After I came up a little short in The Talented Mr. Ripley, I was asked by Scott Kurz if I would take the role of Young Siward in the BSB production of Macbeth. The notable thing about the production was that it was my final one with the BSB. You may recall that after the awakening, I had vowed to give the BSB first crack at me every season in gratitude for giving me chances when nobody else would and for helping me unleash my potential as a thespian.
For a few seasons, I did just that, but things no longer seemed to work out. Eventually, I had to accept the reality that we were simply growing in different directions and I rode off into the sunset.
Regrettably, I was not able to capitalize on the momentum of the banner season of 05-06 and did not get to perform for nearly a year. But when I came back, I came back big.
It was the fall of 2007 and I had long wanted to audition for the Shelterskelter festival at the Shelterbelt Theatre. Shelterskelter is a one act festival held at that theatre every October that is horror themed. This year the Shelterbelt was trying a bold new experiment by running a full length play for the first time for Shelterskelter. It was a modern day retelling of the tale, The Duchess of Malfi.
The thrust of the tale is that the Duchess lives with her brothers known as the Duke and the Cardinal (or Deacon in the updated version). The Duchess falls in love with the stable boy, Anton, and becomes pregnant with his child. The two decide to run away together which angers the Duke and the Cardinal who don’t want to lose out on her share of the money. Duke is a very primal and angry character who tries to rape his sister at one point. Cardinal/Deacon is a more Machiavellian villain, content to manipulate others into doing his dirty work. The brothers have their henchman, Bosola, keep tabs on Anton and Duchess. Under the brothers’ orders, Bosola eventually kills both Duchess and her maid. Anton returns and delivers an ultimately fatal stab wound to Bosola, but gets fatally stabbed himself in the fight. A dying Bosola exacts final vengeance on both Duke and Deacon before succumbing to his wound. Really happy play, right?
I was interested in the role of Deacon as a more subtle, manipulative villain carried many intriguing possibilities. I went to the audition and discovered that the choice to mount a full length play as opposed to a series of one acts carried some consequences. Very few people showed up to the audition. The play was also very short at slightly over an hour. Shelterskelter is also the big moneymaker for the theatre each year and the change in format caused a big dip in attendance.
But let’s get back to the audition. Again, I had a very good read, extending that streak of good performances. I was especially pleased with my rendition of Duke in the assault scene as I opted for a more understated approach to enhance the creepiness factor. I went home feeling pretty good.
The next day I got a phone call from the stage manager of the show and because it was the stage manager, I immediately thought that I hadn’t been cast. As I listened to the recording, the stage manager said, “We’d really love for you to play the role of Anton.”
The romantic lead? Were they serious?
I was very flattered and surprised. I would never have believed that I would have a chance at a romantic leading role. I’m not unattractive, but I’m not classically handsome. I would rate myself as cute. Or as a friend of mine put it, I have a universal face which is good for playing anybody and that type of face tends to lean towards character roles.
Still it was my first leading role of sorts. The reasons I qualify it is that this show was really an ensemble piece and also this was an amateur play in all senses of the word. It was an original work produced by the theatre instead of a work that had actually been published and copyrighted.
And it was an intense experience. I learned the challenges that came with finding numerous beats and carrying weighty scenes. Also, Duchess and Anton were very passionate and that was something that made me a little nervous. Fortunately, Duchess was played by one of the most lauded actresses in the city and she made it easy for me and really helped me through those moments.
Although, the show was a disappointment commercially, I really enjoyed being a part of it and it was a good test of my abilities. I was praised for my acting by other cast members and the directors and I would go on to land leading roles in the Shelterbelt’s Valentine’s one act festival that February and in next year’s Shelterskelter, which returned to the one act format.
While I was performing Shelterskelter, I found myself auditioning for Kevin Lawler once again. This time he was guest directing W;t over at the Blue Barn Theatre. W;t tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a literature professor who has stage IV ovarian cancer. For the most part, it is a one woman show, although other characters do pop up in the tale. I was interested in the role of the young doctor who treats her cancer and was once a student of hers.
Once more, I utilized a monologue from Cotton Patch Gospel and told the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert by Satan. In looking back, I think this was my favorite monologue I had done just because I got to show off 5 characters (Jesus, Matthew, and the 3 forms of Satan). So it ended up being a good display of my versatility.
For the first time ever, Kevin did not ask me to do any alternate takes on the read and I think a lot of that had to do with the multiple characters I played. He thought intently for a few moments and said, “Very intense scene.” He then looked at the monologue, thought a bit more, and said, “Fantastic. You should hear from me in about a week. Maybe a bit longer.”
Not too long afterwards, I got the following message on my answering machine:
“This message is for Chris. Chris, this is Kevin Lawler, and I wanted to offer you a role in Wit. Several roles, actually. There are four actors who play lab technicians, students, and residents. It’s not a leading role, but it’s essential to supporting Phyllis and the enormous job she has. I’m sorry I’m not able to offer you a leading role this time, but this would be the first time we’ve worked together. Think about what you want to do and call me back at xxxxx.”
Yes, it sounded as if it would be a bit less challenging than some of my recent roles, but it would be our first chance to work together so I accepted the opportunity. A few months later, Kevin wrote me and the other 3 multi-character actors and I found it to be most unusual. He made a point of telling us he knew that our talents were far greater than the roles we were being asked to play and that he knew we had all enjoyed larger roles, but that once the whole machine of the play was in motion, we would be serving a vital part in it.
At that point, I actually went to the library to examine the script and I understood the letter. Really, we were serving as a Greek chorus and there wasn’t a tremendous amount of depth to the roles we were playing, but I could see the functionality of these characters. I have often joked that it was the strongest Greek chorus in history as all 4 of us were experienced, polished performers.
And it was a good experience. The cast bonded pretty strongly and the show was a critical and commercial hit. The newspaper actually cited it as the greatest show to ever take place on an Omaha stage.
But it was this show that marked a transition to me. But a transition to what???
To be continued. . .