, detailed environments I’ve encountered anywhere, ever. I don’t have a lot of patience for precious, Southern, sentimental bull malarkey. But damn, this precious, sentimental, Southern bull malarkey was that turned up to 11, and with love.

Truth: If not for some scribbled notes, I could barely recall what Dan Kopera’s set for The Royal Family looked like. I liked it, apparently. Similarly, I don't know that I could give a useful off the cuff description of what Jack Yates set looked like for Harvey, though I do remember thinking it was substantial and well done. This has much less to do with Yates and Kopera’s design work than the fact that (a few bright spots allowed) these two productions made me wish the theater would just hurry up and die, so I could get on with the more respectable business of being a jobless alcoholic. Proof’s built space was uneventful, but sturdy and functional. And it became a nice canvas for some gorgeously busy, and texturally relevant lighting effects.

I’m betting all my marbles on Haint in this category. Everybody loves an underdog.

More importantly, who got robbed?

With its moody, ever-changing swaths of sky peeking in on a nicely appointed California ranch house, the design for Other Desert Cities was as close as any set came to perfection this season. Also, the scenic design for As You Like It was a great example of just you much you can do with the simplest gestures. There wasn't much to it, really, just some shape-shifting columns. But it may have been my favorite set of the year.


COSTUMES

Paul McCrae successfully transported As You Like It to the Old West at Theatre Memphis. Rebecca Y. Powell was spot on with the hair hoppers of Hairspray and revolutionaries of Les Misérables at Playhouse on the Square. Andre´ Bruce Ward’s costumes were just about the only thing about The Theatre Memphis’ Music Man that didn’t make me want to stand up and scream something awful. Also up for honors, The Royal Family, the show I cannot remember at all. Except for a faint memory of sitting in the dark thinking it looked good, and I could watch Christina Scott perform opposite a parking meter and she could probably make me buy the relationship.

Be sure to catch If You Liked Young Frankenstein Youll Love The Addams Family, at Theatre Memphis!
  • Be sure to catch "If You Liked 'Young Frankenstein' You'll Love The Addams Family," at Theatre Memphis!

So who takes the Ossie? I’m going with McCrae. The design concept worked so well, and wonderfully detailed Old West costumes really sold it.

LIGHTING

I loved what Jeremy Allen Fisher did with Proof, but Les Miserables is epic, and John Horan’s epic lighting drove all that epically epic epicness home. When it comes to epicness, its only real competition is Jesus Christ Superstar at Theatre Memphis, and really only because the “Superstar” sequence was so unspeakably gorgeous.

HAIR/WIGS/MAKE UP

This category contains some of the season’s most deserving nominees.
Memphis’ 60’s-revival girl band the Bouffants had a motto: The higher the hair, the closer to god. If there’s any truth to that Hairspray designer Nicholas Bursoni is the goddamn Pope. But Alexandria Gore, Ellen Inghram and Paul McCrae took on Young Frankenstein, and nailed it. And just as Haint’s set took advantages of TheatreWorks’ intimacy, so too did Andrew Chandler’s makeup design for the creature in New Moon’s Frankenstein. I really can’t even make myself to care about any of the rest, and they were all superior. Forced to choose, I’m going with Gore, Inghram and McCrae.

MUSIC DIRECTION

Renée Kemper for Les Misérables at Playhouse on the Square. I guess they felt obligated to nominate other people, or something.

CHOREOGRAPHY

If Shorey Walker, Jordan Nichols, and Travis Bradley don’t win for the giddy, vivacious, exploding-with-pure-unfiltered-Jesus-loves-you-joy choreography of Hairspray it can only be evidence of some terrible sickness in the world.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Morgan Howard was as compelling an Eponine as I’ve seen in Les Misérables at Playhouse on the Square. Her co-star Elisabeth Cross Hipp could give her a run for her money though.

SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

The entire cast of Spamalot deserves a golden grail, or at least some rhinestone-encrusted coconuts. And it seems like most of King Arthur’s boys have been nominated in this category. Sadly, they will all lose badly to Rob Hanford who was so wrong and so sexless in The Music Man and yet so right and randy in Young Frankenstein. He’s no Marty Feldman, mind you, but darn close.

Greg Boller as Frankenstein for New Moon
  • Greg Boller as Frankenstein for New Moon

LEADING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Leigh Eck was the joy and the laughter of Young Frankenstein at Theatre Memphis, Carla McDonald was great in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. And then there’s Courtney Oliver who has already won this award once for her performance as the hair hopping hoofer Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. In spite of some mid-run vocal issues I think she’ll win it again because she was even better this time, especially in her spring loaded dance numbers.

LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Bill Andrews was comically regal as King Arthur in Playhouse on the Square’s Spamalot, and I’d really like to see him win this. On the other hand, he started with exceptional material.

Marques Brown was hysterical in every sense as the titular Young Frankenstein. Being great in the worst musical adaptation of a film in recent memory is no small feat, so I’m thinking Mr. Brown wins on difficulty.

At the top of the season I thought Philip Andrew Himebook’s oversized presence and soaring tenor made his Jean Valjean in Les Misérables a shoe in. But then Eck, Hanford, and Brown managed to make a certifiably awful musical seem pretty good. With a little help from director Cecelia Wingate, of course. This remarkable cast of community players should be rewarded for the effort.

DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL

Scott Ferguson probably deserves a win for Spamalot at Playhouse on the Square. Cecelia Wingate will win for Young Frankenstein though. I’m okay with that due to the reasons cited above. But if Gary John La Rosa wins for Les Miserables, I won't complain.

BEST MUSICAL PRODUCTION
The Music Man fell flatter than a shit soufflé in Oklahoma during an extreme gravity event. It has no business being nominated in this category. You can argue otherwise all day long, but you’d be almost as wrong as my opening salvo in this category. There was zero chemistry between the leads. After the impressive opening number it was high school theater with a Theatre Memphis budget. When even Steve “Sister Myotis” Swift isn’t funny, something has gone terribly wrong with your show.

State of Grace
  • State of "Grace"

Playhouse on the Square had a solid slate of musicals and Les Misérables, Monty Python’s Spamalot and Hairspray are all deserving. I think it’s Young Frankenstein’s year though. That show is a hot turd sandwich, but Theatre Memphis made it tasty. And I mean that as a sincere front-handed complement.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA

Given the choices I hope Mary Buchignani wins for Clybourne Park. What a perfect showcase for her range versatility and straight up fearlessness. Her castmate Meredith Julian runs a close second.

Who got robbed? I don’t even know where to start. So I’ll just go with Taylor Wood who played the thankless role of an uptight parachute sibling in Proof. She brought a lot of laughs to a sad show, many at her own expense. Brave and true. Also, pretty much all of the women in Our Own Voice's CLAWS, which was probably never in consideration.

SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA

Stephen Garrett was good in Proof. I’ve seen him work that same schtick before though. The same might be said for Michael Gravois in Clybourne Park.

I’ve seen As You Like It more than any other Shakespearean comedy and thought Stephen Huff was as good a Jaques as has ever stood upon the world and syllogized. But this award is probably a tossup between Kinon Keplinger, whose profane offstage rant in The Submission, at Theatre Memphis was the single funniest thing that happened this season, and John Maness, who gave a deeply humane performance as a man of constant sorrow in Grace at The Circuit Playhouse. This is a category stocked with worthiness, and I’d be happy seeing any of these fine performers walk with the Ostrander.

Who got robbed? Michael Gravois was super as the gossipy super in Grace. Also, pretty much every male actor in Seven Guitars. Is it just me, or is Hattiloo noticeably absent among this season’s nominees? More on that below.

LEADING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA

Who got robbed? Lots of people, but I’m only going to name two. Morgan Howard broke my heart in Grace. And then there's Black Pearl sings, which isn’t a good play and was poorly produced at the Hattiloo. But Patricia Smith was pretty perfect in the title role. She got robbed a little, but it’s hard to blame the judges. The last show in the old Hattiloo show felt like a lost orphan.

The only performer I have really strong feelings about who was actually nominated in this category is Karen Mason Riss whose touching, funny, abrasive, incredibly smart, endlessly giving human-sized performance made 4,000 Miles a season highlight. But I suspect this battle is between Jillian Barron in Proof, and Jessica Johnson in The Submission. And between those two I have to go with Jessica Johnson who was remarkable in a perfectly staged production of a play that creates more heat than light.

LEADING ACTOR IN A DRAMA

I kind of want to see Jerry Chipman take this for his role as a fading Hollywood star turned Conservative politician in Other Desert Cities at The Circuit Playhouse. But I also think Tony Isbell is deserving for his performance as the cranky abstract painter Mark Rothko in Red, also at The Circuit Playhouse. Stuart Turner displayed extraordinary physical comedy skills in Boeing Boeing, but the sheer featherweightitude of the material puts him right out of the running.

I’ve enjoyed S.A. Weakley’s work since 1989 when the power went out on the Shelby State campus during a performance of the farce Scapino and, without missing a single beat, Weakley produced a flashlight (where did it come from?!?!) and carried on with the show. He was good in Proof but not as in command of the character as he can be when he really connects. I’m calling this one for Tony.

Who Got Robbed: TC Sharpe in Camp Logan. Of course, not every company is in the running for Ostrander Awards, and I suspect that’s the case for Bluff City Tri-Art.

SMALL ENSEMBLE ACTING (Cast of 7 or fewer)

I’m calling this for Red at The Circuit Playhouse. Two actors, one riveting evening at the theater.

Who got robbed? I sure liked Cock. The play I mean. It was an indie at the U of M. And it was never in consideration, but what a fun group of actors. Low on chemistry, maybe, but crafty as hell. More Stephen Huff goodness to boot.

Courtney Oliver: Good Morning Baltimore.
  • Courtney Oliver: "Good Morning Baltimore."

LARGE ENSEMBLE ACTING (Cast of 8 or more)

I think Seven Guitars is the clear winner here. Why? Because the seven actors in the show were so good they somehow got the show nominated in a category reserved for 8 or more actors. That is a truly astonishing feat.
(slow clap).

I’ve been told that the judges cheat sheet listed understudies, creating some confusion as to the cast size, and since nobody actually saw the show…
Oh wait, my bad. It’s now my understanding that the judges did see the show. They just…

Oh, who the hell knows. But, as each character is one of August Wilson’s guitars, this was the WTF of the season. Weirdly, very few people seemed to notice.

Who got robbed? Hattiloo. That’s who. Not in this category, but over all. This wasn’t the still-young company’s strongest season, and the administration’s focus was split between the season’s production and building a fabulous new theater in Overton Square. But this was the company’s only nomination? And in the wrong category, at least initially. Lone eyebrow on the rise.

Also of note: the cast of Camp Logan. But, as mentioned above, I don’t think Bluff City Tri-Art is even in the running. And I’m really not sure how the judges could have parsed Our Own Voice’s production of CLAWS, a large cast collection of original short small cast plays that were hit and miss, with a few that, given their scale, could have been contenders.

FEATURED/CAMEO ROLE

If it’s anybody but Kim Sanders, I don’t care. She was Hairspray’s secret weapon. And she killed.

DIRECTION OF A DRAMATIC PRODUCTION

The Submission is a well crafted mess of a play and one of the most masterfully staged pieces of the season. Jerry Chipman played it like a maestro, and is absolutely deserving of an Ossie, even if the play needs to be shaken till its figurative teeth rattle. Clybourne Park is a much better look at both modern theater and modern race relations. It also boasted one heck of an ensemble.

Speaking of great ensembles, Jo Lenhart’s As You Like It was a love letter to timeless comedy, reminding a critic with Shakespeare fatigue that there’s a lot to the old cliche about babies and bathwater.

This one absolutely belongs to Jo Lenhart. Her concept served the play, not the other way around. And, for American audiences, she may have even enhanced our ability to experience the material, without ever distrusting or second-guessing the source. Sincere standing slow clap. (And I just don’t give those. Ever).

Who got robbed? Tightest show of the year: Grace. And director Teddy Eck handled the time-and-space-bending show beautifully. But even then, it wasn’t quite the accomplishment that As You Like It was.

BEST DRAMATIC PRODUCTION

Who got robbed? Grace isn’t on this list. That’s a mistake. It was easily as good as anything nominated, and better than most. That said, As You Like It should walk away with this, although I suspect it won’t. I’m guessing it’s The Submission’s years. It plays like gangbusters, and this cast and crew squeezed out all the juice. For better and for worse. Clybourne Park was better, Proof feels like a long shot. Then again, in a season where a seven character show gets nominated in a category for casts of 8 or more, and Theatre Memphis’ Music Man gets nominated for Best Musical, I suppose any crazy thing can happen.

John Rone: Badass
  • John Rone: Badass


THE EUGART YERIAN LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
This is a non competitive category but I’d like to say a few words about…

Chris Davis: Haven’t you said enough already?

Intermission Impossible: I thought our interview was over.

Chris Davis: It was, but you’re about to talk about John Rone, am I right?

Intermission Impossible: I was. Such a generous spirit, such intelligence, such a dry and cutting wit.

Chris Davis: You’re an idiot?

Intermission Impossible: What?

Chris Davis: You’re an idiot. The thing that makes John Rone so special is that magnificent beard.

Intermission Impossible: Huh?

Chris Davis: It makes him look so bad and devilly. But in a good way. And that’s important because, in addition to all that crap you were saying, he’s also a little bit bad and devilly. I know because he once played my father in Oliver Goldsmith’s bawdy comedy She Stoops to Conquer, and seemed to really enjoy administering extra-textural spankings. He was a joy to work with, and I feel like I’m a better person for knowing him.

Intermission Impossible: Wow, that was at least partly sincere. You probably deserved the spankings, you know.

Chris Davis: Yes. But earlier, when I said we’re all winners this year, I was also being at least partly sincere. Because we really are, for lack of a better word, blessed to work with people like John Rone. Great talent, fine human, extraordinary beard. Love him like an uncle. An eccentric uncle who likes to give spankings.

Intermission Impossible: Is this over now?

Chris Davis: Yes. This is the end. Fool.

For additional Ossie info: Here you go.

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