2020 Theater in Review

By Larry Laneer
December 15, 2020

So, what’s to review? Theater has suffered as much as any industry during the pandemic, and that doesn’t seem to be changing much anytime soon. But a number of our much-appreciated theatrical artists made do and made drama and music as best they could. Some productions, therefore, were noteworthy, and we’ll hail those. Only categories with outstanding work are included. Thus, some categories may not appear this year. Categories (may) include work recognized as “Highly Commended.” This designation is analogous to a nomination in the category. While maybe not the best in the category, work cited as highly commended is worthy of special recognition. This year, some of the categories had to be improvised, too. Here are the outstanding achievements in 2020 theater:

Best Play: Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma). This play had no competition to speak of, and it would be interesting to see where it ranked in a normal theatrical year. But that shouldn’t take away from recognition for a well-staged, designed, and acted memoir about two remarkable Americans.

Best Touring Musical: Come From Away (OKC Broadway). This is a fairly rare category, but it would be churlish pass on this delightful musical set on and after September 11, 2001, in Gander, Newfoundland. The show is not strictly a musical comedy, but it had more genuine humor than most that work hard to be funny.

Highly Commended: Miss Saigon (OKC Broadway).

 Best Direction of a Play: Michael Baron and Ashley Wells (A Christmas Carol, Lyric Theatre). Baron and Wells had a lot of people—including the audience—to maneuver over a large, outdoor area. They made it work.

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play: Nikki Mar (Romeo and Juliet, Oklahoma Shakespeare). Mar was one of the main reasons the second act of this production were some of the year’s best moments of theater. Theatergoers look forward to seeing more of this outstanding young artist.

Highly Commended: Terry Burrell and Julia Lema (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Lyric Theatre).

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play: Renee Krapff (Romeo and Juliet, Oklahoma Shakespeare). As Nurse, Krapff nailed both the comedy and tragedy in the role and the play.

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play: Hal Kohlman (Romeo and Juliet, Oklahoma Shakespeare). As Friar Lawrence, Kohlman, along with Krapff (see above), was a major reason for some success in this wildly uneven production.

 Best Scenic Design of a Play: Debra Kim Sivigny (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Lyric Theatre). Sivigny imagined in teeming detail the sisters’ tidy, comfortable home in a New York City suburb.

Best Costume Design of a Play: Jeffrey Meek (Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, Lyric Theatre). Meek’s costumes fit so seamlessly (no pun intended) into the production they were hardly noticeable. That’s effective costume design.

Best Something Different: Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In (Pollard Theatre Company). The company’s artistic director, W. Jerome Stevenson, conducted video interviews of some of our leading theatrical artists. The interviews were in the style of James Lipton of television’s Inside the Actors Studio. It was a pleasure to get to know the personal stories of artists whose work we’ve seen for years.

Best Getting Something Going When We’re Starved for Live Performance: Moonlight Cabaret (Lyric Theatre). Lyric staged three musical revues at the Water Stage in Myriad Gardens. The different casts and musical directors, all Lyric regulars, put on in-person shows which were a welcome restoration of live performance.

Best Adaptation to the Circumstances: A Christmas Carol (Lyric Theatre). Lyric figured out a way to adapt its highly successful indoor production into an outdoor production, done at the Harn Homestead in Oklahoma City. It worked, and some moments were outstanding.

Best Sixty-one Minutes of Theater: The second act of Romeo and Juliet (Oklahoma Shakespeare). Featuring excellent performances (see above), the second act made theatergoers wonder what went wrong with the first act.

Best Special Theatrical Event: Theatre Crude Fringe Festival. The pandemic turned the fringe festival, which made a fine debut last year, into a film festival. Some were highly edited in cinematic style, while others more-or-less filmed their stage shows. It worked well when watching them “live,” but I had problems trying to view archived videos later. The most memorable was Naked Brunch, written and performed by Rodney Brazil, a harrowing autobiographical account, which inspired me to reread William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

One thing theatergoers have learned during the pandemic is this: while video efforts have been far better than nothing, they suffice only temporarily. For theater, you have to be in the room where it happens.

 

Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In

By Larry Laneer
July 22, 2020

As far as the theatrical world goes, not much good has come out of this pandemic, but we have some artists giving it their best shot. One delightful surprise has been Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In. PTC’s artistic director, W. Jerome Stevenson, has conducted video interviews with some of our leading theatrical artists and made them available on the company’s web site. The interviews are in the tradition of James Lipton on television’s Inside the Actors Studio. You hear the interviewees say their favorite curse word.

Stevenson said the idea for the program originated with the company’s board of directors. All interviewees have worked at some time with PTC.

Theatergoers have seen the work of these artists for years, if not decades. It’s nice to get to know them personally and hear their experiences. The director/choreographer/actor Matthew Sipress speaks movingly about being in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway and seeing Carol Channing at the top of the stairs in the title number. Choreographer Hui Cha Poos and Stevenson have a thoughtful discussion about the art and current issues of the day. (Her dances for PTC’s In the Heights in 2014 still linger in my mind.)

Kolby Kindle, a young actor from Edmond who was in In the Heights, has embarked on a successful career in touring musicals. He was in Australia with Come From Away when theater shut down. Brenda Williams and Elin Bhaird detail their long careers on the stage. In aggregate, how many shows have theatergoers seen these two wonderful actors in? It must be in the high two figures, if not three.

And anyone would benefit from spending time with the great Albert Bostick, who grew up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Bostick is a master teacher and performer who has worked in about every art form, both performing and graphic.

Stevenson conducted the interviews remotely, and they all run about an hour. He always asks about the artist’s “point of no return,” when they knew theater was to be their world. We hear about their education and training and how they broke into their first theatrical jobs. Every interview is laced with humor; some are disturbing.

Stevenson said he hopes to continue these interviews “even after we’ve found a way back to our preferred art.” It would be a treat to see our top theatrical artists interviewed live with a chance for questions from the audience.

More episodes of Pollard Theatre Company Plugged In will be available, including one soon with Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre artistic director Donald Jordan.

Theater in the Time of COVID-19

By Larry Laneer
March 18, 2020

Although COVID-19 is barely in our area, it has already dislodged theater here. The fine arts may not be the most important things in a health emergency, but they are important. The theater and other artists who make them for us are among those workers who may lose income during the hiatus.

“We have made the difficult decision to simply end our current 18th season,” Donald Jordan, founding artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, said. The company planned a brief revival of The Oklahoma City Project as part of the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing next month. In June, Oklahoma City Rep was presenting A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which was expected to be one of the major productions of the season.

Three shows scheduled to open this month or in April have been moved to other dates. Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma rescheduled the world première of Distant Thunder to September-October. They bumped the new musical planned for that slot, Head Over Heels, to 2021. Lyric’s summer season at the Thelma Gaylord is still on with rehearsals beginning June 9, Michael Baron, the company’s producing artistic director, said. Matilda is planned to open June 23.

Oklahoma Shakespeare plans to move As You Like It, which had been cast and was to begin rehearsals this week, to September. The company canceled its statewide tour to rural schools in about 20 communities. A fundraiser in April has been postponed. “This will be a financial blow,”  Kathryn McGill, artistic and producing director, said. OS still plans to stage their new program, “Pay What You Will,” on the Myriad Gardens Great Lawn on June 18-28.

Pollard Theatre Company already had the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in rehearsals for an April opening. According to Pollard artistic director W. Jerome Stevenson, the company hopes to produce that show and the drolly titled Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years At a Certain School of Magic and Magic, but no dates have been set.

Elizabeth Gray, general manager of OKC Broadway, has no update on the touring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, scheduled for May12-17. The decision to postpone or cancel will be made by the producers in New York.

See the Show and Theater Guide (button at upper right) for the latest schedule updates.

With theaters, movie houses, and bars closed, theatergoers will have to be creative in finding things to do.  As for me, I still have 102 episodes of The Twilight Zone to go.

 

Widely Staged Shows, Playwrights Presented Here

By Larry Laneer
November 15, 2019

Who says we’re behind the times?  Not true!  At least, not completely true theatrically speaking.

American Theatre magazine has released its top ten list of most-produced plays and playwrights in the 2019-2020 season (which are really 14 shows because of ties). (Theatre season runs the same as the academic year, fall to spring with an additional summer session.) The magazine is the organ of the Theatre Communications Group, an organization of professional, non-profit theater companies in this country. The list is not comprehensive; it includes productions by TCG members only. And they don’t count Shakespeare and productions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

According to the magazine, A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens, based on the book by Mark Haddon, will be the two most-produced plays in the 2019-2020 season with 12 productions each. A TCG member, Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre staged a brief run of Curious Incident in April and is presenting A Doll’s House, Part 2 at CitySpace now. Next on the list of most-produced plays is Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan (10 productions), which Oklahoma City Rep opened with this season. Also on the list are the musical Bright Star by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (9 productions), presented earlier this year by Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, and The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (8 productions), done this year by both Oklahoma City University’s School of Theatre and OU’s Helmerich School of Drama.

The magazine also identified the top twenty most-produced playwrights (which are really 22 because of ties). Lauren Gunderson leads the list with 33 productions. Oklahoma Shakespeare staged her The Book of Will in August. Lucas Hnath, author of A Doll’s House, Part 2, will be the third most-produced playwright, tied with Tennessee Williams at 17 productions each. (By the way, Hnath’s last name rhymes with wraith; the H is silent; the N is sounded.) The OCU School of Theatre will present Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (10 productions) in early 2020. Simon Stephens (13 productions), Duncan Macmillan (11 productions), and Steve Martin (9 productions) also made the top twenty. So did Neil Simon, who died in 2018 (13 productions). Twelve of the most-produced playwrights are women; 10 are men.

Shows don’t necessarily get on this list because they’re always great works of art. Sometimes they just gain popularity or are relatively easy or inexpensive to stage, needing one actor, one costume, and one set, for example. But it’s good to know our theater companies are presenting works that are prominent in the current conversation.