“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” — George Bernard Shaw
Tucson was loaded with theater that helped make our world a bit more bearable in 2016.
Our souls were soothed with such productions as Live Theatre Workshop’s “My Name is Asher Lev,” which spoke to the power of art.
We were energized by the laughter that came so easily in Arizona Theatre Company’s “An Act of God.” And The Rogue Theatre’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tales of the Jazz Age,” featuring Artifact Dance Project, was a mid-summer delight.
It takes enormous courage to create theatre. Even when a production is so-so, we applaud — and thank — those who are willing to make themselves so vulnerable in order to help us wrestle with the “crudeness of reality” with laughter, or tears, or wonder.
And some that we saw did that particularly well this year. To them, we present the Star’s Mac Awards. The Mac, now in its 16th year, is named for the late Mary MacMurtrie who, through her Tucson Children’s Theatre, spent much of the last century turning local youths into actors and directors, as well as audiences who appreciate heart, honesty, intent and excellence.
Best Actress, Comedy
Verity Stansall’s turn as Carla in Invisible Theatre’s “Alive and Well” was icy until it was hot, allowing the audience to get who her character was.
Paige Davis was a fine God in Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “An Act of God,” which was packed with laugh lines she nailed.
Shira Maas was a complete hoot as the chain-smoking Egyptian queen in ART’s “Epic Proportions.”
India Osborne wore rage and manners particularly well in Roadrunner Theatre Company’s “God of Carnage.”
Lucille Petty made us fall in love with the sassy and broken teen Libby in Invisible Theatre’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures.”
The Mac goes to Marissa Munter, who played the ditz-turned-brainiac Billie in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of “Born Yesterday.” Her performance popped with fine timing and a tender vulnerability. The memory of Judy Holliday, who played Billie in the original Broadway production and the film, is likely seared into the minds of ART’s older audience members. That did not intimidate Munter, who made the role her own.
Best Actor, Comedy
Armin Shimerman’s angry Tolstoy in Arizona Theatre Company’s “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” was perfection.
Carlos Lee Hall nailed it as the buffoonish bully Harry in Arizona Rep’s “Born Yesterday.”
It was near impossible not to fall in love with Cliff Madison’s Kris Kringle in Live Theatre Workshop’s “Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Radio Play.”
Arizona Rep also had some fine actors in its production of “Epic Proportions,” especially Zachary Zupke and Matthew Osvog, who played brothers in the over-the-top comedy.
Roger Owen gave the blue-collar Michael in Roadrunner’s “God of Carnage” just the right amount of boorishness and intelligence.
In The Rogue’s “Uncle Vanya,” Matt Bowdren wiggled into the skin of the alcoholic doctor and provided much laughter and much pain in the process, and David Weynand’s portrayal of the professor made us laugh and cringe at the character’s self-importance and lack of insight.
The Mac goes to Ryan Parker Knox in the title role of The Rogue’s “Uncle Vanya.” Knox made the character’s vulnerability and desperation palpable. Sure, we laughed. But we were deeply disturbed, as well.
Best director, comedy
Matt August infused the word-happy “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” with visuals, a rhythmic pace and clarity.
Hank Stratton’s direction of Arizona Rep’s “Born Yesterday” allowed the comedy to breathe and grow. And he made the 1946 play relevant without ever straining to do so.
“Bad Jews” is a fast-paced play full of angry people; Kevin Johnson’s direction of this Arizona Onstage Productions’ piece underscored both the funny and the not-so-funny.
Mark Klugheit used the intimate space on the Alliance Performance Center of Tucson stage to successfully up the intensity and humor of Roadrunner’s “God of Carnage.”
The Mac goes to Joseph McGrath, who saw to it that both the humor and the drama emerged organically in the Rogue’s “Uncle Vanya.” We laughed freely, but the best laughter is not hollow. McGrath saw to it that “Uncle Vanya” was not hollow.
We loved Roadrunner’s witty, swift production of “God of Carnage.”
Arizona Rep’s “Born Yesterday” made a 70-year-old play speak to us today.
And ATC’s “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord,” by one-time Tucsonan Scott Carter, was smart and funny.
“Uncle Vanya” takes the Mac. It is often hard to remember that the playwright Anton Chekhov thought this a comedy, but this Rogue production laid out why. While the laughs were plentiful, it is the underlying tragedy that sticks with you.
Best drama, actress
Susan Arnold was strong and majestic as the title character in Winding Road Theatre Ensemble’s “Julius Caesar,” and heartbreaking and honest in the role of Anna in Winding Road’s “Sovereign Body.”
Thanks to Marissa Garcia, we understood the anger and bitterness of Hester in The Rogue’s “By the Bog of Cats.”
Holly Griffith wove in and out of insanity in her role as Harper in The Rogue’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” We got her desperation, and grasped her need to let her mind drift in order to escape.
The Mac goes to Kim Staunton, who played the wife Rose in Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Fences.” Rose’s compassion and her pain, her anger and forgiveness, were clear and gorgeous in the actress’ hands.
Best drama, actor
Steve Wood gave the title character in Live Theatre’s “My Name is Asher Lev” a sense of innocence and wonder.
Peter Van Norden’s conflicted monarch in “King Charles III” at ATC went from an ineffectual figurehead to a deeply tragic character.
The Sheriff Joe Arpaio character in Borderlands Theater’s “Nogales: Story Tellers in Cartel Country,” was given a surprising humanity by Richard Montoya.
Matt Bowdren was riveting in the role of Jean, the lowly manservant to a count with a nearly irresistible daughter in The Rogue’s “Miss Julie.”
We are doubling up on Mac winners in this category — it’s impossible to pick between them: David Alan Anderson sank deeply into Troy’s’ humor and humanity in ATC’s production of “Fences,” and Christopher Johnson gave a profound tenderness to match the rage in his portrayal of Prior in The Rogue’s “Angels in America.”
Best director, drama
Matt August directed ATC’s “King Charles III” with wit and a sense of urgency.
“The Tempest” at Arizona Rep was a swift-moving show that never failed to compel thanks to Brent Gibbs’ direction.
Borderlands “Nogales” is a complex piece, but director Sean San José made sure the drama, humor and story were clear and compelling.
Director Lou Bellamy gave ATC’s “Fences” all the deep roots, all the humanity, and all the nuance that the play deserves.
The Mac goes to Matt Bowdren who infused The Rogue’s “Angels in America” with the compassion and anger the play requires. His direction made the sprawling piece intimate and urgent.
ATC’s “King Charles III” took us on a journey that was rich with comedy, human frailties, corruption and manipulations.
The Rogue’s “Angels in America” was riveting. It reminded us of the costs of greed, ignorance and living an inauthentic life without ever preaching or pandering.
Arizona Rep’s “The Tempest” caressed Shakespeare’s language and story.
The impact of August Wilson’s “Fences” is profound, and the ATC production was felt deeply and honestly.
The Mac goes to Borderlands’ production of “Nogales: Story Tellers in Cartel Country.” It was funny, tragic and transformative. The piece, which premiered here, was a sharp, critical and often beautiful vision of Southern Arizona, whose stories gave birth to the piece. Seeing brand new plays premiere here is exciting; when they are as good as this was, and have as much to say, it’s exhilarating.
Adia Bell was impressive in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s ensemble piece, “Hands on a Hard Body.” Her a cappella take on the gospelly “Joy of the Lord” was a show stopper.
Amanda Gremel played multiple roles in Live Theatre’s “No Way to Treat a Lady.” And she played them all well.
Sarah Ambrose grabbed ahold of the role of Maureen in Arizona Rep’s “Rent” and never let go. An impressive voice matched solid acting chops to bring the character to life.
Anne Allgood had a sometimes-thankless role as Golde in Arizona Theatre Company’s “Fiddler on the Roof” — the character often gets swallowed up by the others. But she held her own and shaped a wife and mother who aches and loves. She wins the Mac for her moving performance.
Arizona Rep’s “Rent” featured loads of talented actors. Among them: Austin Wright and Brett Dixon, who played two friends at the center of the story. The friendship felt genuine, the singing rocked. They drove the musical with commitment and talent.
Jose “Chach” Snook had an unenviable job in Roadrunner’s “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” — he directed and was one of the four actors in the play. He did both well, but we especially love his singing and stage presence.
Josh Dunn sang with tenderness and beauty in Arizona Rep’s “Hands on a Hard Body.”
The Mac goes to Eric Polani Jensen, whose stirring performance as Tevye in ATC’s “Fiddler on the Roof” has stayed with us. His honesty and his empathy came through. And then he sang … clear, beautiful, moving.
Best director, musical
Danny Gurwin’s “Rent” at Arizona Rep left us with those great songs wafting through our heads.
Annette Hillman infused Live Theatre’s “No Way to Treat a Lady” with charm.
And Jose “Chach” Snook had a limited budget and a talented cast and made us fall in love with “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” at Roadrunner.
But it was David Ira Goldstein who takes the Mac for his direction of ATC’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was a profound production full of glorious singing and acting. It was close to three hours long, but the audience hung on to each song, each word, each action. Goldstein made us care and think while he entertained us.
We enjoyed “Rent,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “Hands on a Hard Body.”
But nothing compared to the stellar production of ATC’s “Fiddler.” The performance and production values soared. While the story takes place in 1905 Russia and is about Jews who ultimately are forced to flee their homeland, this production had such grace and clarity, we easily found the story’s relevance to America today.
Borderlands Theater’s “Barrio Stories” defies traditional categorization. But it must be mentioned — the stories took over the Tucson Convention Center grounds for a weekend, resurrecting the memories and the people who once lived in Barrio Viejo, torn up so that the TCC could be built. It was a great loss to the city. Borderlands reminded us of that, and reminded us that we must not forget our history, our culture or our neighbors. It was a remarkable event.
And one more …
Though not a locally-created production, “Dreamscape,” which played over a weekend at the Rogue, was an astounding experience. Tucsonans Kate McMillan and her husband, Bill Krauss, brought the play here after they had seen it in Los Angeles. The two-person piece was based on an actual event — the death of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller, a black woman who was shot and killed by Riverside police on Dec. 28, 1998. Playwright and star Rickerby Hinds used beatboxing, hip-hop, poetry and dance to weave theater that thrilled and disturbed.