Checking Over the Helen Hayes Nominations

King Lear Synetic Theater
King Lear Synetic Theater

As usual, as always, the Helen Hayes Awards nomination announcements give great joy to those individual artists who have been nominated and generate a lot of grousing, head scratching and more than a little controversy.

The folks at the Helen Hayes Awards, which tally up the work of a hierarchy of judges to arrive at their nominations, have been at it for 28 years now, and, as with all awards processes, you’re not going to make everybody happy. This is true for the HHs, as well as the Oscars, Grammys, Tonys and so on. But the Helen Hayes Awards have always had a kind of ebb and flow throughout their history, almost a celebratory duty to reveal the depth and breadth, the true size and variety of the talented groups and individual artists that comprise the Washington theater community.

Theaters come and go, and those that stay are eventually rewarded. It took Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theater, a number of years to receive an outstanding director, while her successor David Muse is up for two this year (and deservedly so) for “The Habit of Art” and “Venus in Fur.” Small theaters often struggle for years to get recognized, but look what’s happened in recent times to Toby Orenstein at Toby’s Dinner Theater and Adventure Theater, the surging children’s theater in Glen Echo that is starting to be recognized.

Others have instant success: take note of Signature Theater’s instant blowout with “Sweeney Todd,” which debuted under Eric Schaeffer and seemingly never stopped. And Synetic Theater, the Georgian (as in Russia) troupe that specializes in mounting silent Shakespearean works and classical theater by way of movement, choreography and silence, is popular with judges and critics every year, often walking away with outstanding ensemble, direction, choreography and design awards.

But 15 nominations for Synetic’s version of “King Lear”? Really?

The nominations, including several for acting, raise questions about the nominations that are showered on Synetic. The problem with the group — headed by the husband and wife team of Pata and Irina Tsikurshvilli — is a kind of contradiction. I think it’s a remarkable group, and there is no argument with the fact that the troupe is a Washington treasure. Its style is unique, original and often downright astonishing. There’s no other company doing work like Synetic except perhaps major dance companies. Synetic is in a category all its own for which there is no real competition. It seems to me at least that matching actors, for instance, who don’t have to memorize lines or speeches, or deal with the niceties dealt with by actors in even the most cutting edge new plays seems unfair to both. Just saying.

Traditionally, the awards constitute a combination of old and new, and honor both resident and non-resident plays. But those distinctions sometimes blur. For instance, the Kennedy Center, which imports much of its theatrical offerings, including highly anticipated national tours of Broadway shows, has also been a successful producer under its president Michael Kaiser. Last year’s ground-up production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” which starred Bernadette Peters and was directed by Schaeffer, could be expected to get a few nods. It did, competing with the award for “Best Musical” with “Liberty Smith,” a popular family take on the American Revolution, at Ford’s “Pop,” a musical about Andy Warhol at Studio, “Hairspray” at Signature and “Side by Side with Sondheim” at Signature.

Schaeffer, Peters and other artists did not make the list, although Jan Maxwell did.

“Best Resident” play nominations were given to Folger’s mounting of “Cyrano!,” Synetic’s “King Lear”, Arena’s “Ruined,” the haunting, stark “A Bright New Boise” at the Woolly Mammoth and “Venus in Fur” at Studio.

My favorites for actors and actresses: Ted van Griethuysen playing W.H. Auden in “The Habit of Art” at Studio Theater, and the remarkable Erica Sullivan for her quick-silver turn in “Venus in Fur.” I’d also give the nod for best performer in a musical to the immensely appealing and energetic Geoff Packard, who made “Liberty Smith” as good as it could possibly be. And I’ll still take “Follies” as best among the musicals, and “A Bright New Boise” in a tie with “Venus in Fur.” (They often have ties at these things).

Winners will be announced in the annual gala at the Warner Theatre April 23. For a complete list of nominees, go to

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Wed, 28 Jun 2017 04:41:23 -0400

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