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JEFF AWARDS ROUND-UP: Bailiwick's laugh, a shout-out to Tchaikovsky—and naked pirates
by Catey Sullivan
2008-06-18

Images for this article: (click on the thumbnail to see fullsize)

Say what you will about the Jeff Committee—Lord knows, so many people do—but nobody throws a party as joyously irreverent, raucous and deeply emotional than said committee's annual celebration of our fair city's non-union theaters. No disrespect to the unalloyed debauchery of cast parties, but really, they can't compete with the all-inclusive revelry that comes when you pack several hundred theater people from upward of 60 different companies into a dimly lit concert lounge with a full bar.

Image 2: Director Fred Anzevino ( left ) and actor Jeremy Trager both won Jeff Awards for their work in Theo Ubique's Cabaret. Image courtesy of Johnny Knight Photos.

A bit of full disclosure: We spent nine years on the Jeff Committee. During that time, we heard it dissed and dismissed more than once as an evil cabal of North Shore retirees. And a group of dried-up bluehairs incapable of appreciating anything more avant-garde than 'Oklahoma!' And an organization that only gave awards to people they'd slept with. ( Puh-lease. We're at the theater six nights a week. Who has time? ) We were also called a brain-dead corps of saggy-assed philistines with one goutish foot in the grave.

And while such ( inaccurate ) generalizations sometimes hurt our feelings, nights like the 35th Annual Non-Equity Awards, held June 9, absolutely make up for that. The event formerly known as the Citations was a celebration evocative of the Everlasting Yes articulated by Molly Bloom and Thomas Carlyle: an affirmation of all that is right and true and splendid.

A prime example of that sensibility came when Brenda Didier accepted the award for choreography for her work on Bohemian Theatre Ensemble's The Life. After brain cancer killed her brother, she recalled, 'I lost my spirit. I didn't think I could do choreography ever again. I didn't think I could do theater again.'

'Last time I was here,' she continued, 'I won for Kiss of the Spider Woman. My brother was here with me. I could see him when I was up here, and I remember looking at him and thanking him for his gifts of life and laughter. And now, I feel like he's still here with me.

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'So I want to say, if you have a sibling tell them you love them. If you have unresolved issues, get beyond them, because life's just too short.'

The Life was one of 143 non-Equity shows the Jeff Committee judged during the non-Equity season running from April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008. When the final ballots were tallied, there were 27 awards in 23 categories. Lifeline's The Island of Dr. Moreau took the award for production. Bailiwick and Signal Ensemble won for outstanding musical for, respectively, Jerry Springer, The Opera and 1776.

The awards for musicals were particularly sweet: Signal's prize came after the company, huddled in a tight-knit group near the stage, was overlooked for every other award it was up for. As for Bailiwick Artistic Director and 'Springer' director David Zak, he got the last laugh after a season that saw him vilified in the blogosphere for all sorts of alleged financial mismanagement.

'We've been counted down and out so many times I've started identifying with Hillary Clinton,' Zak told the crowd, 'this makes all the bullshit worth it.'

Bullshit aside, Bailiwick came in for some lightly scathing but not inaccurate jabs when Jeremy Trager collected the plaque for actor in a musical ( for his turn as the Emcee in Theo Ubique's Cabaret ) . Trager recalled making his Chicago debut a decade ago in a 'naked Pirate musical' at the Bailiwick.

'It was, of course, one of the many, many naked pirate musicals the Bailiwick's done over the years.

'It's called paying your dues,' he added acerbically.

In a vividly descriptive moment, Trager also captured the beyond-grueling schedules most Non-Equity actors maintain.

'Our Kit-Kat boys and girls finished their day jobs and then got to the Heartland Café two and a half hours before every show, got into full costume and make-up—crazy costumes, crazy make-up, full drag—and waited tables for two hours. And then they put on a kick-ass, two-and-a-half-hour show,' he said.

Trager wasn't alone in pulling in an award for Theo Ubique. Fred Anzevino took the honors for musical direction for his intimate staging of the company's Cabaret.

'I've been up for this award five times. And every time, I've lost. I was beginning to get a Susan Lucci complex,' he said.

With his win for direction for Columbinus, Greg Kolack poignantly recalled travelling to Colorado and meeting with survivors of the Columbine massacre, the parents of students who didn't survive and the best friends of shooters Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold. Back home, however, his attempts at opening up a discussion on school shootings met with a far different reaction.

'I approached so many schools because I wanted to talk to students about the issues that led to the Columbine killings, open up a discussion somehow. I was told it was 'inappropriate' for students to be discussing that,' he said. 'If it's inappropriate to talk about these things to students, who is it appropriate to talk about them with?'

An equally trenchant although far more light-hearted summation of the absurdities embedded in a life in the theater came from the sonically fascinating Kevin O'Donnell as he collected official kudos for the original music in the House Theatre's Nutcracker.

'There was a review that said the music was played well enough, but it really didn't hold a candle to the original Tchaikovsky,' O'Donnell noted, wryly adding that he never purported to be on par with the late, great Russian composer. 'I would like to thank the Jeff Committee for not holding me to the level of Tchaikovsky,' he finished.

Yet another marvelous moment came when Kathleen Ruhl accepted the award for supporting actress for her turn as Rima in TimeLine Theatre's Dolly West's Kitchen.

'It is so exciting to appear in the same space where I first appeared in a Leonard Malfi play'—and here, Ruhl dropped her voice to a scandalized stage whisper—'in 1968!'

'Really, she continued, 'Doing this role was the absolute best way to turn 65.'

For a complete list of winners, visit www.jeffawards.org .

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