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Last night's Ivey Awards for Twin Cities theater were all about Minnesota Nice

Co-host Regina Marie Williams (left) poses with James Meyer at the State Theatre before the show.

Co-host Regina Marie Williams (left) poses with James Meyer at the State Theatre before the show. Thomas John Wallace

People who don't go to the Iveys won't hesitate to tell you why. "They're so masturbatory." "Are they even relevant?" "The audience is drunk, and the jokes aren't funny."

In other words, it's an awards show.

The Ivey Awards have now become a part of the local theater landscape, though it wasn't guaranteed to turn out that way, as Lifetime Achievement award winner Graydon Royce acknowledged by thanking awards founder Scott Mayer "for keeping this party going for 12 years."

Royce, who's just retired as the Star Tribune's longtime theater critic, was one of two people Monday night at the State Theatre who took home major awards for offstage contributions; if the evening had a theme, it was appreciation for behind-the-scenes talent.

"Our role is not to be out in front," said costume designer Trevor Bowen, choking up and inspiring perhaps the night's loudest ovation as he accepted the Ivey for Emerging Artist — an award that typically goes to an actor.

The night's other big winner was the Children's Theatre Company, which earned two awards: for sound designer Victor Zupanc (Pinocchio) and overall excellence in their production of The Wizard of Oz.

Beyond that, the night's awards were fairly evenly distributed among the big names on the local scene, with a good dose of love for smaller companies, including New Epic Theater, whose Now or Later was honored for ensemble acting.

"Um, this was a Fringe show," said New Epic's artistic director Joseph Stodola, taken aback.

The Guthrie Theater took an Ivey for its Trouble in Mind ensemble (accepted by artistic director Joseph Haj, calling himself an Iveys "rookie"), and the Jungle Theater earned an Overall Excellence prize for Le Switch (a new play that highlighted the theater's burgeoning partnership with the Playwrights' Center).

Theatre Latté Da's Sweeney Todd was honored for the scenic design by Kate Sutton-Johnson, who gave a well-received shout-out to crew members and technicians. In the evening's most impassioned speech, Jasmine Hughes, who received an Ivey for her performance in Penumbra Theatre's Sunset Baby, thanked Mixed Blood Theatre artistic director Jack Reuler, who hired the Mississippi native "before I even knew the Twin Cities existed." Citing the fact that she'd left the stage to raise her daughter, Hughes said, "I thought my acting career was over."

There are no nominees at the Iveys. The awards are just named and handed out, which some see as gratuitous Minnesota Nice, but certainly serves to speed things along, and leaves many honorees conspicuously surprised. As History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso made his winding way to the stage to accept an Overall Excellence Ivey for the company's production of Glensheen, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher cracked, "Ron's at another awards show across town."

Overall, the night's vibe was loose and fun, with multiple awardees acknowledging the band that stood ready to play them off if they pushed the allotted 60 seconds of thank-you time. "Help me!" cried director Warren C. Bowles to the musicians, inviting them to strike it up and take the pressure off him as he accepted an award for his work on the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

Among the smaller productions honored was Theatre Coup D'Etat's Equus; its lead acting pair Kevin Fanshaw and Charles Numrich shared an Ivey. The audience was treated to an impassioned excerpt that had Fanshaw ecstatically — not to say orgasmically — mounting a steed. "That does it," said co-host Mark Benninghofen, inspiring the evening's loudest laughter. "I'm getting a horse."

Benninghofen shared hosting duties (and an awkwardly rhyming script) with Regina Marie Williams, who overcame mic difficulties to wow the audience with a number from Park Square Theatre's Nina Simone: Four Women.

The show featured excerpts from several other productions, including a multi-song pre-show set by the tireless cast of the Old Log Theater's Million Dollar Quartet; Eric Morris hoofed it over from Marin Restaurant & Bar, where he'd also played a pre-pre-show in character as Jerry Lee Lewis. Morris' hair, which started out carefully coiffed and took on a mushroom-like appearance by the time the Iveys officially began, was perhaps the evening's best special effect.

Dennis Curley, less convincingly in character as John Denver from the Plymouth Playhouse's Country Roads, sang "Rocky Mountain High" in a tribute that incongruously turned into a collective wake as a screen dropped and the In Memoriam reel rolled.

The Iveys may be self-congratulatory, but they're also a crucial opportunity to salute the unsung — because let's be honest, they're all relatively unsung — heroes of the local theater scene. Monday night's winners accepted their megaphone-shaped prizes with the grace and humility exemplified by Royce, who took his award and admitted, "I know this has no cash value."

[Photo: See more pics of the Iveys here at Regina Marie Williams' Facebook folder, with images by Thomas John Wallace.]