Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bill's Best of 2013: A Look Back...

Bill’s Best of 2013.

I had hoped to see 50 plays this year, but things don't always go as planned.  My full time job until May 6, 2013 was caregiver to my wife Linda.  Her passing turned things upside down, and blogging theater performances moved down on the list of my priorities.
In November, I moved to Colorado Springs to be with a long time friend (of both Linda and I) and future spouse, Roxie Fisher.  That made for two moves (1 in Denver, 1 Denver to Colorado Springs) in 2013.  The disruption has been substantial.  I'm not complaining, just explaining.  I saw 30 performances in spite of the chaos, but I fell well short of my goal of 50.
As a result, please understand that my thoughts below are specific to those 30 performances, and not a reflection of Colorado Theater as a whole.  There are many shows I wish I had seen but couldn't, and nothing here should detract from the bounty of talent working onstage and behind the scenes all over Colorado.
NOTE:  A full 10% of the shows I saw (Spamalot, Chicago, and War Horse) were touring Broadway productions.  My look back at 2013 does not compare touring professional productions with the local Colorado companies.  Had I done so, however, two of the three professional productions would have fallen well short of my criteria for best performances of 2013.  
That's right.  Colorado theater is THAT good.
So here it is…”Bill’s Best of 2013.”

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Dramas

There are two outstanding 2013 drama productions that I’ll never forget.  They both brought Colorado theater to a higher level, and for that, they are my picks for the Best Dramas of 2013.

1.  “Ghost-Writer.”  The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.

From start to finish, "Ghost-Writer" was a polished, professional, engaging theater experience.  Laura Norman owned her role as typist Myra Babbage.  Her nuanced performance, including gestures, facial expressions, and actually banging away at an ancient keyboard, put the exclamation point on her complex relationship with novelist Franklin Woolsey (Jim Hunt).  (Punctuation pun intended.)
Jim Hunt's role included long periods of standing onstage in stony silence as he peered and pondered while composing his novel.  Hunt was more of a statue than a character for a good portion of the performance.  The physical challenge for him was difficult; he handled it flawlessly.
Director Josh Hartwell lovingly nurtured the romantic relationship between Woolsey and Babbage with frequent pauses, creating time and space for the thoughts going through his character's minds.  In a crucial scene, Babbage teaches Woolsey to dance.  Hartwell blocks them with Babbage's right hand in Woolsey's left, and Woolsey's right hand on the small of Babbage's back.  In a delicious moment, Hartwell has Babbage move Woolsey's hand lower, to a point just below her waist.  It's a physical and beautiful demonstration of Babbage's unspoken desire for Woolsey.
If you missed Ghost-Writer, you missed one of the very best productions of 2013.
2.  “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”  The Edge Theatre.

The Edge Theatre has had a marvelous season, and "Tiger" is at the top of my list for 2013.  
Rajiv Joseph's script is based on real events in Baghdad after the "shock and awe" pummeling in the spring of 2003.  Joseph exposes the moral, ethical and religious dilemmas that all wars create.  The "Tiger" script is weighty, powerful, and provocative. 
An excellent script, however, in lesser hands, could have come out differently.  The Edge Theatre's cast and crew are more than equal to the task, bringing Joseph's script to life on a tiny stage in a small room.  Director Richard Cowden staged the action in the round, bringing the audience into the room with the characters.
Paul Page (as THE tiger), needs no introduction.  He's an accomplished local actor with a dazzling resume.  However, his role here is a standout in a career full of brilliant performances.  His monologue at the beginning of the second act was a show stopper.
"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" reminds us why we love theater.  It forces us at times to look at ourselves in the mirror and see our flaws.  

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Musical

Always...Patsy Cline.”  Starkey Theatrix, Parker Arts, Culture, & Events Center.

I'm no fan of country music, but I love a great musical.  "Patsy Cline" is such a musical. 
Megan Van De Hey has the chops, both singing and acting, to BE Patsy Cline on the Parker stage.  She hits every note, every dance move, and every nuance she needs to become Cline for 2 hours.  I saw this show with a Patsy Cline fan, and she was amazed.  She said it was like watching the real Patsy.
Carla Kaiser Kotrc (Louise Seger) was perfect as Cline's fan and friend.  The chemistry was as real as Cline's real life friendship with Seger.
Everything worked here; the costumes, the sets, and the live music were as professional as any touring Broadway production.  
I had low expectations for a bio/musical with country music.  "Patsy Cline" completely obliterated those low expectations.  I'd love to see "Patsy Cline" come back for an encore in 2014.  I know a lot of people I'd like to take along with me to the revival.

Honorable Mentions:  

 “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

The Full Monty,” Boulder’s Dinner Theatre.

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Comedy

Scapin.”  Lake Dillon Theatre.

LOL:  Laugh out loud funny.  
Scapin:  Laugh out loud funny.
Lake Dillon Theatre scored a hit with "Scapin," and they rightly deserve enormous credit for staging a 350 year old script on a small stage with brilliant costumes, actors with an exquisite sense of comedic timing, and frantically paced direction.  Every line of dialogue works, every joke is hilarious, and every pratfall is convincing.  
I left the theater holding my sides...they hurt that much from laughing.  

Honorable Mention:  
Sylvia,” Firehouse/Spotlight Theatre Companies.

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Most Creative Staging

Two productions this year stood out as completely off the charts for the way they were staged.  Both provided imaginative, creative, and functional sets to enhance the script and the audience experience.

"Every Man (On the Bus)."  Theatreworks, Colorado Springs.

Creative staging might be the wrong term for "Everyman."  There was no stage in the traditional sense; the entire play takes place on a city bus as it travels to different bus stops in Colorado Springs.  
Producing a play on a moving bus involves a lot of technical problems; the sound design is difficult, the audience is limited to the number of seats on the bus, and the actors work in a tiny space that's the equivalent of about half of a bowling lane.  So why bother staging the play on a bus?
The bus was a vehicle for the audience, but also for the message.  
As the characters negotiate the difficult passage at the final accounting of their lives, we in the audience are also traveling through space and time towards our own final days.  The bus ride is a perfect metaphor for the journey the actors were taking, and for some of my own life events in 2013.

"Metamorphoses."  Aurora Fox Theatre.

The set for "Metamorphoses" includes a large pool of water in the middle of a two story stage.  Every actor performs on stage, in the pool, and at times, under the water.  
The time, effort, and resources that went into staging "Metamorphoses" was far beyond the average, making this production one my Best of 2013.  

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Actor
Paul Page “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”  The Edge Theatre.
Paul Page put his heart and soul into this role, and it showed.  
Actors portraying animals have a lot of physical challenges; Page gave his Tiger all the cat like characteristics and nuances we would expect from an actor of his caliber.  
His opening scene in the second act is unforgettable.  Page will go on to other roles, and he will do them all justice.  That said, though, "Tiger" is the best work I have seen from him.  I'm anxious to see what he does next, but he has set the bar extremely high with "Tiger."

Honorable Mention:  
James O'Hagan Murphy, “RFK: A Portrait of Robert Kennedy.”  Vintage Theatre.

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Supporting Actor

Joe Von Bokern, "Billy Bibbitt."  "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," The Edge Theatre
Joe Von Bokern is the stuttering, crazy Billy Bibbit in the mental ward full of crazies, and he stands alone in his personal craziness. 
He is convincing enough to bring tears to your eyes, and his performance earns an award for supporting an excellent cast in a powerful production.

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Actress

Megan Van De Hey, “Always, Patsy Cline...”  Starkey Theatrix, Parker Arts, Culture, & Events Center.

Megan Van De Hey is a gifted actress with a wonderful singing voice.  She rocked the stage as Patsy Cline like no other actress I've seen this year.  For that she gets a standing ovation and Bill's Best Actress of 2013.
Honorable Mention:  

Laura Norman, “Ghost-Writer.”  Boulder Ensemble Theater Company.

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Supporting Actress

Carla Kaiser Kotrc, "Always...Patsy Cline."  Starkey Theatrix, Parker Arts, Culture, & Events Center.
Supporting actress is somewhat misleading; Carla Kaiser Kotrc is actually a co-star in "Always...Patsy Cline."  She is every bit the equal of Patsy Cline/Megan Van De Hey onstage.  Her chemistry with Van De Hey is palpable. 

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Ensemble Cast

 “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” The Edge Theatre Company.,” The Edge Theatre Company.  
Paul Page, Nathan Bock, Kevin Lowry, Sam Gilstrap, Yasmin Sweets, Miranda Vargas, Alberto Ocampo

The strongest ensemble I've seen this year, each member of the "Tiger" cast contributed to a performance that soared.  "Ensemble" is the French word for "together."  "Together" is a fitting description for this fine collection of acting talent.

Honorable MentionDark Wood,” Denver’s Dangerous Theatre.  

Patrick Call, Ben Palayo, Brainard Starling.
It takes courage to appear nude on stage; the "Dark Wood" cast appeared nude for the entire performance.  Costumes can enhance performances; nudity exposes any and all flaws.  This ensemble handled the challenge marvelously.  The shock wore off within minutes, and these actors delivered a thought provoking performance that challenged the audience.  

Bill’s Best of 2013:  Best Director.

John Moore,  "Always...Patsy Cline."  Starkey Theatrix, Parker Arts, Culture, & Events Center.

Mr. Moore is more better known as the critic rather than the director.  Everyone knows he's a marvelous critic.  It turns out he's an excellent director as well.
Staging "Patsy Cline" is no small feat.  Moore made it all happen, and as I've mentioned above, in a manner that compares very favorably with a professional Broadway production.  Casting both Megan Van De Hey and Carla Kaiser Kotrc shows Moore's eye for talent.  He deftly managed the onstage friendship between the two so well that it's hard to imagine they aren't BFFs offstage.  Moore achieved excellence in all of his tasks... the lighting, the sound, the sets, the costumes and the talent were superb.
John Moore may make me a country music fan yet, but I'm already a fan of his direction.

Honorable Mention:  
Josh Hartwell, “Ghost-Writer.”  Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.

Bill's Best of 2013...and beyond.  Lifetime Achievement Award.

Linda Wheeler.  

Actress.  Director.  Producer. Lifelong Theater Fan.  Daughter.  Sister.  Friend.  Wife.  Teacher.  Lover.  Inspiration.

I can't leave 2013 behind without recognizing Linda's role in theater, in my life, and in the community.  She touched many lives, and she is greatly missed by all who knew her.

Her Bachelor's degree was in Theater; her love was the stage; she could do any onstage or backstage role.  She loved being a Henry Award Judge for the Colorado Theater Guild.  To her, it was the best possible gig... it was like an "all you can eat" theater buffet.

Those who knew Linda will tell you that she lived life to the fullest, not wasting a single day of her 58 years, 1 month, and 22 days.  For several years, she proudly drove around Colorado with her personalized license plate "CRPE DM."  She seized every day like it was her last, and no matter how sick she was, she never missed an opportunity to support others who needed her.

I've learned the lessons Linda taught me.  I will live a full, rich, and rewarding life every single day.  

And for that, she gets my "Lifetime" Achievement Award. 


That photo is courtesy of Linda Rae Leola Wheeler (nee Fugere, AKA Linda Ball).

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