We've hit the second year of the first-ever slightly arbitrary totally subjective end-of-year theater awards from a Santa Fe newspaper. As usual, there were way more awesome performances this year than I have room to talk about here (I saw 50 plays in New Mexico in 2018—seriously), so keep reading Acting Out for what's good onstage.
MIDSUMMER SMACKDOWN: PUCK-OFF
with the Santa Fe Shakespeare Society, July 13-Aug. 5
with Shakespeare in the Garden, Aug. 17-Sept. 2
When I heard Santa Fe would stage back-to-back Midsummer Night's Dreams in 2018, I knew the Billies had to include a comparison. While the big-budget Shakespeare in the Garden was more gilded and dazzling than Santa Fe Shakespeare Society's offering, there was one category that the underdog stole outright: The Puckering.
Georgia Waehler, imported from New York University's tony Tisch School of the Arts, is precisely what directors dream of when they cast Puck. She's tiny, she's agile, she has a spritely step and acrobatic dance skills and a jaunty, expressive voice—but she's also exactly what we expect.
But when watching 400-year-old play, I want something new. A company that surprises audiences with its Shakespeare has achieved something special. Enter Mark Westberg's portrayal of Puck, as cast by Jerry Ferraccio.
In truth, Westberg scared me a little. His makeup was kinda zombie-like around the eyes. He leapt crazily over benches and cackled like a madman with erratic movements and over-the-top body language. I think this Puck was actually someone's eccentric uncle with fringe political ideas who ended up in the woods and just kinda stayed there.
It was unique and strange and not what I've seen from any Puck heretofore. I liked it. And in the end, I liked it more.
Note: Mark Westberg also ran unopposed for "Best Use of Vest With No Shirt On Underneath" for both Puck and Riff-Raff in the Santa Fe Playhouse's Rocky Horror.
BEST FEMINIST THEATER
Adobe Rose Theatre, Oct. 18-Nov. 4
Since Revolt, She Said, Revolt Again from Albuquerque's Tricklock Company in November 2017 (which freaked me out sooooo hard), Northern New Mexico has been treated to some truly fabulous feminist theater pieces in the last year, from one-woman shows to powerful ensemble pieces. There's been a lot of mind-blowing stuff, but one stood out.
Starring Mary Beth Lindsey, Maureen Joyce McKenna, Danielle Louise Reddick and Ariana Karp, the cast of The Revolutionists was already a powerhouse—but the script, by current American darling Lauren Gunderson, will give viewers goosebumps for years. A sorta-modernized account of the French Revolution, the script follows four women as they approach radical social change through education, art, violence and kindness, respectively.
While many aspects of the production were life lessons, the point made that still makes my heart skip was the reframing of history's treatment of Marie Antoinette (played here by McKenna). Gunderson suggests that the shitty, bratty impressions we have of Antoinette, the eat-the-rich feelings she inspires, are in fact borne on centuries upon centuries of misogyny that persist despite our best education and efforts; that she was in fact a kind and largely innocent woman who only wanted the best for her children and for her country—but she was a woman, and a rich woman at that, so we can't possibly remember her as good.
Yikes. Unpack that one, would ya?
BIGGEST RISK THAT PAID OFF
Having one cast and one director for Benchwarmers
The Santa Fe Playhouse, Sept. 27-Oct. 14
One of the ways productions can virtually guarantee good ticket sales is to have large casts—but the bigger the pool, the bigger the margin of mediocrity. If you need 20 actors for a show, chances are you'll only find 10 really good ones. That's been a downfall for previous iterations of Benchwarmers, wherein eight short plays by eight local playwrights each had a different director and a different cast.
So what happens if you cut it down to eight actors? Maybe you won't get the ticket sales you'd get with a large cast—but you'll probably get a better show.
That's exactly what happened this year at the Santa Fe Playhouse. While there were still eight playwrights involved, Playhouse powers-that-be decided to simplify things with a single cast for all eight shows and one director: Hamilton Turner, also a Billie winner in 2017. The result was a tight, well-acted, highly professional show that greatly elevated the project in its 17th iteration.
It follows that the run didn't sell out like it usually does. But I think it was worth it, and I hope the Playhouse is proud of a chancey decision that ended up superior in the quality department, if perhaps not the pocketbook.
LIQUIDITY AWARD: ACTORS WHO BECAME UNRECOGNIZABLE ROLE TO ROLE
Koppany Pusztai at the Adobe Rose Theatre
Samantha Orner at the Santa Fe Playhouse
Santa Fe University of Art and Design alum Koppany Pusztai played a trillion roles in The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) this year and last, from Elvis to Donald Trump to Mary (yeah, as in, Jesus' mom). These switcheroos were all entertaining enough, but the most thrilling transformation was from everyday Pusztai to Pusztai in Extremities at the Adobe Rose in May and June. He became unrecognizable from the affable, clean-cut characters he's played elsewhere, becoming impossibly slimy, manipulative and intimidating as the character who would attempt to assault Marjorie (Mariah Olesen). Many Santa Fe actors show impressive range, but Pusztai's ability to turn himself into a wholly despicable person was unnerving—and hard to beat.
The most liquid female of the year, however, didn't even change between shows—her shifts occurred all within the same character. As Arianna in Flight Plan at the Santa Fe Playhouse in May, Orner went from a suicidal pyromaniac to a defiant patient in a mental ward to a deeply medicated vegetable, staring into space. Watching her descent from madness into numbness was terrifying and a bit too real (how'd she get that vein to poke out so far on her forehead?), but certainly cemented her place as a versatile and adaptive actress.