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Theater went to great lengths, with dramatic effects THE YEAR 1993 IN REVIEW


Bigger was better and more was more in theater in 1993.

This was the year that two mega-plays, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" (two parts clocking in at seven hours) and Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" (two parts clocking in at six hours), made it to Broadway and disproved the common wisdom that attention spans are shrinking.

"The Kentucky Cycle" re-examined existing myths -- those of the American pioneer. Although the show closed prematurely in New York earlier this month, area audiences got a chance to see it during a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center last fall.

"Angels in America," which was co-produced on Broadway by Baltimore native Margo Lion, set out to create myths of its own by interweaving a disparate cast of characters that included two fictitious couples, one gay and the other Mormon, the real-life character of lawyer Roy Cohn and an angel.

"Big" this year also applied to bucks, especially the impressive grants awarded to Center Stage. In May, the theater was awarded a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, aimed at developing younger and more diversified audiences. In July, the theater was one of three Baltimore arts organizations to receive a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Arts Stabilization Fund.

Other big news on the local scene was Hope Quackenbush's retirement after serving as managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts for 15 years, during which she built a national record-setting subscription base.

But not all of the exciting news was big. This summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival wasn't the largest in its 12-year history, but its offerings were distinguished by serious themes and, occasionally, experimentation with theatrical form.

The most memorable performance I attended in 1993 didn't take place in a theater, but in an auditorium at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In November, I sat in an audience of more than 100 bone-marrow-transplant recipients and their families and watched New York actor Evan Handler, one of Hopkins' transplant success stories, perform "Time on Fire," his one-man show about his battle with leukemia. The energy in that $l auditorium was an indelible reminder that the roots of theater lie in shared experience.

How to sum up such a diverse year? Using a modified list of Tony Award categories seems as good a method as any. A word of explanation, however: Since I review everything from amateur theater to Broadway, making comparisons would not only be mixing apples and oranges, it would be unfair. Instead, as I do in my reviews, I have attempted to evaluate each production on its own terms, which explains why professional and community theaters can appear in the same list, or even the same category.

* Best play: "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," by Tony Kushner (Walter Kerr Theatre, New York). The first part of this epic seven-hour examination of AIDS, politics, religion and the American conscience, "Millennium" marked the introduction of one of the most imaginative, original voices heard on Broadway in years.

* Best musical: "Kiss of the Spider Woman," by Terrence McNally, John Kander and Freb Ebb (Broadhurst Theatre, New York) and "The World Goes 'Round: The Kander & Ebb Musical," conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson (Mechanic Theatre). "Spider Woman," based on Manuel Puig's novel, represents a daringly effective solution to musicalizing a difficult subject; "The World Goes 'Round" was such a clever reworking of the Kander and Ebb songbook that it imbued many of the songs with new meaning.

* Best actor in a play: Nigel Hawthorne in "The Madness of George III" (Mechanic Theatre) and Gilbert Lewis in "Fences" (Center Stage). The crowning triumph of Hawthorne's magnificent performance was that even when the king was in the deepest throes of his illness, the actor never let us lose sight of the monarch's inner core of sanity. At Center Stage, Lewis not only captured the tough, complex personality of a former Negro League star, he augmented it with the gracefulness of a professional athlete.

* Best actress in a play: Pippa Pearthree in "Escape from Happiness" (Center Stage). This Baltimore-born actress's depiction of a high-powered bisexual lawyer was a powder keg of intensity.

* Best actor in a musical: Andre De Shields in "The Wiz" (Lyric Opera House). A sentimental favorite, this Baltimore native returned to the title role he originated on Broadway nearly two decades ago; time only seemed to enhance his flamboyant, outrageous portrayal.

* Best actress in a musical: Cindy Rinaldi and Liz Boyer in "Into the Woods" (Spotlighters Theatre) and Libby Tomlinson-Gensler in "Chess" (Maryland Arts Festival, Towson State University). At the risk of ignoring my own caveat about comparisons, I found Rinaldi's street-smart Little Red Riding Hood and Boyer's pragmatic Baker's Wife as accomplished as their counterparts in the national touring production. Similarly, Tomlinson-Gensler's mastery of a challenging role in a challenging show was the musical high point of a splendid production.

* Best direction of a play: Barry Feinstein, "Good" (Fells Point Corner Theatre) and Warner Shook, "The Kentucky Cycle" (Kennedy Center, Washington). Set in 1930s Germany, "Good" explores the shaky ground separating complacency from complicity; under Feinstein's direction, it crept up on you just the way evil creeps up on its protagonist. In "The Kentucky Cycle," Shook not only smoothly orchestrated 20 actors in more than 70 roles spanning 200 years, but in collaboration with scenic designer Michael Olich, he used the strong visual metaphor of a large plot of dirt that was covered up, bit by bit, as succeeding generations depleted the rich soil.

* Best direction and choreography of a musical: Todd Pearthree, "Into the Woods" and "Sweeney Todd" (both at Spotlighters), and Kathleen Marshall, "Chess" (TSU). With apologies to Harold Prince, whose contribution to "Spider Woman" cannot be discounted, it's refreshing to salute some younger talent. Marshall, who happens to be a Prince protege, mounted the most accomplished musical in the 12-year history of TSU's Maryland Arts Festival. Pearthree is the rare local director confident and skillful enough to put his own stamp on shows instead of slavishly re-creating Broadway staging. (And yes, he's Pippa's brother.)

* Best scenic and lighting designs: Christopher Barreca and Tom Sturge, respectively, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" (Center Stage). The innovative concept of turning Center Stage's Head Theater into a functional cabaret for "Lady Day" probably also owes a debt to director George Faison. Whoever was primarily responsible, the show worked so well in this setting it was difficult to imagine it any other way.

* Best costume design: Willa Kim, "The Will Rogers Follies" (Lyric). Not only did Kim's costumes deserve much of the credit for this show's Ziegfeld Follies aura, but they also made a serious plot point in the number, "Presents for Mrs. Rogers," when bejeweled evening gowns were replaced with sheets, representing the start of the Depression.

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