Local stages showcase talented pool of Pittsburgh actors

By Sharon Eberson and Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A year that saw a three-way tie for Post-Gazette Performer of the Year (see cover story) was rich in further achievements by performers, directors, designers and others.

Some of this was chronicled in our list of top 2012 stage productions (published Dec. 20), a list that includes both local productions and touring shows and also had a three-way tie at the top. But today we celebrate individuals. It says something about the fluidity of Pittsburgh’s professional acting pool that of the 29 previous Performers of the Year (1984-2011), only nine appeared on local stages in 2012. But such stars as Lenora Nemetz, Bingo O’Malley and Robin Walsh have been busy (teaching, choreography, movies), and we hope to see them again on stage in the year ahead.

• MVP: Of those nine previous Performers of the Year, no one was busier than versatile leading man David Whalen, whom we might call the year’s MVP(erformer) for appearing in seven major productions. Among them, he played the title role in “Ivanov” for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, a pothead Scottish father with MS for City Theatre’s “The Monster in the Hall” and a Boston doctor with a past in “Good People” for Pittsburgh Public Theater. He also cemented a recurring role for PICT as Sherlock Holmes, with Martin Giles as Dr. Watson.

• Other outstanding male leads: Herb Newsome (Levee, Kuntu Rep’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”); Tim Hartman (C.S. Lewis, Saltworks’ “Shadowlands”); Jonathan Berry (Citizen Barlow, Pittsburgh Playwrights’ “Gem of the Ocean,” and Clay, Bricolage’s “Dutchman”); and Edwin Lee Gibson (Lucius, barebones’ “Jesus Hopped the A Train”).

• Outstanding female leads: Nike Doukas throughout the PICT season; Gretchen Egolf (Rosalind, Public’s “As You Like It”); Robin Abramson (Natalia, Quantum’s “The Electric Baby”); Daina Michelle Griffith (Diana, Carnivale Theatrics’ “Next to Normal”); Melissa Miller (Billie Dawn, Public’s “Born Yesterday”); Kelly McAndrew (Margie, Public’s “Good People”); and Liz Callaway (Norma, Pittsburgh CLO’s “Sunset Boulevard”).

• Supporting players, female: Kathleen Turco-Lyon (Barbara, Playhouse Rep’s “August: Osage County”); Erika Cuenca (as four characters in Off the Wall’s “The Other Place”); Theo Allen (Grace, City’s “Tigers Be Still); Caralyn Kozlowski (Ellen and Jenna, City’s “Maple and Vine”); Helena Ruoti (Arsinoe, PICT’s “The School for Lies”); Lily Davis (ghost, Caravan Theatre’s “800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick”); Chrystal Bates (Aunt Ester, Pittsburgh Playwights’ “Gem of the Ocean”); Raquel Winnica Young (Lorca, Quantum’s “Ainadamar”); and Sheila McKenna, Pittsburgh’s comic shape-shifter queen (cheery social worker, Norwegian computer game addict and Fairy of Catastrophe, “Monster in the Hall”).

• Supporting players, male: Jeff Kuhn (Passepartout, Public’s “Around the World in 80 Days”); Jonathan Visser (dual female roles, CLO Cabaret’s “Ruthless!”); James FitzGerald (PICT’s Chekhov Festival); Justin Mark DeWolf (Randy, Playhouse Rep’s “MIA”); Jeff Howell (principal, City’s “Tigers Be Still”); Martin Giles (Pavel, PICT’s “Ivanov”); Monteze Freeland (Prime Stage’s “Fahrenheit 451”); Mike Mihn (Brad, No Name Players’ “Orange FlowerWater”); Kevin O’Leary (Ellard, Saint Vincent’s “The Foreigner”); and Charles Timbers (Cutler, Kuntu’s “Ma Rainey”).

• Breakout performers: Melinda Helfrich, as a teen holding her family together in “Monster in the Hall” and a young wife in PICT’s “In the Next Room”; Vera Varlamov as Irina in PICT’s “Three Sisters”; and the women of City’s “POP!” (Courtney Bassett, Bria Walker, Alyse Alan Louis and, as Candy Darling, we’ll count Brian Charles Rooney, too).

• Ensembles: The revolving casts of PICT’s Chekhov Celebration were uniformly top-notch, especially the panoramic “Three Sisters”; Playhouse Rep’s riveting “August: Osage County”; City’s new who-shot-Andy Warhol musical, “POP!” and “The Monster in the Hall”; the wonderful voices and dancers of Pittsburgh CLO’s “Fiddler on the Roof”; Point Park’s “Marathon 33” and “Seven Guitars”; and the Public’s “Private Lives” and “Good People.” Speaking of “Good People” …

• Directors: City artistic director Tracy Brigden crossed the river to the O’Reilly Theater to direct the Public’s “Good People” and stayed home to introduce David Greig’s “The Monster in the Hall.” Actually, she, the actors, creative staff and dramaturg Carlyn Aquiline had to take 92 pages of undifferentiated, un-ascribed dialogue, song lyrics, terse directions and sound cues, and decide who says or does what, and how. … The Public’s own Ted Pappas had a fine year, helming “As You Like It,” “Born Yesterday” and “Private Lives” (“my idea of a good time at the theater — a hilarious show that looks gorgeous,” he said). Also: John Shepard (“August: Osage County”), Andrew Paul (PICT’s “Pitman Painters”) and Derrick Sanders (“Jesus Hopped the A Train”).

• Scenic design: Special kudos to the team that created Bricolage’s “STRATA,” spread over several floors. Also: Stephanie Mayer-Staley (Playhouse Rep’s “August” and Quantum’s “Electric Baby”); a special nod to the carpenters who create Quantum’s bleachers; at the Public, James Noone’s elegant “Private Lives” and Michael Schweikardt’s board-game floor for “Around the World in 80 Days”; Narelle Sissons for the found-object collage of “The Monster in the Hall”; Tony Ferrieri’s set/environment for Quantum’s “Golden Dragon”; and Gianni Downs, who made the whole PICT season look opulent.

• Projections: Pittsburgh’s talented pool of techno artists includes David Pohl (City’s “South Side Stories”); Joe Seamans (Quantum’s “Ainadamar”); Jessi Sedon-Essad (PICT’s “Pitmen Painters”); and Jessi Sedon-Essad and Larry Shea for CMU’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

• Music: Eric Shimelonis wrote expressive original music for the songs and underscoring in City’s “Monster in the Hall,” and Michael Moricz wrote practically a whole score for the Public’s “As You Like It.”

• Going the extra mile: Tami Dixon’s two-year odyssey to create City’s “South Side Stories”; the cast of PICT’s “Pitmen Painters” took art lessons and each actor created finished works.

• Costumes: Gabriel Berry for “As You Like It” and Andrew B. Marley for “Private Lives” (Public); Richard Parsakian (“The Electric Baby,” Quantum); Pei-Chi Su for “Three Sisters” and “Ivanov” and Joan Markert for “School for Lies” (PICT); Ange Vesco for “Monster in the Hall” and Susan Tsu for “POP!” (City); Barbara Anderson for “Ruthless! The Musical” (CLO Cabaret) and Michael Montgomery for “August: Osage County” (Playhouse Rep) and “Grand Night for Singing” (CLO Cabaret). Also, Ms. Callaway’s Norma Desmond was resplendent in costumes chosen by Gail Baldoni from Costume World Theatrical.

• Best of Broadway Series: Consummate pro Christopher Sieber in “La Cage aux Folles”; crowd-pleasing “The Addams Family” with the charming Douglas Sills; and the amazing artistry of “War Horse.”

• Headlines: Off the Wall shows off its spanking new Carnegie theater with continued edgy works, including Anne Stockton’s one-woman show, “The Speed Queen”; Pittsburgh playwright Tammy Ryan wins $10,000 Francesca Primus Prize from the American Theatre Critics Association; Corey Cott walks out of CMU and straight into the lead of Broadway hit “Newsies”; Public introduces free forums and Broadway Series gives free pre-show talks; PSO launches a Broadway series but can’t sell “Catch Me If You Can’; City brings back Seth Rudetsky, who is forced to dodge Superstorm Sandy and miss his Sunday show; Broadway headliners Betty Buckley and Christine Andreas kick off the Cultural Trust’s new Cabaret series.

• Lights: Andrew Ostrowski, of course, and nature, for Quantum’s “Golden Dragon” (lightning! rain! thunder!); and PICT’s “In the Next Room or the vibrator play,” where on opening night we exited the theater to find the sky lit up by pretty fireworks — a perfect comment on the play’s end.

And on the 2012 theatrical year as well.

Bob Hoover contributed to this report. Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

Past performers of the year

• 2011 — Laurie Klatscher

• 2010 — Simon Bradbury and Derdriu Ring

• 2009 — Robin Abramson

• 2008 — John Shepard

• 2007 — David Whalen

• 2006 — Douglas Rees

• 2005 — Sheila McKenna

• 2004 — Billy Porter

• 2003 — Scott Ferrara

• 2002 — Martin Giles

• 2001 — Lisa Harrow

• 2000 — Heath Lamberts

• 1999 — Etta Cox

• 1998 — Robin Walsh

• 1997 — Tom Atkins

• 1995-96 — Doug Mertz

• 1994-95 — Maria Becoates- Bey

• 1993-94 — David Butler

• 1992-93 — Don Marshall

• 1991-92 — Larry John Meyers

• 1990-91 — Elisabeth Orion

• 1989-90 — Richard McMillan

• 1988-89 — Bingo O’Malley

• 1987-88 — Jim Abele

• 1986-87 — Lenora Nemetz

• 1985-86 — Jennifer Harmon

• 1984-85 — Helena Ruoti

• 1984 — Daniel Southern

First Published January 2, 2013 12:00 am

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