A Season of Deja Vu

Déjà vu:  The sensation that you are doing something that you have done before.

It’s almost eerie how much this season mirrored the last one.  Like last year, it ended quite early and I only was able to audition for a couple of shows.

This season actually began unusually early.  Back in March, to be precise.

I had attended the Omaha Playhouse’s announcement of the 2017-18 season and they announced the season premiere would also be a world premiere as they would kick off with an original play called Eminent Domain written by local actress/playwright, Laura Leininger-Campbell.  They further announced that the auditions for this show would take place the next week as the actors would be helping to refine the show.

I managed to get a PDF of the script from Laura and found it to be a fascinating read.  The play explores themes of family with the framing device of a Nebraska farm family being threatened by an oil company claiming eminent domain to annex part of their property to lay a pipeline.

I was especially drawn to the character of the autistic Evan MacLeod whom I found to be a deep well of character acting.  I spent the next week taking a crash course in autism in order to properly present my take on Evan.

When I went to the auditions next week, I found that Laura’s play had really struck a chord with the community.  It seems as if the entire theatre community had come out to audition.  Not only was I up against some of the brightest names in Omaha theatre, but I was also up against much of the original cast who had been part of the show back when it was a staged reading.

My old shipmate, Frank Insolera, was one of the hopefuls and we started catching up on old times.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Christina Rohling, whom you might remember as the director of Elephant’s Graveyard and A Heavy Rain, heading in our direction.  Frank and I reached a pause in our conversation and both looked her way.

Addressing me, she said, “I just want you to know that you made my job (for Elephant’s Graveyard) very difficult.  It just came down to the 2 different energy levels between you and the guy I chose.”

Once more, I felt that strange mixture of pride and melancholy as I added another story to my ever growing pile of “good” rejections.  It only lasted for a moment as I thanked her for the compliment and then found out I would actually be reading with her when I made my stab at Evan.

Christina also happens to be one of the top talents in Omaha, so I was glad for the opportunity to bounce ideas of the scene as I explained to her my vision of Evan.  She seemed surprised at my attention to detail as she said, “It sounds like you’ve done some serious homework.”

We walked into the conference room on the 2nd floor of the Playhouse under the scrutinizing eyes of director Amy Lane and Laura.  Christina and I sat on the floor and I immediately started becoming Evan.  From my research, I decided that Evan was on the more severe side of the autism spectrum and had developed physicality and vocal patterns to suit that.  I adopted an awkward sitting position as I twisted my legs together and thrust my right hand between them, resting my hand on my left knee.  I slightly tilted my head and avoided any eye contact with Christina.  I also adopted a monotone, sing-song cadence for my speech.

I was actually extremely pleased with my take and felt as if I were hitting the right notes.  It also ended up being my best bite at the apple as my second read was for a different character who didn’t have a lot to do in that side.

Intellectually, I knew that I was up against a formidable challenge, but I still hoped against hope that I mustered up enough magic for a callback.

Alas, that hope was dashed shortly afterwards.

For the first time in a long while, I really felt the bitter disappointment of defeat.  I was surprised, yet not surprised at the same time.  With the extra effort I had put into it and with the full power of my heart behind it, I think it would have been more of a surprise had I not felt stung by the rejection.  And, of course, the lack of a callback made me wonder, “Did my efforts make any sort of an impact?”

Nowadays, I don’t dwell on those moments for long and I was quickly back to my old self.

I would next read for the staged readings of Angels in America and In the Heat of the Night, but there isn’t much of a story there.  Solid reads and no casting.  Que sera, sera.

Then came Ripcord.

I knew that I had to read for this show from the moment I read the synopsis.  The thrust of the story is that Abby and Marilyn share a room at the nursing home.  Abby had had the room to herself for a long while and wasn’t particularly keen on getting a new roommate.  Even worse, Marilyn’s sunshiney nature really grates on Abby’s curmudgeonly personality.  When Marilyn claims never to get angry and Abby claims never to get scared, the two women make a bet.  If Abby can anger Marilyn, Marilyn will get another room so Abby can be on her own again.  But if Marilyn can scare Abby, then Marilyn gets Abby’s bed because she likes it better than hers.  The result is an increasingly dangerous game of one-upsmanship.

There were 3 roles for men which included the nurse, Scotty, and two character actors who would play 3 distinct characters apiece.  I felt a little too old to play Scotty and relished the idea of the two character roles as I would get the rare opportunity to go completely over the top.

This play would mark my second reading for Kimberly Faith Hickman, the new artistic director of the Omaha Playhouse.  The first had been Angels in America.

I was surprised when my first side was for Scotty, but figured it was because not many men showed up to that first day of auditions.  Then I stepped inside the dance hall and it happened.

I felt the magic.

This was my most enjoyable audition in several years.  I didn’t care about getting cast.  I just wanted to go in and have some fun and I did just that.  I understood Scotty from the get-go and felt strong as I read the role.

When I finished the read and went back outside, I was given a side for one of the character actors.  After reading this side, I have come to the conclusion that I must project a natural aura of niceness as my side was for one of the regular roles performed by the character actors.  I actually felt a twinge of disappointment as I had been hoping to sink my teeth into one of the broader sides.

Not that the side I had was dull, but it was the same type of character I often find myself reading for and I just wanted to show that I could do more than essentially play myself.

Imagine my surprise when I was asked to stick around for a third read.  Once more I read as Scotty and varied my performance a bit from the first read.  After this read, I was let go, but there was also only one more group to read after I had finished.

Needless to say, I had quite a bit of hope as it had been ages since I had been at an audition from start to finish.  A few days later, my hope was rewarded when I got the call asking me to come to callbacks where I would be considered for the role of Scotty.  I laughed at the irony as the role I thought I had the least chance for ended up being the only role I would be considered for. . .or so I thought.

At the callbacks, I was given a side for Scotty that would FINALLY allow me a chance to go over the top.  I felt so giddy, I nearly broke into a soft shoe routine.  I had been chomping at the bit for this for eons and I let loose for all I was worth when I read the side.  I won’t spoil the scene, but I will say that I unleashed a scream not unlike the one emitted by Daniel Stern when he was mugged by the pigeons in Home Alone 2.

Immediately after finishing the read, Kimberly said, “I know I said I was only considering you for Scotty, but I want you to read this side for Benjamin.”

I was floored by the side.  It was a tremendously powerful and poignant scene as Benjamin is the estranged son of Abby and this was a complete 180 from the previous side and I looked forward to performing it.

When I went back in, I gave the most honest and heartfelt read I could muster and was really feeling Benjamin’s angst and heartache.  Shortly after this read, I was dismissed.

A few days later, I found an e-mail waiting for me from Kimberly.  The fact of the e-mail told me I did not make it in, but the fact that it was from the director told me that it was also something more.  I opened it up and read the following message:

Hi Chris!

I wanted to personally thank you for attending auditions and callbacks for RIPCORD.  I really enjoyed watching you and your work throughout the process.  This was a very difficult play to cast as so many talented people came to the auditions.  I ended up going with another actor for the roles of Scotty/Benjamin, but I wanted to let you know of that decision from me personally rather than a general notification e-mail.  I also want to encourage you to continue auditioning at OCP.  You have tremendous talent and I look forward to the next opportunity we may have to work together.

I was proud of this message and moved it to my scrapbook.  I had no regrets and had thoroughly enjoyed myself and I had made an impact.  You can’t ask for more than that.

We’ll talk again next season.

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Ho Ho Homicide: Mont Rest & Bellevue, IA

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Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast

Ah, Christmas!  Without question it is my favorite time of the year.  I love the feelings of goodwill, the sense of family, the music, the decorations, going to church, the lights, everything.  I also especially enjoy visiting bed and breakfasts during the holiday season just to see how they ring in the holidays.  So, it is with great pleasure that I bring to you the tale of my 5th annual Christmas B & B review.

For this journey, I would be visiting Iowa’s most luxurious inn, Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast of Bellevue, IA, owned by Christine Zraick.  I had been looking forward to this inn for quite a long time due to its penchant for offering nearly weekly murder mystery events.  When I found out the inn also really enjoys going all out for Christmas, I finally booked the trip.

Mont Rest has a very interesting history.  It was built in 1893 by Seth Luellyn Baker, a wealthy land developer for the price of $6,000.  Nicknamed “The Castle”, Mont Rest soon developed a reputation for illegal high stakes poker games.  His passion for poker would end up biting Baker hard as he once put the deed to Mont Rest up against a doctor for a $6,000 pot.  After the hand, Baker went downstairs and told his wife they had 2 weeks to vacate the property.

Fast forward to 1986, when the property, long since dilapidated and falling to pieces, was purchased by its current owner, Christine Zraick.  She began the long arduous process of refurbishing it back to its Victorian glory and opening it as a country inn.  It soon developed a stellar reputation for its murder mystery parties.

On Dec 24, 1996, the tale of Mont Rest almost came to an end when a devastating fire broke out and gutted the house from top to bottom.  Christine almost threw in the towel, but support from the citizens of Bellevue and her own sense of stewardship compelled her to roll up her sleeves and begin the process of rebuilding Mont Rest in the spring of 1997.

Needless to say, it was a massive success and today Mont Rest stands as Iowa’s most luxurious inn.

I was truly blessed with some unseasonably beautiful weather for my long trek to Bellevue.  When I arrived in town, I was immediately struck by its quaintness.  It is a peaceful town right on the coast of the Mississippi River.

I readily found the inn where my eyes confirmed what the photos had suggested.  This was easily the biggest inn I had ever seen.  The nickname of “The Castle” was well suited as the inn stands alone on top of a large hill and takes up the equivalent of a city block or two and holds an astonishing 13 bedrooms.

As I made the way from my car to the large wraparound porch, I smiled at the visage of Jolly old Saint Nick meeting me on the porch.  The inn was already into the spirit of Christmas as tinsel decorated the porch and decorations were being set up in the front yard.

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The kindly staff warmly welcomed me inside and gave me the nickel tour culminating in a stop at the gift shop which holds a representation of the World’s Fair complete with lights, sound, and animation.

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From there, I was led to Ginny’s Woodlawn View, my base of operations for the next few days.

When I think of B & B rooms, Ginny’s Woodlawn View is what springs to mind.  It has an understated elegance with its soft, blue-green carpet, electric wood fireplace, and Jacuzzi bathtub.  With Christmas on the horizon, it even had a lovely little Christmas tree and a stocking hung by the chimney with care.

From there, I did my normal explorations which took a little longer than normal.  As I said, this mansion is huge.  One could easily get lost in here.  I wandered about the house enjoying the numerous Christmas trees and decorations littered throughout the home.  The inn even has an observation deck on the top of the home which holds a hot tub as well as magnificent views of Bellevue and the Mississippi.

I had very little time to get settled in as I had a heavy night of activities planned.  Within an hour of my arrival, I was already back on the road seeking an early dinner.  I opted for a little good old fashioned comfort food as I stopped at Richman’s Café.

Like the name suggests, it’s a quiet little diner, but it dishes up a mean patty melt and shoestring fries.  Having the cavity filled, I was then off to the nearby town of Dubuque, IA to begin my night’s activities.

As I truly love holiday lighting displays, the staff at Mont Rest told me about Reflections in the Park, an elaborate display showcased at Louis Murphy Park.  This event has been a Christmas tradition for over two decades and I would like to thank the staff at the event for giving me a free pass to experience this tradition.

If you are in or near Dubuque during the holidays, visit Reflections in the Park.  It is a truly beautiful and entrancing display of lights and holiday cheer that will brighten your night both literally and emotionally.

From there, I went to the famed Grand Opera House of Dubuque where I took in a production of It’s a Wonderful Life.  For the first time in years, I attended this play purely as a patron, but was so moved and impressed by the production that I decided to review it anyway.  You can read it here.

After the fabulous show, I returned to Mont Rest when I settled into bed with a bone aching weariness where I instantly succumbed to oblivion.

In the morning, I took a long Jacuzzi bath before heading downstairs to breakfast.  There I met Doug & Pamela and Mark & Holly who would also be joining me for the murder mystery dinner later that night.  Breakfast at Mont Rest is served family style so we all enjoyed dishes of fruit along with a repast of blueberry muffins, cherry turnovers, bacon, hash browns, and 2 kinds of omelets along with some conversation.

Normally I like to schedule a lot of activities to get the full experience of the towns I visit.  This time I decided to put the brakes on.  After breakfast, I simply wrote my play review and organized my photos.  Then I took a very long walk along the riverside where I shared a phone conversation with my best friend and stopped in at Grandpa’s Parlor for a vanilla shake.  From there, I went back to inn, sampled some delicious homemade brownies, and caught a quick nap.

When I regained consciousness, I walked the few blocks to attend worship services at St Joseph’s Catholic Church.  After I got my praise on, I returned to the inn for the mystery.

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St Joseph Catholic Church

I went downstairs to the living room where I once again met Mark and Holly and began sharing conversation.  Shortly later, we were joined by Jim and Elizabeth and by Doug and Pamela a little after that.  As we talked, we were treated to some light hors d’ouevres of canapés, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, crackers, cheese, meats, and veggies.

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Mmm!! Hors d’ouevres.

We would take part in the mystery of Where There’s a Will, There’s Away.  We were assigned characters and told that one of us was a murderer, but that the murderer would be unaware of that fact.  A very intriguing twist on the mystery.

I picked the character of Dr. Benjamin Pike.  He was a very successful doctor who had grown bored with his work.  He had been the personal physician of the wealthy businessman for the past 10 years and was preparing to lead a UNICEF group funded by his friend to teach advanced medical techniques to the locals in South America.  Dr. Pike was connected to two other suspects:  the businessman’s widow, Marion, with whom he had an intense and instant dislike and Nurse Freda Moore with whom he’d had a brief fling.  Freda had taken the break-up quite badly and Pike had fired her hoping to put their relationship in the past by keeping her away.

The inn has costumes for the event and I was dressed in a tuxedo dress shirtt, black dress pants, a black vest, gray cravat, and white dinner jacket.  In my room were waiting my personal dress shoes and socks to complete the illusion.  As I read the dossier, I drew on my theatre background and decided Pike should be an arrogant, sharp tongued jerk, but tempered with a powerful sense of morality.

Once downstairs, we were met by Gloria Gottrocks, the queen of accessorizing, who furthered our outfits.  From Ms Gottrocks, I received a gray fedora, stethoscope, and organ transplant bag.  I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but I will say the key is to use your knowledge of the characters and their relationships to ferret out clues that point to the truth.

But the centerpiece of the event is the dinner.  I’d gladly do this again and again simply for the meal.  Our night began with a dinner salad with a berry vinaigrette dressing and some fluffy, buttery croissant rolls.  During the first course, Officer Ima Fuzz joined us and told us of the death of Arthur and to take our preparation orders.  Amazingly, all of us had ordered the Steak Lilli.

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Officer Ima Fuzz

As we discussed the case, the chef brought out the main course of Steak Lilli, butternut squash, and rice pilaf.  As I began to cut my medium steak, I noted how tender it was.  But after that first bite, I was in heaven.  Hands down, the very best steak I have ever tasted.  During the main course, Officer Fuzz came back with the autopsy report and pieces of evidence found at the scene of the crime and to take orders for dessert.

I opted for Death by Chocolate.  As I savored dessert, Officer Fuzz came back one more time to bring Arthur’s will to his lawyer.  We had the reading of the will, a final discussion, and then Officer Fuzz solved the crime.

It was truly a grand evening.  Once done, I got back into my civvies and shared some conversation with Pamela, Doug, Jim, and Elizabeth before retiring to my room for the evening.

This was the best sleep I had enjoyed in ages.  I rose early to begin writing and went down to breakfast at 9am where I met the usual crowd and we were joined by another couple, Steve & Sheryl.

Today’s meal consisted of fried potatoes (perhaps with some rosemary), a dish of fruit, sausage, and a quiche made of eggs, peppers, and mushrooms.  Again it was another fantastic meal made all the more memorable by great conversation.  Sadly, it all had to come to an end and we had to break up the group to go our separate ways.  This was the best group of people I had met at an inn and I hope to stay in touch and, God willing, I hope our paths cross again.

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Quiche, fried potatoes, sausage.

I had a feeling that this particular outing was going to be something special and my instincts were correct.  Mont Rest Inn is a must see experience and it gets my highest recommendation for a visit. If you want to experience a vintage B & B, then you need to go to Mont Rest. Naomi and Company are wonderful cooks and hostesses.  The inn is comfortable and beautiful.  There’s much to do in the area.  And there is a plethora of dining events to be enjoyed at the inn, though I certainly would recommend your taking part in a murder mystery.  This is an inn that I’m going to make a point of returning to at some point in the future.  They also know how to do Christmas right.

Until the next time, happy travels.

It’s a Wonderful Play

George Bailey is a good man who has been pushed to his breaking point.  Deciding that the world would be better off without him, George contemplates suicide.  But a kindly angel trying to earn his wings is about to show George the difference one person can make.  This is It’s a Wonderful Life by Phillip Grecian and it is currently playing at the Grand Opera House.

It’s rare, but once in a great while I actually get to attend a show purely as a patron.  However, I was so touched and impressed by this production that I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard and share its wonderfulness.  This is a terrific show for the holidays and Grecian has written a beautiful script that is full of warmth, sensitivity, strong dialogue, a bit of melancholy, and is so full of hope.  His words are brought to incredible life by a powerhouse cast that maximizes the fullest potential of the script.

Michelle Blanchard deserves the highest, possible praise for her direction of this story.  It is so strong and confident.  She knows exactly where this story is going and knows how to get her cast to that destination.  Every beat is a bullseye.  Every emotional shift is spot on.  Ms Blanchard has coached her cast to superb performances and this cast, without question, projected better than any I have previously heard.

With a cast of excellent actors, it’s very hard to limit myself to just a few choice performances.  But some of the quality performances you will see in this show come from Helen Waldmeier who brings a sweetness and fun to her portrayal of Mary Hatch-Bailey; Trenton Sanchez who ably plays the younger version of George Bailey with his integrity and gentleness; and John Gunther whose rich baritone voice rings with a kindly authority as Joseph, God’s right hand angel.

Stephen Green is all aces as George Bailey.  Green’s Bailey is so full of decency and goodness that you feel better about yourself for having met him.  Green is so, so convincing as a man who has constantly sacrificed his dreams and desires in order to fulfill a greater good.  He also wisely adds just the right touch of sadness to Bailey to show that he often muses about what might have been which makes his joy when he realizes his true value all the more moving.  The only slight difficulty with his performance is that Green seems to suffer from the same issue as Gregory Peck.  He’s so good at being good that his rare moments of anger and frustration seem a pinch off the target.

Robert Armstrong brings a quiet strength to his take on Clarence.  He’s a simple angel second class who has been trying to earn his wings for 200 years.  He’s a good listener and has genuine empathy for people.  Armstrong also gives his Clarence the ability to think fast on his feet as his idea of jumping into the river to get George to save him seems very extemporaneous. He also injects a bit of playfulness into the role with his confrontation with the play’s de facto villain, Mr. Potter.

Danny Fairchild’s Henry Potter is the guy you love to hate.  Fairchild steals his scenes with a Potter who is oily, manipulative, curmudgeonly, and vengeful.  Fairchild is an amazing actor with a grand gift for a turn of the phrase.  His sense of timing was deadly accurate and, son of a gun, he managed to be humorous in his unlikability as well.  It is a well constructed and crowd pleasing performance.

Frank McClain’s sounds were some of the best I’ve heard in a production, especially the twinkling sound effects when Clarence was communicating with Heaven.  Jan LaVacek has made a nearly bare bones set with the bridge over Bedford Falls being the only constant.  I liked the efficiency of his set which could rapidly change into Ma Bailey’s home to the Bailey home to the Bailey Building and Loan to Potter’s office.  Gloria Fitzpatrick’s costumes were so natural and suitable that I thought the cast was wearing their own clothes.

As I earlier stated, this is the perfect show for the holiday season.  It’s sweet.  It’s funny.  It’s hopeful.  It also show us just what great gifts we can be and that we all have the power to be that force for good in the lives of others.  There are only 2 performances left.  Don’t miss out on this touching show.

It’s a Wonderful Life continues at the Grand Opera House until Dec 3.  There is a performance tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2pm.  For tickets, contact the theatre at 563-588-1305 or visit www.thegrandoperahouse.com.  Tickets cost $20 for adults and $12 for 17 and younger.  The Grand Opera House is located at 135 W 8th St in Dubuque, IA.