My Secret Love Affair with James Sugg

jamessugg.jpgHere's how talented last night's Obie Award winner James Sugg is: he got me a job as the Philadelphia Inquirer's theater critic without even knowing it. In fact, we've never even spoken face-to-face, but I should probably have thanked him a few years ago anyway. 

Sugg is a member of Philly's own polymorphous and occasionally perverse troupe Pig Iron Theatre Company. Pig Iron and its people have won much acclaim here and elsewhere, this, for Sugg's performance in Chekov Lizardbrain, being their second Obie (the first was for 2004's Hell Meets Henry Halfway), along with who knows how many other awards--Sugg already has 4 Barrymores of his own. The group's work is as eclectic as their multiple personalities. Dito Van Riegersberg often hosts cabarets as his much-beloved, hairy-Hedwigged, Bowie-channeling alter-ego, Martha Graham Cracker. Geoff Sobelle rocked both coasts with his critically hailed Buster Keaton homage All Wear Bowlers. As a collective, they've skewered Quinceaneras, turned Joan of Arc into a French clown, and revisited Measure for Measure in a morgue, with puppets. And if you're tempted to say, "Nice. Sounds pretentious," well, yeah, sometimes they are, but mostly they're not. Somehow they pull it off nearly every time and leave you basking in their awesomeness and ever-expanding potential. The company's dozen or so members come and go, and even when they're together don't always appear as expected. Sugg won his Obie as an actor, but he's just as comfortable behind an accordion, pen, or soundboard. 

Sugg first showed up on the local stage in 1998 and astonished audiences as a sort of one-man-band in Gentlemen Volunteers, (At right: Dito Van Riegersberg and Gabriel Quinn Beauriedel) a musical-ish examination of World War I ambulance drivers, Ernest Hemingway included. But the reason I'm thanking him here is because at the 2006 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, he premiered an original musical work called The Sea. It's the story of a drowned sea captain and his lost daughter, and watching it was like sucking down a saltwater Waits and Weill cocktail from deep below decks. 

I wasn't working at the time, which meant I actually had to pay for my tickets, and yet I was still disappointed he wasn't selling recordings of the show. As in, I would have gladly shelled out for that, too.  Anyway, upon reading the next day's Philadelphia Inquirer review, I was shocked--Shocked!--to find the assigned reviewer considerably less impressed. That week, I called up the paper, asked if they were short a critic, e-mailed some clips, and got myself a new job. I hadn't realized how much I missed being moved by a piece of theater, and having the privilege of telling the city about it, until I found myself powerless in the face of unfair, unenlightened criticism (ok, it was neither unfair nor unenlightened, but I totally didn't agree with it). And yes, I get the irony here, but that's another discussion for another time.

So I'm declaring my love openly, for all to read: thanks Mr. Sugg, for being the kind of artist whose performances inspire action, and thanks Pig Iron, for keeping your work in Philly and giving us first dibs on everything you do. 

For more on James Sugg, read this article by my colleague Howard Shapiro, from today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

May 19, 2009 8:14 PM | | Comments (2)


Sorry about that. My fault, I got the "Best Actor" title from another source. Happy enough that he's one of several best actors...

James did not win "BEST ACTOR" simply because we do not have categories. Either the reporter that wrote the story your posting is derrived from (and never checked with the source, me) was misinformed or was the victim of a newspaper headline writer that didn't get it.

Anyway, here's the citation and the press release. Congrats Pig Iron- James -and Philly.

A seductive, plummy-voiced ringmaster in the circus of the human mind. A tremulous, possibly autistic man struggling to put down the roots he’s never had. Two components of one troubled soul, yet this actor played both, with exquisite wit and delicate precision. We can’t call this decision a no-brainer, but the judges found it easy to vote an Obie for his performance in Chekhov Lizardbrain to JAMES SUGG


The 54th Annual Village Voice OBIE Awards were presented on Monday, May 18, 2009 at a ceremony held at the newly landmarked Webster Hall in Manhattan. Co-hosted by former OBIE winners Martha Plimpton and Daniel Breaker, the awards were presented by Anne Hathaway, Brian d’Arcy James, Gavin Creel, John Shea, Karen Olivo, Kate Mulgrew, Marc Kudisch and Nilaja Sun.

Martha Plimpton won an OBIE in 2002 for her performance in Hobson's Choice. She charmed us as Gladys Bumps in this season’s revival of Pal Joey. Ms. Plimpton moves elegantly between the stage, television and film.

Daniel Breaker is a 2008 OBIE Award winner for his performance in Passing Strange and is appearing on Broadway now in the musical Shrek The Musical. Trained at Juilliard, Mr. Breaker is an accomplished actor, singer and dancer.
Informally structured, with no strict categories, The Village Voice OBIE Awards honor artists and productions of excellence in every aspect of theater. Unlike most theater awards, The Village Voice OBIE Awards publish no nominations. In the conviction that creativity is not competitive, the judges may give multiple OBIEs in any category, or even invent new categories, to reward exceptional artistic merit.
As he has for the past three years, the Voice’s chief theater critic, Michael Feingold, chaired this year’s OBIE Awards committee. His fellow judges included Voice critic Alexis Soloski and six guest judges: freelance writer and Voice contributor Eric Grode; critic Andy Propst of, also a Voice contributor; actress-playwright Eisa Davis, an OBIE Award winner for her performance in Passing Strange and author of the recent Angela’s Mixtape; actor-playwright Ty Jones, 2003 OBIE Award winner for his performance in The Blacks; playwright-director Moises Kaufman, 2004 OBIE Award winner for his direction of I Am My Own Wife, currently represented on Broadway by 33 Variations; and playwright-director Chay Yew, 2007 OBIE Award winner for his direction of Durango.


Lifetime Achievement Award

Best New American Play (includes a cash prize of $1000)
RUINED by Lynn Nottage (Manhattan Theater Club)


Francois Battiste, THE GOOD NEGRO (Public Theater)

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, RUINED (Manhattan Theater Club)

Kevin T. Carroll, sustained excellence of performance

Saidah Arrika Ekulona, RUINED (Manhattan Theater Club)

Jonathan Groff, PRAYER FOR MY ENEMY (Playwrights Horizons) and THE SINGING FOREST (Public Theater)

Birgit Huppuch, TELEPHONE (Foundry Theatre)

Russell Gebert Jones, RUINED (Manhattan Theater Club)

Aaron Monaghan, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Atlantic Theater Co.)

Sahr Ngaujah, FELA! (37 Arts)

Lorenzo Pisoni, HUMOR ABUSE (Manhattan Theater Club)

James Sugg, CHEKHOV LIZARDBRAIN (Pig Iron Theatre Company)

John Douglas Thompson, OTHELLO (Theatre for a New Audience)

Music and Lyrics

Stephen Sondheim, ROAD SHOW (Public Theater)


David Cromer, OUR TOWN (Barrow Street Theatre)

Katie Mitchell, THE WAVES (National Theatre of Great Britain / Lincoln Center Great Performances “New Visions” Series)

Ken Rus Schmoll, TELEPHONE (Foundry Theatre)


Toni-Leslie James, sustained excellence of costume design
(w/special reference to WIG OUT, Vineyard Theatre)

David Korins, sustained excellence of set design
(w/special reference to WHY TORTURE IS WRONG..., Public Theater)

Special Citations

Sarah Benson (director) and Louisa Thompson (set designer), BLASTED (Soho Rep)

David Esbjornson (director) and Christian Camargo (actor), HAMLET (Theatre for a New Audience)

The Ross Wetzsteon Award (includes a cash prize of $2000.)

HERE Arts Center

OBIE Grants ($10,000 divided equally among three theaters)

The Classical Theatre of Harlem

The Chocolate Factory

Lark Play Development Center

For more information about the Obie Awards, please visit:

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