- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

“Let’s hear it for the girls,” could well be the rallying cry for theater in 2003. Not that the guys are chopped liver — Rick Foucheux, David Sabin, David Marks, J. Fred Shiffman and Floyd King turned in transcendent performances — but there was something about the women this past theater season that just stands out.

Nancy Robinette has not had an off year in recent memory, but in 2003 she pulled a hat-trick with three widely variant portrayals. She proved that life is too good to be just for the young in Studio Theatre’s “A Play About the Baby,” Edward Albee’s frosty and funny chamber play about two enormously entertaining goblins who plague a couple in their 20s. Miss Robinette, perfectly paired with Philip Godwin, was so droll, witty and playful that their cruel mischief was a welcome sight — they seemed like a more evil version of Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward..

She triumphed again at Signature in the summer with “Donna Q,” a one-woman show about a New Year’s Day polar bear swim and plunge into unfamiliar territory. The play was a bit gloppy and touchy-feely in parts, but Miss Robinette shone as the quirky Donna Q, a small-town Wisconsinite who discovers her ability to transform lives and make magic after being laid off from her clerical job.

The fall was enlivened by the Shakespeare Theatre’s top-to-bottom excellent production of “The Rivals,” featuring Miss Robinette as the inimitable Mrs. Malaprop. Clad in frocks and hats that made her resemble an overdecorated wedding cake, she delivered the language-mangling lines with such breezy, ditzy charm that you half-believed her turns of phrase were right side up.

Holly Twyford also had a stellar year, starting with her pop musical turn as Viola in “Twelfth Night” at the Folger. Shakespeare’s comedy was reconfigured by playwright Craig Wright to include music in the quasi-romantic, Jonathan Richman vein, and the results were warmly enchanting. Miss Twyford was an ideal Viola — by turns brave, tender and resourceful — and she acquitted herself beautifully when belting out the rock tunes.

At Arena Stage in “An American Daughter,” she also contributed a vivid, hilarious performance as Quincy Quince, a twittering, neo-feminist publicity hog who brings out the witch in the play’s middle-aged female characters. Dressed like a hooker and prattling on like Camille Paglia on crank, Miss Twyford’s Quincy embodied the ambivalence the original women’s libbers feel when confronted with the third generation of feminism. Actress Laurie Kennedy proved a delightful counterpart to the abrasive Quincy in the role of “Daughter’s” old-school Georgetown socialite Charlotte “Chubby” Hughes, whose bubbly, bright-side personality could be an easy target for cheap shots. Instead, Chubby comes off as a survivor, for whom optimism is a choice, not an intellectual failing.

Speaking of American politics, some of the prettiest moments in Ford’s Theatre’s production of “1776” came from the two female roles, Abigail Adams (Anne Kangengeiser) and Martha Jefferson (Kate Baldwin). In the songs “Yours, Yours, Yours” and “Compliments,” we glimpse the equitable intimacies of the Adams marriage, while Miss Baldwin charmingly showed us what made her fall so hard for the protean Jefferson. It was not his politics, but that “He Plays the Violin.”

Other musical triumphs of the season included E. Faye Butler and Amy Jo Phillips in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the 1978 musical with music by Fats Waller that received a bang-up revival at Arena last year. Miss Butler (who dazzled a couple of seasons ago in “Dinah Was”) played a been-around jazz singer, adding a womanly ripeness to “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” In contrast, Miss Phillips combined a glass-shattering soprano with knowing sweetness.

The flair for revivals that Arena demonstrated in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “An American Daughter” was on display most recently in its remarkably resonant and timely production of “Camelot,” directed by Molly Smith, the theater’s artistic director. Much of “Camelot’s” beauty lies in the casting, starting with Kate Suber as Guenevere. Miss Suber combines killer pipes with a feisty acting style and her Guenevere possesses a fiery, Celtic spirit that informs her devotion to the two men who would risk all for her. Old chestnuts such as “The Lusty Month of May” and “Take Me to the Fair” sound positively reborn as sung by Miss Suber. Her Guenevere is no mere pawn living out her fate; she is an equal partner with her husband, King Arthur.

Another female monarch who had her day was Michael Learned as “Elizabeth the Queen,” Maxwell Anderson’s 1930s bodice-ripper robustly revived at the Folger. Anyone who believed middle-aged women should just disappear would have been startled by Miss Learned’s scarlet-souled, rip-snorting portrayal of the aging queen playing cat-and-mouse with her much-younger lover, the Earl of Essex.

On a more discreet note, there was Shane Williams’ delicate, aching performance as the seamstress who longs to marry and make a trousseau of her own in Lynn Nottage’s play, “Intimate Apparel,” which received an evocative world premiere production at Center Stage in Baltimore.

Equally ladylike and strong was Michelle Shupe in the title role of the Washington Shakespeare Company’s passionate and exquisitely controlled staging of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Without once veering into melodrama or excess, Miss Shupe embodied the repressed Englishwoman who learns the physical life can be just as vital as the life of the mind.

Need more evidence that 2003 was a year for the girls?

How about Sherri Edelen as the defiant, outspoken Junie B. Jones at Imagination Stage? Or Helen Hedman, who was uncannily true as the crude, self-destructive and heart-rending French chanteuse Edith Piaf in Olney’s “Piaf”? Or Toni Rae Broton in Source’s “Fur and Other Dangers,” where she endured a particularly harrowing round of kitty karma without losing a whit of her motormouth vivacity?

Finally, there was newcomer Keira Naughton, who brought such sparked emotion and endearing belligerence to the part of Catherine in Arena’s “Proof” that you saw the play in a whole new light.

It was an uncommonly good year for these uncommon actresses.

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