In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

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Sing a Song of Death

This is the story of Sara.  Sara was kind of a wild child who dated a bad boy bartender named Tom.  One day, Sara tires of Tom and meets Michael who is kind, stable, and safe.  Sara and Michael marry.  After a few years, Sara yearns for her former life and contacts Tom and that’s when things take a turn.  This is Murder Ballad, a rock opera written and with lyrics by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I could make this the quickest review in history and just say it’s phenomenal.  Go see it.

But you’d probably like to know a little more.

While I was intrigued by the plot of this play, little did I know I would end up watching one of the 5 best shows ever produced at the Playhouse.  Ms Jordan has written a tight, crisp story full of little twists and tragedies and Ms Nash’s music is one of the best musical soundtracks I have ever had the pleasure to hear.

The direction of Jeff Horger is utterly beyond reproach.  The energy of his actors never wanes and his staging is impeccable with his performers never taking a static moment and making use of the entire theatre for their movements.  Horger has also guided his thespians to universally marvelous performances with each actor not only being a top flight singer, but possessed of the ability to act through the songs of this opera.

The highest compliment I can pay to Leanne Hill Carlson’s portrayal of Sara is that I felt not one ounce of sympathy for her.  Zip.  Nada.  Zero.  Ms Hill Carlson has complete mastery of her character as she neatly travels the labyrinth of Sara’s arc.

She begins as the party girl living a vapid existence of partying and sex with Tom.  Then she longs for something of substance and meets Michael.  She seems quite content with a life of domesticity, but still has the appetites of her previous life to which she all too readily succumbs. The guilt of her poor choices clearly weighs on her shoulders, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her with her tendency to jerk around both men in her life.

Ms Hill Carlson also has a terrific higher alto/lower soprano voice with which she emotes the heck out of her songs.  From a bit of sultriness when she tries to seduce Michael when she first meets him, to her boredom of family life, to her regrets at her lousy decisions, Ms Hill Carlson was just a joy to listen to.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character I wanted to put my arm around and buck up more than John E. Jones’ Michael.  Jones has a sweet and haunting tenor voice that added such an emotional purity to his characterization of Michael.  His portrayal of Michael was so full of decency and goodness that I felt my heart drop when Sara began cheating on him and he still sang about how much he loved her and wanted to fix whatever was wrong with their marriage.

But watch out when he learns the truth of his wife’s liaisons.  Then Jones is perfectly believable with his righteous anger at being cuckolded and his determination for vengeance against Tom.

Thomas Gjere’s Tom is a most complex character, indeed.  What I liked most about Tom was that he truly was the reverse of Michael.  Where Michael was all about stability, Tom is instability at its peak.  He begins as being not too bad of a person except for his lust for Sara and I actually felt sympathy for him when he was still toiling away as a bartender regretting not fighting for Sara when she left him.

But that decency rapidly vanishes when he engages in a tawdry affair with a now married Sara and becomes quite the obsessed stalker oozing danger and menace as he darkly tells Sara she belongs to him.  Like Jones, Gjere also has a fantastic tenor voice but he makes certain to mine it for all the malevolence of which it’s capable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mackenzie Dehmer who makes a stunning debut at the Playhouse with her role of the Narrator.  Trust me, Ms Dehmer is no mere storyteller.  Her Narrator is an integral part of this play as she involves herself in the lives of these characters.  I found myself often watching her just to see her reactions to the events swirling around her.  Ms Dehmer’s Narrator is a pretty dark character, often seeming to enjoy the chaos going on around her, yet seems to have a soft spot for Michael’s plight.  Ms Dehmer also has a powerful alto as she belted out her numbers and her movements were so lithe and smooth.

Technically this show was also a perfect ten.  Jim Othuse has turned the Howard Drew into a perfect dive bar while Darin Kuehler’s properties complete the picture.  And, believe it or not, the audience can order drinks from the bar and play billiards and pinball before the show starts.  Chris Wood’s lighting design was brilliant as his lights transformed with the emotional beats ranging from a sad blue to a hostile red.  Amanda Fehlner costumed her actors precisely to their personalities from Michael’s white collar nature to Tom’s blue collar dangerousness to Sara’s seductiveness and finally to the Narrator’s fun, but dark essence.  Doran Schmidt and her house band rocked all night long.

This is a truly can’t miss spectacle.  In fact, I liked it so much I just may go see it again.  If you want to see a well sung story with compelling characters, you must see Murder Ballad.  It’s the most original and rewarding play produced in years.

Murder Ballad plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through November 20.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to some strong language and adult situations, Murder Ballad is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.