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Hayes Award Nominees: Surprises Large & Small

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page C05

Several small, relatively new stage companies have raked in multiple Helen Hayes Award nominations alongside the big kids this year, making bright blips on the Washington area's theatrical radar screen. At the same time, a few high-octane productions garnered fewer honors than one might have expected.

The Theater Alliance, which performs at the storefront H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington, picked up 10 nominations -- seven for the bittersweet World War I-era love story "Mary's Wedding" by Stephen Massicotte and three for Rebecca Gilman's acerbic stalker drama "Boy Gets Girl." The tiny Open Circle Theatre, which includes disabled actors in its casts, received four nominations for "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

Kathleen Coons (with Aubrey Deeker) received a lead actress nod for her performance in Theater Alliance's "Mary's Wedding." (By Bruce Robey - Theater Alliance)

The Kennedy Center's anything-but-small Tennessee Williams Explored festival received a surprisingly meager four nominations -- three for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and one for "A Streetcar Named Desire," but none for "The Glass Menagerie" or the short Williams plays in "Five by Tenn."

The Helen Hayes Awards, launched in 1983, recognize professional theater in Washington and its suburbs. In 2004, all eligible plays (those that ran for at least 16 performances) were seen by 10 judges from a 50-judge pool. (Judges, a mix of theater artists and staffers, educators and avid theatergoers, see an average of 30 to 40 plays a year. According to the rules, they are not supposed to vote on shows with which they might have a connection or a conflict.)

The judges fill out ballots using a point system and the totals are tabulated to decide the nominees in each category, usually five or six but sometimes more if there are ties. Winners are also determined from the original ballots but are not announced until the awards gala in May.

The usual setting for the announcement of nominees, a reception at the Canadian Embassy, was canceled last night because of the weather. However, Linda Levy Grossman, executive director of the awards, released the list of 130 nominees in 23 categories.

The nominations are for stage shows produced at Washington area theaters during 2004. According to Hayes Awards statistics, 2004 suffered a slight dip in productions and theater attendance. The number of producing theaters dropped from 69 to 65. A total of 383 shows were produced, representing 7,582 separate performances. Attendance totaled 2,133,731.

Those figures reflect 39 fewer productions than in 2003 and 78,238 fewer theatergoers, an attendance drop of about 3.5 percent.

Of the 383 shows, 187 were eligible for Hayes Awards, compared with 193 in 2003. Among the locally produced musicals, Signature Theatre's revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Allegro" leads the pack with seven nominations. Arena Stage's premiere of a never-produced Frank Loesser musical, "Señor Discretion Himself," received six, as did "Tambourines to Glory" at the Lincoln Theatre. "Godspell" at Toby's Dinner Theatre earned five. Among touring musicals, "The Producers" contributed seven nominations to the Kennedy Center's total of 17. "Movin' Out," the Billy Joel-inspired dance show that briefly lit up the often-dark National Theatre, earned five.

In addition to "Mary's Wedding," non-musical plays that chalked up multiple nominations included the Shakespeare Theatre's "Cyrano de Bergerac" with six -- among them a nod for actor Geraint Wyn Davies, cast at the last minute to replace an ailing Stacy Keach -- and "Pericles" with five. "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Folger Theatre took four nominations. "The Diary of Anne Frank" at Round House and "Lenny & Lou" at Woolly Mammoth earned three each.

Tiny Catalyst Theater's production of "The Elephant Man" got two.

With its 17 nods, the Kennedy Center tops the list of nominated theaters this year, followed by Signature with 15, the Shakespeare Theatre with 14 and Arena Stage with 10.

Woolly Mammoth received six nominations, five of them for its world premieres of "Lenny & Lou" by Ian Cohen (three) and "Grace" by Craig Wright (two). Woolly and Theater J also shared a separate nomination as co-producers of Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" -- a nod for Brigid Cleary as outstanding lead actress in a resident play. Theater J received no other nominations this year. The Folger Theatre received five, Round House four and Ford's Theatre two. Studio Theatre chalked up five nominations and one for its experimental non-Equity wing, Studio Secondstage.

Dramatist Wright ("The Pavilion," "Recent Tragic Events"), who also writes for the HBO show "Six Feet Under," will compete against himself in the outstanding new play or musical category for "Grace" and, at the Folger, for "Melissa Arctic," his update of Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale." Also competing against herself will be singer-actress Tracy Lynn Olivera, for her supporting roles in Olney Theatre Center's "Carousel" and Signature's "Allegro."

Jennifer Mendenhall was nominated twice, for a lead role in Woolly's "Grace" and a supporting role in "Lenny & Lou." Lighting designers Dan Covey and Tim Mitchell each were nominated twice in the same category, as was sound designer Martin Desjardins.

But Jon Kalbfleisch, Signature's resident musical director, trumps them all with three nominations ("Allegro," "The Highest Yellow" and "Elegies, a Song Cycle").

Winners will be revealed at the awards gala on May 9 at the Warner Theatre, with "Washington's largest cast party" held afterwards at the JW Marriott Hotel -- a switch from the last several years, when the entire affair took place at the Kennedy Center.

Several special awards will also be handed out that night. The KPMG Award for Distinguished Service to the Washington Theater Community will go to Sidney Harmon for the Harman Family Foundation's gift to help build the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Center for the Arts. The Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership will go to Studio's Joy Zinoman for her theater's transformative effect on the 14th Street corridor.

The Helen Hayes Tribute will go to musical theater composer-lyricist Jerry Herman ("La Cage Aux Folles," "Hello, Dolly!," "Mame"). The rarely bestowed Governor's Award will be given posthumously to James J. Taylor, who founded the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive.

And now for Backstage's cranky nod to the Overlooked but Fondly Remembered -- performances and productions we want to praise that somehow failed to rise to the top of the Hayes judges' ballots. True, we'll never know how many names missed the cut by just one vote, but again it does appear that the avant-garde, politically edgy plays were passed over.

Backstage is delighted, for example, that Scott Fortier, Catalyst's artistic director, was nominated for his turn as "The Elephant Man" and that Megan Anderson's lovely Nina in "The Seagull" at Rep Stage was also recognized. Yet among the young, up-and-coming performers, we would also cite Karl Miller's great work as the unhappy Konstantin in "The Seagull" and as tutor Septimus Hodge in "Arcadia," also at Rep Stage.

And those who saw it won't quickly forget Joe Banno's highly politicized update of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" at Washington Shakespeare Company in Arlington.

Much good work didn't make the cut among larger theaters, too. What of Sally Field's delicate, humane turn as Amanda Wingfield and Jason Butler Harner as Tom in the totally ignored "Glass Menagerie" at the Kennedy Center? Or Cameron Folmar, impressive in multiple roles in "Five by Tenn," the short plays by Williams directed by Michael Kahn?

Then there was Arena Stage's terrific revival of Williams's "Orpheus Descending," directed by Molly Smith. And what about the excellent Howard W. Overshown, who co-starred with the deservedly nominated Laiona Michelle in "Yellowman" at Arena?

Olney Theatre Center's visually stunning and expertly interpreted "Copenhagen" also received no nods. Nor did the young women in the beautifully acted "Perfect Pie," at Olney's summer Potomac Theatre Festival.

Perhaps even more stunning is the lack of recognition for Studio Theatre's gut-wrenching production (directed by Zinoman) of "Far Away," Caryl Churchill's meditation on government oppression. Even the play's amazing hats didn't catch the nominations breeze.

The complete list of nominees can be seen at www.helenhayes.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company