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Sunday, December 27, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater -- From Seattle Times Critics, The Annual Footlight Awards

Seattle Times Theater Critic

The holiday shows fade, 1999 approaches and it's time to consider the State of the Seattle Stage.

Musical theater? Seattle has gobs of it, from wacky bar revues to Broadway spectaculars. Classic American dramas, by Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, et al? Those too.

Good actors? Plenty of 'em.

Swell new plays to ponder? Ah, there's the catch. There was too little full-bodied new work in 1998 that provoked or challenged, enthralled or excited.

So let's call 1998 the Year of Playing it Safe. Very safe.

Yes, many local theaters did present at least one world premiere in 1998. But the debut scripts in the larger theaters ("Red," "Scent of the Roses," etc.) were usually more dynamic in concept than execution.

On the upside, intriguing new plays out of New York ("How I Learned to Drive," "Gross Indecency," etc.) are getting here a lot quicker. And, on happy occasion, a classic ("Pygmalion," "Of Mice and Men") gets a bracing rendition, revealing new facets of a familiar text.

But as a generator of spirited new work, Seattle is listless of late. Our playhouses have been catering to conservative expectations and ready-made appetites, not startling us with fresh inventions.

Doing musicals, chestnuts, co-productions and pre-approved hits can make good fiscal sense in a time of keen competition among theaters, from the smallest fringe venues to the downtown show palaces.

But American art (like American politics) is notoriously, maybe permanently, unstable. The challenge: creatively harnessing the chaos.

So as we acknowledge the best in local theater for 1998, here's a wish for 1999: More artistic vigor and thoughtful daring, please. We have the artists here to take the risks, and the patrons to appreciate them.

Best dramatic productions: "An Ideal Husband,"directed by Stephen Wadsworth, and "Seven Guitars," directed by Jonathan Wilson (at Seattle Repertory Theatre); "Of Mice and Men," staged by M. Burke Walker (Empty Space Theatre); "Cyrano," directed by Jo Roets (Seattle Children's Theatre); "How I Learned to Drive," staged by Mark Rucker (Intiman Theatre); "Death of a Salesman," directed by Gordon Edelstein (A Contemporary Theatre).

Best of the fringe: "4 Later Short Plays of Samuel Beckett" (First Artists); "Skin" (Printer's Devil); "House of Blue Leaves" (Theater Schmeater); "Sex" (Annex Theatre).

Best musical productions (local): "My Fair Lady," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Bootlegger" (Village Theatre); "Play On" (Seattle Rep); "And the World Goes Round" (Center Stage).

Best musicals (touring): "Ragtime" and "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" (Paramount).

Best new works: "All Powers Necessary and Convenient," by Mark Jenkins (Univ. of Washington); "Frog and Toad," by Y York (SCT). Runners-up: "E.T.A: Phoenix," by Nick Zagone (Open Circle); "Penetralia" by Keri Healey (Annex).

Savory star turns: Bill Irwin and David Shiner, "Fool Moon" (Seattle Rep); Eve Ensler, "The Vagina Monologues" and Julie Harris, "The Scent of Roses" (ACT).

Stellar acting (plays): John Aylward, "Death of a Salesman" (ACT); Robert G. Anderson, "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" (Empty Space); Lise Bruneau, "Pygmalion" (Seattle Rep); Barbara Dirickson, "Full Gallop" (Intiman); David Drummond, "Of Mice and Men"; Je Nie Fleming, "Valley Song" (Seattle Rep); Kate Fleming, "NWWYP" (Group Theatre); Kate Goehring, "Collected Stories"; Sarah Gunnell, "Skin" (Printer's Devil); Brian Kerwin, "How I Learned to Drive"; Dan Kremer, "Julius Caesar" (Seattle Shakespeare Festival).

Todd Jefferson Moore, "Cyrano"; Jeanne Paulsen, "Little Foxes" (Intiman); David Pichette, "Nixon's Nixon" (Seattle Rep); "Of Mice and Men"; Debra Pralle, "Penetralia"; Bill Raymond, "Valley Song"; Larry Silverberg, "American Buffalo" (Belltown Theatre Center); Rocco Sisto, "Quills" (ACT); Jeffrey Treadwell, "compleat wrks of wllm shkspr, abridged," (Empty Space); Greg Watanabe, "Summer Moon" (ACT).

Stellar performances (musicals): Eric Englund, "Bootlegger"; Lisa Estridge-Gray and Timothy M. Piggee, "Bells Are Ringing"; Todd Jamieson and Wendy Saver, "My Fair Lady"; Cynthia Jones, Tonya Pinkins and Paul O. Stovall, "Play On"; David Silverman, "A Day in Hollywood, etc." (5th Avenue Theatre); Lauren Ward, "Violet" (ACT); Paul Whitworth, "Pygmalion"; Patrinell Wright, "Black Nativity" (Intiman).

Stellar ensembles: Entire casts of "Thunder Knocking on the Door" (ACT); "An Ideal Husband" and "Seven Guitars" (Seattle Rep); "Two Trains Running" (Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center); "Endgame" (Bathhouse Theatre); "4 Later Short Plays of Samuel Beckett;" "The Lower Depths" (Chamber Theatre of Vladivostok).

Design achievements: Entire design teams of "Ideal Husband" and "Pygmalion;" "Gold Watch" (Northwest Asian American Theatre). Also: Scott Weldin, sets, "Nixon's Nixon"; Stephen LeGrand, sound design, "Alligator Tales" (Seattle Rep) and "Death of a Salesman" (ACT); Wayne Horvitz, composer, "Death of a Salesman;" Alla Goniodsky, puppet design, "The Tempest" (SCT); Don Yanik, sets, "Of Mice and Men"; Robert Dahlstrom, sets, "My Fair Lady" (Village) and "Full Gallop" (Intiman); Hugh Landwehr, sets,"Collected Stories" (ACT).

Best new nun-sense cash cow: "Latenight Catechism."

In a class by itself: "Teatro ZinZanni," One Reel's clowning-dining-interactive cabaret-in-a-tent.

Guys in dresses award: Kevin Kent, who as the chef in"Teatro ZinZinni" dishes up hilarity flambe.

Frisky fringers: Open Circle Theatre; Odd Duck Studio.

Best two-bar lobby renovation: Intiman Theatre.

Best recycled space: On the Boards' takeover and make-over of the old ACT venue on Queen Anne.

No sophomore curse: New artistic heads Sharon Ott (Seattle Rep) and Gordon Edelstein (ACT) enter second seasons with high marks.

Gone, and missed: Group Theatre; Center Stage Theatre.

Moved on but missed: Actors Jillian Armenante; Eric Englund.

Local treasure: Actress-director Marjorie Nelson.

Where are you when we need you?: New City Theatre.

Disappointments: "Dante's Inferno" (On the Boards); "Hot Shoe Shuffle"(5th Avenue); "Power Play" (ACT), "Big" (Paramount).

Worst new trend: Theatre ads not saying which shows are previews.

Enough already: Cabaret parodies of washed-up show-biz divas.

Missing in action: Julie Andrews; Anna Deavere-Smith's new play.

Identity crisis award: Seattle's Civic Light Opera.

Total world domination Award: Village Theatre.

Rest in peace: Ruben Sierra.

Contributing to the 1998 Footlight Awards were a number of free-lance reviewers and former Times theater critic Janet I-Chin Tu.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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