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Pushing the Envelope
The Post's Theater Critic Picks the Season's Most (and Least) Ovation-Worthy Moments

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

In the firm belief that what the world needs now is more awards, I hereby submit, for all of your considerations, notable achievements in the Washington theater season just ended. (I'd love to hand out trophies at a lavish banquet hosted by Scarlett Johansson and Shia LaBeouf, but belt-tightening by the planning committee limits me to this artful centerfold.)

It has been an especially rich season, worthy of recognition. Estimable new plays (Woolly Mammoth's "Stunning") and musicals (Signature's "The Visit") have been birthed or helped along, and smart performances -- including those of Alexander Strain in "Caligula," Christopher Innvar and Charlayne Woodard in "The Taming of the Shrew," Virginia Kull and Delaney Williams in "A View From the Bridge" and Ed Gero in "Shining City" -- have been too numerous to be adequately spotlighted.

Naturally, it has also had its bumpy moments. (Note to "Glory Days": Sorry about the abbreviated trip to New York. You deserved better.) But the magnitude of risk-taking required of a maturing theater scene is inevitably going to produce a few disappointments. These, too, merit some remembrance.

So here, Washington Theater, 2007-08, is a highly subjective look back at several peaks and fewer valleys. In the interest of preserving some minute shred of dignity, I've declined to give these awards a name. If you're still put out by this effrontery, take comfort in the fact that there might be divine retribution, even for a theater critic: This was a season, after all, in which a green-gilled theatergoer tossed his cookies on yours truly.

Best acting ensemble

"August Wilson's 20th Century"

(Kennedy Center)

In the herd of D.C. theater festivals, the leader of the pack. The 10-play cycle (in staged readings) could have induced headaches. Instead, it produced glorious performances from Anthony Mackie, Michole Briana White, Glynn Turman and more than two dozen other actors.

Moment most likely

to set off the gag reflex

"David in Shadow and Light"

(Theater J)

When King David stormed onto the stage

in this bizarre biblical musical, bearing a blood-soaked bag with the foreskins

of 200 enemy combatants, you wanted

to yell, "Cut!" (Ooh. On second thought, maybe not.)

Sexiest pairing

Ben Cunis and Courtney

Pauroso in "Romeo and Juliet"

(Synetic Theater)

You could fall in love with falling in love, thanks to the dewy impression made by this sterling central couple in Synetic's pulse-quickening production.

Princeliest pairing

Ted van Griethuysen

and Helen Carey in

"Major Barbara"

(Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Let's hear it for getting older, and better. In Shaw's sophisticated comedy, van Griethuysen and Carey were proof positive that practice makes perfect.

Best Shakespeare

"Macbeth"

(Folger Theatre)

Bloody magical. Teller and co-director Aaron Posner figured out how to weave illusion seamlessly into this English-class perennial. And in far more entertaining style than the concurrent, irritatingly overdone Broadway "Macbeth" with Patrick Stewart. Close runner-up: Rebecca Bayla Taichman's sexy "Taming of the Shrew."

Best political piece

"My Trip to Al-Qaeda"

(Kennedy Center)

Lawrence Wright, a New Yorker writer, managed to turn a public lecture into a disarmingly personal essay in three provocative dimensions.

Weirdest decision

"Shintoku-Maru"

(Kennedy Center)

For reasons that could perhaps be decoded only by a U.N. interpreter, this dialogue-heavy piece in Japanese was presented in the Opera House -- without English translation.

Best new play

"The Brothers Size"

(Studio Theatre)

A buoyantly talented young wordsmith such as Tarell Alvin McCraney, author of this powerful drama of struggling young men

in the Deep South, has to be wooed,

nurtured, supported and otherwise encouraged by the theater, before the moneyed entities of richer forms of entertainment try to take him away.

Best new play made

from old story

"Current Nobody"

(Woolly Mammoth)

Melissa James Gibson re-spun

"The Odyssey" as an affecting, modern mythical tale of a career-obsessed mom who wanders off for 20 years and then returns to face the consequences. The production helped fortify Woolly's status as the hottest theater company in town.

Best musical

"Avenue Q"

(National Theatre)

Has smut ever seemed so endearing? This irrepressible Gen Y barrel of snark, wit and puppets doing the nasty made it to Washington four years after its New York birth, and the production couldn't have felt any fresher or funnier.

Worst musical

"High School Musical"

(National Theatre)

A plastic facsimile of the saccharine Disney TV original. And scary evidence of what the corporate musical comedy is doing to the commercial theater.

The longest night

Shakespeare Theatre Company's

"Tamburlaine"

The inaugural act at darkly handsome Sidney Harman Hall was an ill-considered revival of this elongated chore of a play by Christopher Marlowe. The opening-night performance began shortly before 8 on the evening of Nov. 7. And for all anyone knows, it's still going on.

Most auspicious debuts

Veronica del Cerro in

"My Children! My Africa!"

(Studio Theatre) and

Jobari Parker Namdar in

"The Stephen Schwartz Project"

(MetroStage)

The parts couldn't have been more different. Del Cerro played a South African schoolgirl in a play by Athol Fugard; Namdar sang and danced in a new revue built on the songbook of Broadway composer Schwartz. And yet the impact was the same: Each of them left an exhilarating calling card -- the sort you want to keep in the Rolodex.

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