THE NON-EQUITY JOSEPH JEFFERSON AWARDS, presented at Park West on Monday, June 4, showed the many strengths of Chicago’s smaller theaters – or what co-emcee Vanessa Greenway, who shared the job with Terry Hamilton, described as “the backbone of the Chicago theater scene.”
From reimagined Greek epic to chamber musicals to disgruntled English school kids, the big winners Monday demonstrated the breadth of talent and ambition on tap here.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, which performs its take on dinner theater out of the tiny No Exit Café in Rogers Park, continued its recent dominance in the musicals category.
The still-running — but sold-out — production of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ The Light in the Piazza nabbed six awards: Best Production-Musical, Best Director-Musical (Theo Ubique artistic director Fred Anzevino and Brenda Didier shared the honor), Principal Actress in a Musical (Kelli Harrington), Supporting Actor in a Musical (Justin Adair), Music Director (Jeremy Ramey), and in a brand-new category this year, Dialect Coach (Eva Breneman).
Ramey puckishly noted that he comes from a town famous for hosting “the world’s largest raccoon hunt. So when they hear about this – it won’t mean anything.”
THE HYPOCRITES took home four awards for Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses. Sean Graney, who adapted and directed the seven extant Sophoclean scripts (which subsequently enjoyed a New York run at the Flea Theater) won in both categories.
He shared the adaptation honor with Blake Montgomery of The Building Stage for the latter’s Moby-Dick. Graney also shared the Best Director-Play category with Jonathan Berry, who mounted Simon Stephens’ English school drama, Punk Rock, for Griffin Theatre.
Seven Sicknesses also won Best Production-Play and a lighting design nod for Jared Moore.
Griffin’s production of Punk Rock also won the coveted Best Ensemble award, and Joey DeBettencourt’s performance in the show was singled out as Actor in a Principal Role-Play.
There were dual winners in several categories, since the Jeffs allow ties. A special award went to the Chicago Park District’s Theater on the Lake, which is gearing up for its 60th season and which has served a second helping of many small theater offerings over the years.
THERE WERE VERY FEW GAFFES in the ceremony – and unlike the Tony Award broadcast of a few years ago, Griffin’s presentation of the profane lyrics in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening (also directed by Berry) didn’t have to be bleeped or substituted with less-offensive phrases.
Perhaps appropriately, it took a fight choreographer to throw down the most incendiary speech of the night. Matt Hawkins, who took home the Jeff for his fight designs on Cyrano with the House Theatre of Chicago, which he also adapted and directed, mentioned that he’s been attending grad school in theater. But he called it “bullshit” and emphasized that his real education has taken place on the job in Chicago theater. “So unless you get a free ride, don’t go to grad school,” he said.
ON THE OTHER HAND, composer Kevin O’Donnell, who took home the Original Incidental Music award for Moby-Dick, said that “Everyone in this room has started a theater company or wanted to, and for those who’ve done it – it sucks.”
Perhaps distance from the daily grind of non-Equity theater helps – O’Donnell shared the category with Romanian composer Ovidiu Iloc for the latter’s work on Trap Door Theatre’s production of fellow Romanian Matei Visniec’s The Word Progress on My Mother’s Lips Doesn’t Ring True. Iloc wasn’t on hand to give the international perspective on Chicago storefront theater.
And of course, no one who thrives in non-Equity theater can do it without the help and support – emotional and financial – of families and friends. Chuck Sisson, who won the award for Actor in a Principal Role-Musical for his performance in Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein’s The Baker’s Wife with Oak Park’s Circle Theatre – the only suburban venue eligible for non-Equity Jeffs – noted that the best thing to do in a 30-second acceptance speech was to “save his marriage.” He went on to thank his spouse for helping him live on “wife support.”
Click here for the complete list of winners.
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