The 2000 Kalbie Awards
Due to clamorous demand, we present the 2000 Kalbie Awards, New York Press' third annual celebration of excellence in the New York theater. As in the past, these awards are the result of long and impassioned deliberation by a committee of one, which pretends to no respect whatsoever for the received categories of Broadway, Off- and Off-Off-Broadway or the levels of achievement they are supposed to imply. No one can ever see everything, but I saw 150-odd shows last season and have few regrets and no apologies. Whatever else the Kalbies may be, they constitute a selective catalog of what kept me going.
A selective catalog of what kept a
theater critic going.
BEST MALE SOLO SHOW
Another American: Asking & Telling
This extraordinarily powerful documentary piece about the U.S. military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy was an exquisite example of research as pure animating force, in the difficult tradition of Anna Deavere Smith. The show was based on more than 150 interviews Wolf conducted with people directly affected by the policy, whose words and demeanors he mimicked splendidly and nonjudgmentally in performance. Directed by Joe Mantello, Wolf shrewdly organized the scenes so that they seemed to comment on one another like a sequential argument, victims beside perpetrators, antigay crusaders beside equal-rights advocates, earnest parents beside unctuous politicians. Another American should've been required viewing for everyone who makes or enforces U.S. military policy.
BEST FEMALE SOLO SHOW
A 25-year-old "veteran" of the hiphop poetry club circuit turns out to be the sharpest solo impressionist New York has seen since Danny Hoch (who happens to be her producer). In her collection of eight superbly acute vignettes about fictional New Yorkers, most extremely different from her, she morphed from a Russian-immigrant widow doing cornrows in her mixed-race daughter's hair to a narrow-minded and bigoted Jewish woman, to a deactivated, homophobic, Italian-American cop, to a black, British actress auditioning for a "real life" tv series, and more. The show was an unforgettable spectacle of transformational magic and a strangely optimistic picture of humane connectedness, given the surprising and sometimes intimate links Jones established among the widely disparate characters.
BEST AMBIGUOUSLY GENDERED SOLO SHOW
Dame Edna: The Royal Tour
Promoted with nauseating obsequiousness as a prepackaged megastar, Dame Edna turned out not to be a pandering fraud after all, but rather a precise and polished clown. Edna, a garishly glamorous, utterly self-absorbed male-matron with butterfly glasses and lavender bouffant hair, is the principal alter-ego of the Australian comedian Barry Humphries?long popular in Britain and his own country but obscure in the U.S. until this Broadway show. For more than two hours, she did little more than insult and abuse her audiences, yet her poise and skill at improvised interaction left them crying for more. Edna was a picture of pure competitiveness dressed up as loving mother, who allowed us to laugh off our rapacious cynicism or stare it in the berouged face, depending on our inclinations.
MOST UPLIFTING BATHROOM HUMOR
The Right Size
(Sean Foley and Hamish McColl)
Do You Come Here Often?
The premise of this extended bout of British insanity was the purportedly accidental association of two mismatched men (really peas in a crackpot pod), who found themselves bound and gagged in a bathroom, apparently kidnapped, and then occupied themselves there, for 25 years, with sundry dumb and wrongly played games, innumerable bad puns and an inexhaustible array of slapstick gags. The dead-on precision of Foley and McColl's blend of mime and pseudo-mime, comic danger and comic innocuousness was the source of the piece's wonderfully silly texture. Because one could never be sure how much of the duo's plight came from "dark outside forces" and how much from themselves, though, the show also had a flash of deeper brilliance, a deliberate note of frantic melancholy that recalled Beckett and Ionesco.
BEST NEW MUSICAL
The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
Kirsten Childs' irresistibly upbeat musical about growing up black and middle-class in 1960s and 70s L.A. landed like a bucket of cool water on a parched landscape. Much subtler than its cartoonish, ostensibly feel-good exterior suggested, the show was full of crafty surprises that constantly made the politically personal (such as self-imposed masks of blackness and whiteness) great fun to think about. Composed and written by Childs, smartly directed by Wilfredo Medina, brightly designed by David Gallo and starring the inimitably buoyant LaChanze, the production at Playwrights Horizons was a work of supreme confidence, polished humor and focused energy that deserves to be remounted on Broadway.
Gerald Anthony as Uncle Jack
The most inspired creation in Jeff Cohen's contemporary adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Tribeca Playhouse was the title character as brought to magnificently complex life by Anthony. Splendidly acute and disciplined, even in rage and self-pity, Anthony's performance pulled the whole risky show together. Jack, like Vanya, was conceived as a bundle of intelligent self-contradictions, but as the son of a deceased U.S. senator, a once-aspiring writer who's supposedly wasted away his life on his family's West Virginia farm, he was a much trickier role to pull off in front of audiences coolly familiar with his social type. Anthony was heartbreakingly plausible at every moment, avoiding the shoals of dull pathos with ease and rising by the end to a surprising gravity truly worthy of Chekhov.
BEST VISITING PRODUCTION
Life Is a Dream
Royal Lyceum Theater
New York rarely sees a classic as pumped full of present-tense urgency as this Scottish version of Calderon's 365-year-old masterpiece, directed by the Spaniard Calixto Bieito. Performed at BAM on a large circle of loose gravel that crunched and scattered under everyone's shoes, with an enormous, mobile baroque mirror hanging above, the production rendered the play's heady metaphysical themes intensely immediate by constantly emphasizing the weight, heft, vanity and awkwardness of the mortal human body. George Anton's performance as Segismundo crowned the event, with his sinewy energy and fervid exertions straining unfashionably after divine candor and grace even as his glibly modern mannerisms remained connected to all our own age's demoralizing impediments to unmediated vision and feeling.
MOST UNFETTERED CONCEPT OF DRAMA
Maria Irene Fornes
Letters from Cuba
The final production of the Signature Theater's all-Fornes season was a quietly beautiful, lingeringly odd jewel. Directed by the author, the play was based on letters Fornes' brother wrote to her from their native Cuba over a 30-year period, but its not-quite-surrealistic, wryly ambiguous action was unlike any epistolary drama yet seen. Scenes jumped frequently back and forth in time, made eloquent and dynamic use of dance and Cuban music, and presented New York and Cuba as both interpenetrating landscapes of the mind and adjacent physical worlds onstage. No one but Fornes would have the discipline and courage to use such politically loaded referents with such unprepossessing delicacy, indifferent to the reactions of a sensation-addicted public.
BEST SET DESIGN
Gallo's benignly rugged, emotionally capacious set for the long-delayed arrival of August Wilson's beautiful first play was key to making possible the much-praised ensemble acting in Marion McClinton's Second Stage production. Dominated by a giant plate-glass window looking out onto a narrow Pittsburgh alley, with ghostly bits of lettering, etching and pressed tin scattered about its surface, the set invited wonderful, effortless juxtapositions of atmospheric business out on the street with action inside the crumbling gypsy-cab office in the foreground. Looming industrial girders and smokestacks pressed the weight of failure and frustration down on Wilson's motley group of cabdrivers, while stunning glimpses of sky through the transparent wall-clutter italicized moments of unsentimental hope. The effect was of a derelict but still viable "spiritual neighborhood" where unsettled spirits were truly suspended between regeneration and ruin.
BEST UNFORGIVABLY DELAYED PREMIERE
Theater for a New Audience
Written in 1906 and banned by the British censors for 30 years, this sharp and enduring political drama by Harley Granville Barker was, shockingly, never produced in the U.S. before the magnificent TFNA production this year, directed by Bartlett Sher. The story is about an idealistic and brilliantly gifted politician whose life is ruined after he has an affair with a married woman, and it is still capable of infuriating, with its frank and compassionate talk about sex, unwanted pregnancy, illegal abortion and the cynical decisionmaking of political powerbrokers. Byron Jennings was excellent in the lead role of Henry Trebell, beautifully capturing the earnest, self-possessed charm of a man capable of both amazing public achievement and amazing private stupidity (sound familiar?). Richard Easton was also superb as a Church of England official whose suspicious presence constantly pressed the question of whether anyone or anything can truly rise above politics in the modern world. Waste was bone-chillingly precise and startlingly fresh, a sobering reminder of all that is missing in most newer political drama.
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