Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy 2012 | Jessica Austgen | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

When Jessica Austgen is on stage, she's so full of life and originality that you can't take your eyes off her. In Collapse, produced by Curious Theatre Company, she played one of those neurotic, crazy, needy sisters who upends a shaky marriage. Clad in vivid rusts and oranges that perfectly accentuated her red hair and eccentric persona, Austgen squirmed on the sofa, practiced her stretches on a mat, spouted new-age truisms, wheedled, threatened and talked about her cat, Camille Paglia. She was as intensely narcissistic as she was utterly disarming.

Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind is bleak, fragmented and full of violence and rage. Just about every male in it is despicable, and it's up to the women to provide anything resembling a glimmer of redemption. We haven't seen much of Patty Mintz Figel on Denver stages this season, but every time she appears, we remember what a treasure she is — and she was certainly up to the challenge in the Paragon Theatre production of A Lie of the Mind. It may have been unclear how Meg, the long-suffering wife of a blindly brutal husband, put up with him, or what motivated some of her comments and actions, but what was crystal clear was the quality of truth and compassion that Mintz Figel brought to the role.

Barb Reeves is a veteran Boulder's Dinner Theatre performer with a number of strong characterizations to her credit. But in this BDT production of Slow Dance With a Hot Pickup, a gentle-hearted musical about a group of people competing to win a truck, she put something into her portrait of a harried waitress that we've never seen from her before. Her Marie was strong-minded but completely unsentimental. Reeves displayed a singing voice that could rock the house, but also a low-key sincerity that stayed with you long after the lights went out.

Best Supporting Actress in a Shakespeare Tragedy

Leslie O'Carroll

In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Romeo and Juliet, Leslie O'Carroll's Nurse was a tough old peasant who was more than a match for a group of rudely teasing young aristocrats, but was also properly obsequious before Lord and Lady Capulet. She was also a woman who loved her charge, Juliet — but not so much that she'd give up job and security to defend her. O'Carroll brought a rough-edged humor to the show, filling her scenes with bawdy and sometimes poignant life.

Colorado Springs artist Sean O'Meallie managed to change deep-seated ideas about chairs in a single day. But it really took many months of hard work — planning, fundraising and chair-collecting — to bring the Manitou Chair Project to fruition. And it came off without a hitch last October, when about 700 chairs were lined up in a seemingly endless row down the middle of Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs at dawn, though only a great deal of community input and volunteer work made it possible. The well-documented one-day event, kind of a downscale Christo installation by and for the people, also inspired a show of chair art at the sponsoring Business of Art Gallery in Manitou, and will live on as a marketing tool for the touristy town and artist enclave through a series of posters depicting the project's singular ripple in time.

Everything seemed to be going so well for Paragon Theatre Company. The small but ambitious group had celebrated its tenth year in 2011, and early this year moved into a new space specially constructed to its requirements. On this stage, Paragon had just opened a production of Miss Julie that earned excellent reviews, and we were looking forward to a season that included Martin McDonagh, Lanford Wilson, Conor McPherson and Denver playwright Rebecca Gorman O'Neill. And then came the sudden announcement that Paragon was closing its doors because it was stretched too thin financially and couldn't handle one more hassle with the city over codes and permits. And with that, another serious, important company was lost. We hope to see all of Paragon's talented performances back on local stages during the coming year, and until then have our memories — among them a sizzling Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Neil LaBute's evil-minded take on 9/11, The Mercy Seat; local playwright Ellen K. Graham's brain puzzler, How We May Know Him; some amazing Harold Pinter; the dreamy, eerie beauty of David Henry Hwang's The Sound of a Voice; and artistic director Warren Sherrill's performance in just about any role he ever took on.

Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning Ruined is based on interviews that the playwright conducted in refugee camps with women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a lawless, bloodstained place where women are raped and mutilated by the thousands. She set the action in a whorehouse run by Mama Nadi, a raucous, tough-minded soul who both protects and exploits her girls. Despite the protagonists' desperate circumstance, the play is full of vitality, and even snatched moments of joy — and the Denver Center Theatre Company production caught this perfectly with a bright, evocative set; warm lighting; colorful costumes; a highly talented cast; and the pulsing, on-stage presence of a couple of talented musicians, Ron McBee and composer Keith E. Johnston.

Readers' Choice: Wicked

If Curious Theatre Company had only brought us Clybourne Park — Bruce Norris's witty and insightful update of Lorraine Hansberry's famed A Raisin in the Sun — this season, well, dayenu, as we say at Passover: It would have been enough. If artistic director Chip Walton had seized only on Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul to introduce to Denver audiences, that might have been enough, too. But instead, in a season that also included Caryl Churchill's strange little brain tease A Number, the (frankly forgettable) On an Average Day, and Alison Moore's clever comedy Collapse, Walton presented another regional premiere: Bill Cain's 9 Circles, a play about a war crime in Iraq that left audiences stunned. Curious is one of those rare theaters where programs are shaped by a unified artistic vision: There's no pandering, no holding a finger to the wind to see what's likely to sell. Which means that over the years, the company has developed the kind of discriminating audience that makes its risk-taking possible.

Readers' Choice: Curious Theatre

The life of the Vic — a 75-seat theater in the basement of a Victorian house in northwest Denver — was closely interwoven with the history of the city. The venue was created by a Shakespeare-loving tuberculosis patient named George Swartz, who moved to Denver for the climate and loved reading the plays to his friends. In the 1950s, Paul Willett took over the space, transformed it into the Gaslight Theatre, and ran it for almost twenty years. After his death, it became the Denver Victorian Playhouse, and then, after its purchase by Wade and Lorraine Wood in 2005, the Denver Vic. In this venue, the Woods staged everything from an evening of Tom Lehrer to John B. Keane's searing The Field — but they never figured out the formula for keeping the place solvent. Early last year, they put the building that housed the Vic up for sale, and the buyers turned it back into a single-family dwelling. And so that creaky, ghost-ridden, venerable old landmark of a theater — where Swartz's friends once gathered for Shakespeare evenings and contemporary audiences sipped tea and nibbled cookies during intermissions — has slipped into the history.

Over the past year, Bar Standard has steadily risen to the top of the underground electronic-music scene. Although Vinyl and City Hall might be bigger venues that play to more mainstream crowds, the lush and lovely Bar Standard stands out for presenting some of the top names in electronic music today: Doc Martin, Mark Farina, Hugh Cleal, Lisa Shaw with Q-Burns Abstract Message and many more, including some of the best underground house, electro and straight-up techno spinners in Denver. Manager Brandon Gonzalez has his fingers on the pulse of the underground electronica scene, and given what he's done in a few short months of programming, we can't wait to see where he goes next.

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