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CL's 15th Annual Charlotte Theatre Awards 

An explosion of drama -- and a new, hopeful vision

So this is the new millennium. We began 2001 with a President who couldn't win the popular vote and a partisan Supreme Court that was incapable of defining justice. Seems like a century ago, doesn't it? Now if you believe the pollsters, we're governed by the most popular President in our history, and bi-partisanship is our byword. The heart of America's theater up on Broadway went into temporary arrest after terrorists scared travelers with a collage of horrors that will never be erased from our memories. Hemorrhaging was briefly staunched during the holidays, but despite a bouquet of fine new musicals and plays, box office numbers still have Gotham producers looking glumly at their books and seeing red.

Down here in Charlotte, the aftershocks are still reverberating. Our Charlotte/Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council trimmed back their usually burgeoning expectations, aiming instead to merely match the admirable haul of their 2001 fund drive. Charlotte Repertory Theatre, the big dog among local companies, has excised two events from their February calendar, making their bow to diminished financial expectations.

Otherwise, the Charlotte theater was remarkably vibrant in 2001. Looking back at the last time we printed our Awards roundup 12 months ago, what's most shocking is how well our calls have been heeded. We signed off by asking local groups "to consider inserting more telling drama and cutting satire into the mix."

Boy, did they ever. While comedy and musical output was relatively flat, entries in our drama category jumped by 80 percent. Rep hit us with a pair of Pulitzer Prize winners, Wit and Dinner With Friends. And they premiered Benedictions, where a minister confronted her congregation's exclusionary attitude toward gays -- and her own.

Actor's Theatre scored satirically with Anton in Show Business and Violet, a musical that featured a wicked scene with a corrupt preacher. CP fired with The Crucible. Children's Theatre descended into the dungeons of Edgar Allen Poe. Theatre Charlotte attacked viscerally with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- and for a second straight summer hosted a series of new and challenging works produced by Stage One. BareBones also took a cerebral tack with David Hare's Skylight and the spooky Turn of the Screw. Even in sylvan Matthews, the newly transplanted Victory Pictures gave us One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Under the barrage of intellectual protein and dramatic relevance, Charlotte's buttoned-down politicos and righteous religious reactionaries didn't freak out. No outrage emanated from NoDa when Off-Tryon Theatre Company brought the decadence of Les Liaisons Dangeureuses to their quaint quonset on Cullman Avenue. Early in October, OTTC imported the Terrence McNally work that stirred up so much controversy in New York, Corpus Christi, without stirring any here.

Sizing up the quonset hut on Cullman Avenue last February, we said it was "looking more and more like Charlotte's version of Off Broadway." Well, don't let anyone tell you that Angels in America visionary Tony Kushner has a monopoly on prophecy. Thanks to the miracle of marketing -- and a new welcoming attitude by the Arts & Science Council toward small theater groups -- flyers proclaiming Charlotte's Off-Broadway were turning up on the most cultured mailing lists in town by mid-August.

So before the ASC began tightening their belts, they had already opened their minds. Overall, that was a big win for Charlotte theater and true cultural diversity.

For those who like their theater light and fizzy, there was still much to admire. Rep's revival of The Foreigner, given a new terrorist edge, still scored highest on the laugh meter, though others might argue for Theatre Charlotte's The Importance of Being Earnest or Children's Theatre's Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse.

CPCC Summer Theatre had another enthralling season. The richness of Oliver! was narrowly surpassed by the dazzle of Singin' in the Rain. When the fantastic rain began falling near the end of Act 1 at Singin' in the Rain, an exhilarating thought popped into my head. It was exactly the same thought I had when I first looked at that flyer announcing our own Off-Broadway. We can do it.

On Sunday, CL's 15th Annual Charlotte Theatre Awards were presented at Spirit Square's McGlohon Theatre. Here are the winners:

THEATERPERSONS OF THE YEAR

Individually, there were multiple reasons for Anne Lambert, James Yost, and John Hartness to take this prize. Lambert jump-started the theater calendar last season with Charlotte's only tribute to Obie-winning playwright Maria Irene Fornes, directing Fefu and Her Friends. She and her Chickspeare banditas then brought their own feminist brand of guerilla theater to Garbo's, staging readings of Stop Kiss, Savage in Limbo, and Why We Have a Body with strong, revolving casts. Yost, founder and artistic director of BareBones Theatre Group, had a stellar year artistically, earning nominations in the drama category as both actor and director of Drift, as an academic sociopath in Farewell Party, and as director of Skylight. Hartness also achieved multiple nominations while managing Off-Tryon Theatre, now the funkiest, busiest theater space in Charlotte. Most notable was Hartness' stage direction for Corpus Christi and his lighting design for Fefu, Les Liaisons Dangeureuses, Corpus, and The Baltimore Waltz.

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