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Folger, Shakespeare, Signature Win Big at the 29th Annual Helen Hayes Awards

Ellen Burstyn, Kojo Nnamdi, and Maurice Hines were among the personalities who made an appearance.

Ellen Burstyn at the 29th annual Helen Hayes Awards. Photograph courtesy of TheatreWashington.

If the Helen Hayes Awards were the Oscars, Aaron Posner would be Ben Affleck. The director didn’t scoop the Best Director award last night for his Wild West-themed production of The Taming of the Shrew at Folger Theatre (although at least, unlike Affleck, he was actually nominated), but the production won Outstanding Resident Play, proving itself to be hog-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong as a fusion of Shakespeare and cowboy culture.

A word of advice for the uninitiated: Helen Hayes night isn’t really about the awards. The, shall we say, eclectic nature of the judging process frequently defies interpretation, so the event functions primarily as a celebration of local theater as a whole, during which smaller companies compete to see who can scream louder when their productions appear in big-screen montages and acceptance speeches range from Anne Hathaway actor-y to inexplicable—on accepting his award for Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Musical last night, Bobby Smith of MetroStage’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris claimed he was hammered on martinis and talked about “leakage.”

The event was muted without the inevitable enthusiasm of Synetic Theater, usually an oversize presence at the ceremony and on the dancefloor (the company didn’t receive so much as a single nomination this year). Still, some winners emerged. In the musical theater category, Signature Theatre’s production of Dreamgirls got rather overshadowed by the much lower-budget Jacques Brel, which took awards for Outstanding Director (Serge Seiden), Lead Actress (Natascia Diaz), and Lead Actor (the aforementioned Smith). But director Matthew Gardiner’s Dreamgirls captured the award for Outstanding Resident Musical, as well as Supporting Actor (Cedric Neal) and Costume Design (Frank Labovitz).

In the drama category, Studio Theatre’s presentation of a new adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also had a good night, scooping Outstanding Director (Christopher McElroen), Lighting Design (Mary Louise Geiger), and Outstanding Ensemble. Francesca Faridany won the Lead Actress category for her role in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at Shakespeare Theatre, while Steven Epp won Lead Actor for his role in The Servant of Two Masters at the same theater. And in the non-resident productions, which usually fete celebrities who are extremely unlikely to show up (ahem, Cate Blanchett), all three winners were there in person to pick up their trophies. David M. Lutken, who starred as Woody Guthrie in Theater J’s Woody Sez, won Lead Actor alongside Felicia Boswell for the Kennedy Center’s Memphis. Christopher Saul also picked up his Supporting Performer Award for the Folger’s imported production of Hamlet by Shakespeare’s Globe, telling the audience (in case they were wondering), that yes, he is a Brit. And lest conspiracy theories arise as to winners being tipped off before they made the journey, Hamlet (Michael Benz) was also in the audience, and he went home empty-handed.

Some oddities: Jonathan Tuzman won Outstanding Musical Direction, Resident Production for Woolly Mammoth’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play—which wasn’t a musical—and E. Faye Butler won Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Play for Pullman Porter Blues, which was. Butler’s acceptance speech kicked off the meme of the night when she closed with, “I love you, Washington! I need a job!” The line prompted several other actors, including some VIPs, to inform the assembled directors that they, too, were looking for work. (Presenters Kojo Nnamdi and Maurice Hines resisted, although Hines did remind the audience how good he looks for 70.)

Brits also triumphed in the Outstanding Non-Resident Production category, which went to the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch at Shakespeare Theatre. Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Really Really, which recently had a hit off-Broadway run starring Girls’ Zosia Mamet, won the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a co-production between Imagination Stage and the Washington Ballet, won Outstanding Production for Young Audiences and Outstanding Ensemble, Resident Musical.

The annual Helen Hayes tribute, which in recent years has gone to luminaries such as Kevin Spacey and Tommy Tune, this year went to Actor’s Equity Association, which left TheatreWashington in the odd situation of reverently praising a union on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death. A video reminded the audience of the unfavorable conditions actors suffered through before they were unionized, and of our own Lisner Auditorium’s less-than-stellar history when it comes to civil rights. The award was accepted by Ellen Burstyn, an Equity member since 1956, as she informed the audience. Radiant in an aqua pantsuit, Burstyn recalled her own experiences as a young actress before stating unequivocally that she also needs a job. For the assembled actors, it possibly wasn’t the cheeriest summation of the industry, if even an Academy, Tony, and Golden Globe Award winner is looking for work.

A moment of poignancy belonged to Jaylee Mead, long an unparalleled booster of local theater, who died last year. During the In Memoriam sequence, Mead got an even bigger cheer than Marvin Hamlisch, something she surely would have appreciated.

A full list of winners is available at TheatreWashington’s website.

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