Best Season for an Actress 2016 | Emma Messenger | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Emma Messenger dominates any stage whenever she's on — not with big bravura performances, but with a strong, warm groundedness and an always-present vibe of hidden depth. She brought these qualities to varied roles this year: a strangely secretive and defensive mother in Edge Theater's Exit Strategies; a brilliantly vicious and vulnerable Martha in the same company's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and an oddly uncompassionate though politically committed doctor in The Normal Heart at Vintage Theatre.

There are a lot of rumors surrounding Walt Disney — that he spied for the FBI, that he was a racist and an anti-Semite, that he crushed unions. In Lucas Hnath's inventive play, all this is true, and Disney is also a monster of ego, who manipulates and betrays everyone around him and tries to shape the entire world to his own specifications. Paul Borrillo communicated the sheer, unmitigated awfulness of this American icon with calm, lofty authority and held the audience spellbound.

In Hysteria, a strange and fascinating mix of tragedy and farce, Michael Bouchard played Salvador Dalí — he of the astonishing waxed mustache, melting clocks and surreal landscapes. Bouchard was everything you could wish for in this fabulous role. He minced, he smirked, he rattled and pranced, he took off his pants and donned them again, he understood precisely the line he needed to tread between realism and farcical lunacy, and he enjoyed himself so thoroughly that you couldn't help laughing at his every move, becoming slightly disappointed when he was called on to be serious.

In Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, Johnny "Rooster" Byron has collected a bunch of disaffected teenagers for a booze- and drug-soaked party. He's a braggart, liar and tall-tale teller — on the literal level, a bone-headed loser. But metaphorically, he's a far more significant figure, a manifestation of the Lord of Misrule appointed in ancient times to upend law and custom during winter festivities. It's a huge role, and Augustus Truhn filled it hugely, bringing Rooster to life in all his richness and ambiguity, grandeur and moral turpitude.

Robert Schenkkan's All the Way is a smart, thoughtful look at a slice of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, his impassioned fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bill he politicked, bullied, bribed, strategized and manipulated through Congress. One of his foremost adversaries was Senator Richard Russell, a onetime patron and cunning son of the Old South who routinely opposed civil-rights legislation. As Russell, Philip Pleasants presented a complex portrait that conveyed all the man's oily courtesy and dishonest charm, as well as his genuine, residual warmth toward LBJ himself. In one of the largest casts assembled on the Denver Center stage in years, Pleasants's portrayal stood out and made an indelible impact.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Shakespeare Play

Ben Bonenfant in Henry V

No contest here. Benjamin Bonenfant was magnificent in the role of Henry V, one of those complex figures that can be interpreted in many ways. Henry's been played as a hero on a white horse, the embodiment of England's patron saint, St. George. But that ignores some of his uglier actions, as well as the unnecessary war of conquest he initiates. Bonenfant managed to embody all these contradictions fully, and it was enthralling to watch him going through the king's changes of mind and heart. Bonenfant's Henry was so original, right, tough, supple and intelligent that he made the role entirely new.

Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Shakespeare Play

Geoffrey Kent in Othello

Geoffrey Kent's Iago was hands down the best reason to see the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Othello last summer. Iago is the epitome of slithering, whispering evil, the barely human creature who brings down the majestic Othello and his innocent wife, Desdemona. Kent made him complex, living the role moment by moment in front of our eyes, showing an infectious joy when his manipulations were going well and displaying honest puzzled calculation when he met an obstacle. Shockingly, he charmed the audience so thoroughly that we almost forgot how hideous Iago's soul was. "It's like working on a suicide-prevention hotline, as volunteers in Seattle once did," we wrote at the time, "and discovering that the nice young man working beside you is Ted Bundy."

Shakespeare is known for his amazing women — women of strength, wit, humor, clever calculation and steadfastness in love — and Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, may be the pearl among them. Sent into exile by a scheming duke, she disguises herself as a youth and courts Orlando, the man she loves, by pretending to advise him on women. Speaking not in verse but in a quicksilver prose that rushes and eddies like a running brook, she soon has him dazzled. Graceful and lovely, Carolyn Holding did this brilliant role proud. On her tongue, the speech felt at home, and she alternated between giddy girlishness and natural dignity.

Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Shakespeare Play

Emily Kron in As You Like It

Phoebe in As You Like It is an unattractive, self-deluding country girl, held up to scorn by others for her rejection of the faithful shepherd Silvius. She provides one of those comic Shakespearean interludes that sometimes mildly amuse and sometimes irritatingly interrupt the main action. Not when Emily Kron played the role, though, taking it in both hands and shaking it to vivid life. With her dark hair and blazing eyes, Kron's Phoebe was unforgettable: blindly and stupidly in love with herself, impermeable to insult or rebuke.

Karen Slack's performance in the title role of Medea was large enough to allow for myriad interpretations. She was alternately achingly human and vulnerable and profoundly evil. There are few actors around with the power to fully embody a role as large as this, but Slack's power felt almost boundless. Sometimes her Medea was almost pleasant, even mildly funny, but periodically a huge rage rose, possessing her mind and body and consuming those around her. She's filled with sorrow for the children she feels compelled to kill, but she's still the same woman who coolly planned her escape following their deaths. When Medea stands on a platform with the children's corpses at her feet, her hands gloved in blood, and Jason — her faithless lover — laments having brought a barbarian into a civilized place, you note the essential racism, but in that terrible moment, you fully accept the description.

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