Daina Michelle Griffith: 2013 Post-Gazette Performer of the Year


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In its 30th year, the Post-Gazette Performer of the Year Award goes to a Norwegian seductress, a vengeful Irish wife, a butch lesbian, a youthful musical protester, an Ohioan whose fiance died in World War II, several hallucinated Nazis, and a couple of fictional writers, each creating the play she is in.

And thanks to the wonder of theater, all these were played with invention and skill during 2013 by one person, Daina Michelle Griffith.

For her varied standout roles in seven plays, she is named the 2013 Post-Gazette Performer of the Year. Several roles had the heft and distinction worthy of the award on their own, but above all we honor her combination of excellence with versatility — not to mention energy.

Ms. Griffith’s 2013 roles were for Quantum Theatre, Playhouse Rep, No Name Players, barebones productions and, in three plays, Off the Wall Productions in Carnegie, perhaps our region’s least-known professional company but a comer. In Ms. Griffith’s 10 years on Pittsburgh professional stages (2002-13, minus two years she spent in New York), she has also acted for Pittsburgh Public Theater, City Theatre, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Musical Theater, Prime Stage, Jewish Theater, you name it.

In the past year, her Fanny Wilton brought seductive comedy to the tragic mountains of Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman” (Quantum). She was Ann, hopeful victim of betrayal in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (Playhouse Rep), and a happy rebel in the infectious “Viva Los Bastarditos!” (No Name). In “The Mother****** With the Hat” (barebones), she was an angry, steamy link between the hero and his AA sponsor. And for Off the Wall, she starred in “Well,” “Looking for the Pony” and “The Zero Hour” — that last is where she doubled as those Nazis.

In and around these roles she also played in cabarets and workshops, adding up to 48 weeks of paid professional acting in 2013, which is pretty much unheard of for an actor in Pittsburgh.

Ms. Griffith’s skills have been recognized in the Post-Gazette’s annual summaries before, starting with her Polly in “The Threepenny Opera” (Playhouse Rep) in 2002 when she was still a student at Point Park University. And workhorse though she has been, her 2013 record doesn’t even reflect all her talents: Except for singing in the ensemble in “Bastarditos!” she didn’t get to show her musical skills, showcased in 2012 in “Next to Normal” (Carrnivale Theatrics), but will be featured next month in “Company” (Public). She is an actress for all theaters and whatever roles, tragic or comic, dramatic or musical, as are available to a young leading woman.

Raised a Cincinnati Bengals fan in southern Ohio (“I even dressed as a Bengal for ‘Bengals Day’ when I was in elementary school”), she made her transition to Steelers Nation when she came to Point Park for her final two years of college. Simultaneously, she began performing professionally, working for five Pittsburgh theaters before graduating.

After two years of sporadic work in New York, she moved back here in 2007; in 2008 she was able to give up her day job waiting tables; ever since, she’s been busy on stage, with a nice cameo in the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” along the way.

But Ms. Griffith was only the tip of the iceberg of individual excellence on Pittsburgh stages in 2013. Following are some of the other highlights, as recollected by the three Post-Gazette theater critics, Sharon Eberson, Christopher Rawson and Bob Hoover.

Note that for this article, only productions originating in Pittsburgh are eligible.

(Touring shows were considered along with local shows for the Top 10 list on Dec. 19.)

High points

If we were to celebrate the single best performance of the year, it might well be Robin Walsh’s fearless, full-range portrait of a woman dealing simultaneously with a cranky mother and rebel daughter in Elaine Murphy’s feeling comedy, “Little Gem” (City Theatre). But Ms. Walsh has already been a Performer of the Year (in 1998), and the award never repeats.

Of the 32 Performers of the Year to date, including ties, 14 joined Ms. Walsh in continued activity on Pittsburgh stages in 2013: Helena Ruoti, Lenora Nemetz, Larry John Meyers, Tom Atkins, Etta Cox, Martin Giles, Sheila McKenna, David Whalen, John Shepard, Robin Abramson, Laurie Klatscher, Leo Marks, Tami Dixon and Mary Rawson.

Of these former Performers of the Year, no one was busier in 2013 than Mr. Giles, starring in three plays and directing three others (half PICT, half Quantum). Perhaps Mr. Whalen was equally busy, counting work here and elsewhere. And others were entirely busy elsewhere, such as Billy Porter in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway and Doug Rees in an international tour of “West Side Story.”

As for a 2013 Most Valuable Player off-stage, where so much of theater’s success is determined, who better than designer Tony Ferrieri? Based at City Theatre, where he is director of production, he is a designer for all seasons and several companies. A quick check of 2013 high points includes “Seminar” and “Abigail/1702” (City), “Borkman” and “Parlour Song” (Quantum), “In the Heights” (Carrnivale) and “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!” (CLO Cabaret). “The Mountaintop” at City, opening Jan. 18, will mark Mr. Ferrieri’s 500th produced set design in a nearly 40-year career.

Actor

Perhaps the most popular performance of the year was Patrick Jordan as the explosive Frankie in “Mother****** With the Hat,” which he also produced. On the same level were Daniel Gerroll in “Seminar,” playing a narcissistic bastard with a touch of redemption, and Montae Russell in “Thurgood” (Public Theater), bringing to life a truly great man.

Others: Brad Bellamy, “Clybourne Park” (Public), a standout in a fine cast; Martin Giles, “Dream of Autumn” (Quantum), making sense of an enigmatic role in an enigmatic play; and Andrew Swackhamer in “Bastarditos!” bringing the crazy in a zany musical.

Also: Malcolm Tulip, “Mnemonic” (Quantum); Jubilant Sykes, “Breath and Imagination” (City); James Keegan, “A Skull in Connemara” (PICT); David Mogentale, “True West” (Public); and Philip Winters, “All My Sons” (Playhouse Rep).

Actress

Nike Doukas was compelling in the misfiring “Don Juan Comes Back From the War” and beguiling as the supposedly scandalous Mrs. Erlynne, hard and heartbreaking in “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (both PICT). Bria Walker was equally heartbreaking in both delight and despair in “Venus” (University of Pittsburgh Stages). Penelope Lindblom gave a richly idiosyncratic performance (think Maureen Stapleton) in “All My Sons.” And spunky, graceful Mamie Parris in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (Pittsburgh CLO) matched co-star George Dvorsky note for note, and she held her own as a dancer, too.

Also: Sarah Silk, “Parlour Song” (Quantum); Ruth Gamble, “Mother******”; Jodi Gage, “Becky’s New Car” (Playhouse Rep); Helena Ruoti, “Other Desert Cities” (Public); Sheila McKenna, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (City); and Marie Elena O’Brien, “Soldier’s Heart” (Playhouse Rep).

Supporting Actor

This category has two at the top. Michael Fuller was the insinuating all-American commander in “Soldier’s Heart,” the Tammy Ryan premiere, and the contrastingly goofball car salesman in “Becky’s New Car.” Ken Bolden proved himself indispensable in a lovely, nuanced performance as the meek Foldal in “John Gabriel Borkman” but also in “Mnemonic,” “Our Town” (Public) and “Crucifer of Blood” (PICT).

In addition, there was Hayden Tee. It’s hard to stand out in a crowded Congress, but as strutting peacock Edward Rutledge in “1776” (Public), he delivered the famously show-stopping “Molasses to Rum.”

Also: Tony Bingham, “Becky’s New Car”; Charles Timbers, Ernest McCarty’s “Chelsea Arms” (Kuntu Repertory Theatre); Brad Stephenson, “Bastarditos!”; Justin Fortunato, “All My Sons”; John Shepard, “Our Town”; Wali Jamal and Art Terry, “Radio Golf” (Pittsburgh Playwrights); Alec Silverblatt, “A Skull in Connemara”; and Joshua Elijah Reese, “Soldier’s Heart.”

Supporting Actress

Cary Anne Spear excelled twice: with Bridget Connors as the neighboring mothers in “Our Town” and with Hayley Nielsen (and Robin Walsh) in “Little Gem.” Also: Deirdre Madigan, “Abigail/1702”; Amanda Serrano, “In the Heights”; Karla Boos, “Dream of Autumn”; and Virginia Wall Gruenert, “Well.”

Ensembles

“Our Town,” “1776” and “Clybourne Park”; “Our Class” and “Crucifer of Blood” (both PICT); “Breath and Imagination”; “Blue/Orange” (Phoenix); “Mother******”; and “Spring Awakening” (Carnegie Mellon University).

Director

The achievement of Martin Giles in “Borkman” was to embrace the melodrama (see Design, below). He directed with an expansive hand, letting passionate need rage across a huge theatrical space in operatic conflict, then shuttering down to conspiratorial intensity.

Also: Pamela Berlin, “Clybourne Park”; Ted Pappas, “1776”; Tracy Brigden, “Seminar”; Kimberly Senior, “Little Gem”; Don DiGiulio, “Bastarditos!”; Michael Hood, “The Tempest, or, the Enchanted Isle” (Unseam’d Shakespeare); Tome Cousins, “Spring Awakening”; and Robert Miller, “All My Sons.”

Choreography

Pittsburgh CLO dance-heavy shows: Michael Lichtefeld, “42nd Street”; Sha Newman, director/choreographer, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”; John Macinnis, “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”

Design

Whole production: “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” a co-production of Pittsburgh CLO, Paper Mill Playhouse and Kansas City Starlight.

Set design and lighting: For “Parlour Song” at the former Pittsburgh Burger Co., Tony Ferrieri and Scott T. Nelson manipulated indoor-outdoor lighting and depth of space. For “Borkman,” Mr. Ferrieri turned bare brick, platforms, Persian carpets, a Beckettian stunted tree and white sheets into Norwegian homes and mountains. Narelle Sissons provided surreal set and costumes for “Dream of Autumn.” The connection? — all three are Quantum.

Costumes: Martha Bromelmeier, “1776”; Joan Markert, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” — beautiful, even when wrenched 50 years out of context.

Projections: Jessi Sedon-Essad, “Soldier’s Heart,” with matching sound by Kristopher Buggey.

Also: The Public’s new turntable, especially as used by James Noone for the big crowd in “1776.”

Losses

Kuntu Repertory Theatre: Founder and artistic director Vernell A. Lillie rang down the curtain after 39 years, ending with a revival of “Good Black Don’t Crack” by the company’s master playwright, the late Rob Penny.

The August Wilson Center is teetering on the brink. But thanks for a workshop of Gab Cody’s and Lori Roper’s “Sisters Grey.”

Alan Pinsker, 1918-2013: His 95 years constitute a chronicle of Pittsburgh theater.

2013 can be proud

The new Phoenix Theatre, Andrew Paul and Mark Clayton Southers, props.

Trust Cabaret Series in 2013 brought West End and Broadway stars Elaine Paige, Christine Ebersole and Maureen McGovern to an intimate space. It’s a best-kept secret.

Three new solo performances: Kim El, “Straightening Combs” (Pittsburgh Playwrights); Martin Giles, “The Kreutzer Sonata” (PICT); Montae Russell, “Thurgood.”

Home-grown: Producer/director Ted Pappas gave extra scope to the title of “Our Town” by using a large all-Pittsburgh cast.

Hat trick: Tom Atkins as Stage Manager (“Our Town”), Scrooge and Art Rooney in quick succession.

Innovation: Bricolage means “making use of what’s at hand,” and the theater of that name continues to do innovative productions, including “War of the Worlds,” broadcast on WESA-FM on the 75th anniversary of the night it first aired.

Reaching the goal: In its 10th year, Pittsburgh Playwrights completed August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, one of only a couple of theaters to do so nationally.

Emerging artist: Tami Dixon won the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award.

Young critic: Luke Dowker of Baldwin High School won the Kelly Award for criticism.

Invaluable festivals of short plays: Pittsburgh New Works Festival (23 years); Theatre Festival in Black & White (10 years, this year with a holiday theme); Swan Day (five years).

Perseverance: At the New Works Festival, Public Theater education director (and playwright) Rob Zellers won the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award.

On to 2014!


Post-Gazette theater editor Sharon Eberson contributed: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.

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