Deck the Halls with Gales of Laughter. Fa La La La La Ha Ha Ha Ha

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

And then everything goes to hell.  This is Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Less a play than a piece of Christmas metafiction, this show features three actors, playing highly exaggerated versions of themselves, who delightfully and hilariously educate the audience on Christmas beliefs and traditions from around the world while lampooning various Christmas tales.  Susan Clement-Toberer’s masterful direction hits all the right notes as her trio of comic geniuses will have your sides splitting by the time the night is over.

Ben Beck plays the leader of the troupe.  A serious actor, he simply wants to share the story of A Christmas Carol.  He is constantly thwarted by his two cohorts who would rather run through every Christmas story know to humanity.  Beck reluctantly goes along for the ride on the condition that A Christmas Carol is performed as part of the anthology.

Beck is a bit of a hapless sad sack as he constantly gets the short end of the stick in this spectacle.  He is forced to play the Grinch, receives impossible questions during a fruitcake quiz show, and is accused of not believing in Santa Claus (which he does not).  Yet he bravely soldiers on in pursuit of performing his beloved story.  When he finally gets his opportunity, he becomes a manic force of energy as he effortlessly and blitzingly changes identities from Scrooge to George Bailey (doing a Jimmy Stewart that Stewart would envy) on the turn of a dime due to his story getting hijacked by one of the other performers.  Beck did trip over his lines on a couple of occasions, but that appeared to be due to the breakneck pace of the show.

Bill Grennan is a riot as he plays a naïve, lovable man-child.  He is truly a wide-eyed innocent who loves the Christmas specials of his childhood and still believes in Santa Claus.  Grennan’s role is arduous as he constantly zips around the stage and theatre, almost warping between various unusual spots.  He’s allowed the chance to do some brilliant character works as he portrays Gustav, the Green-Nosed Reingoat (to avoid copyright infringement), a slightly lascivious Frosty the Snowman (who sounded like Charlie in the Box from Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer), a pirate searching for the white bearded whale, Moby Nick, and a sweet, dramatic turn as Linus Van Pelt delivering the “what Christmas is all about” monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Grennan also subtly shows that his character may not be as innocent and dimwitted as he appears.  He is determined to get his own way and is the one who actually gets the ball rolling on sharing Christmas tales due to his refusal to do A Christmas Carol.  Grennan’s usurping Beck’s A Christmas Carol with It’s a Wonderful Life is quite a sly move from someone Beck claims “isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree”.

Teresa Sindelar’s comic acumen has never been sharper than with this performance.  Ms Sindelar willingly goes along with Grennan to present all of these Christmas stories, but seems to do it because she simply wants to have fun and not to avoid A Christmas Carol as she willingly assists Beck in his telling of that story in Act II.  Her chameleon-like ability to assume any character is allowed to shine as she transforms herself from a slightly psychotic Yukon Cornelius, to a parody of Barbara Walters commentating (sometimes under her breath) on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come earnestly pantomiming an important message to Beck’s Scrooge that nearly had this writer falling out of his chair.

In the end, words cannot do justice to this show.  It must be experienced.  The sureness of the direction and the devastatingly accurate comic timing of the three performers played out on a stage beautifully designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, painted by Craig Lee, and lit by Carol Wisner makes Every Christmas Ever Told. . .And Then Some a hit for the holidays.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some plays at the Blue Barn Theatre though December 21.   Tickets are going fast.  The only shows with tickets remaining are Dec 11 and 18 at 7:30pm and December 21 at 6pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.

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Walking Into History: Abilene, KS and Abilene’s Victorian Inn

Abilene's Victorian Inn

Abilene’s Victorian Inn

So it was on an overcast and gray day that I found myself once more answering the call of the road.  I was headed to Abilene, KS, the home of former President, Dwight D Eisenhower, and Abilene’s Victorian Inn, owned and operated by Jay and Adrian Potter.

I felt like the Henry David Thoreau of the highway because of the solitude of my drive.  I was the only motorist on the road for long stretches of time.  Since there wasn’t much in terms of scenery, I had lots of time for thinking and rocking out to the shuffled up tunes on my MP3 player.  About 1pm, I thought that I was ready for some lunch, but no restaurant appeared on the horizon.  By 2pm, I knew I was hungry and decided to stop at the first place I could find.

Luckily, I had just entered the town of Clay Center, KS and found a Wendy’s.  What I expected to be a quick lunch break ended up being an early start to the adventure.  While I munched my burger and enjoyed a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, an elderly gentleman laid his cap down on the chair across from me and politely asked how my day was going.  I told him my day was going great and the gentleman headed to the counter and ordered a drink.

He then sat across from me and asked if I were a local.  When I replied in the negative, he said I had that look about me.  I chuckled softly and the gentleman started asking me where I was heading.  I handed him my business card and told him about my project.  We began to talk and I learned his name was Francis and that he was retired military.  Francis was a fount of knowledge about the city of Abilene and its neighboring cities, telling me a great deal about the history of the area.  After a half hour of chatting, we warmly shook hands and I continued on the road to Abilene.

I arrived at Abilene’s Victorian Inn at 4pm and was pleasantly greeted by Adrian.  She brought me into the gift shop (yes, there was a gift shop) and checked me in.  Adrian then gave me a tour of the inn.  There is a whole lot of house to explore and all of it beautiful.  Aside from the spacious suites, there is a good sized front parlor with a splendid chess set for anyone interested in a game.  The living room is very cozy with a large gas fireplace and a piano.  The dining room was well stocked with cookies, teas, cocoa, soda, and snacks for the guest.  Most interesting was a piano in the front corner.  Adrian explained that the piano had once been owned by Nat King Cole who had actually visited her parents back in the day and had played his signature song, “Mona Lisa”, on it.  I felt honored to touch such a piece of musical history.

Adrian then led me to the Eisenhower Room, my home for the next couple of nights. I loved the rich blue color of the carpet, the large comfortable bed, and the semi-private balcony.  In fact I’m sitting on it right now while I write, people watch, and soak up the scenery.

The gift shop at Abilene's Victorian Inn

The gift shop at Abilene’s Victorian Inn

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The Eisenhower Room

The Eisenhower Room

This piano was once owned by Nat King Cole

This piano was once owned by Nat King Cole

My semi-private balcony

My semi-private balcony

Dinnertime soon arrived and I decided to give Mr. K’s Farmhouse a try.  This restaurant is off the beaten trail and it actually is in a farmhouse.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the restaurant.  The experience was a bit of a disappointment.  Despite the restaurant not being very full, I was forgotten about moments after being seated.  After noticing that I hadn’t been served for 10 minutes, a kindly lady at a nearby table came to my rescue when she walked into another room and found a server for me.

I opted for the house’s specialty, steak strips.  The meal began with a very tasty soup which I believe was cream of potato.  It had a nice zip, was creamy, and the bacon bits were a nice touch.  The steak strips were a bit of letdown, being a touch on the bland side.  I finished my meal and returned to the inn where I spent the rest of the night working on a mystery game before retiring.

The next morning I awoke and was more than ready for breakfast.  I was especially looking forward to this meal because Adrian Potter has a great reputation for her culinary skills.  She has even written a cookbook of the inn’s meals which is available for sale in the gift shop.

Let me assure you that Adrian’s reputation as a chef is well deserved and then some.  Adrian started the meal off with an ambrosia parfait that consisted of cream, granola, bananas, blueberries, and the freshest, sweetest cherries I have ever tasted.  After that came Adrian’s specialty:  Coconut Praline Pecan French Toast served with a side of baked bacon with strawberries and sweet cream.  The breakfast looked so wonderful, I almost didn’t want to eat it, lest I ruin the presentation.  Needless to say that feeling lasted for all of a second before I began savoring the cuisine.

Braced by that terrific meal, I decided to explore the town.  I meandered through the business district for a bit and then made my way to visit Seelye Mansion.

Seelye Mansion

Seelye Mansion

Seelye Mansion was the home of Dr. Seelye and his family.  Dr. Seelye created a pharmaceutical empire that lasted from 1898-1938.  The empire came to an end when the FDA told Dr. Seelye that he could no longer make the medicine that brought him his wealth.  The house was once known as the Mystery House because nobody was ever allowed inside.  This all changed when Dr. Seelye’s two daughters, who remained in the mansion until the end of their days, befriended a young college student who became the caretaker of the estate.  In the eighties, the sisters began offering tours of the house and it is well worth a visit.

The house is in pristine condition and many of the home’s original items are still present.  I learned that Dr. Seelye’s wife and I share the same great love for Christmas.  Mrs. Seelye always loved decorating the house for the holidays, usually setting up 80 Christmas trees!!  That tradition is still maintained today as each room had a Christmas tree or 3.

Mrs. Seelye loved Christmas.  Note the figurines above the fireplace.  It was a magnet powered toy made by Thomas Edison that played 23 different Christmas carols.

Mrs. Seelye loved Christmas. Note the figurines above the fireplace. It was a magnet powered toy made by Thomas Edison that played 23 different Christmas carols.

Aside from the rich history and festive nature of the mansion, one of the more interesting exhibits was the bowling alley in the basement.  The old fashioned bowling alley was not only the predecessor to modern bowling, but it also was the predecessor to skeeball.

All of the visitors got to try their hand at the alley.  The rules for this version of bowling were that five paddles were set at the end of a long alley.  You used an oversized skeeball and threw it down the alley.  The best shot would be to take out two paddles.  You had three shots and if you could knock out all 5 paddles, it was a strike.  Otherwise your points were based off the number above the paddle you hit.  I scored a 4.

The alley is also a very valuable antique.  A collector had visited the mansion last year and offered one million dollars for the alley!!  The foundation turned down the offer.

The Seelye private bowling alley

The Seelye private bowling alley

I spent a couple of hours inside the mansion and then started walking back down the street to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.  As I walked down the street, I decided I should get something small for lunch and I passed a restaurant called Taco Grande.  I stepped inside and the place was packed!  I took that as a good omen for the food.  I ordered a couple of tacos and found that feeling to be right on the money.  These were some of the tastiest tacos I had ever eaten.  If you’re just looking for a quick bite and you’re in Abilene, stop here.

Once I had finished my quick lunch, I continued on to the Presidential Library.  The museum was interesting, but I was a bit surprised as it seemed more concerned about the history of World War II and the technological advances that took place during Eisenhower’s lifetime than the life of Eisenhower.  If you’re a history buff, I would definitely recommend a visit.  I just would have expected more focus on Eisenhower’s personal history as opposed to the history of World War II.

What I found more appealing was Eisenhower’s boyhood home which exists on the grounds.  This house is tiny.  Maybe 7 rooms, at most.  The tour only took 5 minutes and I just tried to imagine how this house managed to contain the Eisenhower’s 4 energetic sons.

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Dwight D Eisenhower

Dwight D Eisenhower

Eisenhower Museum

Eisenhower Museum

After finishing my tours, I returned to the inn where I organized my photos.  From there, I attended services at St Andrew’s and then went to the M and R Grill for my supper.

By all means, have a meal here.  If you like sports, there are plenty of TVs around the restaurant, each on a different game.  I ordered a Kansas City Strip sautéed with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers.  After enjoying an excellent salad, I supped on a truly excellent cut of meat.  My steak was cooked to perfection and the corn on the cob served on the side hit the spot.

As I enjoyed the feeling of a full stomach, I returned to the Inn where I began working on this article and relaxed the night away.

This morning I got cleaned up and headed downstairs for another one of Adrian’s fantastic meals and some more stimulating conversation with the guests.  Today’s breakfast began with a goblet of grapefruit dusted with powdered sugar and topped off with a cherry.  That sugar really did wonders on the grapefruit as it reduced its acidity and brought out its sweetness.  From there, the main course was a frittata that had an alphabet of ingredients such as egg, turkey sausage, tomatoes, and several different kinds of cheese to name a few.  On the side were some small links of turkey sausage and a light, fluffy, buttery biscuit.

With another tasty breakfast under my belt, I went to my balcony to put the finishing touches on this article and get ready to return home.

In closing, let me say that Abilene is the best town I have visited since I started this project.  The people here are so friendly, especially the hospitable Jay and Adrian Potter.  There are a lot of historic homes to see.  There’s a lot of history to experience.  There’s just a lot to do.  I loved it so much that I’d like to return in the summertime so I can experience the seasonal attractions and more of Adrian’s fine cooking.  If you haven’t been to Abilene, go there.  Get yourself a room at Abilene’s Victorian Inn and tell them Chris’ Corner sent you.

A Season of Change, Part II: Lessons Learned

If I were to retire from theatre today, I could look back on my career with a certain degree of satisfaction.  Not only do I have nearly 30 shows to my credit, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best directors in the city, have worked in every major theatre in the city, have been a part of shows that have been listed as Omaha’s finest, enjoyed some great roles, and have even garnered some critical praise from the public and my theatre brethren.

And no, for those who may be wondering, I’m not planning on hanging things up just yet.  I’m still very much a work in progress and I still marvel at just how much my thinking has changed over the past few years.  For the longest time, I felt like I had something to prove each and every time I auditioned.  And then I finally proved it to myself, which is what I was really trying to do the whole time.  Now I just have something to show and let the chips fall where they may after that.  A big part of showing that something is to not be afraid to dive off the cliff.  That’s the lesson I recently learned.

In part I, I mentioned that I was prepping for an audition for one of my big 3 shows.  Then something came along the way that interrupted that preparation.  I read the script for Bad Jews which will be performed at the Blue Barn this spring and I found it to be one of the strongest scripts that I had read in quite a while.  I really wanted to read for this show, even though I was a good decade older than the oldest character in the show.  That hurdle was actually the least of my problems as I was also going to be out of town for both days of the audition.  What to do?  What to do?

I ended up talking the matter over with Randall Stevens, the Blue Barn’s new associate artistic director, and he allowed me the opportunity to come in and read early.  I saw this as a very positive sign so I prepared diligently.  I was also lucky enough to be able to work with Kaitlyn McClincy and Noah Diaz at my read which gave me some strong performers to play with.

My reads were OK.  I know they could have been better.  One telling direction that Randall gave to Kaitlyn and myself was to be flinging knives at each other as we argued.  Ten minutes after I left the audition, I knew what I should have done.  That’s why I know the reads could have been better.  If you audition right, you leave the audition with the feeling that you could have done no better.  Whether you get cast or not is irrelevant, it’s simply the knowledge that you left everything on stage.  And I did not do that.

Recently, Susan Clement posted a wonderful quotation from John Cleese that said, “Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”  That’s exactly what happened to me.  Not only did this happen at this audition, but it also happened in my previous audition, detailed in Part I.  I went out to try to prove something instead of trying to show something.  Because of that, I held back because I didn’t want to muck up my chances.  I compare it to running towards the end of a cliff and, instead of diving off to see if I’d soar or crash, I put the brakes on at the very edge of the cliff and said, “Lovely view”.

As I thought of that metaphor, I began to reflect on my past work and auditions.  I realized that my absolute best work came when I went out and just did it.  When I went out and tried to prove a point, that’s when I’d usually trip and fall.  Mind you, going out and just doing it didn’t mean I always got cast or even the role I wanted.  But it did mean I always left the theatre feeling satisfied and that’s the feeling I plan to have from here on out.

I’ve also got to be honest and admit that I might not have been cast in Bad Jews even if my audition had been of a Tony Award winning caliber.  I had my photo taken not too long after the audition and, son of a gun, my hair is really silver.  If I’d been directing and saw me audition, I would have thought I looked too old for the part from the start.  So I’ve also got to keep those little realities in my mind when selecting roles from here on out.

So now I’m back on track to audition for one of my big 3.  I’ve learned the lesson to always dive off the cliff and I’ve also learned to be aware of my look.  The latter will play a big role in that audition as I may have to admit that the role I really want may now be past my age range.  I’ll still keep the hope that there’s a chance I can land it, but I’m also preparing for an equally good character that may now be within my age range.

Until the next time. . .