February 3, 2000

Three's a Charm for Back Stage West Garlands

by Scott Proudfit

Though it clocked in at two hours and 30 minutes, the same length as last year's ceremony, the third annual Back Stage West Garland Awards seemed almost to go by too quickly. Perhaps it's because the proceedings, again held at the lovely Geffen Playhouse, seemed more like a family gathering than a congregation of respectful peers. Because the Garlands honor not only L.A. plays but productions up and down the entire West Coast, the evening can sometimes feel like a gathering of wary if supportive clans-many unfamiliar faces, known more by reputation than sight.

This year, the community of theatre makers from San Diego to Oregon seemed more unified and interconnected-a fact that, considering the diversity and scope of the work out there, bodes well for the future.

Chris Wells set the tone for the evening by kicking it off with a sing-along of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"-sort of a gather-'round-the-piano moment, and the continuation of an ongoing joke that the Garlands in some way pay homage to Miss Judy. Wells then teasingly laid down some ground rules for the evening: "In your acceptance speeches, do not forget to thank Back Stage West," "Please take your time-talk as long as you want," "If you come up with a large group that's being honored, let everyone speak," etc. He was briefly interrupted by a purported cell phone call from Annette Bening, who despite her lauded performance at the Geffen for Hedda Gabler did not receive a Garland this year. Wells comforted her with the comment that his own multiple awards were only due to the fact that "critics tend to over-praise self-referential queer performance art."

Wells then went on to offer a series of potential Garlands theme songs set to the tune of various Broadway standards, accompanied at the piano by Steven Argila. (Laurence O'Keefe was at the keys for the rest of the show, offering playful vamping that ranged from the surprisingly apt to the pointedly ironic.) The highlight of Wells' medley was a twisted rendition of a West Side Story favorite, re-written as "that statuette could kill your brother," riffing on the threatening diamond shape of the award.

The hilarious Wells proved a tough act to follow. But he likewise provided material for honorees and presenters for the rest of the evening who referred back to his "rules" and variously declared their love-and their intentions-for the larger-than-life performer: "I want to declare my proposal to Chris Wells," said an honoree who shall remain nameless early in the evening; "I don't want to marry Chris Wells. I want to be him. And the fact that I can't is very painful to me," countered Christopher Liam Moore later on, and Kiff Scholl added, "I have a picture of Chris Wells' ass. If anybody wants it, I'm selling to the highest bidder."

Despite the number of awards given out, 110, the evening never seemed to lag, and was thankfully devoid of any truly embarrassing moments or over-long speeches. Perhaps the spirit of the show on whose set the evening played out, Wit, somehow imbued the proceeding with a sense of brevity and sharp humor, which were the norm. In this instance, the presenters deserve much of the credit. All respected theatre makers, they contributed to the professional yet familiar spirit of the evening. They included Jillian Armenante and Amy Brenneman, Simon Levy and Robert Egan, Kathi O'Donohue, Trace Turville and Kiff Scholl, Jim Brochu and Michele Mais, and Jennifer Leigh Warren and Christopher Liam Moore.

Fears that the volume of the Reefer Madness! cheering section would dominate the evening, as it did the Ovations, were unfounded. And the danger of any "backlash" against the relentlessly popular show, as Reefer co-writer Dan Studney termed it, was headed off by the company's rousing and ridiculous rendition of "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy," a sort of New-Testament-meets-Vegas extravaganza, and the first musical interlude of the evening to bring the house down.

Play On!'s Richard Allen brought down the house in a different way midway through the night with his heartbreaking rendition of Duke Ellington's "Don't You Know I Care?" Allen's sensitive, intelligent interpretation actually seemed in some ways superior to his brilliant performance of the number at the Pasadena Playhouse. By the end of the song-in which the risible, Malvolio-like Rev confesses his true feelings to his lady love-a reverential hush had fallen over the crowd. It was a rare moment of pathos in a largely playful evening. Get this man his own cabaret venue!

The third and final musical interlude was a delightful surprise. Editor in Chief Rob Kendt, providing his own guitar accompaniment, sang "Wicked Little Town," from the recently defunct Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Lyrically the song seemed a particularly apt choice to honor a show that despite tremendous critical response and word of mouth couldn't even complete its scheduled run in L.A. Kendt's stirring rendition ended in a moment of silence throughout the audience-a pause that seemed to acknowledge how fragile theatre remains in this city and abroad, and how many great plays and artists were perhaps overlooked during the evening's honors.

The reception afterward in the Geffen's lobby and courtyard went on later than usual. For a change, this was due less to the free food and drink (courtesy of Picholine) and more to the mutual appreciation that comes when a group of friends, old and new, come together. We can only hope this third annual Garlands points to greater community and more heartfelt support among theatre makers in the coming year.

The following is a list of memorable quotations from the festivities:

In reference to Wit's brief nude scene, Jillian Armenante, while starting to remove her jacket: "I'll have my Kathleen Chalfant moment now."

Director Jessica Kubzansky, accepting for The Memorandum: "I'd like to thank Ron Sossi for letting me do a show off my list and letting me do it my way."

Leland Crooke, accepting for himself and fellow 900 Oneonta cast member Jon Cryer: "Hi. I'm not Jon Cryer. He just got married and would rather be having sex than be here with you all."

Sean Abley, accepting for Adaptation for Attack of the Killer B's: "I did theatre in Chicago for nine years and I didn't win squat. I've been in Los Angeles for five minutes and I win an award. So I guess it's working out."

Playwright Michelle Carter, accepting for Hillary and Soon-Yi Shop for Ties: "I want to thank Larry Eilenberg [of the Magic Theatre] who was probably the only person ever to utter the sentence, "Somebody should write a play about Hillary Clinton and Soon-Yi Previn.'"

Actor Todd Merrill, accepting for the ground-breaking Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk, written by the late, great Lars Mattsun: "I think this moment can best be summed up by a Mattsun poem, "Please Don't Jiggle That': "Please don't jiggle that/Ow, that hurts/Please don't jiggle that/I'm calling a doctor to see if that can be removed.'"

Robert Smyth, accepting for Adaptation for Till We Have Faces: "Thank you to Back Stage West for making this a celebration of work tonight and not a competition to see who wins and who loses."

Set designer Robert Prior, accepting for A Fairy Tale: "Chris Wells called me up and said, "We need the gayest set in history and we think you're just the man to do it.'"

Actor Christine Deaver, accepting for Nosferatu: "The last acting award I received was in high school. It was for Best Actress, but they misspelled it. It said, "Breast Actress.' I'm sure it was just a typo."

David Dreyfoos, associate producer of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, accepting multiple awards for the fest: "We're grateful to William Shakespeare, who gave us our start."

Actor Derrick Lee Weeden, accepting for Othello: "This is for Tony Taccone for staging a play as a piece of holy theatre that a white audience could love and a black man could be proud of."

Managing director Mark Seldis, accepting for Broadway: "The Actors' Gang is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, and I thought this would be a good time to announce we're doing all Lars Mattsun."

Presenter Jim Brochu: "For my co-presenter Michele Mais, it's been a losing year. She lost 80 pounds... I found them."

Actor Harry Murphy, accepting for Reefer Madness!: "We'd like to thank the makers of Zig-Zag rolling papers."

Producer Ian Praiser, accepting for When Pigs Fly!: "When I was eight, I was almost a Mouseketeer. I went to the callback, but I didn't get it and all night I kept saying, "Why Cubby? Why Cubby?' But it was a sign that I should be a producer."

Actor James Sie, accepting for Straight as a Line: "I want to thank Jon Lawrence Rivera for having the audacity to cast Asian actors in non-Asian-specific roles. Unfortunately, this means he will never work in primetime television."


© 2000 Back Stage and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.


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