We'll have to wait and see how the actual ceremony goes down on the 26th, but it appears that the biggest winner at this year's Memphis Theatre Awards is going to be the event itself. The decision to name the awards the Ostranders is brilliant. After all, veteran actor Jim Ostrander is universally loved and respected by both his fellow actors and the theatergoing community. His powerful, award-winning return to the Playhouse stage during the 1999-2000 season, after having portions of his jaw removed, was the definition of confidence, bravery, and professionalism. Though cancer has again taken him out of the spotlight, he continues to show his support and enthusiasm for local theater via spirited electronic messages posted to Memphis' online performance community. He was a true inspiration long before he fell ill, and it is his name that honors the Memphis Theatre Awards, not the converse.
The choice to return to an award system based on multiple nominees and a single winner is a dozen large steps in the right direction. No doubt Sally Field would not have felt so very liked had she shared her Oscar with four other actresses. This system sets an annual standard for excellence. It creates drama, and that's what all this theater stuff is about, now isn't it? What red-blooded American can avoid pins and needles when the words "and the winner is ..." trip off the presenter's tongue. But there are still a few, less positive things to say about this year's awards.
While it's good to see that Playwrights' Forum, an independent company that has devoted itself to the development of original scripts for lo these many years, has finally been nominated for some awards, it's frustrating that so many equally deserving companies have been omitted. Our Own Voice Theater Company's staging of Artaud's Spurt of Blood was the most ambitious project to be undertaken this year. O.O.V.'s production of this seemingly unstageable but always exhilarating text could not have been more inspired. Their original script, Ephemera, a scathingly funny piece satirizing both the art of theater and the Memphis performance community, could not have been more on the mark. It too deserved a nod, as did the stunning performances of Bill Baker and Alex Cooke. Emerald Theater Company's rock solid Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was far more compelling than many of this season's mainstage offerings, and director Hal Harmon should have been a contender for best director. The gravest oversight on behalf of this year's judging was the omission of Rick Crowe from the Best Supporting Actor category. His performance in Sleeping Cat Studio's The Ribbon Mill was beyond stellar. But the problem remains the same as it ever was: There just aren't enough judges to see everything. The basis for judging who is included remains shrouded in mystery. Every company listed above is between 5 and 12 years old.
As usual, I'm not putting on my swami's hat and trying to guess who will actually win this year's Ostranders. The following is a list of those I would single out for excellence if I alone were the judge, jury, and executioner.
Set Design: Michael Walker's elegant zen-like set for the lumbering Far East should take the prize. Best Supporting Actress in a Musical? The award has to go to the late Barbara Clinton whose gigantic, infinitely soulful voice invigorated an otherwise limp Best Little Whorehouse. If Zombie Prom's Kent Fleshman doesn't take the prize for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, there is no justice. Zombie's Sally Kroeker is equally deserving of Best Actress in a Musical, and Christopher Swan's star turn in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change will net him Best Actor in a Musical hands down. The best musical of the year was Zombie Prom, and its director Michael Dugan should likewise pick up the plaque for best director. In the non-musical category, Jeff Godsey and Sara Morsey from Love! Valour! Compassion! and Wit, respectively, deserve the prize for Best Actor and Actress. Neither will win, though. Godsey made it look too easy, and Morsey was too dang depressing. Besides, if Michael Detroit sneaks up and grabs Best Actor for his work in Side Man, I won't complain a bit. The best supporting performers were easily Ruby O'Gray (The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman) and Jason Craig (Side Man). Love! Valour! Compassion! was certainly the year's best play, while Ann Marie Hall should nab the Ostrander for best director. Hall will probably go home empty-handed, though, as no one will take into consideration just how difficult Stop Kiss is to mount.
The U of M will sweep the college division. Their powerhouse productions of All My Sons and Sweeney Todd were more professional than anything to appear at Playhouse on the Square this season. Sight Unseen's fantastic ensemble acting and brilliantly executed set also make it a contender. While Rhodes gets points for choosing more challenging material and even attempting to develop an original script as part of their main season, this year's offerings just didn't quite measure up.