STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1999 Straw Hat Awards

News   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The 1999 Straw Hat Awards Do you know about the Straw Hat Awards, once annually dispensed by the Council of Stock Theaters? They began in 1969, when Butterflies Are Free was named as Best New Play, Betsy Palmer Best Actress for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Barry Nelson -- who apparently hadn't gone stale after 800-plus performances of Cactus Flower -- Best Actor.

Do you know about the Straw Hat Awards, once annually dispensed by the Council of Stock Theaters? They began in 1969, when Butterflies Are Free was named as Best New Play, Betsy Palmer Best Actress for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Barry Nelson -- who apparently hadn't gone stale after 800-plus performances of Cactus Flower -- Best Actor.

Sid Caesar (Last of the Red Hot Lovers), Mickey Rooney (George M.), Kay Medford (Light up the Sky), and Eileen Heckart (Remember Me?) were all Straw Hat winners. Then, after the 1974 season, the awards disappeared. By then, most summer stock theatres were merely presenting celebrity one-nighters. You wouldn't want to give trophies to Sergio Franchi, Buddy Greco, Sandler and Young, would you?

But I miss the Straw Hat Awards and annually take the liberty of casting my three electoral votes and giving my own based on the best I saw each summer. So straw hats off, here they come, those beautiful winners:

Best Musical was After the Fair, which also boasted Best Actress Michelle Pawk as the frustrated wife who Cyranoed her ignorant maid's letters to her boyfriend -- and then fell in love with him herself. Can't wait for the album, which will soon come our way on Varese Sarabande.

Best Musical Actor was Harry Groener in If Love Were All, who assumed Noel Coward's demeanor and personality better than any of the many others I've seen attempt the ruse. You would have had to have been with me in Dayton, Ohio to find the Best New Play. For the past 10 summers, the Dayton Playhouse has run a new script competition called FutureFest, where they present six plays for all of one performance. I've been a judge the past three years, and this July came across one of the finest plays I've ever seen in any new play confab.

Welcome Party, by Elizabeth Dubus, tells of a mother visited by her daughter, who lives in a distant city, but squeezes mom in when she has a business appointment in her home town. The daughter blithely talks about herself, before adding a little more about herself, then a lot more, when the phone rings. The mother answers it, and tells the caller that her niece is visiting.

Niece? Yes, the mother has decided that the young woman who lives next door is much more of a daughter than her own kid ever really was. She doesn't hate her own flesh-and-blood, mind you, but feels that, given the young woman's lack of attention, she should demote her. Which, of course, unnerves the previously ultra-cool daughter. Now it's the mother who's cool, and totally at home with her decision.

It's a clever piece because it says what so many of us have learned over the years: You find your real family among your friends. But it also says that we should appreciate our own families, too. I hope that some smart companies give additional stagings all over the globe.

The Best Revival was Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings at the worthy Worth Street Playhouse, thanks to Best Director Jeff Cohen's stunning production. Leona is the desperate and aging woman who's keeping hot stud Bill, who really lusts for Violet, who's been seeing Steve. The cast was terrific, but Best Actor David Greenspan stood out as a jaded gay who stops by with his young lover du jour.

Sure, it's not a major Williams' work, for he'd already used many of the themes, characters, and sentiments in his stronger plays. When Williams was writing plays at regular intervals, it probably did seem trite. But it's been a while now since we've seen this side of the playwright (Not About Nightingales, of course, was completely different from anything else Williams attempted), so it was most welcome.

Best Actress in a Play was Mary Testa as Dorine in Tartuffe in Central Park. Not a leading role, you say? Then you missed the show. Testa took command as no other Dorine I've seen, as the maid who has no idea why everyone in the house has been taken in by this allegedly religious man. Her exasperation came to a head when Mariane reluctantly agreed to her daddy's demands that she marry Tartuffe. The highlight of a long speech was Testa's pointing out that it'll mean living in the provinces, where only puppet shows and animal acts will have to pass as entertainment. Worse, living outside the city also means missing Mary Testa in Tartuffe.

And if that wasn't enough: At the performance I attended, Danielle Ferland, playing Mariane, had terrible trouble with her microphone. Leave it to Testa to take control, keeping her lines going as she fixed the mike in Ferland's hair, as if not a thing were wrong. You can't see moments like that at the Quad or on your Quasar.

There was a Best Adaptation, too: Rudolfo Vera's new take on Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, set in the '70s, when the Philippine Islands suffered political upheaval. Vera called Mother Courage Nanay Isog, and, instead of calling eldest son Swiss Cheese, named him Elvis, because "Hound Dog" was popular when he was born. The provocative red stockings for which Katrin lusts became red leather boots for Christine. In the play's climatic scene, she bangs on a Chinese gong instead of a drum.

Most effective was Nanay's handing over a series of bills, one by one, to bury one of her children, and after giving quite a few, decides she's put out one too many, and takes it back. And we thought Mama Rose was bad.

The Ma-Yi Theater Ensemble's production was composed by Fabian Obispo, who managed to make '70s music in the spirit of what Kurt Weill would have written had he then been alive. It just beat out Taliep Petersen's daring doo-wop pastiches for Kat and the Kings as Best Music. Who expects such a entry to get a summery award? But this is an adaptation for all seasons, and should live on. So will all of the above in my memories. Filichiatations to everyone.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com