When Greg Kotis backpacked through Europe one summer, he was annoyed to discover that most of the public restrooms were coin-operated. Under similar circumstances, many people would have complained to the American Embassy or their friends back home.
Kotis wrote a musical about it.
Kotis’ admixture of pique and talent paid big dividends last night for Signature Theater, which walked away with eight Helen Hayes Awards, including outstanding resident musical, outstanding director for a resident musical, and all of the resident musical acting awards – either singly or in combination with other actors.
Awards on the resident play side were more evenly distributed, with Studio Theater’s production of the Richard Greenberg baseball drama, Take Me Out, sharing top awards with Woolly Mammoth’s widely-acclaimed production of The Clean House. Accepting Studio’s award, Artistic Director Joy Zinoman playfully suggested that the honor was “some small compensation” for director Kirk Jackson’s decision not to hold naked auditions for the play, which is notable for its male nudity.
Zinoman also won the award for outstanding director of a resident play for her work on another Studio production, Carol Churchill’s A Number.
Jefferson Mays’ virtuoso performance as the German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife, as expected, won recognition as outstanding nonresident production and outstanding performance by an actor in a nonresident production, adding to an already impressive mountain of awards his work in the play has received. Stephanie Block was honored for outstanding performance by an actress in a nonresident production for her work as Elphaba in the Kennedy Center’s presentation of Wicked.
While Mays was not present to accept his award, those who were spoke movingly and perceptively about the powerful and generous spirit which animates the Washington theater community. Patrick Page, who received one of the two outstanding actor awards for a resident play (the other going to Rich Foucheux for his work in Studio’s Take Me Out) wondered aloud how one could be “humbled” by receiving an award which makes “your head about to pop” – and then answered his own question, noting that his performance (he played Iago in Shakespeare Theater’s Othello) would have been impossible without the work of other cast members – specifically mentioning Avery Johnson in the title role. Page credited the teaching and directing genius of the Shakespeare Theater’s Michael Kahn for his success, as did several other of the evening’s awardees.
Eunice Wong, named outstanding actress in a resident play for her work in the title role of Studio’s The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, was wistful as she described the evanescent nature of the theatrical enterprise. She was being honored, she noted, for a thing which no longer existed, except in memory. Franca Barachiesi, recognized as supporting actress for her performance in The Clean House, described a dream in which she found herself surrounded by an immense circle of artists stretching back to before recorded history.
Bruce Nelson was acknowledged as supporting actor for his work as Gidger in Rep Stage’s The Violet Hour – yet another play from the pen of the prolific Greenberg.
The Helen Hayes judges acknowledged, with a Charles W. MacArthur Award, the original script of S.M. Shephard-Massat, whose Starving premiered at Woolly Mammoth.
But the evening belonged to Urinetown, as the Signature production picked up awards for outstanding director in a resident musical (Joe Calarco), outstanding musical direction (Jay Crowder), outstanding choreographer (Karma Camp), outstanding supporting actor in a resident musical (Stephen F. Schmidt), and outstanding supporting actress in a resident musical (Jenna Sokolowski), outstanding lead actor in a resident musical (Will Gartshore) and outstanding lead actress in a resident musical (Erin Driscoll). Garthshore shared his award with Michael McElroy, who appeared as Jim in Ford Theater’s production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Driscoll tied with Meg Gillentine, who played Lola in Arena’s production of Damn Yankees.
Awardee after awardee cited the tremendous sense of risk, play and accomplishment on the Urinetown set from the beginning of rehearsals, Sokolowski specifically crediting Calarco’s willingness to give his actors the “freedom to fail” as they sought to master this difficult musical. Gartshore recalled a day when the director sent him home early because the rest of the schedule had been given over to choreography. “I didn’t want to go home,” he said, so he spent the rest of the day watching the dancers work.
The judges acknowledged the lush set designed by Simon Higlett
and the costumes designed by Robert Perdziola for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lady Windemere’s Fan., lighting done by Charlie Morrison in the same company’s version of The Tempest, and Martin Desjardins’ sound design for Round House Theatre’s columbinus.
Scenic designer Ming Cho Lee and costume designer Jane Greenwood won the Helen Hayes tribute, sponsored by Gilbert and Jaylee Mead. Receiving the KPMG Award for Distinguished Service, a representative of American Airlines wryly noted that he, like the theaters, was “in the nonprofit sector”). Arlene Kogod, accepting the Washington Post Award recognizing her extraordinary generosity to theater, predicted that DC theatre is entering a new era, “a golden age of theatre.”
The affable Brad Oscar was a lively host, neatly skewering such topics as the abysmally derivative Broadway season with a series of acerbic musical parodies with the assistance of Kristi Ambrosetti and Vanessa Vaughn, who hung on his arms, decked out like Broadway showgirls. Oscar, who was nominated for outstanding lead actor in a resident musical for his performance as Satan in Arena’s Damn Yankees, assured that the entire ceremony lasted less than two hours.
Olney Artistic Director Jim Petosa directed the night’s affair, from a script put together by playwright Norman Allen and choreographed by the award-winning Karma Camp. Glenn Peterson served as musical director and Helen Hayes Awards Executive Director Linda Levy Grossman produced, along with Daniel MacLean Wagner.