Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reading the IRNE tea leaves

The Independent Reviewers of New England - of which I'm a member - bestowed their awards on Monday night, and I was immediately struck by the pattern of the prizes. Of course I disagreed with some of the awards (and sometimes intensely); I always do. But the overall "arc" of the awards struck me as worthy of mention. Note that SpeakEasy (above) completely broke from the pack this year around (its showing is always strong), based on two productions, The History Boys and The Light in the Piazza, both directed by Scott Edmiston. The New Rep came up a weak second, followed by Norwood's Fiddlehead Theatre, while such local stalwarts as the Publick and Zeitgeist only got one award apiece (and surprisingly, the Lyric didn't chart at all).

I'm not sure what to make of this intense clustering of prizes around one or two productions. It may partly reflect the level of critical attendance at these shows. (And I note more attention to established theatres outside Boston than fledgling groups in town.) The effect was almost as intense in the large theatre category (below). This time Merrimack and the North Shore Music Theatre (now in hiatus) duked it out for top honors with eight awards apiece. The totals were driven by Merrimack's A Delicate Balance, and North Shore's Showboat (helped by its generally strong season, which included Bye Bye Birdie and 42nd Street). My favorite production last year, the Huntington's She Loves Me, only won Best Musical and Best Director - but then again the ART, like Trinity, barely charted, with only one nod for Anna Deavere Smith's visiting show.

But even if I disagree with the intensity of the "spikes" of the IRNE graph, do I disagree with their approximate placement? Not really. SpeakEasy is the most consistent mid-size company in town; the Merrimack and North Shore did have very good years, and are overdue for recognition. And the largest local theatres with the strongest local profiles trailed in the rankings because - well, because they weren't as good as the competition. I wonder if anyone at either institution will pick up on that. Or will outraged denial set in, as it did the year the ART actually sent in a letter of protest over the small number of awards it received? Stay tuned.

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