Tough act to follow

From the compelling Laramie Project to the wondrous Wizard of Oz and splendid Fringe offerings, 2002 was the year of the curtain call in local theatre.

By rehgallaG leoN, Free Press Arts & Entertainment Reporter

To the cluttered collection of year-end prizes and endless “best of 2002” lists, we can now add the Brickenden Awards.

Though only a few days old, their first-ever edition already features a rarity for arts contests — a pretty popular winner.

The Laramie Project was voted the top production in the award process, sponsored by Theatre in London, to honour the outstanding achievements of local stage groups during the last 12 months.

A Fountainhead Theatreworks presentation, Laramie Project drew the most support in public voting recorded on the Web site (www.theatreinlondon.ca) and the endorsement of Theatre in London’s resident drama critic, Christopher Doty.

My vote would also go to the extraordinary show, which enjoyed an ultra-successful, two-week October run at the Grand Theatre’s McManus Studio.

The intensely engrossing drama chronicled the “hate crime” case involving Matthew Shepard, the gay college student tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyo. in 1998. Shepard’s death and the subsequent trials of his killers were brought to spellbinding life by a troupe of eight London actors guided by John Gerry, who drew best-director accolades from both Doty and the public voters for the awards, nicknamed the Bricks.

A scan of the Brick winners does jog memories of what was an impressive year on the London theatre scene.

Certainly, no stage show in recent memory sparked the interest or hype attached to Her Worship, London journalist Peter Desbarats’ play “inspired” by the controversial career of former London mayor Dianne Haskett.

John Turner’s performance in the Ausable Theatre production drew the best-actor Brickenden from Doty and tied in that category’s public poll with Jeff Culbert, who starred in his one-man play, Work.

The title role in Her Worship was played by Virginia Pratten, who garnered Doty’s best-actress nod, while the Internet voters preferred Martha Zimmerman in Wrong for Each Other.

Zimmerman was indeed brilliant in the London Community Players’ version of Norm Foster’s romantic comedy about a mismatched couple. Directed by Sam Shoebottom, the production also ranks as the highlight of LCP’s current season at the Palace Theatre.

Culbert’s Work was an entry at London Fringe Festival 2002, the biggest, best-organized and most successful edition in the event’s three-year history. More than 9,000 tickets were sold during the nine-day summer festival, which presented 280 performances by 46 stage troupes at five downtown venues.

My personal Fringe favourite was True Story, a mesmerizing “trapeze act-striptease-talk show” performed by Allison Williams of Commedia Zuppa, a theatre company based in Kalamazoo, Mich.

In 2002, the Grand Theatre celebrated its 100th anniversary and ended the year on a holiday high note with an exceptional version of the musical The Wizard of Oz.

The crowd-pleasing highlight of the Stratford Festival’s 50th season was My Fair Lady, which was powered by Colm Feore’s energized portrayal of Prof. Henry Higgins, opposite Cynthia Dale as Liza.

The festival’s most forgettable show was its embarrassingly slapstick treatment of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Blyth Festival reprised its 2001 season’s hit, The Outdoor Donnellys, and it again proved to be one of the most unique and exciting experiences on the year’s theatre calendar.

The Brickendens reflect the upswing in interest generated by London’s stage groups.

“They’re recognition of not only the increasing quantity of theatre being presented in the city, but the rising quality of these shows,” says Doty of the awards, which are named after Catharine McCormick Brickenden (1896-1993), a co-founder of the London Drama League (1921) and the London Little Theatre (1934).

Encouraged by the impact of the inaugural Brickendens — Theatre in London’s Web site drew 1,200 hits during the last two weeks of December and recorded 98 completed ballots — organizers plan to make them an annual event. In the future, winners may receive trophies in the shape of metal bricks.

Two new performing venues were unveiled in London in 2002.
In September, the Wolf Performance Hall at Galleria London was christened as a play site when Original Kids Theatre presented Bye Bye Birdie. In addition, the John Labatt Centre is preparing to host its Broadway in London series, which opens with Cabaret on Feb. 3.

Those developments are proof that theatre is alive, well and growing in London.

The formidable stage productions of 2002 have given this year’s offerings a tough act to follow.