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2009 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theater?


By Debra Miller

On October 5, the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theater were presented at the Walnut Street Theatre in an enjoyable, fast-paced, 90-minute ceremony.  The nominees and winners were determined by the Greater Philadelphia Theatre Alliance’s new and self-described “less taxing” system of voting.  Conspicuously and questionably absent from the nominees for drama, acting, and directing were the critically acclaimed and unquestionably brilliant productions of Hamlet by Lantern Theater Company and American Buffalo by Theatre Exile, as well as their respective presentations of Siswe Bansi is Dead and Dark Play or Stories for Boys. The only recognition American Buffalo received were well deserved nominations for Matt Saunders’ set design and Thom Weaver’s lighting design.  The other outstanding aforementioned dramas by two of Philadelphia’s very finest small companies were completely excluded, despite the rave reviews they received from critics and audiences alike.

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Forrest McClendon and Lawrence Stallings in Sizwe Bansi is Dead; photo courtesy of Lantern Theater Company

Other writers have already commented on the omission of Hamlet, as well as Theatre Exile’s Blackbird for Best Play, and Exile’s Joe Canuso as Best Director.  The stunned buzz around the reception following the nomination announcements on August 3, at the University of the Arts, was a good indication of the theater community’s general dissatisfaction with the results of the new voting system.  This discontent continued at the awards ceremony on October 5, when Barrymore winner Jorge Cousineau (Outstanding Sound Design for Scorched at The Wilma Theater) questioned the new procedure in his acceptance speech, and acknowledged those who had been overlooked in this year’s nominations.

Charles McMahon’s interpretation of Hamlet represented a consummate understanding of Elizabethan drama, with his actors delivering the famous lines in conversational rather than histrionic tones, rendering the Shakespearean language immediately comprehensible and very human.  As in the original text, the drama was interspersed with humor to relieve the otherwise unbearable tragedy, and to provide contrasts representing the ups and downs of life.  Geoff Sobelle was nothing short of miraculous, delivering both a manic energy and sympathetic torment to the title role.  The supporting cast, the precisely calibrated set design by Dirk Durossette, the moody lighting and sound were all masterful in creating the perfect ambiance for the characters.  This was Lantern’s and McMahon’s triumph, in their already triumphant 15-year history as the masters of Shakespeare.

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Geoff Sobelle in Hamlet; photo courtesy of Lantern Theater Company

Another standout of the Lantern season was Forrest McClendon’s skillfully controlled and natural performance in Siswe Bansi is Dead.  His sparkling, direct eye-contact and convivial interaction with the audience drew everyone into his character’s story from his first word, making it very personal and making us truly empathize with his plight; we felt as if we were watching a beloved friend.  His well-honed dialect fooled even the South African nationals in the audience, who were shocked to hear him speak in his real American accent at the play’s opening reception.

The sole award Lantern received this year was for Excellence in Theatre Education and Community Service, for its commendable Classroom Connections–an in-school residency program that enriches the standardized curriculum in some of Philadelphia’s most financially challenged public high schools.  Actor Tony Danza, now an English teacher at Northeast High School, presented the award, which included a cash prize of $1500 to the theater company and another $500 to a teaching artist of the company’s choice. And although he was overlooked in the category of Best Actor in a Play, Forrest McClendon did go home with a Barrymore for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical, for his role in Avenue X, produced by 11th Hour Theatre Company.

Arguably, Theatre Exile, known for its hard-hitting and disturbing style, had its best season to date in 2008-09.  Matt Pfeiffer’s direction of American Buffalo combined the raw language and explosive anger of the play with an unequalled comprehension of its characters’ vulnerability and the ties that bind them to each other.  Outrageously emotional yet subtly sensitive performances by the dream cast of Pete Pryor, Joe Canuso, and Robert Da Ponte brought a 3-dimensionality to the dysfunctional friends that is rarely seen in productions of David Mamet’s work, and at which Exile excels.

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Pete Pryor, Robert Da Ponte, and Joe Canuso in American Buffalo; photo courtesy of Theatre Exile

Another highpoint of Exile’s season was its opening drama, Dark Play or Stories for Boys.  Director Deborah Block gave us a thoroughly compelling interpretation of the computer-age amorality play with an engrossing cast of Philadelphia’s finest young talent.  The intimate staging, much of it at ground level, was startlingly immediate, as was Robert Da Ponte’s chilling performance as the teen-aged provocateur.  An angelic counterpoint was provided by the convincingly naïve Doug Greene, and Krista Apple, as the laughably theatrical professor, was very believable in her character’s stunning unawareness of the impact her reckless words could have on impressionable young students.  These are the actors to watch as the emerging talents in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, despite its extraordinary work, Theatre Exile did not receive a single award this year, but Philadelphia favorite Pete Pryor was awarded a Barrymore for his work with The People’s Light & Theatre Company on Cinderella, for Outstanding Direction of a Musical.

While I sincerely congratulate all of the Barrymore nominees and winners, and offer my special congratulations to Dugald MacArthur, who rightfully received the only standing ovation of the night as recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as an actor, educator, director, and mentor to many in the local theater community, I feel compelled to acknowledge the overlooked excellence that I personally saw in the past season.  As a lifelong aficionado of the theater, who attended every show on Broadway as a child in New York, relished entire seasons of the Royal Shakespeare Company and New Globe Theatre in England, and saw more Philadelphia productions than required of the Barrymore nominating and voting committees, I’m not sure how the new voting system is an improvement over the old, if such stellar productions and performances somehow slipped through the cracks.  It may be “less taxing” for the nominators or the administrators of the Barrymores, but it seems to be more imbalanced, and to have deteriorated the standards of judging, as many have noted based on this year’s omissions. And while I recognize that all awards are based, to some extent, on personal taste, I cannot help but question how some of the best received and best reviewed offerings of the season could have eluded the taste of the Barrymore voters.

Consequently, I have decided to inaugurate the annual Deb Miller You Was Robbed Awards; my nominations are as follows:

  • Best Play:  Hamlet (Lantern Theater Company); American Buffalo (Theatre Exile); Dark Play or Stories for Boys (Theatre Exile); Siswe Bansi is Dead (Lantern Theater Company)
  • Best Director:  Charles McMahon (Hamlet); Matt Pfeiffer (American Buffalo); Deborah Block (Dark Play)
  • Best Actor:  Geoff Sobelle (Hamlet); Robert Da Ponte (Dark Play); Pete Pryor (American Buffalo); Forrest McClendon (Siswe Bansi is Dead)
  • Best Supporting Actor:  Joe Canuso (American Buffalo); Robert Da Ponte (American Buffalo); Joe Guzman (Hamlet); Scott Greer (Walnut Street Theatre’s A Streetcar Named Desire); Doug Greene (Dark Play)
  • Best Actress:  Susan Riley Stevens (A Streetcar Named Desire)
  • Best Supporting Actress:  Krista Apple (Dark Play); Melissa Dunphy (Hamlet)
  • Best Ensemble:  American Buffalo; Dark Play; Hamlet; 1812 Productions, This Is the Week that Is:  Election Special!

And the #1 Deb Miller You Was Robbed Award for the previous year’s Barrymores, presented in October 2008, goes to Best Actress Jennifer Childs in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1812 Productions), who likewise wasn’t nominated, and over which I’m still in disbelief a year later!  Virtually everyone I spoke with from the Barrymore committee last year admitted they hadn’t seen it.  I am very happy to announce that Jen was recognized with a Barrymore nomination this year for 1812’s This Is the Week that Is, as one of the political comedy’s hilarious team of writers.

Kudos to all my nominees; every one of you is a winner in my eyes, and among all of the Philadelphia audiences with whom I spoke over the past season.

[In the interests of full disclosure, I support a number of Philadelphia theater companies by buying tickets to shows and donating money. I also have been an active fundraiser for Lantern.]