Friday, August 18, 2017

2017 Ostranders — Picks, Pans and WHO GOT ROBBED!?!?

Posted By on Fri, Aug 18, 2017 at 10:20 AM

click to enlarge Lord of the Flies
  • Lord of the Flies
The Ostrander Awards are just around the corner and I've got some questions.

Where is Killer Joe?

[Looks sternly, menacingly around the room]

I'm not playing judges? Where the eff is Killer Joe?

Nothing? You've got nothing? No nominations? Not a crumb? Not a courtesy nod for this upsetting season highlight?
I've read the nominations over and over, hoping I'd overlooked something. But no. It's just not there. I've heard tell it wasn't even recommended for judging, and if that's so, somebody's got some explaining to do. Because in this particular moment, as we consider just how very screwed up our world has become, that show was fire.
True fact.
Maybe it wasn't pleasant. And maybe it wasn't perfect. And I'm not sure I ever want to see that ugly thing again. But New Moon's Killer Joe was sometimes thrilling, and outstanding in most regards. The set —  a hyperrealistic mobile home interior — was as convincing as Katie Bell Kenny's Sun Studio simulacrum for Million Dollar Quartet. It was more believably lived in than the (gorgeous) Georgetown doll house Jack Yates dreamed up for The City of Conversation too. The  glowing blue bug-zapper on the trailer's porch was a special touch— a perfect detail triggering good off-kilter memories from the last time New Moon produced a Tracy Letts script. Killer Joe's cast made me feel icky, I admit. It was a refreshing change from feeling nothing at all.

I'll be ranting more about this and a few other glaring omissions later but, as good as many of this year's Ostrander nominees may have been, I struggle with the idea that Letts' disturbing black comedy wasn't even a contender. Judges can hide behind reasonable differences of opinion and taste but I'm not having it with Killer Joe. It was a powerhouse indie and a strong example of what what can bubble up when a motivated community outgrows its institutions.
Killer Joe: Love & Death in the trailer park.
  • Killer Joe: Love & Death in the trailer park.
Oh well, here's this year's cranky list of Ostrander picks, pans and yes, of course, "Who Got Robbed?".

Set Design
Is it just me or does it seem like the judges really have a thing for literal environments and lots and lots of money?
Katie Bell-Kenny's lovingly detailed brick by brick Sun Studio was the spitting image of a place we all know just a few blocks down the road. Ryan Howell solved a lot of big problems for Priscilla Queen of the Desert and his beautiful bus sang in perfect harmony with Kathleen R. Kovariks costumes. Jack Yates  gets three nods for Beauty and the Beast (epic Disney at a nearly human scale), The City of Conversation (whole lot of set for not much drama) and for the doctor's office drama Rasheeda Speaking, for which he crafted an artificial environment so realistic I watched an audience member walk onstage before the show and attempt to use the fake public restroom. These are all fantastic nominees and I think (hope) Yates takes the prize for Rasheeda — or even for Beauty and the Beast were he darkened the corners in ways that might make old Cocteau smile.  But it's strange to me that Yates has three nominations while some really interesting work was ignored. As perfectly theatrical gestures go, things don't get much better than the enormous but not very flashy stairway built for Charles III. With its plain raked stage and floating french doors JImmie Humphries design for The House That Will Not Stand was a lean ghostly vision of Old New Orleans that looked great under light and Killer Joe was a convincing germaphobe's nightmare. Flat mugged, all three of these guys.

Lights
Jeremy Allen Fisher  and Theatre Memphis pick up three lighting nominations for a trio of lushly lit musicals: Beauty and the Beast, Side Show and South Pacific. I didn't see The Bridges of Madison County, at The Circuit Playhouse but I'm a John Horan fan and Priscilla Queen of the Desert didn't disappoint. I get the sense that our judges have a "more is better" aesthetic, so they probably picked Beauty and the Beast but South Pacific and Side Show were more enchanting. Who got robbed? Killer Joe's bug-zapper was an awfully special practical but no show made better use of illumination this season than Playhouse on the Square's production of Lord of the Flies. I was especially struck by the closing scene when the rescue occurred and bright lamps flooded the stage. Until that moment I didn't realize just how literally dark things had gotten. Robbed!

Also, I don't know who to call out for Rasheeda Speaking. Jeremy Fisher's listed as the lighting designer but the practical lighting built into Jack Yates' set made the illusion complete. Did I mention that an audience member tried to use the onstage bathroom? Good stuff.
click to enlarge Sometimes the set's the star.
  • Sometimes the set's the star.
Costume Design
Disney's Beauty and the Beast is a a show about spectacle and Amie Eoff should probably win for that (with Anne Suchyta, Dawn Bennett and Rafael Castanera) though she may have done better work for Side Show, where she wasn't beholden to any animated expectations. I missed Sisters of Swing but have seen enough to know why this vintage snapshot of the Andrews Sisters career was included. Odds on Favorite: André Bruce Ward for Sense & Sensibility. Andre's period work is always on point and this lifetime achievement honoree is retiring from Theatre Memphis this year, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work (and 15-tons of sequins). and I'm betting the judges set him up with one for the road.

Sound Design
Screw this category.
TV and radio broadcasts intrude throughout Killer Joe creating a secret sixth character in the drama. Without Killer Joe in the mix Sound Design is a 100% illegitimate category. Okay, okay, un-screw this category. Chris Cotton's design for Haint was lonesome, haunting and deserving and so was Carter McHann's post-WWII soundscape for Victory Blues. I'm calling this for Cotton, but it's a tossup.

Supporting Actress in a Drama
I didn't catch Mary Buchignani  in Sense & Sensibility, and that's on me because she's reliably fantastic. That makes this category a tough one to call. The similarly consistent Jessica “Jai” Johnson started a terrific year with Disgraced and Eugart Yearian lifetime achievement honoree Jo Lynne Palmer brought the spirit of a a stock Southern character to life in Hain't.  I particularly enjoyed Kristen Vandervort 's shellshocked take on Laura in The Glass Menagerie, and Leah Beth Wingfield's irreverent turn in Hand to God. If I'm forced to choose from this truly fine field I'll take Vandervort for shining new light through old windows. But Mersadies Burch's performance as the Laura Wingfield of Killer Joe was more interesting than any of these. Annie Freres' performance in Killer Joe was braver than all of these. And then there's Maya Robinson's breakout performance in The House That Will Not Stand. In my realtime review I wrote, "I predict an Ostrander nomination [for Robinson] and have a hard time imaging who might even rise up to challenge this winning performance." I still have a hard time imagining it, so here's to you Ms. Robinson. You were 110% ganked.
House That Will Not Stand
  • House That Will Not Stand
You know who else got 110% ganked?  There were three superb things about Theatre Memphis' profoundly meh production of the political drama City of Conversation. One of them was Jack Yates' eye-dazzling recreation of a swanky Georgetown home.  One of them was Michael Walker's pitch-perfect performance as a Southern politician. The third was Shannon Walton's savagely imagined, Eve-like temptress offering the apple of Reaganism to any powerful man who'd sit still long enough. A thrilling performance in a play mythologizing bullshit. And speaking of plays mythologizing bullshit, Christina Welford Scott owned the stage as Camilla Duchess of Cornwall in Charles III — ganked.

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Another botched category absent a nomination for Daniel Pound as the no-account daddy and beer-swigging couch-wart in Killer Joe. Among the actual nominees Gabe Beutel-Gunn was solid in Disgraced but maybe better in The 39 Steps and Emmanuel McKinney turned in one of his strongest performances since Hurt Village as the aging boxer Joe Louis in Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. I'm calling this one for McKinney but Pound needs to file a police report sometime in the nest 24-hours. Robbed!

Leading Actress in a Drama
Why is Karen Mason Riss nominated for The City of Conversation? I'm not asking because she's not one of our best, she is! I even thought she was fantastic in last season's forgettable Mothers & Sons. But this show was a misfire. Her co-star Shannon Walton might just as easily be considered a lead, and her's was the more interesting performance in a show so crisply written you almost don't notice how  muddled the vision is. It wouldn't be terrible if Anne Marie Caskey and Jessica “Jai” Johnson shared this year's award for Rasheeda Speaking. But my pick: Michele Somers Cullen. She swore she'd never act again and then along came Haint to make her a liar. She was remarkable as the misunderstood old root worker in this enjoyable Southern noir, but swears once again she's done.  Maybe a play prize will change her mind.

Who got robbed? I've seen The Glass Menagerie many, many times. I've seen as many fine Amandas. But I've never seen one half as interesting or alive as Christina Welford Scott — Robbed! And while we're on the subject of Tennessee Williams poor Natalie Jones was a promising Maggie in Theatre Memphis' misfire production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I can't say she was robbed exactly, but aggressively panhandled at the very least.
Glass Menagerie: Blow out your candles, Laura.
  • Glass Menagerie: Blow out your candles, Laura.

Leading Actor in a Drama
There was a scene in Hand to God where Jordan Nichols and Leah Beth Wingfield act their asses off while the puppets on their hands engage in frenzied, pagan sex. It's a high-wire moment scoring a solid 9 on the actor difficulty meter. Everybody else was fine, but if this season had one perfectly perfect moment that was it. Wingfield was amazing too.

Now for the bad news. Every time I think I've seen The Glass Menagerie enough and never need to see it again, I see a production that changes my mind. Shining in quiet, unexpected ways Kevar Lane Maffit is one of the best Toms I've ever seen. He was 100% Robbed!

Supporting Actress in a Musical

Annie Freres' voice is a force of nature and she blew down the house in both Mama Mia and Rock of Ages. Her only real competition here may be Jude Knight, who did Mrs. Potts proud in Beauty and the Beast.

Supporting Actor in a Musical
Philip Andrew Himebook was a perfectly heroic heel in Beauty and the Beast and Nathan McHenry sure could bang his piano in Million Dollar Quartet but I don't think there was any supporting performance more satisfying this season than Stephen Garrett's LA metalhead turn in Rock of Ages. A win in this category will more than make up for the fact he wasn't nominated for playing Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet.
Also Mark Pergolizzi I hope you had insurance. You were the heart of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and you got ROBBED! Also robbed — Did the judges even see Quinton Rayford in Violet?
click to enlarge Sense & Sensibility & Vampires but without the Vampires.
  • Sense & Sensibility & Vampires but without the Vampires.
Leading Actress in A Musical
I'm not considering anybody not in Side Show and not named Dani Chaum and Gia Welch. They had to play two distinctly different characters functioning as a single body. It was another high difficulty performance and they stuck the landing. A young team with talent to spare, and that's all I have to say about that. Any other choice is just wrong. Except for one choice that's not really a choice at all. There were a lot of good musical performances this season but only one was perfect — Nichol Pritchard as the titular Violet in GCT's uneven, but no-less rewarding production.

Violet had issues and I can see why might not have received many nominations. But, as the musical teaches us, we're so much more than our scars and blemishes. Prichard's performance was brassy and beautiful and all she got for it was ROBBED!
click to enlarge Beauty & the Beast: A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?
  • Beauty & the Beast: A metaphor for things that happen in our drawers?

Leading Actor in a Musical
The choices are Gary Beard in Liberace!, which I didn't see, Kent M. Fleshman in South Pacific, David Foster in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Daniel Gonzalez in Sisters of Swing, which I also didn't see, and Bruce Huffman in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. As good as Fleshman and Foster were Huffman's the only nominee to really show me something new and unexpected. I don't know how you ground that much fabulous camp, but there was something uncommonly down to Earth about Huffman's over-the-top flights of fantasy. It was a winning performance among winning performances.

Who got robbed? I know Sam Phillips doesn't have any songs in Million Dollar Quartet, but y'all do know it's his show, right? Go check your insurance policies Stephen Garrett, you've been ROBBED!
Sam Phillips tribute artist.
  • Sam Phillips tribute artist.
Large Ensemble
Am I the only person who thinks it's funny to see Million Dollar Quartet in the large ensemble category? It's a show about a quartet. That's four people plus Sam Phillips which makes five. Then Elvis brings a date, making it six. Thing is M$4 also brings the backing band on stage adding a costumed bass player and drummer who basically just sit/stand there till it's time to play.That technicality brings M$4 into the large ensemble category where it still doesn't belong. Who's winning this one? I don't know. If One-Ham-Manlet the one-man Hamlet didn't get nominated, can't care. That Ryan Kathman contains multitudes.

Small Ensemble

Blackbird wasn't eligible and Killer Joe wasn't nominated so whoever wins this category will have to live with the full knowledge that they were second or third best at least. Having said, I wouldn't cry a bit if Mr. Ricky — a show with one more principle cast member than M$4 — took this one. It was a great example of Hattiloo choosing fantastic material nobody else is even looking at and elegantly performed.

Cameo/Featured Role
Better be Ron GordonHamlet, New Moon Theatre Company. Flights of angels and all that...

Excellence in Direction of a Drama
I sound like a broken record but without James Kevin Cochran who directed Killer Joe and Tony Horne who brought together a real "wow" of a show with The House That Will Not Stand I'm not sure what we're rewarding here. Where's John Maness' nomination for GCT's tight, fuss-free Glass Menagerie? (Robbed!)

I missed only one among the chosen: Sense & Sensibility— that John Rone always does a fine job with Jane Austen. Irene Crist's a pro too but if Disgraced was more polished than her fun but spotty Hand to God.  Dennis Whitehead Darling's sure and invisible hand allowed Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting to speak for itself, and boy did it have a lot to say. Tony Isbell unleashed a storm of silliness and sight gags in The 39 Steps, a show I don't always enjoy. None of the nominated shows excited me like the ones that were overlooked.


Excellence in Direction of a Musical
Please let Scott Ferguson win for Rock of Ages. God how I hate (old-school hate, I'm a total H8R) some of the music in that ridiculous, gaudy, shitshow and Ferguson made it so much fun I got mad at myself and punched myself in the face for liking it. Michael Detroit did a fine job with Million Dollar Quartet and I suspect an equally competent job with Sisters of Swing. Dave Landis is also double-nominated for The Bridges of Madison County and a popular staging of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. For over-the-top vision and execution it's hard to beat Ferguson at his worst. Landis got close sometimes with Priscilla, but this was Ferguson at his best.


Best Dramatic Production
The 39 Steps was a screwball romp. The City of Conversation was a boring af. Disgraced was a firecracker. Hand to God was a messy, cathartic shart-fart of a comedy. I'm calling this one for Rasheeda Speaking. From its hyperrealistic, perfectly lit set, to similarly realistic performances Rasheeda was certainly the most relevant thing nominated.

Best Musical Production
Million Dollar Quartet has a hometown advantage and POTS did a fine job with the show. But it wasn't as humane as Priscilla Queen of the Desert or as hilarious as Rock of Ages. Sisters of Swing and
South Pacific both seem to be popular this season but I'm picking Rock of Ages. Because it's no easy easy job turning shit to solid gold. 

And that's the end of this year's highly-anticipated peeing-in-the-punchbowl party.

See y'all at the Ossies!
click to enlarge Mr. Huffman
  • Mr. Huffman

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