Come Forth and Know Him: Flawless “Jacob Marley” Esoterically Entertains and Enlightens

The Blue Barn Theatre has mounted what is sure to be an awards season darling with their Christmas show, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol.  This play is storytelling at its finest.  At times uproariously hilarious, while heartbreakingly dramatic at others, this wonderful play tells the story of Jacob Marley’s redemption.

Having recently died and gone to hell, Jacob Marley is given one chance at saving his soul from eternal damnation if he is able to convince his old partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, to have “a complete and willing change of heart” in 24 hours.  He is aided in his task by a mischievous sprite known as the Bogle, who has stakes of his own riding on Marley’s success. 

Nils Haaland gives a sensational performance as Jacob Marley.  As the show’s central character and narrator, Haaland is often called upon to paint intricate pictures with nothing more than his words so the audience can “see” the action of the story and Haaland is more than up to the challenge.  With shifts of body and inflection, Haaland makes you feel the agony of being weighed down by heavy chains, the utter despair of damnation, and the loneliness of a little boy who lost his mother and was despised by his alcoholic father.  Yet, on the turn of a dime, Haaland becomes the endearing (and very Cockney) Ghost of Christmas Past and the larger than life Ghost of Christmas Present.  Haaland’s versatility at comedy and drama makes for a performance that is a Christmas gift for all.

As the Bogle, Bill Grennan proves himself the equal of Haaland’s Marley.  Grennan brings a terrific physicality to this role as he glides about the stage and seems to possess an energy that his body can barely contain.  Grennan’s knack for comedy allows him to easily spout off insults and witticisms, yet he also demonstrates some impressive dramatic depth as his relationship with Marley thaws throughout the course of the show.  Grennan does a fabulous job peeling off the crusty layers of the Bogle to reveal a great heart.  Be certain to watch Grennan during the Bogle’s silent moments as he reacts to the events going on around him.  His expressions tell more of a story than words ever could.

Kevin Barratt’s Scrooge would make Dickens proud.  This is Scrooge as he should be:  malignant, repugnant, grasping, greedy, and almost utterly beyond redemption.  He is truly one to be feared.  But Barratt is just as convincing showing the redemption of Scrooge.  He gives Scrooge flashes of likability and humanity as he slowly changes his heart and cuts a very pitiable figure when Scrooge thinks all is lost at the hands of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  When he finally manages to redeem himself, you’ll want to give a cheer as well.

While all the actors play multiple roles, Scott Working has his work cut out for him by playing the most roles.  However, he makes it look easy as he jumps from the mysterious Record Keeper, to the put upon Bob Cratchit, to the bullying Dick Wilkins.  Working’s chameleon like transformations and performances were truly a highlight of the evening.

The story is further enhanced by a simple set (designed by Martin Scott Marchitto) that consists of a giant chain, exceptional lighting design by Bill Van Deest, and a soundtrack that supports key moments in the show.

Kevin Lawler’s direction is nothing short of a masterpiece as he has crafted a story with pitch perfect pacing, virtuoso performances, and effects that improve as opposed to distract from the show.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol  runs through December 22 at the Blue Barn Theatre located at 614 S 11th St in Omaha, Nebraska.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thursday-Saturday and 6pm on Sundays.  (Note:  There is no show on December 5th, but an extra showing will be held at 2pm on December 15).  Ticket prices are $25 for adults and $20 for students, seniors (65+), and TAG members.  Reservations can be made at 402-345-1576.  Tickets are going fast.  The 6pm December 15 show and the December 13 show are sold out.

 

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The Last Night

And so my road has reached its end with the magnificent Marley men.  Friday was my last day assisting with Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol and it was a little melancholy.  I’d truly enjoyed watching the cast grow during my three week run being their safety net, line noter, and jack of all trades.  The past week had been the most impressive as they were now much more comfortable with their lines and were starting to imbue their work with some serious acting.

Friday actually marked the beginning of tech rehearsals for the show.  These account for the slowest and longest days for the cast and crew.  Traditionally, techs are a 2 day event.  Saturday is what is known as the dry tech where the lights and sounds are set up without benefit of the actors.  The next day is known as Tech Sunday and it is a very, very long day.

The cast and crew will start early in the day with what is known as a cue to cue rehearsal.  What that means is that the cast will give the line(s) that lead into the light and sound cues where adjustments are constantly made.  It’s very slow, stop and go work.  Depending on the nature of the show, it can be brutally long.  For example, when I did Dracula, we started Tech Sunday at 2pm and we called it a night at 2am without the technical work being completed.

“Marley” isn’t a very long show, but it’s technically difficult as it has numerous light and sound cues.  After 3.5 hours of work on Friday, the show still had about 50 light cues that needed to be mapped.  Those would be finished at Saturday’s dry tech and fine tuned on Sunday’s cue to cue rehearsal.

After the cue to cue ends, the cast and crew normally break for an hour to have a meal.  They then come back and run a full tech rehearsal which means doing the entire show with lines, sound, and lights.  On Monday, costumes get added to the mix and that continues until opening night.

Once the tech work started, I knew that my particular skills would no longer be needed.  The actors have to arrive early and get costumed, so no line running.  Once tech starts, actors can no longer call for lines and they no longer get line notes.  Also, I wanted to save a little bit of theatre magic for myself for opening night as I neither know all of the light cues nor any of the sound cues. 

I also know that the show will morph even more during the week.  Once teching begins, layers start being added to the show which helps aid the acting.  Lights add one layer.  Sound another.  Costumes add yet a third.  The most important layer is that of the audience.  After countless rehearsals, a show desperately needs the x factor of an audience to fuel the performances.  The addition of the audience adds something that defies description.  Often, it spurs the actors to new discoveries and makes a good show great and a great show mind blowing.

When I announced my departure on Friday, I was amazed and touched by Kevin’s response of “Really?”  Even though I wasn’t performing, I was just as much a part of this show as the cast and crew and Kevin’s disappointment at my leaving really made me feel that.  I shook his hand, told him it had been a pleasure, and he asked me if it really had been a pleasure.

It surely was.  His concern was probably that I had a lot of sitting around time.  And I did, but it was also a chance for me to sit under the learning tree.  With the way my mind had been opened by Leaving Iowa, I now saw and heard so much more than I once did.

This time around, I saw and heard beats, which I may have missed before and it added such an extra dimension to the experience as well as percolate ideas in my own head.  It got my own performance juices flowing and I really wish I could have been on stage with these guys and share this remarkable story with them.

I told Kevin I looked forward to my next audition with him and he replied, “Likewise”, though he said it may be about 5 or 6 years before he directs again.  (He’s getting ready to become a father.)  I know not what the future may bring, but, hopefully, I will get another opportunity to work with him.  For that matter, I hope to get a chance to work with these gifted storytellers on the other side of the stage one day.  As it was, I shared a round of hearty handshakes with my comrades, old and new, and faded into the evening with a promise to return on opening night.

As I wait for that magical eve, I’ve started reviewing a few scripts so the future may hold a new story for me and perhaps sooner than anyone suspects. . .

Ambitious Amadeus Aims for Stars, Settles for Clouds

He believed music was the language of God.  He vowed to live a life of sexual purity and be socially virtuous in order to be the conduit of God’s language.  He was the most lauded composer of his day.  This is the story of Antonio Salieri.

Make no mistake.  Though the play is titled Amadeus, the story is really about Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s highly fictionalized account of the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre. 

The play is told mostly in flashback by Salieri (played by Pat Schwery).  A greatly aged Salieri confesses to murdering Mozart and now, in the last hour of his life, feels the urge to confess how he slowly destroyed Mozart (played by Andrew Miner) during their time at the Viennese court. 

As Salieri, Schwery paints a portrait of a deeply conflicted man.  He has dedicated his life to God in order to be able to make music, yet cannot reconcile why God would grant the gift of musical genius to a buffoonish fop such as Mozart.  And since he cannot reconcile this, he declares war on God and makes Mozart, or the creature, as he calls him, the battleground.  Schwery does an admirable job portraying the anguished composer who hates the man that Mozart is, yet loves the beautiful music that Mozart effortlessly composes.  Through the use of voice and body language, Schwery easily transitions from old Salieri to young Salieri, though I thought his older Salieri was a bit too energetic and spritely for an elderly, bitter, broken man.  Several dramatic moments with the character also seemed to reach for the same fevered pitch instead of finding more nuanced, subtle variations to communicate those moments.

Andrew Miner’s essaying of Mozart is thoroughly annoying and that is not a criticism.  This story is how Salieri sees Mozart and that vision is one of a crude, vulgar, childish man whose genius for music staggers the imagination.  Miner brings incredible energy to this character as he smoothly snaps off numerous lewd jokes and witty one liners punctuated with a high pitched cackle.  It is to Miner’s credit that he makes the audience feel pity for this character’s plights at the hands of Salieri’s machinations, despite a personality that would make one want to punch him repeatedly.

Other standouts in the cast include Deb Kelly and Ryan Eberhart as the Venticellos, spies and gossipmongers for Salieri.  Their light, snappy repartee nearly steals the show.  Danielle Smith excels as Mozart’s wife, Constanze Weber.  At first appearing to be a perfect match for Mozart with her whiny, spoiled immaturity, Smith brings some dramatic depth to the role with a nuanced confrontation with Salieri and a mourning of Mozart that tugs at the heartstrings.

Also notable were David Sindelar (as Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg) and Randy Wallace (as Baron Gottfried van Swieten).  With their limited stage time, both managed to develop fully realized characters that provided some welcome dramatic and comedic moments in the show.

Director Lorie Obradovich is to be commended for the blitzing pace she cuts with this show.  The story neither weakens nor drags for a moment and she has culled some strong performances from the featured cast.

That being said, this performance was somewhat marred by sound cues that were either too loud or too soft, some slight line bobbling, weak projection on the parts of some actors, and uneven acting by some of the supporting players.

Still, the production is a very worthwhile effort.

Amadeus plays for one more weekend at the Bellevue Little Theatre located at 203 W Mission, Bellevue, NE  68005.  Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and TAG members, and $9 for students with a valid student ID.  Reservations can be made at 402-291-1554 between the hours of 10am-4:30pm Monday-Saturday.

Bonding

Sometimes it’s just the little moments away from the stage that one appreciates the most.

Last night had been a long rehearsal for me.  I do a hard workout 5-6 days a week and last night was the day for my absolute hardest workout.  Combine that with a long day at the office and just enough time to shower and eat a salad after the workout and you’ve got yourself one weary consulting thespian.

I’m a very active person.  On a physical level, I’m on the go a lot and I like to do things and have adventures (hence, my love of travel).  My mental activity probably outstrips my physical activity because I am almost constantly thinking (which has its highs and its lows).  Like Sherlock Holmes, doing nothing wears me out more than doing something.

As my friends will gladly testify, I am usually not much of a night owl.  They usually know when I’m working on a show because I will sometimes doze off because I work sunup to sundown.  It also happens when I’m doing a passive activity like watching TV.  As long as my brain is engaged, I can be capable of staying up into the wee hours of the morning.  If I’m doing nothing, my body’s response is, “Ah, to heck with this.  Lights out!!!”

After the heavy workout and then just sitting and observing the cast work, I was starting to feel a little sleepy towards the end of rehearsal.  Then the actors decided they wanted to run the act from the top which meant I had to leap into action as one of our actors was not called last night.  It was like a switch had turned on in my mind and I instantly became alert.  But I was so stiff from my workout that I simply read the lines from where I sat.

When we finished for the night, I was ready to head for home and read a little before turning in, but our Bogle (Bill Grennan) decided he wanted a glass of wine and asked me if I’d join him.  I decided, “Why not?” 

And I was glad I made the choice because it’s the little moments spent away from the stage with your acting family that really builds the camaraderie, friendships, and, dare I say, a stronger show.

I’ve been friends with Bill since that wonderful experience with Biloxi Blues, but I think this is the first time we’ve ever really been able to talk and I was amazed to discover just how much we had in common.

Bill and I actually have similar ideas when it comes to acting and interpretation.  We actually share nearly identical views on the characterization of the Bogle, although Bill admits that he hasn’t quite found him yet.  I think he’s a lot closer than he realizes as he’s made some really great discoveries.  But I do understand the challenge in discovering the character.  There is nothing quite as sweet as the moment when the character reveals himself to me and that’s when the real excitement of acting begins.

We discussed our experiences in The 39 Steps for him and Leaving Iowa for me and I was able to share what a transformative and relieving experience that show was for me.  I was surprised to discover that Bill related a bit better than I thought.  Like myself, he had experienced a long drought at the beginning of his career.

Bill began auditioning at the age of 14 and did not get cast until he finally gained a bit part towards the end of his high school career.  From there he finally graduated to better roles in college and then to the success he’s enjoyed on the community theatre circuit in recent years.  Both of us also credit Susan Clement-Toberer with giving us that first really big breakthrough role.

He also managed to make me feel better about my audition for Every Christmas Story Ever Told a few years back.  As my regular readers know, I was the only person to audition for that show on the first night of auditions and I had long feared that I had literally lost to nobody.  Bill told me he had auditioned with a few other people on the second night and I felt immensely better because I had at least lost to flesh and blood opponents.

Bill did think losing to air was hilarious and encouraged me to write a comedic monologue about that idea because it would be “comedic gold” as he stated.  I just may accept that challenge.

But it’s really the simple moments like those that add to the magic of the theatre experience.  Rediscovering that last night has made this whole experience as the show’s consulting thespian worthwhile indeed.

Organic Acting

We’re about a week into the rehearsal period for Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol and the magic is already taking place.  Each night new discoveries are made as these master storytellers delve deeper and deeper into these characters.

Rehearsals are a very interesting beast.  They are very laborious and, at the beginning, repetitive.  And I don’t mean that negatively.  When actors first work on a script, it is done in very small chunks.  Actors need to learn where to enter and exit and execute those movements numerous times so it looks smooth.  There is also the experimentation with the character.  In the early goings, I always have an idea of what my character is, but I constantly throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks and often gain new insights in doing so.

Of course, good directing is needed to harness all of this creativity and guide it to the whole.  Some directors come in and they have every jot and tittle of the show mapped out.  They know where each and every character enters and exits and they know how they want the actors to say each and every word.

Then you have directors like Kevin.  Kevin is a very staunch believer in the organic nature of acting and trusting in his actors to make the discoveries.  His role is more of a facilitator where he tweaks things here and there and serves as counsel to the actors.  Kevin believes in this so strongly that he would prefer actors not to have read a script before an audition just to see the discoveries that they make at the auditions and the natural qualities they possess. 

I didn’t really understand this ideology until I worked with him in W;t.  At our first readthrough, one of the performers gave an impressive read on a line and Kevin said that was great, but not to get committed to that read as we were just on the beginning of this journey and then I understood it.

This week, I’ll actually get to work onstage a little with the actors and I look forward to actually being able to perform again, even if just for a night.  More importantly, I look forward to that next audition.

But, most importantly, I look forward to that next rehearsal to see what new treasures these Marley men unearth.

Marley Men Assemble!!

“Even if we did everything exactly the same, it would still be different.  Not only because we have Bill and Kevin, but because you’ve changed from where you were and where your hearts were a few years ago.”–Kevin Lawler

Thus marks the beginning of a brand new tale of theatre.  Nearly five months have passed since Leaving Iowa (The Miracle Show) and this marks my first foray into theatre since that time.  However, this time around I am not acting.

“Why?”, I can hear my readers ask.

The simple truth is that I had an engagement in October and have another in December and the precise placement of those engagements made me unable to take any acting gigs until 2014.  Needless to say, I didn’t want to wait that long between auditions and lose the strength of my acting chops.  So when I found out the Blue Barn would be remounting Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol this year, I contacted Kevin and asked if he could use me as a consulting thespian for the show.

What’s a consulting thespian?  Essentially, I come in early to help actors run their lines, run them when they’re not needed on stage, and substitute for them if they cannot be at rehearsal so the others performers don’t lose anything in the absence.  It’s also a great way for me to keep my own skills sharp and honed for that next audition and it lets me be involved.

So I’ve decided to bring you along on my journey and view the creation of a show.  Marley will be a very different beast due to the compressed amount of time we have in getting it ready.  Tonight was the first rehearsal and the show will open in just 4 weeks.  Fortunately, the show was pre-cast with 4 superior actors (Nils Haaland, Kevin Barratt, Bill Grennan, and Scott Working) who have had the benefit of studying a script for the last month or so.  This was crucial as their first assignment was to be off book by tonight because the acting needed to begin right away.

This show is unlike any I have ever been involved with before.  It has a very mysterious, ethereal quality to it.  There will be very little in the way of set and costumes.  What we have is a play that very much relies on the actors’ abilities to paint pictures with words.  They’re going to need to infect the audience with their imagination, so the audience will be able to “see” the events, characters, and props.  It’s almost like pantomime with the benefit of speech.

A good way to describe my previous sentence is by telling you about some of the discoveries Nils (who plays Jacob Marley) made tonight.  When Marley arrives in hell and receives his sentence from the Record Keeper (Scott Working), he has a monologue about how chains suddenly appeared on his wrists, ankles, and neck.  Nils twisted and shifted his body as he described the manifestation of these chains and through that beautiful combination of physicality and description, I could “see” the chains on him and even make note of the ledgers, cashboxes, and locks engulfing his body.

Another discovery Nils made was when the Record Keeper blows Marley into the abyss.  As Nils twirled and whirled on stage, he spoke of Marley “howling in anguish” and he made the word “howling” an actual howl.  It sent chills down my spine and really made me believe in the suffering and torment of Marley.

I think Bill, who is appearing in his 4th straight Blue Barn Christmas show, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The last Christmas shows I’ve done have either been far out and wacky or internal and in my head.  This show has none of that.”  Or perhaps it is all of that.  It depends on one’s point of view.

Shortly before rehearsal wrapped for the night, Kevin made the statement that I quoted at the opening of this tale.  And it got me thinking about my own journey in theatre.  My heart and mind are definitely in a different place than they were a year ago at this time.  I now enjoy the peace of mind that Leaving Iowa has brought me and that, of course, will influence my own future endeavors in theatre.  I’m not the man I was and even now I know I will be approaching and viewing this play very differently than I did several years ago due to those changes and events I’ve undergone in recent years.

And that is an adventure of its own.