Artistically, local theater was in something of a slump this season. There were fewer memorable shows than last season and almost no transforming moments that could take your breath away. That’s not to say we didn’t see some excellent theater. Here’s our own personal highlight reel. Warning: baseball clichés on deck.
K Strong was an old-fashioned player-manager with her work on “Olympus on My Mind,” last summer’s hit at Barksdale. Not only did she direct and choreograph the extravaganza, she starred, wowing the audience with her portrayal of ditzy Delores.
David Bridgewater ripped home runs in two shows. As John Proctor in Barksdale’s production of Arthur Miller’s classic, “The Crucible,” Bridgewater’s portrayal of Puritanical shame gave way to red hot indignation. And for two full acts in Essential Theatre’s “Boom Town,” he walked the fine line between simmering anger and explicit violence. Bridgewater always hits for the fences.
If Bridgewater has a slugger’s mentality, Mary Sue Carroll is the pesky singles hitter who consistently moves the runner. She was a one-woman tour de force in the Richmond Triangle Players’ production of “My Left Breast.” Playing a “one-breasted, menopausal, Jewish, bisexual, lesbian mom,” Carroll not only mastered the intricacies of a lyrical script about breast cancer, she also won over the audience with warmth and unexpected humor.
In the mathematical who-wrote-it “Proof,” Erin Thomas was a perfect choice for the role of Catherine, the unstable but brilliant daughter of a troubled mathematician. In terms of age and attitude, Thomas was a better Catherine than the roster of Hollywood actresses who performed the role on Broadway. David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play seemed more genuine and tender at Barksdale than it did in New York.
Rookie of the Year
Audra Honaker was everywhere. In chronological order, she played a twitchy Mary Warren in “The Crucible” at Barksdale; the bobby-soxer Connie Miller in “The 1940’s Radio Hour” at Barksdale; a loveable Becky Thatcher in “Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi” at Theatre IV; and one of the talented singing “Taffetas” at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse. Her fresh-faced charm should entertain audiences for years.
In “Proof,” Kevin Hoffmann was a natural as Hal, a postgraduate mathematician. His easygoing stage manner contrasted nicely with Erin Thomas’ acid-tongued performance. The play was far too brainy for Crash Davis’ “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days” but Hoffmann and Thomas nonetheless generated the best romantic chemistry of the year.
Manager of the Year
What does a director do when the script for “Songs from Bedlam” consists of a series of poetic monologues that are not connected in time or space? If you’re David Bridgewater, you play the percentages. Throw in the imaginative use of lights, sound and music, call a trick misdirection play or two, and always keep the actors moving. Using this much stagecraft can turn a show into a director’s ego trip. But the veteran actor pulled it off without showing us the seams.
Coaches of the Year
Elizabeth Weiss Hopper created the knock ’em dead costumes of gold, sequins and fur in “Olympus on My Mind.” Ron Keller produced great scenery on a dime for “Songs from Bedlam.” And William T. Grant III designed the classy lights that illuminated TheatreVirginia’s “Tamer of Horses.”
The “Big Market” Show of the Year
(a.k.a. the New York Yankees Award)
Because of the demise of TheatreVirginia, Producing Artistic Director Benny Sato Ambush was in charge for only a season and a half, but one of his turns at the directorial helm produced a gem. “Tamer of Horses” was a professional production from beginning to end. In addition to top-notch performances, the lights, sound and set all were first-rate. The play introduced us to complex African-American characters in nonstereotypical roles. Richmond will miss the resources and national talent TheatreVirginia brought to the arena.
The “Small Market” Show of the Year
(a.k.a. the Milwaukee Brewers Award)
There were certainly more audience-friendly shows than “Songs from Bedlam.” It’s the kind of script that leaves many theatergoers shaking their heads on the way out of the building. And many shows had a bigger budget. But this world premiere of a new play by Douglas Jones nurtured a spark of life that grew from the inside out. With the help of Kelly Kennedy’s musical score, the show’s humanity enveloped the audience and remained with us long after the final curtain call. It’s nice to see a local theater produce an unconventional script by a local playwright with such care.
The “Almost a Slugfest” Award
Shortly before it was set to begin, three actors quit the production of Firehouse Theatre’s “As Bees Drown in Honey.” The Firehouse replaced the actors; delayed the opening for a week; the show went on. It was a good show, too. It makes us wonder just how much preparation experienced actors really need. The disgruntled actors, however, are persona non grata on the Firehouse stage for the immediate future.
The “Going Going Gone” Award
The Firehouse dust-up was nothing compared to the collapse of TheatreVirginia under the weight of its long-term debt. Appeals to subscribers and the skybox crowd were too little too late. Central Virginia lost its only member of the League of Resident Theatres and a fixture of Richmond theater since 1955. The final show, an uninspired tribute to the music of Rodgers and Hart, was a last bit of gloss applied to a theatrical corpse. A smattering of recriminations soon followed.
The “If You Build It, They Will Come” Award
Unfortunately, we had to withdraw this award from competition. The 600-seat theater that was slated to be the home of TheatreVirginia at the proposed Performing Arts Complex has been scratched for a 1,000-seat music hall primarily intended for the Richmond Symphony. The foundation in charge will concentrate on improvements to existing theaters and the construction of a 200-seat black-box theater. Filling 600 seats was probably a reach and the current proposal beats a cornfield any day.
The “Baseball Shouldn’t Be Played in Domed Stadiums” Award
The Richmond Triangle Players opened up the ceiling at Fieldens Cabaret Theatre. The space is less claustrophobic and now has better acoustics. The change is particularly helpful for the wacky musicals that are the bread and butter of RTP. “Ruthless” had such good word of mouth that the producers extended the run.
Special Recognition for the Expansion Clubs
Several new companies entered play this season. The Living Word Stage Company put on a full season at its home on Broad Street.
Richmond Ensemble Theatre started a series of New Yorklike readings at the Pine Camp Fine Arts Center. The company hopes the reading series will evolve into a full season of equity productions.
Essential Theatre, another company hoping to provide steady work for professional actors and directors, is off to a promising start with its assured production of the Jeff Daniels’ script, “Boom Town.” Essential will begin producing shows in Richmond’s Monumental Church early next year.
The “Time to Break Out Vintage Uniforms” Award
Theatre IV’s sure-handed guidance of Barksdale consolidated the stunning gains it made the previous season. Next season will mark Barksdale’s 50th anniversary, complete with a growing subscriber list and the theater’s largest budget ever.
The local theater community continues to deal with the fallout from the loss of a LORT theater, tight budgets and an uncertain audience base. But there are a number of positive signs for the future. Artistic directors and producers are more aware of the need to make sound business judgments. The remaining theaters have cut the fat and will come out of this period stronger and more efficient. Beyond that, we have several new companies with professional ambitions who are dedicated to providing opportunities for the large number of talented actors, directors and designers who live in the area. These companies have the opportunity to fill the void left by TheatreVirginia with more exciting flavor.
To prove the point, next season’s selection of plays already looks more varied and interesting than the choices we saw this year. And though we still can’t get beer and stadium hot dogs during intermission, the local theater scene does have a certain Bull Durhamesque charm. Besides, theater has some things that not even baseball can supply. As Tom Hanks would say, “Crying? There’s no crying in baseball.” S
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