At Obie Awards, Thrills and a Touch of the Bittersweet

The downtown theaterati were present, and maybe a bit giddy from the cocktail hour, for the 52nd annual Village Voice Obie Awards on Monday, May 21. Each year, The Village Voice's chief theater critic, Michael Feingold, heads up a committee to honor the actors, writers, directors, creative staff, and theater companies who've had an impact on Off and Off Off Broadway over the last season.

Besides the winners of the Lifetime Achievement and Sustained Achievement awards, none of the honorees know they're being feted, which makes the show a guessing game for the attendees. The announcement of each name was preceded by whispers and gasps as the audience learned the award recipient's identity. There are also no categories such as Best Actor in a Play, as the Obies follow the principle that "creativity is not a competition."

Though the mood was undoubtedly positive, there was a bittersweet note to many of the acceptance speeches since the winners' shows had closed before the ceremony. Many people voiced the sentiment "I wish more people had seen it." However, for the winners—many of whom had never before won an award—it was a thrill for the production, and their part in it, to be noticed at all, and they were glad to be part of such a tight-knit community.

Some highlights from the ceremony included:

  • Michael Feingold relating a story in which a friend said "the five most wonderful words in the English language: 'Take me to the theater.' "
  • Ron Cephas Jones, as the winner of one of the Sustained Excellence in Performance awards, quipped that during his career, he's been "trying to be excellent at sustaining myself as an actor."
  • Betsy Aidem said that this recognition was gratifying because she "thought of [herself] as a member of the witness protection program for character actors."
  • Andre De Shields serenaded the audience with his "anthem" ("If You Believe" from The Wiz.
  • Judith Malina gave an impassioned speech claiming that "the world is in a lousy situation, and we, everyone in this room, is here to make it better!"
  • Steve Ben Israel followed Malina's speech with a shtick-y Borscht Belt stand-up act. (It wasn't entirely clear if it was performance art or a guy taking advantage of a microphone and a captive audience.)
  • Roslyn Ruff received one of the largest laughs of the night when she referred to "the glaze that comes over your eyes when you don't necessarily connect with someone onstage." (For the record, she said this was not the case with her Seven Guitars cast mates.)

The evening drew to a close, two hours and 45 minutes later, with the presentation of prizes and grants to one playwright and four theater companies. One of the winners, Synapse Productions, drew inspiration from quotes posted on the walls of its office. A quote from Winston Churchill seemed especially appropriate to anyone toiling away in the not so glamorous world of the downtown scene: "If you're going through Hell, keep going."

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For a list of the 2007 winners, go to http://www.villagevoice.com/obies/index.php

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