More Applause for Fine Performances

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Some of the year's best work came from Alexander Strain (with Jay Hardee) in "Caligula."
Some of the year's best work came from Alexander Strain (with Jay Hardee) in "Caligula." (Ray Gniewek - Washington Shakespeare Company)
Karen Kandel in "Peter and Wendy."
Karen Kandel in "Peter and Wendy." (By Scott Suchman -- Arena Stage)
Bill Irwin (with Kathleen Turner) in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Bill Irwin (with Kathleen Turner) in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (By Carol Rosegg)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007; Page M03

In the annual end-of-year culling of the herds of fine productions all over the region, it's important to pause for a moment and reflect on the individual. I'm referring to the stellar contributions by individual actors in theaters of all sizes, from warehouse spaces off superhighways to grand halls on the Potomac. It's not possible to single out every stirring example of wit, charm or venom on a Washington stage this year; still, the canniest performances tend to linger longest in memory. Here, then, is a look at some the indelible portrayals in the past 12 months:

Fiona Shaw, "Happy Days." No role in the works of Samuel Beckett may be more challenging than that of Winnie, the defiantly cheerful survivor who spends the entirety of this existential classic literally stuck in the mud. In the Royal National Theatre production directed by Deborah Warner that visited the Kennedy Center in November, Shaw found a different performance key from Winnie's past. She played this doomed creature as a buoyant spirit, a woman who was going to wring every last worthwhile drop out of the dry sponge of her existence. The result was a night of unalloyed enchantment.

Alexander Strain, "Caligula." This young actor of precocious self-possession undertook the daunting task of making a monster someone worth listening to. Playing the title role in Albert Camus' intense philosophical drama, Strain reigned over the Washington Shakespeare Company's production with a feral authority, giving audiences a more intimate understanding of the complexity of one tormented psyche. Earlier in the year, Strain just as ably showed a more sensitive side, as the simple son of a West Bank settlement leader in Theater J's "Pangs of the Messiah."

Heidi Blickenstaff, "Meet John Doe." Tradition-minded Ford's Theatre went out on a limb this year, presenting an original musical based on Frank Capra's 1941 movie about the media manufacture of a Depression era hero. The resulting production gave the historic theater some sizzle, especially through the casting of Blickenstaff as a wiseacre newspaperwoman who falls for the ersatz idol. The actress not only managed to embody the period's style, but also seemed to be a conductor of the wattage of powerhouse musical theater actresses of a bygone era.

Christopher Innvar, "The Taming of the Shrew." The versatile Innvar, a veteran of major musicals both on Broadway and off, has been flexing some classical muscle of late, first in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Beaux' Stratagem" and this fall in the company's lively staging of the difficult "Shrew." Innvar's Petruchio, the chauvinist who browbeats wild Kate into submission, proved a wise and agile creation, a portrait of a man who first is in the wooing for the money and, by the finish of the play, is convincingly in it for love.

John Livingstone Rolle, "The Unmentionables." If you're a repeat visitor to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, chances are you've seen this actor in a supporting role in a work by Aeschylus or Ben Jonson or, naturally, Shakespeare himself. Rarely, though, have Rolle's droll instincts been used to better effect than in this contemporary satire by Bruce Norris, set in an unidentified West African nation. Playing a local doctor who's bidden farewell to his idealism, Rolle positioned himself winningly in the Woolly Mammoth production as the incisively cutting conscience of the piece.

Bill Irwin, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Was ever a milquetoast such a dynamo? Irwin won a Tony Award playing George to Kathleen Turner's Martha, and by the time the two actors were together again, launching the touring version of the revival at the Kennedy Center, Irwin's snappish George had evolved into something even more quietly vicious and dangerous. We tend to better remember the poison at the tip of Martha's tongue, but Irwin reminded us how gloriously George matches her, zinger for zinger.

Karen Kandel, "Peter and Wendy." The wonders of the Mabou Mines company's thrillingly inventive adaptation of "Peter Pan" can be distilled to the sublime impact of one actress. In a production at Arena Stage dominated by an astoundingly diverse array of puppets, Kandel was the humanizing element. She not only served as the evening's graceful narrator but also supplied the voices of every one of the major characters. As a storyteller, her skills were shown to be positively luminous.

Michael Tolaydo, "Pangs of the Messiah." Here's a mainstay of theater in these parts who revealed to audiences another impassioned dimension of his talent. As the Talmudic paterfamilias in Israeli playwright Motti Lerner's provocative look at life on the West Bank, Tolaydo had the complicated task of reconciling the roles of a man with deep-seated spiritual as well as political beliefs -- in one of the most contentious places on Earth. He did so with a wrenching authenticity that made the play's explosive ending all the more devastating.

Irina Koval, "The Fall of the House of Usher." The formidable job that this young actress confronted was taking on the sort of star part that usually would have gone to Synetic Theater's reigning diva, Irina Tsikurishvili. Portraying Poe's ethereal Madeline -- the woman buried alive by her afflicted brother, Rodney -- Koval was a commanding facet of Synetic's riveting adaptation. Her emergence is further evidence of the company's ability to mint a cadre of gifted actors who know how to move.

Marc Kudisch, "The Witches of Eastwick." The success of the U.S. premiere of this guilty pleasure of a musical at Signature Theatre is in some healthy measure the result of Kudisch's regally decadent portrayal of the Devil, known here as Darryl Van Horne. Darryl has to be believable as the seducer of every smart and independent woman in a New England town. And if ever an actor evinced a total belief in his mesmerizing effect on others, it's Kudisch, whose talents certainly put him in the category of dazzler.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company