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2012: The Year in Theater

Kristin Tripp Kelley took home an Artie Award for Outstanding Actress for her performance in the Kavinoky production of "Time Stands Still."
The theater community lost Brother Augustine Towey on Thanksgiving Day.

The New Year assessment of the Old Year can make little sense in Buffalo. Unlike New York City, where a successful show from 2012 is still likely to be running in 2013 and even beyond, Buffalo theaters operate on a September-to-August calendar, with few shows lasting more than their scheduled three-to-five-week run—no matter how successful.

There are exceptions. Last year Loraine O’Donnell managed to haul her popular performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch back into service. This week, Red Thread Theater will bring back their much admired production of Byrony Lavery’s play, Frozen, which played last spring. This is a haunting play about the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl, spoken by the child’s mother played by Eileen Dugan, a serial killer played by Eric Rawski, and a psychiatrist played by Lisa Ludwig. After the characters are introduced in a series of monologues, the confrontations that follow are intriguing and unpredictable. Josephine Hogan directs. (For a more detailed discussion, see Frozen will run through January Marie Maday Theatre, located in Lyon’s Hall at Canisius College on Main Street. Call 716-867-3102 for reservations.

2012 was a hear of substantial losses in to the Buffalo theater community. Brother Augustine Towey, longtime leader of the Niagara University theater program, died on Thanksgiving Day, after a long illness. He had been an inspiration to generations of students.

That same week, local character actor Carl Kowalkowski died. He is particularly remembered for his sense of comedy and his facility with Irish drama.

We lost Neil Garvey in February. He was a stalwart supporter of Shakespeare in Delaware Park as an attorney and as a performer. He appeared in 25 productions on the Shakespeare stage.

When word began to circulate in February that entertainer and gay rights activist Danny Winter had died, some of his most ardent fans didn’t realize who that was. Danny was best known as his drag persona, the indomitable Vicki Vogue. His legacy will continue through the reuse of his expansive and lavish wardrobe on the stages of Buffalo’s theaters for years to come.

Three theater practitioners whose connection to Buffalo was not current also died this year. Marvin Hamlisch, composer of A Chorus Line, the fabled musical directed by Buffalo’s Michael Bennett, had been the pops conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 2003 to 2007. He died in August.

Celeste Holm was the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943, and appeared in a large roster of films, winning an Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947. She was the last surviving principle actor from the 1950 film classic, All About Eve. During the 1970s, Holm had a close association with Studio Arena Theatre, where she worked for Neal Du Brock, most notably in Du Brock’s own play, A Very Private Life, opposite Betty Buckley in 1977. Holm died in July at the age of 95.

Finally, the king of characters, Charles Durning, died on Christmas Eve. As a young man he moved to Buffalo and got a job as an usher at a burlesque theater here, eventually getting his start by replacing a comic who was too drunk to perform. Durning himself recalled working for the immortal Jane Keeler, co-founder of Studio Theatre, precursor to the Studio Arena Theatre. He talked about running around town and getting into trouble with fellow Buffalonian James Whitmore, and striving to stay on “Miss Keeler’s” good side. He was 89.

Conjuring the stage productions of 2012 is sort of like yearning for the snows of yesteryear. In addition to Frozen and Hedwig, 2012 was the year of The Hostage at the Irish Classical Theatre, Avow at BUA, Avenue Q at MusicalFare, and The Gin Game at American Repertory Theatre, which bowed in January. Avenue Q would win the Artie Award as the Outstanding Musical of the season. (The Outstanding Play, In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play was from 2011:

Also in January, Alec Baldwin returned to Buffalo for a reading of Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife to benefit Road Less Traveled Theatre.

February saw a charming production of Ben Franklin’s Apprentice at Theater of Youth, and Ujima Theater Company’s stunning production of For Colored Girls…, which took the Artie for Outstanding Ensemble.

March was a busy month. Torn Space took on Ibsen’s expansive Emperor and Galilean, and Irish Classical presented Fish out of Water by Irish playwright Gillian Grattan. The Kavinoky presented their handsome production of Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still, for which Kristen Tripp Kelley finally snagged an Artie. Maureen Porter also got an Artie for her 2012 performance in A Delicate Balance at the Irish. BUA presented their very successful production of Jonathan Tolins’s Secrets of the Trade, its first outing subsequent to New York. Theater of Youth wowed audiences with their eye-popping A Wrinkle in Time under Meg Quinn’s Artie-winning direction. The New Phoenix came in with their much-admired version of William Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba with Kelli Bocock-Natale and Richard Lambert. Road Less Traveled offered Buffalo a look at A. R. Gurney’s Ancestral Voices.

The spring continued with Alleyway tickling the funny bone with Joyce Stilson’s performance in Voice Lessons; ART appealed to our sordid preoccupations with Killer Joe by Tracey Letts. Subversive Theatre offered an impressive rendition of David Mamet’s Speed the Plow. BUA offered Love, Loss, and What I Wore with an appealing cast.

Joey Giambra literally broke a leg with his popular production of his own play Bread and Onions, also with Dominic Chianese of television’s The Sopranos.

It was year of short works festivals, with Alleyway’s Quickies joined by short works at ART and BUA.

Shakespeare in Delaware Park kicked off the summer with Tim Newell in his memorable performance as Richard III. Far from a lazy summer, the warm dry months included Hair at MusicalFare, He Who Gets Slapped at the Foundry, Jimmy Janowski channeling Joan Crawford in Mommie Queerest, and Kate Fodor’s Fifty Ways down at Chautauqua.

In the fall we saw a rollicking Music Man at MusicalFare and a stunning production of Next to Normal at the Irish Classical Theatre with Jen Stafford in the lead. Kaleidoscope distinguished itself with the lighthearted farce, The Fox on the Fairway. ART moved to the Church of the Ascension with the 9/11 tribute, The Guys. The Paul Robeson showcased the talent of the company, offering a solid rendition of Crowns. The Jewish Rep set a new standard for themselves with Whipping Man.

Late in the year, Christopher Standart portrayed Truman Capote, taking on the one-man vehicle, Tru. MusicalFare gave us a striking production of 33 Variations; BUA played with male identity in The Irish Curse; the new Phoenix took an ambitious foray into Cloud Nine.

The theater scene seems to be in robust health. The community itself seems to have a renewed sense of strength and purpose no doubt buoyed by the role many among their ranks played in getting Mark Poloncarz elected as county executive. 2012 saw efforts to make creative use of Silo City as performance space, to present plays at the Erie Canal terminus ruins, and at the long-empty 710 Main Street. The test of these projects will be judged in the years ahead.