The Bird is the Word!

Conrad loves Nina who is smitten with Trigorin who is the boyfriend of Emma.  Mash adores Conrad, but is pursued by Dev and Dr. Sorn just wants a hug.  This is Stupid F@#!ing Bird, a sort of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull written by Aaron Posner and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is one of the smartest, cleverest, funniest scripts I have ever seen produced.  Posner has a great gift for wordplay and his writing shows a love for and a frustration with the work of Chekhov.  A sort of adaptation is the best way to describe this piece as it is not a complete parody of The Seagull.  It mostly retains its story, but modernizes the language and peppers it with light-hearted comedy and fourth wallbreaking self-awareness.  But it also has its fair share of deep and serious moments as well.

Suzanne Withem deserves high praise for her direction of the play.  Her direction has a decisive energy which emerges in the constant movements of the actors, preventing the show from ever being static.  Her staging is precise and utilizes the full space with the actors even getting up into the stands with the audience.  Ms Withem has also done a sterling job leading her actors through this play as there isn’t a weak link in the lot.

Beau Fisher is quickly becoming one of my favorite performers to watch due to his naturalness and boisterous energy.  He scores another hit with his take on Conrad.  Fisher easily comes off as an innovator seeking to create new forms of artistic expression.  He is also the tortured artist who loves Nina too much and is frustrated by the fact the Nina does not love him back to the same degree.  Fisher skillfully vacillates between the emotional highs and lows of Conrad while deftly handling the character’s difficult wordplay.  While his love for Nina is a bit smothering, it does pull at your heart as it is a genuine love from a man who has never really known love himself.

Raydell Cordell III anchors the show as Conrad’s best friend, Dev.  Dev is the only truly likable character in the show.  He’s also one of two characters who end up truly happy at the show’s end.  Cordell brings a cute awkwardness to Dev with his pursuit of Mash and inability to say the right thing in a group setting.  Yet, in one on one conversations, he proves himself to be an able listener, a wise advisor, and a rock of support.

Sonia Keffer gives an eye opening performance as Emma Arkadina, Conrad’s mother.  Ms Keffer’s Emma is a slightly boozy, extremely cynical and successful actress who, like her son, doesn’t really understand love and happiness and readily admits to it.  She is content to live a life being hated quietly and filling it with money and men.  Emma does have a kind of caring for her son, but it never really germinated into love.  Instead it takes the form of a territoriality as she will fiercely protect what belongs to her when she sees it threatened or hurt.

Alissa Hanish cuts a very pitiable figure as Nina, the seagull of the play.  Hanish gives us a Nina who is a lost child who thinks she knows what she wants out of life, but when she gets what she thinks she wants, she learns that it was just poisoned fruit.  She is easily swayed by the illusion of the surface and cannot see the truth below.  Ms Hanish conveys these ideas not only through her delivery of the dialogue, but through her superior sense of movement.  Through movement, Ms Hanish displays comedy with her moves during the performance event “We.  Are.  Here.”; confusion, love, and a desperate search in a prolonged sequence when she constantly kisses Conrad, but blindly searches for something greater; and a descent into madness when she collapses into hysterics at the play’s climax.

Potent supporting performances are also given by Michael Markey as the lonely Dr. Sorn; Aanya Sagheer as Mash who sings depressing songs inspired by her unrequited love for Conrad; and Kevin Anderson as the pretentious genius writer, Doyle Trigorin.

The sounds of John Gibilisco and the lights of Darrin Golden become supporting characters in the play as they had a crucial extra dimension.   This is especially noticeable with the shadowy lights of Golden when the play veers into experimental performance art and Gibilisco’s mystical sound of the seagull.

The movement direction of Wai Yim adds a beautiful bit of art to the production while Lindsey Pape’s costumes suit the cotemporary feel of the show as the performers really seem as if they’re wearing their own clothes.

A couple of the actors needed to pump up the volume a bit, but all voices carried well and Jim Othuse’s simple set of a curtain and small stage lent itself well to the inherent creativity of the show.

In closing, all I can say is now you’ve heard about the bird and I’m telling you, man, that this bird is the word!

Stupid F@#!ing Bird plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Nov 12 at the Omaha Playhouse. Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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It is a Brilliant Thing

After his mother attempts suicide, a little boy decides to write a list covering every brilliant thing in life.  This list follows the boy as he grows into a man and experiences the highs and lows of life.  This is Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan and it kicks off the Blue Barn Theatre’s 29th season:  Connect.

MacMillan has written a pretty potent script “based on true and untrue stories” and it has a little bit of something for everyone.  It’s funny.  It’s poignant.  It’s thoughtful.  It’s relevant.  The play centers around the theme of suicide and provides a hopeful message:  things will get better.  This message is laid out with facts, stories, and audience participation.  I thought the audience participation element was positively inspired because this is a story that we are all part of as all of us have felt down in life and needed a little picking up.

An interesting thing about casts is that the smaller they are, the stronger they have to be.  When dealing with a one person show, not only does the actor’s talent have to be of phenomenal quality but he or she needs an almost symbiotic relationship with an equally talented director in order to find, develop, and relate the innumerable beats of the story.  Fortunately this show illustrates just such a relationship as the impeccable direction of Susan Clement-Toberer combined with the acting chops of Hughston Walkinshaw result in a night of theatre that is somber, moving, light, funny, and strong.

Ms Clement-Toberer’s staging is of superior quality as she breaks down the barriers between actor and audience.  Walkinshaw performs in the round and is centimeters away from the audience. Never is there a static moment as Walkinshaw constantly moves around the room and engages the audience, bringing them deeper into the world of this tale.

So natural and extemporaneous is Walkinshaw that it almost doesn’t seem like he’s acting.  It’s almost as if he’s telling his own life story.  But it is an arduous and triumphant performance as Walkinshaw has to constantly be on his toes and be aware of every moment as he may have to fill in the blanks or gently move things along during the audience participation moments.

Walkinshaw’s interpretations are so spot on and precise.  At one moment, he is an innocent little boy facing death for the first time when his beloved dog is put to sleep.  In a flash, he’s a college student finding love for the first time.  In the blink of an eye, he’s a jaded adult facing his own battle with depression which causes his marriage to crumble while he deals with the hideous reality of suicide in his own family.  Yet, through it all, he maintains his grip on hope with the ever growing list of brilliant things.

Shea Saladee softly lights the performance space with a series of vintage chandeliers.  Craig Marsh’s sounds take the form of music which plays an important emotional role in this show.  And the final number will be the “happiest sad song” you ever heard.  Amy Reiner’s properties of bits of the list truly enhance the spontaneous nature of the unnamed character’s writings.

This is theatre at its purest.  At its most intimate.  At its most beautiful.  At its peak.  It’s a masterful opening for the Blue Barn and you will regret it if you miss this one.

Every Brilliant Thing plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through Oct 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm (The Oct 8 show will be at 2pm.).  Tickets cost $35 for adults and $30 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

This Shop is Worthy of a Visit

Seymour Krelborn has one dream:  to get out of Skid Row.  One day fate seems to offer him a shot at that dream when he buys a strange, exotic plant which he exhibits in the window of the florist shop where he works.  Suddenly Seymour has fame, money, and the girl.  And all it took was a little blood.  Find out the rest of Seymour’s story in Little Shop of Horrors  by Howard Ashman with music and lyrics by Alan Menken. It is currently playing at Bellevue Little Theatre.

Ashman’s script is a bit of genius.  He took a cult horror film and managed to turn it into a hit musical due largely to his tongue in cheek approach to the material and the snappy score of Alan Menken.  The tongue in cheek approach was certainly the way to go as it helps disguise the fact that this is a pretty bleak tale.  Nearly all of the characters are unlikable and it does not have a happy arc.  In spite of that, you can’t help but have a great time due to the comedy and memorable songs.

D Laureen Pickle’s direction is a strong bit of work as she has led her cast to some fine characterizations and knows how to balance the serious moments with the over the top moments.

The cast was quite clearly enjoying themselves which really adds to the fun of the show.  Some notable supporting performances were supplied by Carrie Beth Stickrod, Samantha Shatley, and Brenda Smrdel as a trio of chiseling Skid Row do woppers who also serve as the play’s musical narrators; James Verderamo as a sadistic dentist; and Christopher Scott as Mr. Mushnik, the greedy and abrasive owner of the florist shop.

When I envision Seymour Krelborn, Kyle Avery is the image that springs to mind.  Avery was a pitch perfect Seymour as his lean and lanky physique were well suited to the nebbish Seymour.  Rest assured that Avery’s acting and singing chops were also more than up to the challenge of the role.  Adopting an adenoidal, Brooklyn tinged voice, Avery well presented Seymour as a shy, nerdy man who merely wants a few nice things out of life, but whose innocence leave him susceptible to manipulation by others.  Avery gives Seymour an inherent decency that makes his struggles with his conscience quite believable when he starts to go down a darker path due to the machinations of his plant, Audrey II.

Avery possesses a strong and sweet tenor voice that he modulates well emotionally with heartbreaking numbers such as “Skid Row” and “Suddenly, Seymour”.

Jen Dillon is delightful as Audrey.  Ms Dillon utilizes a breathy, Brooklyn voice to communicate the uneducated nature of Audrey, but, boy, does she have a heart of gold.  She is a really nice girl who just happened to be born on the wrong side of the tracks and you really pity her as she seems resigned to being poor and being involved with rotten men.  She also has a lovely soprano with which she can either belt out a tune such as her sequences in “Skid Row” or melt your heart like butter in “Somewhere That’s Green”.

Andrew Miner gives an incredibly animated performance as Audrey II.  What makes it even more amazing is that it’s all done by the power of his voice as Audrey II is nothing more than a series of puppets (kudos to the puppet designer by the way).  Miner gives Audrey II a delicious aura of evil and a malicious mean streak.  His powerful upper baritone singing voice also aid in communicating Audrey II’s nastiness with tunes such as “Feed Me (Git It)” and “Suppertime”.

D Laureen Pickle’s set design really looks like a skid row with its dilapidated, abandoned buildings and garbage strewn streets.  Lindsey Pape has designed a series of pluperfect costumes from Seymour’s nerdy outfit of baseball cap, sweater, and glasses to the disheveled clothes of the Skid Row inhabitants to the do wop outfits of the Skid Row trio.  Chris Ebke and his band provided a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment performing the catchy tunes.  I also want to note the puppetry of Brian Henning which made Audrey II seem like a living entity.

Energy seemed to lag a bit in today’s production and projection was all over the map.  I also thought there was room to go a bit bigger in some of the show’s more over the top moments.  But these are easily remedied items which will make a hot show scalding.

It may not be a happy tale, but, by golly, it’s a fun time.  Take a visit to this shop.  Just remember, don’t feed the plants.

Little Shop of Horrors plays at Bellevue Little Theatre through Oct 1.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $10 for students.  For tickets contact the theatre at 402-291-1554 Mon-Sat from 10am to 3pm.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

When Darkness Falls

Three con men are trying to get hold of a doll stuffed with $50K worth of heroin.  They believe the doll to be in the possession of a photographer and his blind wife and believe the wife will be an easy touch.  But they’re about to discover how blind that assumption is.  This is Frederick Knotts’ Wait Until Dark and it is currently playing at the Slightly Off Broadway Theatre.

Knotts has a real gift for crime drama.  His scripts tend to build slowly to create delicious tension as the plot works its way up brick by brick and then having the hammer drop when the tension is at its peak.  This play is no exception to that rule, but it also has a terrific thrust and parry as the three con men trade off control of the situation with the blind woman until the final, epic confrontation where only one will win.

Jean Meachum’s direction is quite admirable.  Due to the con game, this play is quite talky, but Ms Meachum prevents the play from being static by having the actors constantly moving about the stage, physically representing the ever present tension of the situation.  She has also guided her thespians to solid performances and I loved the staging of the piece, especially the fact that the three con men tend to always be in the room with their blind target as their facial expressions and actions show how easy they think their victory will be.

Strong supporting performances are given by Ryan Drew as “Sgt. Carlino” and Libby Matthews as Gloria.  Drew is so natural and extemporaneous as the not so mentally swift con man who constantly wipes off his fingerprints.  Ms Matthews is perfectly bratty as the obnoxious child who lives upstairs, but proves she’s got a good heart when real danger threatens.

Colonsay Selby gives a stunning performance as the blind Suzy Hendrix.  Ms Selby excellently conveys Suzy’s blindness with a thousand yard stare and never making eye contact with the other cast members.  She also does it physically as her movements show that she is familiar with her apartment, but not overly so.

Ms Selby’s acting is also top quality as she well communicates the helplessness Suzy feels as she is still not used to her blindness, but also summons the grit, courage, and brains needed to survive this dangerous game with these 3 criminals.

David Shewell brings intelligence and smoothness to his portrayal of “Mike Talman”.  This is a man who knows how to get what he wants from his marks and prides himself that he doesn’t need to resort to violence to get it.  Shewell’s velvety rich baritone makes it easy to see how women (his usual targets) are taken in by him.  But Shewell also gives a kernel of decency to his con man as he relents from using his obvious physical advantage over Suzy when she is at his mercy.

Joe Caronia is downright terrifying as “Mr. Roat”.  Caronia’s “Roat” brims with confidence and you always have the sense that he is one step ahead of everybody else which allows him to take control of any situation.  But what’s so spooky about him is how soft-spoken he is.  All of his quiet words are tinged with an edge of menace that should put anyone he speaks to on guard.  Justifiably so, as Caronia is such an awesome physical specimen that there is little doubt that his “Roat” could inflict great damage when the whim strikes.  I also enjoyed Caronia’s versatility as he plays a couple of characters as part of the con who are night and day different from the menacing “Roat”.

The program lacked a credit for set design, but it was a splendid construct which had the look and feel of a basement apartment.  The props of Sarah Oldham and Ernie Snyder really made the set seem like a real home.

There were a few line bobbles in the night’s performance and pacing and cue pickups needed stepping up to add to the play’s crucial tension.  That being said, it didn’t put a damper on this thriller especially in the electrifying finale.

Wait Until Dark is an exciting nailbiter and it will keep you on the edge of your seat.  Get a box of popcorn and ready your spine for tingling.

Wait Until Dark plays at the Slightly Off Broadway Theatre through Oct 1.  Performances are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 5pm.  Tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for children.  For tickets, contact the theatre at 816-637-3728 or visit www.sobtheatre.org.  Parental discretion is advised for this show.  The Slightly Off Broadway Theatre is located at 114 N Marietta St in Excelsior Springs, MO.

Take A Chance on It . . .

Sophie is getting married and she’s inviting her dad.  The trouble is that she doesn’t know who he is.  Using her mother’s diary, she has discovered three possible candidates, but will she be able to discover which one, if any, is her pop before her big day?  This is the story of Mamma Mia! written by Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Stig Anderson.  It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Mamma Mia! is one of those shows that’s short on story, but long on fun.  It’s a crowd pleasing, raucous romp where the tale is meant to take a back seat to the music.  But I promise you that you’ll be singing along and bopping to the ABBA tunes interpreted by Jim Boggess and his superior orchestra long before the night is through.  The show is strengthened remarkably by the direction of Jeff Horger who kept the energy and joy flowing through his cast and maximized a few serious moments along the way.  It also doesn’t hurt that Horger’s cast includes a slew of some of the finest talent in local musical theatre.

Frankly, I thought the work of the ensemble was worth the price of admission on its own.  If you took away the rest of the cast and just had to watch the shenanigans, antics, and singing of the chorus, it would still be a great time.  They are that good.  It’s some of the best harmonizing I’ve heard in a show and be on the lookout for Marcus Benzel as Dionysus.  Without uttering a single word, he tells a fantastic story through facial expressions and body language.

There are so many strong performances in the supporting cast that it’s hard to know where to begin.  For starters, there’s the work of Brendan Brown and Justin Eller who show some impressive comedic chops with their roles of Eddie and Pepper, the “help” at the Villa Donna.  Angela Jenson-Frey and Emily Peklo sparkle as Tanya and Rosie, the best friends of Sophie’s mother, Donna, and her former singing partners.  Ms Jenson-Frey is tremendous as the shallow and snobby, but good-hearted, Tanya and Ms Peklo is a hoot as the tomboyish Rosie.  Both ladies also have fabulous altos which they put to good use in “Dancing Queen” as well as in solo moments, specifically “Does Your Mother Know?” for Ms Jenson-Frey and “Take A Chance on Me” for Ms Peklo.

Jacob Roman and Mike Palmreuter entertain as 2 potential candidates for Sophie’s father.  Palmreuter plays Bill, a travel writer with a major phobia for commitment while Roman plays Harry, a successful British banker whose headbanging leaves something to be desired.  Roman has a particularly lovely tenor which soars in “One Last Summer”.

Victoria Luther gives a winning performance with her take on Sophie.  Ms Luther brings a real sweetness and honesty to the role.  There’s really nothing terribly sneaky about her plan to invite her possible fathers to her wedding.  Once she meets them, she’s actually mostly up front about why she invited them.  Ms Luther can also belt a tune as her soprano kept batting musical pitches in numbers such as “Honey, Honey”, “The Name of the Game”, and “Slipping Through My Fingers”.

Sarah Ebke is a force as Donna, Sophie’s mother.  Ms Ebke’s Donna is an independent woman used to standing on her own two feet as she raised a daughter plus single-handedly ran a hotel.  But she’s also a very dedicated mother and a very sensitive soul.  Ms Ebke’s magnificent alto got many of the night’s best numbers including “Mamma Mia”, “The Winner Takes it All”, and “One of Us”.

Adam Hogston has, arguably, the most well developed character in the form of Sam.  Hogston’s Sam is clearly still in love with Donna and Hogston displays a mighty emotional range and haunting emotional vulnerability as he wrestles with the multifaceted feelings wrought by his love from his nervousness about seeing Donna again to talking about the dissolution of his marriage with Sophie.  Hogston’s tenor will really touch hearts especially with his melancholic rendition of “S.O.S.”.

Jim Othuse opts for a simpler set with a hotel that evokes images of a Spanish villa and a dock with a view of the sea.  His lighting was also right on the mark with their changes with the emotional beats of the play.  Darin Kuehler’s properties added just the right touch, especially the pictures and items in Donna’s room.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are varied and strong from the beachwear, to the ABBAesque costumes seen at the curtain call and Sophie’s bachelorette party, to the hideous leisure suits worn by the potential papas at the start of Act II.  Melanie Walter’s choreography is a wonder.  Her dancers are satin smooth and I was especially impressed with the comedic swimwear number that kicked off Act II plus the curtain call number.

Mamma Mia! delivers exactly what it promises and that’s a rip roaring good time.  The songs are memorable and the dancing is entrancing.  A nearly full house seemed to agree with my assessment and another Playhouse hit seems to be on the horizon.  Oh, and I can already see the T.A.G. nomination for Best Ensemble for that curtain call.

Mamma Mia! plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Oct 15.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Wednesday night shows are $32 for adults and $20 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Get Bent

Max is a liar and con man.  He is also a marked man as Nazi Germany has passed a law outlawing homosexuality and ordering homosexuals rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  Max will do whatever it takes to stay alive and out of the clutches of the Nazis, but one lover will cause Max to hide his true self while another will restore it.  But the cost is terrifyingly high.  Discover the price in Bent by Martin Sherman and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

Sherman has written a neat little script that abounds with hope, tragedy, and even a touch of comedy along with some nice foreshadowing and surprises.  He also focuses on a lesser known bit of knowledge about Nazi Germany in that homosexuals were just as much of a target as the Jewish people with the twist that this group was viewed even less favorably.  Sherman uses an interesting conceit of having his primary characters have no accents despite their being German natives.  This adds an everyman quality to the characters showing that the evil and persecution they faced was a problem for humanity and not just a localized, national issue for Germany.

This play is uniquely suited to Joshua Mullady’s talents as a director as nobody knows how to craft character conversation scenes quite like him.  This is essential for this particular play as it is almost completely dialogue driven requiring a director who knows how to keep the life and energy pumping through the wordplay.  And Mullady does this in spades with his actors delivering extemporaneous dialogue with some of the sharpest cue pickups I have heard.

The entire cast does a fine job in supporting this story as each adds a precious bit of life to the production and all have absolutely perfect projection.  With that being said, I’d also like to salute Don Harris’ standout cameo performance as a bloodthirsty and psychotic Gestapo guard as he will make your blood boil with his cruelty and viciousness.

Ben Beck doesn’t even seem like he’s acting in this play as he is so natural and believable as Max.  He’s actually quite the scoundrel as he supports himself with cocaine dealing and con jobs and routinely lies like a rug.  But he also shows bits of a tender heart as he tries to help and save the two men in his life.  Unfortunately fate seems bound and determined to work against him as his own survival instinct crooks his efforts. This gives Beck the opportunity to beautifully sell two powerfully emotional scenes at the end of each act that are guaranteed to move even the coldest of hearts.

The two men in Max’s life require a bit of yin/yang quality and that quality is well embodied in the casting of Beau Fisher and Eric Grant-Leanna.

Beau Fisher plays Rudy, Max’s lover before his imprisonment by the Nazis.  Rudy’s function is to let Max be the strong protector.  Fisher embodies Rudy with a childlike innocence and trust in Max.  He is perfectly content to enjoy life as a dancer and watering his plants, fully trusting in Max to take care of the important things to ensure their survival.  But this childlike trust eventually destroys Rudy once he becomes the hunted as his happy-go-lucky existence renders him unable to fend for himself.  When he faces the ultimate challenge on his way to Dachau due to his need for glasses, Fisher’s screams and cries will chill you to the bone and his final fate will reduce you to a puddle of tears.

While Rudy allows Max to be the protector, the function of Horst, Max’s lover in Dachau, is to allow Max to be the protected.  Eric Grant-Leanna skillfully embodies this quality as he teaches Max how to survive in their personal piece of hell.  He’s tough.  He’s knowledgeable.  He’s loving.  He also helps Max to remember who he really is through his love which culminates in an incredibly and intense romantic scene made all the more stunning as it is done solely with the power of voice, words, and imagination as neither Max nor Horst ever touch each other.

I can’t say enough good things about the technical elements of this show.  Ben Adams’ set is a phenomenal, dilapidated flat that transforms into the barbed wire surrounded Dachau and in the midst of it all is the ominous pink triangle which marked all homosexuals in the concentration camps.  Zach Kloppenborg’s costumes are well suited to the era especially the costumes of the prisoners and stormtroopers.  As always, Joshua Mullady’s lights imbue the show with a special bit of life and Daena Schweiger’s sound design further bolsters the play, especially the air horns and crackle of the electrified barbed wire.

Though these voices be of the past, their words still ring loud and clear today. Our world is still very much in a war against evil and this play reminds us that we are still in the thick of a fight.  But it also reminds us that that fight can be won when good people bind together and counter it with faith, hope, peace, and love.

Bent plays at SNAP! Productions through Sept 17.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, seniors (55+), TAG members, and military, and $12 for all Thursday shows.   For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.snapproductions.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, Bent is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California Street in Omaha, NE.

‘Eminent Domain’ Conquers the Playhouse

An estranged family reunites to wage battle against an oil company seeking to use eminent domain to claim part of the family’s land.  But the fallout from the court battle and the actions of one of the company’s employees may tear the family asunder once more.  This is the story of Eminent Domain by Laura Leininger-Campbell which is making its world premiere at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Ms Leininger-Campbell has written an exceptionally thought-provoking and powerful story.  What I found most impressive about the tale was its deceptive simplicity.  Through ordinary conversation, Ms Leininger-Campbell taps into the heart of what it means to be family.  The love.  The banter.  The fights.  The heartache.  The camaraderie.   The unity.  It’s undoubtedly one of the most real and believable plays I have ever seen with a tight, well-balanced script that gives all of its characters a chance to shine.

This strong script is further aided by a cast consisting of the cream of Omaha theatre under the watchful eye of Amy Lane who leads her cast to a series of sterling and stellar performances.

Memorable performances are supplied by Chris Shonka and Christina Rohling.  Shonka plays Trent Nichols, an attorney for the oil company who seems like a decent man who, through business or circumstance, brings the MacLeod family buckets of grief when he files the claim of eminent domain and cuckolds the son of the MacLeod patriarch.  Ms Rohling plays Theresa MacLeod, the unhappy wife of the cuckold who feels like, and is treated as, an outsider by the MacLeods and longs for a better life away from the farm.

My personal favorite performance was Eric Salonis’ interpretation of the autistic Evan MacLeod.  As Evan, Salonis nails the nuances of autism with his completely blank features, failure to make eye contact, laserlike focus on tasks, twitching, monotone speech patterns, and repetitive motions.  Though he often seems in his own world, Salonis’ Evan is more aware of things than one may think as he often tries to help his family through difficult moments by offering them his grandfather’s watch to wind.

Bill Hutson is quite the character as Rob MacLeod.  As the patriarch of the MacLeod clan, he is irascible, foul mouthed, set in his ways, and slightly prejudiced.  Hutson effortlessly swings from one extreme to the other as Rob engages in loud arguments with his family and then, just as easily, sits down for an enjoyable meal with them.  Rob is the type of old-fashioned man who thinks he always has to be strong and in control to lead his family which makes his emotional collapse in Act II all the more heart-wrenching.  But his collapse is what finally allows him to show his real heart and strength.

Erika Hall Sieff is definitely her father’s child as Adair MacLeod.  She is just as stubborn and pig-headed as he is and their similarities led to their long estrangement prior to the events of the play.  Ms Hall Sieff is marvelous as the lawyer who returns home to help save the family farm from the greedy oil company and well embodies Adair’s potent sense of justice.

Jeremy Estill gets the play’s most tragic character in Bart MacLeod.  Estill’s Bart is a borderline, if not full-blown, alcoholic whose drinking hides his frustration at giving up a potential and promising career as a poet to return to the family to help his father, Rob.  Estill’s Bart has an incredible command of the English language which he uses to provide some of the show’s lighter moments and softening some of the darker ones.  Despite his issues, Estill will make you feel Bart’s pain when he learns of his wife’s adultery and finally explains the motivations for his life’s choices.

Technically, this show was a masterpiece.  I was floored by Michael Campbell’s scores and arrangements, especially the driving drumbeat in Act II which supports the play’s darkest moments.  John Gibilisco’s sounds were top notch especially the sound effects of the thunderstorms that served as ominous omens.  Jim Othuse’s farmhouse was a thing of beauty and his lights were wonderful in showing the passage from day to night.  Megan Kuehler’s rural costumes really gave the actors the look and feel of a Nebraska farming family.

Ultimately, this play is a great slice of life story.  While it may sound cliché, you will laugh, cry, and think.  Eminent Domain is a real winner and I am so pleased that the Playhouse took a chance on mounting such an extraordinary story.  Don’t do a disservice to yourself by missing this show.

Eminent Domain runs at the Omaha Playhouse through Sept 17. Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.