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The Ivey Awards: ‘Oz,’ ‘Glensheen’ and ‘Le Switch’ named top plays

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Jasmine Hughes accepts her Ivey Award for acting in Penumbra's “Sunset Baby.”

The annual Ivey Awards – a celebration of theater large and small, old and new, classic and upstart, established and Fringe – is an elite yet egalitarian event. Much of the crowd is dressed to kill, and there’s even a red carpet on the way into the State Theatre, where the combined show and awards ceremony is held. Last night at the State, most people in the sold-out crowd paid $35-$150 to attend the 2016 Ivey Awards, the 12th since Scott Mayer founded them in 2004.

The awards themselves are decided by the people: the general public and volunteer theater evaluators who fan out through the Twin Cities, see plays and report back. Between September 2015 and August 2016, more than 150 volunteer evaluators saw 1,200-plus performances at the 84 professional theaters in the Twin Cities metro. (You read that correctly. Eighty-four professional theaters.)

This year, the people decided that three plays deserved Ivey Awards for Overall Excellence: the Children’s Theatre Company’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the History Theatre’s “Glensheen” and the Jungle Theater’s “Le Switch,” a gay romantic comedy. Accepting the Jungle’s award, Sarah Rasmussen, its new artistic director, exclaimed, “What a joy to produce this play in a state that did so much for marriage equality.”

Regina Marie Williams and Mark Benninghofen were the co-hosts. Wearing a glittering deep blue gown, Williams was regal, imposing and in command of the State’s big stage. Benninghofen was a wag. His first words when he joined Williams: “I have never been in here before. I thought it was a strip joint.”

The Iveys have no nominees, no set number of awards and only two predetermined award categories (more about those in a minute). In some years, winners have included playwrights and choreographers. This year, seven individuals and ensembles won Iveys for their contributions in four categories: acting, directing, sound design and music, and set design.

As Joe Haj, the Guthrie’s new artistic director, accepted the Ivey on behalf of the acting ensemble in the Guthrie’s “Trouble in Mind,” he began by saying, “As the new person, thank you for inviting me to your party. The theater family is the only family I’ve ever wanted to belong to.” Victor Zupanc, the one-man band who won for sound design and music for CTC’s “Pinocchio,” told the crowd that after 26 years in the business, “I’ve written music for 80 percent of the people in this room.” After winning for directing “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at the Minnesota Jewish Center, Warren C. Bowles wryly observed, “When people say they’re surprised, believe them.”

Iveys went to Kevin Fanshaw and Charles Numrich for acting in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s “Equus,” Kate Sutton-Johnson for designing the elaborate, multifunctional set for Theater Latté Da’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Jasmine Hughes for acting in Penumbra’s “Sunset Baby,” and the entire ensemble of New Epic Theater’s “Now or Later,” for acting.

This was, after all, a night for and about theater, so scattered among the awards were scenes and songs from the year’s plays and musicals: “Goodbye My Dear” from Savage Umbrella’s “June,” a jarring excerpt from Transatlantic Love Affair’s “Emilie/Eurydice,” Dark & Stormy’s Sarah Marsh alone on stage in a searing little scene from “And So It Goes.” Regina Marie Williams, Thomasina Petrus and Aimee K. Bryant brought people to their feet with a powerful, passionate take on Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” Emily Jansen, Kate Beahan and Tyler Michaels demonstrated the fine art of bump-and-grind in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Latté Da’s “Gypsy.” Dennis Curley channeled John Denver in Plymouth Playhouse’s “Country Roads: The Music of John Denver” during an “In Memoriam” segment about theater people lost since the last Iveys.

The two remaining Iveys, the Emerging Artist Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award, are the only ones not determined by the public and the evaluators. Participating theaters vote on them. This year’s Emerging Artist is costume designer Trevor Bowen, who arrived in the Twin Cities less than five years ago and has already worked for the Guthrie, Mixed Blood, Theatre Latté Da, Pillsbury House Theatre, Park Square Theatre, Ten Thousand Things, the History Theater and the Jungle. He was visibly moved by the acceptance and the acclaim. “It’s so weird to be up here,” he said. “A costume designer’s role is not to be up front.” In response, someone shouted, “Trevor, you’re beautiful!”

Graydon Royce receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Graydon Royce receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award during Monday’s ceremonies.

Recently retired Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce joined the pantheon of Lifetime Achievement Award winners. “Pantheon” is no exaggeration; previous honorees include the Guthrie’s Joe Dowling, Illusion Theater’s Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, Mu Performing Arts’ Rick Shiomi, the Jungle’s Bain Boehlke and other heavy hitters on our theater scene. Royce clearly did not see this coming. “I’m a good Lutheran boy, so I’m not sure what I did to deserve this,” he said. “Sometime in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” (Probably 99.99 percent of the audience knew this was a direct quote from “The Sound of Music.”) Like Brown, Royce fought tears in accepting his award.

Both Royce and Jasmine Hughes, who won her Ivey earlier in the evening, had thanks and praise for Jack Reuler, founder and still artistic director of Mixed Blood Theater. “Jack Reuler gave me a chance to write a one-act play,” Royce said. “I believe that without the opportunity Jack gave me, I wouldn’t be up here tonight.” For Hughes, Reuler was the person who brought a young single mother from Mississippi and gave her a place in the Twin Cities theater community, a big, teeming, thriving creative force of which we should be proud. Let’s all solemnly swear to go to at least one play in the next couple of weeks. (OK, we’re already doing that. Now you.)

If you weren’t at the Iveys – or you were and want to relive every minute, with behind-the-scenes interviews – tune into 45TV at 7 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 24) or KSTP-TV at 1 a.m. Sunday (Sept. 25).

Authors and publishers in the news

These were all announced last week, when we were on break, but we want to make sure you knew.

The unstoppable Kate DiCamillo’s latest, “Raymie Nightingale,” made the Young People’s Literature long list for the National Book Award. Another Minneapolis author, Caren Stelson, is also on the long list for “Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story,” published by local Carolrhoda Books. Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” made the long list for fiction. Whitehead will be here Nov. 3 for Talking Volumes.

Minneapolis publisher Graywolf has three books on the Poetry long list: Donika Kelly’s “Bestiary,” Solmaz Sharif’s “Look” and Monica Youn’s “Blackacre.” David Szalay’s “All That Man Is,” another Graywolf book, is on the short list for the Man Booker Prize. Last year’s winner was Marlon James, a St. Paul writer and Macalester professor who is now hanging out with Brad Pitt.

National Book Award winner James McBride, who comes to Pen Pals with his Good Lord Bird Band in May, last week was named a recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal “for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.”

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, Sept. 20) at the University Club of St. Paul: Carol Connolly’s Reading by Writers. The new season of this popular and reliable (17 years!) reading series, which takes place the third Tuesday of every month, features good words (poetry and prose) by professional and emerging writers including Mary Moore Easter, Michael Sauntry, Julie Pfitzinger, D.E. (Doug) Green, Athena Kildegaard, Dara Syrkin, Christopher Gibson and Katrina Vandenberg. 7:30 p.m. Free and open to the public, but a hat will be passed for donations to the Saint Paul Almanac.  

Now at the Lyric Arts and Theatre in the Round: “Wait Until Dark” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Two Jeffrey Hatcher plays are on stage at the same time, which probably isn’t that unusual, since Hatcher (an Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2013) is Mr. Prolific. (Hatcher also wrote the book for “Glensheen.”) See Hatcher’s adaptation of Frederick Knott’s thriller “Wait Until Dark” (yes, the one that became the movie with Audrey Hepburn) in Anoka through Sept. 25. FMI and tickets ($15-$30). Hatcher’s play based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark tale, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” runs through Oct. 2 in Cedar Riverside. FMI and tickets ($22).

Thursday and Friday at Hopkins Center for the Arts: Pen Pals presents Anna Quindlen. Pen Pals events are lectures, not readings, but we’ve never seen a boring one. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, social critic, and author who has had seven books (so far) on the New York Times Bestsellers List, Quindlen will probably talk about her latest, “Miller’s Valley.” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday. FMI and tickets ($40-50).

Thursday-Sunday: The Bach Society: “Alleluja! Cantatas and Motets by the Thomaskantor.” The 84-year-old Bach Society enters a new era under the baton of Canada’s Matthias Maute, the German-born, internationally known conductor, composer and musician (recorder and flute) who also serves as artistic director for the JUNO-winning, Montreal-based baroque group Ensemble Caprice. Thursday in Winona, Friday at Hamline’s Sundin Music Hall, Sunday in Marshall. FMI and tickets ($23).

Friday at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul campus: Tom Rassieur: “Martin Luther and the Reformation.” Get a jump on Mia’s new Martin Luther exhibition, which opens Oct. 30, at a lecture by its co-curator. Rassieur, Mia’s Curator of Prints and Drawings and a man who can make anything and anyone sound fascinating, will discuss the show, a collection of paintings, sculptures, gold, textiles, works on paper and personal possessions, many never before seen outside of Germany. Reception at 6 p.m., lecture at 7. In the Woulfe Alumni Hall on the 3rd floor of the Anderson Student Center. Register here ($30; free for St. Thomas students with valid ID).

Starts Friday at the Ordway: Broadway Songbook: Rebels on Broadway. Learn the stories behind the songs that have explored (and sometimes satirized) tough topics, pushed boundaries and challenged the status quo. Written by Jeffrey P. Scott and Broadway veteran James A. Rocco, with performances by Paris Bennett, Julius Collins, Reid Harmsen, Caroline Innerbichler, Wesley Mouri, Hope Nordquist and Rudolph Searles III, the show includes songs from “Hamilton,” “The Book of Mormon,” “American Idiot,” “Fun Home” and more. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($37). Ends Sept. 30. 

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