Living the dream at the 2008 Ivey Awards

Jarius Abts in his Ivey-winning performance as the eponymous hero(ine) of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Jungle Theater.

“So what are you up to?” a young woman asked her friend as they mingled in the lobby of the State Theatre before the 2008 Ivey Awards.

“Oh,” he replied, “you know. Living the dream.”

The Monday night ceremony was a warm and welcome reminder to the capacity audience—consisting, in approximately even proportions, of playmakers and the people who love them—that the Twin Cities have an eminently dreamworthy theater scene.

The Iveys, held annually since 2004, recognize excellence in professional theater. Though that distinction unfortunately excludes accomplished community theaters like Theatre in the Round, the show made clear that with several dozen companies, there is more than enough professional theater in the Twin Cities to give the Ivey judges some difficult choices. The ceremony had a distinctly inclusive spirit, recognizing organizations as diverse as the Guthrie Theater, the Penumbra Theatre, Open Eye Figure Theatre, and the Old Log Theater.

Show director Shannon Pierce kept the proceedings about as lean and mean as they could conceivably have been, complete with Oscar-style musical cues to hint at the time limits of acceptance speeches. Dispensing with any recognition of “nominees” or “finalists,” the presenters were able to cut straight to the chase and name the honorees, whose attendance had been arranged without telling them that they would be receiving awards. The honorees were, to a one, generous and genuinely emotional as they accepted their crystal cones.

The ceremony was “hosted” by Melissa Gilbert and Steve Blanchard, stars of the Guthrie’s Little House on the Prairie, insofar as they bookended the evening with jovial appearances. The award presentations were punctuated by an array of musical numbers ranging from the Brave New Workshop’s “Obama Song” to “I’ll Be Your Eyes”—a Little House song performed by young actresses Kara Lindsay and Jenn Gambatese, hitting their notes like Bryant McKinnie after a few vodka Red Bulls.

The evening’s first award went to the Interact Center for its Broken Brain Summit, with the raucous Interacters being audibly amused by the heaps of superlatives. Kate Eifrig, being honored for her solo performance in 9 Parts of Desire, thanked the audience for “asking questions” about the Arabic women she portrayed.

Next, Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak took the stage with his wife to reminisce about an amusing evening they spent 24 years ago at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. “She laughed like a stevedore,” reported Rybak, “I became incontinent, and we fell in love.”

When Rybak introduced Jeune Lune co-founder Dominique Serrand, the audience stood to express its appreciation for the company’s 30-year run—which had a transformative effect on the local theater scene, attracting fans and practitioners of experimental theater from around the world. Serrand spoke of his company's recent closing in a brief, lyrical speech that struck an unmistakable note of reprimand. “The angels we hoped for,” he said, “have not appeared. The powers that be have spoken with their silence.”

The proceedings quickly lightened up again as Jarius Abts took the stage to accept an award for his heroic performance in the Jungle Theater’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “This is so weird,” he twice declared.

Workhouse Theatre was honored for its production of ’Night Mother, and the Ordway received an award for Cabaret. Actor James A. Williams enjoyed an enthusiastic ovation as he accepted an award for his performance in the Penumbra’s Fences. Williams earned the evening’s biggest laugh when he noted his pleasure that the awards had lived down their reputation, in the local African-American theater community, as “the Ivories.”

Subsequent awards went to Frank Theatre for The Pillowman, Open Eye Figure Theatre for its Prelude to Faust, and Tamara Kangas for her choreography in the Chanhassen Dinner Theater’s production of 42nd Street. (“The choreography was among the best I’ve seen in Minnesota,” one judge was quoted as saying. What more could one ask?)

As the ceremony neared its close, the chummy ensemble cast of Gremlin Theatre’s Orson’s Shadow took a collective award and the Emerging Artist Award went to Matthew Amendt, writer and star of The Comedian’s Tragedy. Amendt wasn’t merely shocked to receive an Ivey, he said—he was “really, really frickin’ shocked.”

The evening’s final award, the Lifetime Achievement Award, was presented by last year’s recipient—beloved Guthrie staffer Sheila Livingston—to Don Stoltz, who has run the Old Log Theater for over 60 years. “I will treasure this,” said the ninety-something Stoltz. “And if I ever retire, I’ll treasure it even more.” The ceremony closed, gracefully, with a nod to the future—as personified by a gleefully cacophonous ensemble of adolescent up-and-comers, grinning and dancing as if a Wild West villain was shooting at their feet.

Even as the attendees prepared to decamp to an afterparty at the IDS Center, they weren’t taking a moment to rest on their laurels. I happened to be sitting next to Open Eye’s Susan Haas; after asking a question that was pressing on my mind (answer: no, the Open Eye puppets are not members of Actor’s Equity), I introduced myself and congratulated her on her award. Tucking the trophy under her arm, she whipped out a bag of promotional cards for the company’s current (Bad Jazz) and upcoming (Archy and Mehitabel) shows and handed me one of each. With all that great theater to compete with, it seems, not even an award-winner can afford to stop and smell the Ivey.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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    Jay Gabler's picture
    Jay Gabler

    Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.