Helen Hayes Awards slate led by Folger's 'Henry VIII' with 10 nominations

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 28, 2011; 9:44 PM

The Folger Theatre produced three shows in 2010, and on Monday night all three landed nominations for the ultimate prize - outstanding resident play - as the nominations were unveiled for the 27th Helen Hayes Awards, the annual honors for Washington area theater. The Folger's production of the seldom-staged "Henry VIII" led the way with 10 nominations, tops all around for a straight play. The troupe's "Hamlet" and "Orestes, a Tragic Romp" followed with five and four nods, respectively.

The bigger and busier Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre Company actually piled up more total nominations than the Folger's 19, but their major Hayes hits - the Shakespeare's "Candide" and Arena's "Oklahoma!" - will square off for bragging rights in the musical category. (For a list of all the nominees, visit voices.washingtonpost.com/arts-post.)

Arena's 23 nominations were matched by the Kennedy Center, which, as usual, dominated the nonresident categories (touring shows, with multiple nods going to "Hair," "Mary Poppins," "Thurgood," "South Pacific" and "Golden Age"). Arena crowded the resident musical categories, with "Sophisticated Ladies" garnering seven noms; Maurice Hines is up for best choreography and leading actor awards, and both of his young tap dance proteges, brothers John and Leo Manzari, found themselves in the supporting actor category. Arena's "The Light in the Piazza" picked up four nominations, and Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith was named for directing that show and for "Oklahoma!," the troupe's new box-office champ.

The 10 nominations for "Oklahoma!" were bested, though, by the 12 for "Candide," which came to the Shakespeare by way of Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The Shakespeare's 22 nominations were spread among six productions, including three nonresident nods for the touring "Avenue Q" that played the company's Lansburgh Theatre last summer.

As always, there were curiosities in the results, which were announced in the National Theatre's Helen Hayes Gallery. (The gala ceremony unveiling the winners will take place April 25 at the Warner Theatre.) The Hayes tie-breaking process, for instance, couldn't reduce the number of resident play leading actor nominees below a staggering 10.

That basketball game of contenders includes Philip Fletcher and Alex Mills, who played different aspects of Iago in Synetic Theater's wordless, nine-time-nominated "Othello." The category also includes a Hamlet (Graham Michael Hamilton), a Henry VIII (Ian Merrill Peakes), plus more dueling leads from a single show: Mitchell Hebert and Cody Nickell, who both starred in Bruce Norris's "Raisin in the Sun" update, "Clybourne Park."

"Clybourne Park" is one of the rare shows that you will still have a chance to see, since the Hayes Awards follow the calendar year and the eligible 2010 shows have closed. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will bring back the lauded ensemble of the eight-time-nominated "Clybourne Park" this summer, when Arena will resurrect its "Oklahoma!," too.

Eyebrows may also be raised at the inscrutable line separating leading and supporting performers. It's up to the theaters, not the 60 Hayes judges, to categorize the actors, and a few of those decisions look peculiar. The Olney Theatre Center scored leading musical performer nods for two roles that might typically be considered as supporting: Carrie A. Johnson as Daddy Warbucks's secretary, and Bobby Smith as that musical's entertaining but late-to-enter villain, Rooster. Likewise, Eleasha Gamble's Laurey, by most measures the female lead in "Oklahoma!," will vie cheek by jowl with co-star E. Faye Butler's wisecracking (but leading?) Aunt Eller.

The good news/bad news for new plays is that the intended audience demographic is skewing much younger. Of the six shows up for the Charles MacArthur new play or musical award, three are for family audiences (a robust genre in Washington), one is a musical (Signature Theatre's "Sycamore Trees") and one is an update of a 17th-century French play (the Shakespeare's "The Liar"). Only Marcus Gardley's "Every Tongue Confess" at Arena is a brand new play for adults.

No troupe topped the Folger for hot streaks, but Theater J grabbed three leading actress nominations (Lise Bruneau and Sarah Marshall for "Mikveh" and Erika Rose for "In Darfur"). And Synetic's husband-and-wife team of Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili raked in their usual multiple nominations as director and choreographer, respectively.

The Hayes Awards, always more celebratory than competitive, are free of unseemly Oscar- and Tony-style campaigning. Since the shows under consideration are closed, there's nothing on the line but prestige, and the votes are already in: The ballots that create the nominees also determine the winners.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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