By Ed Rampell
Hosted by The Kilroys, an L.A.-based, pro-gender balance collective of playwrights and producers, many presenters and winners stressed equality between the sexes on the stage at the 29th Annual LA STAGE Alliance Ovation Awards ceremony on January 28. Billed as a “#BiasBash”, the “F”-bomb was dropped so often by speakers onstage at the historic Ace Theatre in Downtown L.A. that even Lenny Bruce might have blushed. 277 eligible L.A. theatre professionals voted for a total of 203 Ovation nominations for 71 productions mounted by 46 organizations. But the ceremony often demonstrated how yearly prize bestowing events have evolved from mere backslapping rituals honoring artistic excellence (and egos) into also being highly public platforms advocating for causes – and for works espousing those issues and changes.
Performance artist Kristina Wong, recipient of the newly renamed Dorothy and Richard E. Sherwood Award – endowed by the late, eponymous theatre patrons to support “innovative and adventurous” L.A. stage artists – epitomized this advocacy trend. In her acceptance speech, clad in a bright red gown, the ebullient presenter of The Wong Street Journal solo show and commentator vowed to use her $10,000 prize money to run to be a representative on the Sub-District 5, Wilshire Koreatown Neighborhood Council and work “to impeach fascists in the White House.” The comedian noted: “We live in times where politicians and artists have switched jobs. They create the spectacle that has us questioning reality and we reclaim the quiet space for… truth.” The activist/actress plans to combine politics and art in her latest performance project, Kristina Wong for Public Office.
The witty Wong also quipped: “In this line of work there’s a very fine line between being a madwoman and a visionary. It is so validating to finally be honored for being the latter…”
Of course, this being the annual convocation of L.A.’s theatre tribe, in addition to the lefty politicking there was also plenty of schmoozing (and boozing). Stage luminaries, such as Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum and A Noise Within veteran Alan Blumenfeld – nominated for Featured Actor in a Play for co-starring in The Chosen at the Fountain Theatre – tread the red carpet in the Ace Theatre’s lobby looking resplendent in a black tux with a red bowtie. As did stand-up comic Mona Shaikh, fresh from emceeing the January 19 Women’s March at San Francisco.
Another Ovation nominee, Angela Balogh Calin, who was up for the Costume Design (Large Theatre) award for A Noise Within’s production of The Madwoman of Chaillot, explained amidst the pre-show throng how she injected a Parisian panache into the garb for the cast of that France-set drama, including berets and sailor-type shirts (accordions were presumably optional). Calin is in the process of costuming cast members – such as Tania Verafield, who wore an eye catching emerald ensemble – of ANW’s for its upcoming modern dress version of Othello. Verafield portrays Emilia in this 2019-set rendition of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece about interracial marriage and more opening February 16.
Lead Actor in a Musical nominee Matt Walker stole the red carpet show in his multi-colored outfit and top hat, looking as if he was either a character straight out of Troubadour Theater Company’s How the Princh Stole Christmas – or Roger Stone at his D.C. arraignment. Walker gushed, “I’m wearing this costume because I’m an L.A. thespian, and this is my homage to L.A. theatre.”
Nommed for Featured Actress in a Play for Playwrights’ Arena’s Billy Boy, Rachel Sorsa wore a lovely, low-cut burgundy gown. Standing beside the restored 1920s movie palace’s bar Sorsa joked that compared to appearing “topless” opposite Nick Salamone in the sexually charged Billy Boy at the Atwater Village Theatre, she felt like “I’m in my sweats.” And having played Helen of Troy at the Getty Villa’s 2012 production of Euripides’ Helen, Sorsa’s feet were, but of course, strapped into sandals (albeit sparkly ones).
Accompanied by a live five-piece band with musical direction by Gregory Nabours, the approximately two and a half hour ceremony got underway by 7:45 p.m. Whereas its televised, far glitzier East Coast counterpart the Tonys regularly features numerous live performances, the Ovation Awards focused on dispensing peer-judged accolades for artists, along with advocacy for movements. There was, however, a montage of brief clips from nominated plays projected on a screen above the stage and some songs performed by the black-clad VOX Femina, a diverse women’s chorus. Kilroy presenters urged audience members to periodically use the noisemakers in swag bags dispensed in the lobby to make a ruckus – after all, as that famous philosopher Jimmy Durante put it, “Everybody wants to get into the act.” (Especially actors.)
In all, 36 Ovation Awards were given to 16 different theatre companies and the show moved smoothly, with most winners (unlike many presenters) limiting their acceptance speeches to the 45 seconds allotted. Among the big winners, which included a number of diverse casts and productions, were: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, which specializes in crowd pleasing musicals, for the Rodgers and Hammerstein WWII-era classic South Pacific and the jazzy Ain’t Misbehavin’, with songs by Harlem Renaissance musicians such as Fats Waller, with Thomas Hobson as Andre winning in the Lead Actor in a Musical category.
Center Theatre Group and playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) scored in several categories for Soft Power – which satirically deals with relations between China and America – including for Book for an Original Musical and Lyrics/Composition for an Original Musical. Hwang shared the latter with Tony and Drama Desk Award winning composer and musical arranger Jeanine Tesori.
The surrealistic Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, inspired by Japanese ghost stories, was another favorite, winning in several categories, including for Scenic Design and Video Projection for Rogue Artists Ensemble and East West Players. Tina Kronis picked up Ovations for Choreography plus Best Direction of a Play for the form-busting Theater Movement Bazaar’s Grail Project at the Bootleg Theater.
The Echo Theater Company’s female-centered Cry It Out, about new motherhood and maternity leave, co-starring Asian American Jackie Chung, won for Best Production of a Play (Intimate Theatre), while the dramedy’s bard, Molly Metzler, walked away with the Playwriting for an Original Play accolade. Celebration Theatre celebrated winning Best Production of a Musical (Intimate Theatre) for the LGBTQ-themed Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
The recipient of the coveted Ovation Award for Best Season went to A Noise Within. The Pasadena-based company also won in the Lighting Design (Large Theatre) and Fight Direction categories, both for ANW’s mounting of Shakespeare’s Henry V. (Remarkably, the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon was spared criticism for being born a white cis male European during the ceremony’s frequent commentaries, although one presenter even rather humorously compared Hamlet’s plot to a telenovela.)
The annual bestowal of laurels had some surprises. In particular, Rogue Machine Theatre, which won the “big enchilada” in 2018 for Best Season, wasn’t even nominated in a single solitary Ovation category this year.
The 2019 ceremony’s political emphasis also differed from that of recent years. In January 2017, the awards show emceed by transgender actress Alexandra Billings took place just a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration and was full of speeches by presenters and winners excoriating the man about to become president. Ethnic diversity dominated the Ovation Awards last year. While that concern was still prevalent in Monday’s event that included a number of Hispanic, Asian/Asian American, and African American winners, nominees, and presenters, the issue of gender parity was this year’s dominant theme.
Throughout much of the ceremony Kilroy presenters digressed with discourses – often liberally sprinkled with the “F”-word – hammering home the theme of the importance of gender balance in the theatre world. At one point, Kilroy-ers showed charts that – despite the fact that these equal rights activists were hosting LASA’s annual rite – females, trans, and non-binary talents and plays were still woefully underrepresented on the SoCal stage. Audience members, who almost filled the 1,600 seat Ace Theatre, were referred to a “Bias Bash Booklet” included in the aforementioned swag bags. Some attendees viewing the theatre as primarily being a mass entertainment medium may have felt that with their skits, speeches, moralizing, etc., the Kilroys were rather killjoys.
However, others appreciated their effort to raise awareness for a theatre with a more expansive representation and sense of humanity. One that ranges across the full spectrum of society, embracing all ethnicities, genders, sexual preferences and more. A stage that embraces and expresses the ethos of the ancient Roman playwright Terence in his play Heauton Timorumenos: “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”
In their – appropriately! – highly theatrical grand finale the Kilroys rearranged large boxes onstage that appeared to be made out of cardboard to spell out the word “BIAS”, which they proceeded to literally bash with bats, like so many piñatas. With their dramatic performance art at the end of the Ovation Awards ceremony, the activists ensured that everyone in L.A.’s theatre community knew: The Kilroys are here.
For a full list of Ovation Award winners, visit thisstage.la/2019/01/the-29th-annual-ovation-award-winners.