2014 True West Award: Sam Gregory




Sam Gregory has got a bit of the Barrymore. I mean, just look at him, all dashing and debonair, rocking that pencil mustache like he’s Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps. Done that. Here, he’s channeling John Barrymore in the surprise delight of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 season, I Hate Hamlet.

Gregory took Paul Rudnick’s slight, swashbuckling comedy and folded it, spindled it and bent it to his rapier wit. Barrymore, of course, was a larger-than-life actor; the most famous Hamlet of his generation (even if not the most famous Barrymore of mine). How much larger than life? Barrymore is summoned from death to coach a vapid, Corbin Bernsen-like TV star through a lousy New York park production of Hamlet. Talk about a curtain call. There are some witty one-liners about the vagaries of show business, playful swordplay and nifty special effects. But the play is a trifle that Gregory helped lift (along with an expert supporting cast) by presenting us a ghost who is volatile, unbalanced, deliciously egomaniacal and even a touch tragic. It made no sense for Colorado Shakes to slot I Hate Hamlet in a season when it was not also staging Hamlet. But, ironically, Gregory had himself a Hamlet/I Hate Hamlet year. More on that on a bit.

The ever-committed Gregory also made for a formidable king playing the title role in both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the first part fully staged and the second presented according to Shakespeare’s “original practices.” That means the play was put together much as it might have been in Shakespeare’s day, with only a handful of rehearsals and largely without a director. The actors were provided incomplete scripts that contained only their specific lines and their cue lines. Then, pinky-swear: No Googling! There were only two performances of Henry IV, Part 2, making for a no-net weekend that was a change of pace for audiences – and a convenient way for Colorado Shakes to check an obscure Shakespeare title off its list without having to mount a fully staged production. (Look for Henry VI, Part 1 to get the same short-cut in 2015).

Why, 2014, was the Summer of Sam in Boulder. And that’s only the quarter of it.

Gregory also had a defining year with the DCPA Theatre Company, which is saying something considering he’s done more than 40 productions since 1992. His Polonius in Hamlet was a revelation of unearthed comedy and clarity. Gregory made the old boor a real character without making him a buffoon. His bombast and bluster were worthy of Falstaff, yet Gregory executed it with an uncanny specificity that was completely justified by the text.

He ended the year as a middle-aged brooder in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. (Think Hamlet, another prince who has never had to grow up – just add 30 years and four centuries). As Chekhov’s contemporary counterpart to Uncle Vanya, the real tragedy of this man’s life, as Gregory plays him, isn’t that so little lies ahead – it’s that, by now, so painfully little lies behind. This very funny play climaxes with a furious, bittersweet rant about the good old days that employed every tool in Gregory’s actor toolkit. As Vanya pines for stamps you once had to lick and phones you had to dial, your heart sinks for a wasted, idle man who yearns for a world he never fully participated in when it actually happened. Gregory was meaningful without being morose or weary, while also somehow managing to be, as Westword’s Juliet Wittman described, “diaphragm-shaking funny.” If Gregory had a highlights reel for his stage career, this one scene would be all he needs.

1: Norrell Moore
2. Kate Gleason
3. Amanda Berg Wilson and Jeremy Make
4. Ben Cowhick
5. Robert Michael Sanders
6. David Nehls
7. Adrian Egolf
8. Emma Messenger
9. Buntport’s Naughty Bits
10. Tim Howard
11. Gleason Bauer
12. Daniel Traylor
13. Aisha Jackson and Jim Hogan
14. Cast of ‘The Whipping Man’
15. Rick Yaconis
16. Michael R. Duran
17. Laura Norman
18. Jacquie Jo Billings
19. Megan Van De Hey
20. Jeremy Palmer
21. Henry Lowenstein   
22. Sam Gregory
23. Wendy Ishii
24. J. Michael Finley
25. Kristen Samu and Denver Actors Fund volunteers
26. Matthew D. Peters
27. Shannan Steele
28. Ludlow, 1914
29. Spring Awakening and Annapurna
30 Theatre Person of the Year Steve Wilson

The True West Awards, which began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001, are the longest-running continuously administered awards program in Colorado theater. This year, the awards have been re-conceived to simply recognize 30 award-worthy achievements in local theatre, without categories or nominations. A different honoree will be singled out each day for 30 days.

The True West Awards are administered by arts journalist John Moore, who was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since founded The Denver Actors Fund and taken a groundbreaking position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist.

*The DCPA Theatre Company is not considered for True West Awards, which are instead intended as the DCPA’s celebration of the local theatre community.

Moore’s daily coverage of the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org

Sam Gregory’s contribution to the Denver Sonnets Project:

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