Mary Louise Lee's evocation of doomed, legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was the kind of performance that stays with you for weeks. She shouted out her jokes and awarded them her own raucous laughter. She communicated raunchiness, pain and vulnerability. Her voice was smooth as glass, her phrasing sinuous as she brought the standards and a host of lesser-known songs to life. "God Bless the Child" was radiant and pure, and "Strange Fruit" chilled to the marrow.


We first met Geoffrey Nauffts when his character, Malcolm, was attempting suicide. Once resuscitated, Malcolm remained as swoony, strange, dreamy and off-kilter as when his car's exhaust was working on him. And his coming-out love affair with a fellow worker melted your heart -- at the same time it gave hope to true romantics everywhere. Bottoms up!


Charles Weldon gave Jim Becker, the uptight protagonist of August Wilson's play about life in a cab company, paternal gravitas and a rare, generous smile that seemed to forgive the sins of the world. Then -- just in case anyone thought this performance was a fluke -- he seduced the audience of King Hedley II this year as the raffish, silken con man Elmore.


Mare Trevathan Philpott is always a joy to watch, and in Skriker, she got to strut almost all her stuff in one evening. The Skriker is a strange, shape-changing, atavistic fairy creature who talks nonstop in a mix of puns, metaphors, rhymes and allusions. She manifests herself differently to each individual she encounters -- wheedling, seducing, empathizing and bullying as needed. In a tour de force performance, Philpott did all of this with clarity, feeling and intelligence.
Harvey Blanks has given two brilliant performances in plays by August Wilson this year, and he wins for his work as the strange, affable, dangerous Turnbo in Jitney. Blanks can be incredibly funny or full of emotion. Whatever the sentiment, he gives it everything he's got -- heart, soul, voice and body.


Roslyn Washington played the kind of best friend every woman wants: warm and empathetic, full of dumb, endearing jokes. And her humorously faked orgasm was far richer and funnier than Meg Ryan's gasps and twitches in When Harry Met Sally....


Horton was amazingly funny as a self-important academic in Bernice/Butterfly, smirking at his own witticisms, indulging in professorial chuckles and hand rubbings, writing decisively on the blackboard. He took the role right to the edge of absurdity, but stopped at the brink to remind us of his character's pained and private reality.


You rarely come across a genuine original, especially a truly original performance, but Jessica Austgen is one: sort of pouty, very precise in movement and speech, capable of both absolute gooniness and breathy seduction. I've never seen anything like her lean, mustached Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the Theatre Group's Twelfth Night. But she wins best comic actress for her remarkable melding of innocence, befuddlement, certainty and circuitry as the robot-woman Jacie Triplethree.


In Love's Labor's Lost, Don Adriano de Armado is almost always played purely as a buffoon, and an endlessly talkative one at that. So, like many of Shakespeare's extravagantly comic characters with their time-bound puns and word games, he tends to be more annoying than amusing. But in this production, John Hutton created something altogether different, a man who may be ridiculous, but who's also vulnerable, surprising and sometimes -- in an odd way -- downright clever. It's an interpretation that adds freshness and dimension to a venerable play.


Unlike most actresses who play Olivia, Jadelynn Stahl has no time for the character's usual posing and passivity. Instead, her Olivia is a luscious, black-haired beauty with a melodious voice and a gift for farce who seizes life by the scruff of the neck and shakes it till she gets the love and happiness she craves.


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