Speech given by David C. Nichols, theater critic for the L.A. Times, presenting Sacred Fools with the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's Polly Warfield Award for an Excellent Season in a Small to Mid-Sized Theater

Monday, March 16, 2009

It seems safe to say that few if any Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle critics -- or any Los Angeles drama critics, ever -- were any more tireless or devoted champions of the many small theatres that are the wellspring of our city's theatrical landscape than the late, great Polly Warfield, the original "glass-half-full" theatergoer. Now, every year there are worthy contenders aplenty for the special award that bears her name. Numerous companies and theatres, many of them represented among tonight's attendees, and some absentees, manage, week in and week out, on a regular basis, to produce work of entirely notable caliber, at that in the face of increasingly severe economic constraints. Hence, the impetus for the Warfield this year is rather more particularized, and this year's recipient seems uniquely representative of what our Los Angeles theatre scene -- not the New York, or Chicago, or Boston, or San Francisco, or New Orleans, etc., theatre scenes, and we love them, but still -- what our Los Angeles theatre scene can achieve, on its own terms, and where our small-to-midsized output rightfully belongs in the larger context of the national identity.

I give you three examples, all from 2008: If the defining element of L.A. theatre is company-specific, and therefore indefinable, yet, perhaps, leaning toward cutting-edge irreverence, try this on for size: a double-entendre-ridden country-western tuner in which a same-sex romance -- at least, we think it was same-sex --between the country's last surviving beaver and a pathologically well-spoken bunny produces a biology- (and description) defying hybrid lovechild. Hindered and/or spurred on by the hambone interference and erotic high jinks of the human contingent, accompanied by a barroom-ready band perched in the back of an onstage pickup truck beside an outhouse, it winds up making a heartfelt plea for love and tolerance in an unfeeling world, don't ask me how. That was Beaverquest!, by Padraic Duffy and Bobby Stapf, which originated as a short work in the company's Serial Killers late-night series. For all its many quirks, it could only have transpired where it did, and was, undeniably, unlike anything else going last year.

Secondly, the fertile but too-seldom realized potential of the 99-seat arena to foster artistically venturesome yet commercially viable properties was tapped by this year's recipient, resulting in the Equity-waiver equivalent of a gusher: the infectiously swinging, edgily trenchant Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara. Directed by award-winner Jeremy Aldridge, Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith's "Star is Born"-flavored account of the pivotal, turbulent relationship between Louis Prima and Keely Smith was a house smash; moved to the Matrix for a second SRO run; has already garnered multiple honors and nominations from every stage awards entity in town, this one inclusive; and returns this week in a newly, fully retooled edition at the Geffen's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, as the stage directorial debut of film helmer Taylor Hackford. There's more than one lesson in there somewhere.

Finally, during the last legs of a seemingly unending election cycle, accurately deemed historic where it wasn't hysteric, tonight's honoree offered the L.A. premiere of 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, a ruthlessly surreal, awesomely well-researched, alternately satiric and sober omni-partisan vaudeville from the NeoFuturists of Chicago about every chief executive in the nation's history. Under Paul Plunkett's inspired direction, the six-member ensemble didn't just seamlessly straddle a kaleidoscopic approach taking in everything from Suzan-Lori Parks to Tom Lehrer, "Meeting of the Minds" to "Constitution Rock," Gore Vidal to Ernie Kovacs. Right up to the California filing deadline, the finale found said cast abandoning the fourth wall to hand out voter-registration forms, challenging spectators to put their money, or at least their moxie, where the show's mouth and moxie most decidedly were.

Therefore, in light of such singular, distinctive and elevated standards -- maintained, I should add, amid on-going and recurring late-night series, off-night attractions, guest productions, ad infinitum, go to their website -- and for exceptional devotion to their company mission statement while stretching in all possible directions, it is my infinite joy and immense pleasure to present the Polly Warfield Award, for an excellent season by a small-to-midsize theatre, to Sacred Fools Theater Company.

--David C. Nichols
reprinted with the author's kind permission