Cotton Patchin Time Again: Hannibal, MO & Garth Woodside Mansion

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Garth Woodside Mansion

Today the road has brought me to Hannibal, MO.

I had actually had this journey on my mind for quite a while.  When the opportunity arose to review a professional production of Cotton Patch Gospel, I knew I would be making my way to Hannibal and a visit to Garth Woodside Mansion, owned and operated by John and Julie Rolsen.

It was an absolutely perfect day for a road trip.  The sky was sunny and clear and the temperatures were downright springish.  I had a fairly smooth ride into Hannibal, though Google Maps tried to make me take a left turn at Albuquerque.  I ended up finding the road I needed anyway, so neener neener Google!

The inn is located in a secluded area along a gravel road and is of great historical interest as it has a direct connection to the town’s most famous resident, Samuel Clemens AKA Mark Twain.

The original owners of the inn were John Garth, a successful Hannibal businessman, and his wife, Helen.  The home was built on his farm, Woodside, in the late 1800s.  John and Helen were lifelong friends of Twain who often visited the mansion.  In fact, one of the rooms in the inn is called the Samuel Clemens and Twain actually stayed in the room whenever he visited the Garths.

As I pulled up to the inn, I took a moment to soak in the impressive structure. When you think bed & breakfast, this is the type of building that springs to mind. If the inside was anything like the outside, I knew I was falling into the lap of luxury.  I bumped into another couple on my way to the front door and we were met by Julie Rolsen.  Julie is easily one of the most gregarious innkeepers I have met on my travels and she and her husband have wickedly sharp senses of humor.  If you stay here, read the book on the inn in your room and you’ll agree with me.

After giving us the nickel tour, Julie showed me to the Rosewood, my base of operations for the next few days.  Admittedly, I wanted to stay in the Samuel Clemens to really absorb the inn’s sense of history, but I had been beaten to the punch.  On the other hand, I did get to become a part of a unique piece of inn trivia.

The bed in my room is called the most expensive bed in Missouri.  It’s a hand carved piece of artistry insured for $55K.

After settling in, I did my explorations.  And there is a lot to explore.  Not only is this place one of the most beautiful and luxurious inns I have visited, but it is also one of the largest.  The first floor gives you a sense of history as the furniture is original to the home.  The entire property is remarkably preserved which I attribute to the small number of owners which the property has had.  The Rolsens are only the sixth owners.  Pretty impressive for a 100 plus year old mansion.

I had scheduled a ghost tour for 7pm, so I headed to downtown Hannibal for an early dinner before learning about the haunted history of Hannibal.

I opted to try the Mark Twain Dinette and it was a bit of a mixed bag.  The ambiance is quite nice, but the food was just OK.  I had a Roughin It burger which included pepper jack, chili ranch, and bacon which did fill the cavity.

Afterwards, I explored the main street area.  Though I, to my chagrin, failed to observe them, take a look at the artistic fire hydrants.  They were all painted by Julie.

Downtown Hannibal is pretty compact and most of the interesting sites are all pretty close to one another.  I went down to the Hannibal History Museum and picked up my ticket for the tour.  As the trolley wouldn’t load until 6:50pm, I continued looking around the downtown area and found the Bluff City Theater and City Hall.  Believe it or not, the two buildings are actually connected for my upcoming play review as the theatre is producing the show, but the play is being presented environmentally at City Hall in the council room located on the second floor.

About 6:50, I returned to the museum where I boarded the trolley.  Ghost tours are always an interesting way to learn about a town’s history and Hannibal is reportedly one of the most haunted cities in the country.  The tour consists of traveling to various buildings and hearing about the hauntings and there were some very interesting tales.

One such tale was the story of three boys who disappeared when they went off to explore one of the numerous caves under Hannibal.  In spite of an intense search costing over one million dollars and lasting over a month, the boys were never found as the caves under the town are deep and labyrinthine.

One of the boys reportedly haunts a family, but it is a good haunting.  The ghost is the friend of the family’s little girl, who calls him Shippa.  Our guide showed us a photo of Shippa taken by the little girl on her fake tablet and even I admit that it is a pretty impressive piece of evidence that bears a remarkable similarity to one of the missing boys.

The other tale was a sensitive point in the history of Hannibal.  There was a wealthy businessman named Amos Stillwell who had a younger wife named Fanny who was the belle of the ball.  One winter’s night, Fanny was asleep with her children and her husband came home late from a card party held at the home from his good friend, Captain Munger.  Not wanting to disturb his wife and children, Stillwell retired to his bedroom.

Around midnight, Fanny heard her husband stir in the other room and say, “Fanny?  Is that you?”  At that point a hidden intruder rose out of the darkness and killed Stillwell with a double bladed axe.   Fanny stayed hidden with the children until she was certain the coast was clear, left the children with the maid, and rushed to get their family friend, a doctor, who lived a few blocks away.

The doctor told Fanny he’d be over immediately and that’s when things started getting weird.  Instead of going to the police who were next door to the doctor, Fanny returned home and started cleaning up the gruesome crime scene.  The doctor came over and was shocked at Fanny’s actions and called the police.

The police came with the city physician.  Needless to say, the police were very upset that the crime scene had been tampered with.  Then another strange thing happened.  The city physician refused to let the police question Fanny Stillwell, saying she was too distraught.  This further angered the police as they now had a useless crime scene and a witness whom they couldn’t question.  Even with the help of the Pinkertons, the police were never able to gather much evidence in the mystery.

Nine months later, Fanny married the city physician which was very suspicious and enraged the citizens of Hannibal who literally chased the couple out of town.  The couple would return to visit friends several years later and were arrested for the crime.  However, with the passage of several years, there was even less evidence than before and the city physician was found not guilty and charges against Fanny were dropped.

A book was written about the case and one of the last remaining copies exists at the Hannibal Public Library.  The reason for the book being out of print is that the writer did not get permission from all family members and printing was halted.

Today, it’s reported that the ghost of Amos Stillwell roams the old home of Captain Munger which is now a restaurant known as LaBinnah Bistro.  The reason for this being is that Stillwell spent many happy hours at card parties here and his original home was demolished in the hopes of stopping hauntings there.

Our tour ended in an old Baptist cemetery where we were given dowsing rods to sense paranormal activity.  Allegedly, spirits exude a magnetic field and the rods will be pulled towards it and cross at the point of activity.  Honestly, I did feel the tug and the rods did cross, but dowsing rods also locate water, so while interesting I leave it for the reader to decide if it was science or spirits.

Still, it was a very interesting experience and, as I’ve said, always a good way to learn about local history.

From there it was back to the mansion, where the day’s long drive and activity finally caught up with me.  I drew a bath in the clawfoot tub that was just the perfect temperature, soaked, then curled up in my bed to get a $55K sleep.

I awoke refreshed and hungry.  About 9am, I headed downstairs to breakfast.  John and Julie were clearly born to the B & B business.  Both are natural hosts, chatting with guests and making sure they are provided for.  I sat down to a goblet of Garth Juice.  As John says, “It tastes good and it’s good for you.”  Julie prepared a hot chocolate for me and John also brought me water and milk while I worked through a dish of fruit and a muffin.

The main entrée was a quiche filled with broccoli, cheese, eggs, and ham.  It was a tasty way to start the day and provided needed fuel for a day filled with activities.

I got things going immediately after breakfast with a visit to Mark Twain Cave.

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This name isn’t an attempt to cash in on Twain’s name.  Twain often explored this cave as a boy and he uses this cave in several of his books.  It’s an entertaining and informative little tour, but you may want to bring a jacket as the cave stays at 53 degrees year round.

I really wanted to explore Cameron Cave as well, but the next available tour wasn’t until noon and that tour is 90 minutes and I had an appointment at 1:30.  So, it’s something to look forward to in another visit, especially since you’re provided your own lantern to explore this cave.

From Mark Twain Cave, I headed to the Haunted House on Hill Street.  They were offering a special where for $10 I could tour the house and Karlocks Kars and Pop Culture.  I took them up on the offer.

There isn’t much to the haunted house.  It actually opens with a room filled with 25 intricately sculpted wax figures of Mark Twain, his family, and characters.  Narration is provided giving a history of Mark Twain, his family, and the inspiration for his characters.  Afterwards, you go through a cheesy little haunted house not unlike ones you’d find at a county fair.

Karlocks was a bit more interesting.  It’s a museum filled with vintage cars and sundry pop culture items.  There’s even a bit of a vintage arcade, but playing the games costs quarters.

After my brief tours, I headed over to the Mark Twain Riverboat for a little cruise on the Mississippi.

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The Mark Twain

I took a seat on the top deck outside the pilot house.  Before setting sail, several blasts are made on the whistle and those by the pilot house need to cover your ears.  It was quite a relaxing jaunt as Captain Steve pointed out several points of interests such as Lover’s Leap and Jackson Island which also found its way into the stories of Mark Twain.

During the ride you will actually cross the state line into Illinois and you may just see some wild life.  I saw a couple of alligators silently swimming in the Mississippi and I finally understood just how dangerous they could be as the way they swim do make them seem like sticks or logs.

After a journey on the mighty Mississippi, I returned to Garth Woodside to get cleaned up for church and the show.

I attended services at Holy Family Catholic Church and I would like to clone this church and replicate it for all of my journeys.  This is what worship needs to be like.  Everyone was happy to be there and was ready for Jesus.  You could genuinely feel His presence.  And they were so welcoming.  Father Jim Wheeler asked if there were any visitors and asked us where we were from.  The congregation was so welcoming as I had several brief conversations after church.  Father Jim also gave a great sermon about us needing to be Jesus with skin on which provided a lot of inspiration and food for thought.

Worship certainly prepped me for the faith inspired play, Cotton Patch Gospel, which was being performed at Hannibal City Hall.  It was an interesting and original take on the story and you can read my review here.

After the show, it was back to Garth Woodside and another good night’s sleep.

Somehow the alarm on my clock was turned on and buzzed me up at 6am.  Getting back to sleep wasn’t happening so I wrote my review on the play and got back to work on this article.  I got to this point and went downstairs to breakfast.

OK, I’m back.  Today’s meal consisted of Garth juice, milk, fruit, peach muffin, and breakfast pizza which consisted of egg whites, bacon, sausage, and a pita or sourdough crust.  Julie also made me a mug of English Toffee hot chocolate topped with crushed Heath bits because chocolate makes everything better.

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Breakfast pizza

I ended up having a lively little conversation with the Rolsen family before returning to my room to finish the article and dilly dally until checkout time at Julie’s insistence.  😉

And that about wraps it up for this edition.  If you’re in the Hannibal area, get a room at Garth Woodside Mansion.  It’s a wonderful inn hosted by great people in a private locale and the food is fantastic.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Bluff City Theater’s ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Flips the Script

Something’s brewin in Gainesville.  Wonder what it could be?  Something’s brewin in Gainesville.  Come on down and see.  Come on down and see the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style and an extra twist as well.  It’s Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin and based off a book by Clarence Jordan.  It is playing at Hannibal City Hall under the auspices of Bluff City Theater.

In the intro I alluded to an extra twist with this particular rendition of Cotton Patch Gospel.  In keeping with its tradition of turning established shows on their heads, this production is comprised almost entirely of female performers and that includes the two primary roles of the Narrator and Jesus.

Some might think that’s shocking, but it really isn’t and this is why.  Tom Key wrote this play in a very unique way.  It can be done as a full cast or a small cast or, in true storytelling format, a one person show.  That last style is exactly how this show is presented.  The Narrator (Taylor Pietz) starts telling the story as an audience member after the first number and then takes over the stage as she becomes most of the main characters as she shares the story of Jesus.

Herbie Barnes does a pretty sophisticated bit of direction with this piece.  I greatly admired his staging of the show as he made stellar use of the fixedness of the council room.  The chorus would pop in and out from behind the bench for certain scenes and numbers and his narrator used every inch of the space to tell this story.  He also thoroughly understood the twists and beats of this tale and led his two primary actors to capable and potent performances as they told that story.

Taylor Pietz plays. . .pretty much everyone who isn’t Jesus.  It is a grueling and grand performance as Ms Pietz effortlessly and easily transforms herself into numerous different characters and she does it with such subtlety.  She pulls her shoulders back and adopts a slight sneer and she’s a rather vile Herod.  Putting on a stole, she’s a high energy John the Baptist.  With a slump of her shoulders and tears in her eyes, she’s a sympathetic Jud who believes betraying Jesus will ultimately save him.  That particular performance is one of her strongest of the night as she plays both the broken Jud and the villainous Dr. Caiaphas (done with veiled, disdainful eyes and miming the smoking of a cigarette) in an intense conversation as the plot to arrest Jesus is created.

Ms Pietz’s voice is quite heavenly.  She’s got a glorious soprano that goes almost operatic on occasion and she has that ability to act through her songs as she never drops character.  Notable numbers were her Herod proudly taking credit for the murder of innocent children in “I Did It”.  A harried Simon “Rock” Johnson trying to organize Jesus’ takeover in “We Gotta Get Organized”.  Two of my favorites of hers were a somber take on “Are We Ready?” that kicks off Act II and a hopeful, joyous rendition of “Jubilation”.

Courtney Friday pulls double duty as Jesus and as Assistant Musical Director for the show.  She has the right qualities for the Son of Man as she projects a real sense of innocence and goodness.  But I also see loads of untapped potential in her lines and I would love to see her play with the words a bit more to maximize the full force of her role.

Her musical chops are quite top of the line.  Not only did she and musical director Colin Healy lead the band to top notch performances of the score, they also rearranged it a bit which I believe added a bit of vitality to the show.  Ms Friday is also a wonderful singer with a wide range as she could sing alto and soprano equally well.  Top songs from her were a sad, haunted take on “Goin’ to Atlanta” as her Jesus fears his imminent lynching and the joyous “Well I Wonder” to close the show.

The two ladies are supported by a chorus of little girls who have voices of angels and flesh out crowd scenes and provide a little choreography to some of the musical numbers.  But I would like to single out Evie Rodenbaugh for a stellar performance.  She has a natural instinct for acting as she was fully invested in the action of the play and added tiny little details that added so much.  Most impressive was a touching moment when she was weeping over the dead daughter of a government official that Jesus raises from the dead.

Chris Davis’ lights are quite amazing, especially considering his having to adapt them to a most unusual performance space.  His idea of using flashlights for the night of Jesus’ arrest is inspired.  The band of Erich Eastman, Jacob Mreen, and Brendan Rodgers provide some great music and a few comedic moments as well.  Eastman, in particular, has a beautiful tenor singing voice well utilized in a few solos.

All in all, I found it to be a very satisfying night of theatre, especially with the superhuman storytelling abilities of Taylor Pietz.  This production truly gives truth to the line “The Greatest Story Ever Retold”.

Cotton Patch Gospel plays at Hannibal City Hall through August 4.  Performances are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm plus a Saturday matinee at 2pm.  Tickets cost $26 for adults and $15 for children.  For tickets, visit www.bluffcitytheater.com or www.eventshannibal.org or call 573-719-3226.  Hannibal City Hall is located at 320 Broadway in Hannibal, MO.

Sioux Empire’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Explodes with Awesomeness

His best friend betrayed him.  His followers can’t understand his message.  His Father needs him to die to fulfill his mission.  This is Jesus and this is the story of his last week of life in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, currently playing at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.

There are certain shows that I hold to higher standards due to my affinity for them.  Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows and after the first act, the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production had eclipsed nearly all of my standards.  This show is incredible!!  It’s got tip top acting, stellar singing, inventive choreography, outstanding technical elements, and spot on direction.  This particular production has entered my top 10 of the best shows I’ve seen and my top 3 of the best out of state shows I have reviewed.

Eric Parrish takes on the demanding task of serving as both director and musical director of this show and is superb in both roles.  Parrish’s band (Garret Hansen, Tyson Conn, Trace Mahoney, Royce Kuenzli, and Rod Jerke) starts off red hot and just gets hotter as the night goes on as they never miss a trick or note of this legendary score.  Parrish’s direction is simply a thing of beauty.  He has set the show in a post-apocalyptic society where Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees, and the Romans are depicted as rival gangs which I found positively inspired.  His staging is phenomenal and exhausting.  Static this show is not as his actors hurtle about the stage non-stop.  He also knows how to pull the very best out of his actors as I couldn’t find a weak link in the lot.

The supporting cast does excellent work as they enhance the show with their reactions, but they also acted through the scene changes which was crucial to keeping the show’s energy up.  Standout performances include Dennis Berger as Peter and Devin Basart as Annas.  Berger has a bright, light tenor that I could listen to all day and really shone in “Could We Start Again, Please?”.  Basart is a wonderful bootlicking lackey to the high priest whose operatic tenor soared in “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money”.

Darren Lee’s take on Judas Iscariot has to be seen to be believed.  He presents Judas as a man whose relationship with Jesus has been frayed to the final thread.  He still respects Jesus, but he thinks Jesus is leading them all to their deaths due to his delusions of grandeur of being God’s son.  I loved how he skulked about in the darkness, glaring at Jesus whenever he did something with which Judas disagreed.  So realistic was the tension that I almost thought that Judas was going to slug Jesus at a couple of points.  Lee also ably portrays the regret and guilt of Judas after he betrays Jesus.

Lee also has a monstrously powerful tenor.  His voice is reminiscent of a young Meat Loaf as he belts out power numbers with “Heaven On Their Minds”, “Damned for All Time”, and “Superstar”.

What words could I use to describe Raine Jerke’s rendition of Jesus?  Mind blowing.  Staggering.  Powerful.  Haunting.  Good words to be certain, but they seem to fall short of the true awesomeness of his work.  I was gobsmacked to find out that Jerke has very little acting experience as he has an ease and naturalness equivalent to an actor with years of experience.  His expressions are pitch perfect.  His reactions deadly accurate.  His acting so nuanced as he swings between love for his followers in “Poor Jerusalem” to boiling frustration with them in “The Last Supper” and the extreme agony and fear of his death in “Gethsemane”.  So moving was that last number, that tears welled up in my eyes.

Jerke’s singing voice is astonishing.  His soaring tenor captured every tiny emotional beat of every number and managed to hit the nearly inhuman falsettos required of the role without popping a sweat.

Jenn Evanson Lee is wonderfully sweet as Mary Magdalene.  Her work is admirable as she portrays Mary as Jesus’ most loyal disciple.  Indeed she is the only one who actually tries to give Jesus the comfort and support he needs instead of just taking from him.  She also has a fabulous soprano which ranged from soothingly calm in “Everything’s Alright” to emotionally puzzled as she wrestles with her own feelings for Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.

James Van Oort radiates menace and authority as the high priest, Caiaphas.  This is truly a dangerous man and not someone you want as an enemy.  His deep and mighty bass driving home those points in “This Jesus Must Die”, “Hosanna”, and “Trial Before Pilate”.

I rather liked Rick Weiland’s original take on Pontius Pilate.  His first appearance is the only time we see him without his mask and he is a decent and just man puzzling over his dream about the Nazorean (“Pilate’s Dream).  In all of his other appearances, it’s clear that his authority is in his position as he lacks the confidence to withstand the extreme pressure the Pharisees are putting on him to crucify Jesus.

Neil Simons’ lights were the best I have ever seen in a show.  His lights were almost separate characters enhancing every moment of the show.  I was especially impressed with how they would go red or dark whenever evil seemed to be getting the best of Jesus.  Kathryn Pope’s costumes were amazing.  Keeping with the gang mentality, you had the leather jackets of Jesus’s crew and the suits and sunglasses of the Pharisees.  What I found most intriguing was that every character wore black to symbolize the darkness they were in while Jesus wore an off white shirt showing him as the light of the world.  Tiffany Koppes’ choreography was highly entertaining and inventive, especially her hilarious routine for “King Herod’s Song”.  I also adored Brad Waltman’s crumbling Colosseum set.

There were a few minor glitches in the show.  Some microphone issues cropped up in Act II and a little of the dancing could have been smoother, but these tiny things pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the show.  As the house was nearly full, I suspect a monster hit is on the hands of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.  I heartily recommend getting a ticket before it’s too late.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre through May 21.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com.  The Sioux Empire Community Theatre is located at 315 N Phillips Ave in Sioux Falls, SD.

One Queen Too Many

Two queens.  One rules England, though her claim to the throne is sketchy at best.  Another is imprisoned in a gilded cage with the threat of the axe looming over here, but still harboring hopes for freedom and the English throne.  The two engage in a private war fought mostly by proxy in which only one queen can survive.  This is Mary Stuart, an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play by Peter Oswald and playing at the Joslyn Castle under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.

Schiller’s play is a nifty historical thriller.  He clearly had great understanding of the history of this particular period of the Tudors as well as great insight into human nature as his play touches on lust, betrayal, conspiracy, Machiavellism, and ambition run amok.  The story is completely dialogue driven, but every conversation and monologue builds to a climax of its own which serves to keep the audience’s attention glued to the tale.  Peter Oswald has updated the language to be more understandable to a modern audience yet still retain the feel of Schiller’s original story.

Lara Marsh provides an exceptionally strong bit of direction to this story.  Her actors never let the pace drag in the talky production, not by speaking faster, but by closing the spaces between their words, letting the dialogue retain its meaning.  Ms Marsh understands every jot and tittle of the play, expertly guiding her actors through the story’s numerous climaxes and resolutions, coaching her players to extremely realistic performances which was rendered more difficult with the audience up so close and personal to the performers, and making full use of the tiny performance space with impeccable staging.

There wasn’t a weak link in the large cast (beautifully costumed by Wesley Pourier), but there were several standouts in supporting roles.  These included MaryBeth Adams as Mary Stuart’s loyal and feisty servant, Hanna Kennedy; Steve Denenberg and Adam Hogston as Amias Paulet and George Talbot, who are the only court members truly concerned with Queen Elizabeth I’s welfare; and Eric Grant-Leanna as Davision, a nervous and befuddled new appointee to the court who falls victim to Elizabeth’s machinations.

Delaney Driscoll brings power and regality to the role of Mary Stuart.  Although she’s been imprisoned for the last quarter century, Ms Driscoll’s Mary Stuart is still every inch a queen.  It’s an astonishingly multifaceted performance as Ms Driscoll gracefully glides between being assured in her royalty in an early confrontation with Lord Burleigh (played by John Hatcher), to softer, gentler moments with Hanna, to being desperate and vindictive when she finally meets Elizabeth I, to a calm, but firm assurance of her right to rule England and her standing before God when she makes her final confession.

Charleen Willoughby’s take on Elizabeth I is almost the flip side of Mary Stuart.  Where Stuart is full of confidence and certainty in her right to be England’s queen, Ms Willoughby’s Elizabeth is plagued with self-doubt and insecurity.  Knowing that her right to rule is tainted by her illegitimate birth, Ms Willoughby’s Elizabeth is determined to overcome that taint by being the perfect queen.  That drive for perfection actually prevents her from taking decisive action and she is constantly seeking the counsel of her court.

But take care as Ms Willoughby’s Elizabeth is not as weak and willowy as she likes to pretend.  She does hold her own strong opinions and is not afraid to stick to her guns.  She is also very adept at manipulating situations to accomplish her darker whims while salving her conscience.

Eddie McGonigal plays Mortimer, the play’s lone fictitious character.  Mortimer is a traitor to the English throne and spearheads a rescue operation to liberate Mary Stuart and get her the English crown.  McGonigal’s performance is sensational as his Mortimer is so loaded with arrogance, it’s practically seeping out of his pores  If that isn’t bad enough, Mortimer’s grip on sanity is tenuous at best as he fancies himself an avenging angel doing God’s will in saving Mary Stuart.  He also lusts for a sexual relationship with the Queen of Scots culminating in a near rape of her at the end of Act I.

Few actors bring the type of naturalness John Hatcher brings to a role.  As William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, Hatcher always sounds extemporaneous, doubly impressive given the heinousness of his character.  Hatcher’s precise inflection choices beautifully animate his subtly bloodthirsty character with just the right touches of anger, manipulation, and snide pride.  Lord Burleigh wants Mary Stuart dead at all costs to solidify his power base with Elizabeth I and will do anything to make it happen such as softly cajoling Elizabeth into signing the death warrant for the good of England or gently putting the screws to Paulet to let an assassin reach Mary Stuart.  It is one of the night’s most mesmerizing performances.

You would think that Lord Burleigh would be the story’s primary villain, but I believe that (dis)honor goes to David Mainelli’s portrayal of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.  I consider Mainelli’s performance to be his one of his finest due to the difficulty of this character.  Where Burleigh is open and up front with his villainy, Maninelli’s Dudley is a despicable, slimy worm working from the shadows.

Machiavelli is put to shame with Dudley’s machinations.  He loves power so much that he dumped his fiancée, Mary Stuart, because he thought he could do better and began wooing Elizabeth I.  Then he gets involved in the rescue operation of Mary Stuart because he still loves her and then turns on her when the rescue fails and his own survival is at stake.  In all of his oiliness, Mainelli manages to give Dudley a small kernel of decency with his regret at betraying Mary Stuart and finally makes a noble sacrifice to expiate his guilt.

Nearly every character in this play has an ulterior motive.  Elizabeth I needs to remove Mary Stuart to legitimize her claim to the throne.  Mary Stuart needs her freedom to usurp the throne from Elizabeth I.  Robert Dudley needs to increase his power base by any means necessary.  Mortimer wants to save Mary Stuart to be her lover.  Lord Burleigh wants to maintain his own power base and keep England separate from its enemies (all other countries in his mind).  These motives make these characters utterly hateful, but also make for a most compelling night of theatre as well.

Mary Stuart will play at the Joslyn Castle under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company from May 4-25.  Showtimes are Wed-Fri at 7:30pm.  There will be one Saturday performance at 7:30pm on May 6 and no performance on Friday, May 5.  Tickets cost $25 ($20 for students/seniors/military).  For tickets, please call the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company at 402-502-4910 or visit www.bsbtheatre.com.  The Joslyn Castle is located at 3902 Davenport St in Omaha, NE.

 

The Story of the Lost Tudor

Mary Stuart AKA Mary, Queen of Scots was not the most liked of people.  She was Queen of France by marriage and Queen of Scotland by blood.  After losing the French throne due to the death of her husband, Francis II, Mary Stuart moved to Scotland to claim her royal throne and rule over a less than enthused citizenry.  The murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, began a chain reaction that would end with Mary abdicating the Scottish throne, fleeing to England to seek sanctuary from her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I, and ultimately be imprisoned and executed ostensibly for the murder of Lord Darnley, but, in actuality, due to her attempting to claim the English throne.

A dramatized version of the aftermath of Mary Stuart’s trial will be presented by the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company in the play Mary Stuart opening May 4 at the Joslyn Castle and starring Charleen Willoughby as Elizabeth I and Patty Driscoll as Mary Stuart.

The centerpiece of the play is a fictional conversation between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, but the play is not simply about the two queens.  It is the story of multiple factions jockeying for power as conspiracy mounts upon conspiracy in a secret war that can only end with one queen standing.

Director Lara Marsh said, “[Directing this production] is a guilty pleasure” due to her love of the Tudors.  She further stated, “People often forget that Mary was a Tudor and had a legitimate claim to the throne of England. . .It’s time that Mary’s story was told.”

Indeed, as the grandniece of Henry VIII, Mary Stuart’s claim to the throne may have been stronger than Elizabeth I’s as she was the illegitimate child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

Prepare yourselves for an explosive night of theatre where you’ll be thrust into a web of intrigue as one queen schemes for her freedom and another tries to prove her legitimacy.

Mary Stuart will play at the Joslyn Castle under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company from May 4-25.  Showtimes are Wed-Fri at 7:30pm.  There will be one Saturday performance at 7:30pm on May 6 and no performance on Friday, May 5.  Tickets cost $25 ($20 for students/seniors/military).  For tickets, please call the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company at 402-502-4910 or visit www.bsbtheatre.com.  The Joslyn Castle is located at 3902 Davenport St in Omaha, NE.

 

What Have We Learned?

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Nils Haaland stars as Arturo Ui in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” at the Blue Barn Theatre

A lowly gangster rises to power in Chicago with the conquering of the greengrocery trade.  This is the story of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Yes, I realize the plot sounds like a comedy, but it’s not.  This play is a satire on the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and is actually one of the gutsiest pieces of literature ever written as Brecht wrote it in 1941, shortly after Hitler gained ascendancy in Europe.

This play is vintage Blue Barn as it is challenging, make you think theatre with an experimental flavor.  Brecht has a very real/unreal style to his writing and you may find the story a bit confusing.  However, there is a detailed explanation on what to expect from the production in the program and moments from Hitler’s rise to power are projected onto a screen after every major scene to demonstrate the parallels between the play and reality.

I don’t think Susan Clement-Toberer could give flawed direction even if she tried.  Once more, her gift for nuance and character shows itself in a tour de force effort.  The staging is quite clever as she manages to fit her rather large cast onto the narrow dock that is Martin Scott Marchitto’s set.  I found the use of video footage to parallel Ui and Hitler to be quite beneficial and she once again leads a powerhouse cast to a series of strong performances.

While largely an ensemble piece, this show rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Arturo Ui and one could not find a better choice for the role than Nils Haaland.  Haaland once again throws himself into a role as he utterly transforms himself into Ui.  He nimbly handles the long and difficult wordplay of Ui with astonishing ease and displays new facets of the character almost every time you blink.

Haaland is just a sad piece of work at the play’s start as he laments being a common criminal out of the public eye.  Once he finds an in to the greengrocery trade, Haaland evolves (perhaps devolves?) Ui from a two bit hood to an inhuman monster as his power base grows.  The fleeting signs of humanity Haaland shows at the beginning of the show rapidly vanish as he is willing to betray and kill allies and friends to achieve his dream of conquering the nation.

Mike Markey does a superior piece of character acting as Old Dogsborough.  Markey hides his fitness well as the elderly, infirm Dogsborough who unintentionally provides Ui the means to start taking over the greengrocery trade.  Markey does an excellent job showing an extremely honest man buckle under the temptation of material gain.  From there, Markey’s body language shows a man slowly dying a living death as his body sags and collapses with each future appearance due to his guilt of letting Ui get his hooks into him due to one greedy choice.

Daena Schweiger’s performance as Emanuelle Giri is not to be missed.  Ms Schweiger is chilling as the psychopathic Giri who’s notable for a fetish for hats and a piercing, knifelike laugh.  Her Giri has no redeeming qualities and possesses a lust for power not unlike Ui’s own as she plots the death of a rival in Ui’s camp.

Jens Rasmussen makes his mark with his Blue Barn debut as Givola, another crony of Ui.  Rasmussen’s sense of movement is second to none as he has grace and fluidity which is all the more impressive given the beautiful limp he gives his character.  Rasmussen’s performance is quite memorable as he makes his Givola a potent blend of oily suck-up and Machiavelli.

Other strong ensemble performances come from Brennan Thomas who plays Ui’s right hand man, Ernesto Roma.  Roma’s penchant for danger and violence is matched only by his extreme loyalty to Ui.  One could argue that he is Ui’s one true friend which means absolutely nothing to that animal in human clothing.  Jennifer Gilg also shines in several character roles, but is particularly good as Betty Dullfleet, a criminal from another city who tries to stop Ui’s rise, but ultimately succumbs to his will.  J.J. Davis provides a bit of welcome levity as Ted Ragg, a reporter who bravely needles Ui.  Paul Boesing’s rich voice is suited to his roles as the show’s narrator and a classical actor who teaches poise and presence to Ui.

The Blue Barn clearly felt that the circumstances that led to Hitler’s rise are present in today’s political atmosphere with some subtle references in the actor’s costumes and a rather charged and colorful closing speech from Haaland.  It’s truly spooky to think that an evil like Hitler was able to rise to power and nearly won.  It’s even spookier to think that the present world climate could give rise to another like him.  As the play’s title suggests, Hitler could have been resisted.  As you watch this play and see what it tries to teach, ask yourself, “What have we learned?”

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the Blue Barn through October 16.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Sept 25.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Due to strong language and adult situations, this show is not recommended for children.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th Street in Omaha, NE.

Pretty Powerful Poison

Molina and Valentin are as different as night and day.  Molina is a flamboyant homosexual imprisoned for corrupting a minor.  Valentin is a young revolutionary full of piss and vinegar.  Yet an unlikely friendship grows between them which will be tested by a cruel warden.  And over all of this looms the specter of the Spider Woman in Kiss of the Spider Woman currently playing at the Barn Players.

Turning Manuel Puig’s heavily dramatic novel into a musical is certainly a tall order.  But Terrence McNally’s script combined with the incredible score of John Kander and Fred Ebb and the amazingly talented cast of the production makes for much much more than an effective musical.  It makes for one of the best shows I’ve seen in over 20 years of being involved with theatre.

Eric Magnus doesn’t miss a trick with a masterful piece of direction.  The staging is the strongest I’ve ever seen with Magnus’ cast making full use of Doug Schroeder’s simple and beautiful set of bars and stairs.  Magnus has pulled nearly perfect performances out of his entire cast and decisively navigates the multiple twists and turns of the plot with pinpoint accuracy.

Rarely have I seen a nuanced performance the likes of the one supplied by Joell Ramsdell as Molina.  As Molina, Ramsdell is unabashedly and unashamedly gay.  But his flamboyance covers a desperate loneliness.  All he wants is a friend.  He survives the hell of this prison by escaping into fantasy.  He thinks of his mother.  He fondly recalls the numerous movies he’s seen.  He remembers lavish musical numbers with his favorite actress, Aurora.  But he fears Aurora’s character of the Spider Woman who is Death incarnate and that character he often sees in his daily life.

The depth and range of Ramsdell’s acting is truly astonishing.  Starting off as a coward, he shows small signs of strength as he helps Valentin survive his imprisonment.  A strength that grows as his friendship with Valentin blossoms.  This leads to some of the show’s best scenes as Ramsdell shows the intense agony of a man forced to choose between his friend and his mother before making a choice that shows the meaning of courage.

Ramsdell also has a fabulous tenor which he adapts easily to comedy in “Dressing Them Up” or heart-wrenching drama in “Mama, It’s Me”.

Paul Brennan III matches Ramsdell step for step with his stirring rendering of Valentin.  Valentin is an angry revolutionary who fully believes in his cause and wants nothing to do with his new cellmate at first.  As he slowly accepts Molina’s friendship, Brennan beautifully evolves his character to show him capable of love, humor, and a bit of shocking Machiavellism.  Up until the end of the show, Valentin’s cause and desires still are the most important things in his life and he manipulates Molina’s feelings for him with an act that is both tender and selfish to get him to do what he wants.  But Molina’s choice at the play’s climax finally pushes Valentin to look beyond himself.

Brennan’s tenor will make your insides turn to jelly with a velvet voice that effortlessly knocks emotional pitches out of the park with numbers such as “Marta”, “Anything for Him” and “The Day After That”.

JC Dresslaer gets the show’s most interesting character in the form of Aurora/Spider Woman.  She’s mostly a fictional character in this world whose purpose is to help Molina, later Valentin, maintain sanity in the nightmare world in which they live.  But this allows her to do some brilliant character acting as she portrays Aurora’s various characters.  Most notably a wild rumba number (“Gimme Love”) to close out Act I and a hilarious piece of melodrama complete with over the top Russian accent to open Act II.

But Ms Dresslaer’s character of the Spider Woman haunts the world of the show with a most eerie reality and finality.  Dressed in a simple black dress, the Spider Woman exudes menace and, dare I say, gentleness with every appearance.  Yes, her appearances mean death, but she also wants to show that death is not something to be feared.

Ms Dresslaer’s dancing is so silky smooth, it makes all of her musical numbers showstoppers.  She also has a pitch-perfect alto used to excellent effect in “Come” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.

I was extraordinarily impressed with the mileage Emerson Rapp got out of the role of the Warden.  It’s not a big role, but the evil which Rapp imbued into the character made sure the audience was spellbound each time he appeared on stage.  He clearly considers the prisoners animals suitable for torture and murder.  He will do anything and I mean ANYTHING to get what he wants.  Poisonings, beatings, emotional manipulation, bribery. . .it’s all fair game to one of the most insidious characters I’ve seen brought to life on stage.

Paul Secor Morrel and his orchestra deftly handle the varied score with an evening of precise instrumentation.  The costumes of Fran Kapono-Kuzila are well suited to the show from the tattered rags of the prisoners to Molina’s kimono and scarves to Aurora’s numerous costumes for her numbers.  The ensemble cast also stayed in every moment to add crucial life to the story as well as adding strong voices to the chorus.

Musicals often get flak for being shallow on substance, but Kiss of the Spider Woman proves that a musical can be just as challenging and deep as straight theatre if given a chance.  If you love great theatre then you need to go and see this show.  Then you need to tell others to go get a ticket so they can see this show as it deserves a sold out run.

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at the Barn Players through October 2.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 2pm. There will be an Industry Night performance on Sept 26. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID), and groups of 10 or more.  Industry Night tickets will be $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Due to sensitive thematic material and some strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.