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.
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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