Rebel’s Heart

Rebel Randle P. McMurphy accepts a commitment to a mental ward to avoid a sentence to a work farm.  The charming ne’er-do-well quickly comes into conflict with Nurse Ratched, the dominating ruler of the ward.  His victories over the cold-hearted nurse begin to breathe new life into the ward, but when he learns his stay in the institution can be extended indefinitely, his personal war with Ratched takes on dire stakes where it becomes clear only one of them will be left standing.  This is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman and based off Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name.  It is currently playing at Florence Community Theater.

I’ve always been a big admirer of this show, not only for the strong story and compelling characters, but for its themes of societal views on mental illness, what it means to really live life, the triumph of the underdog and the corruption of power, just to name a few.  The themes and characters of this show are brought to vibrant life by a colorful, energetic and mighty cast that came out with all guns a blazing with some storytelling that does extreme justice to this tale.

Neal Herring provides some superlative direction for this piece.  Doing double duty with set design, Herring stages the story in the unfriendly, starched white walls of the mental institution where the patients live a monotonous and controlled existence under the thumb of Nurse Ratched.  Herring utilizes the space quite well as each patient carves out his own little nook in the ward.  He’s also led his thespians to well-developed performances as all characters have their quirks and tics which wonderfully create this little slice of purgatory.

I applaud the ensemble for giving its all to the show.  Each and every one remained involved in the story and had mannerisms and/or reactions that told me something about them which helped to build this little world.  Some notable performances in the ensemble came from JJ Davis who seems to have had one shock treatment too many with his take on the hallucinating Martini and Jim Watson who gives a very empathetic performance as Dale Harding, the patient ward’s president who is wrestling with his own sexual identity.

Brian Henning gives quite a moving performance as Chief Bromden, the show’s narrator.  Henning has a wonderful gift for pantomime and some of the most expressive eyes I’ve ever seen on a performer.  His eyes often let me read his thoughts as Chief has buried his sense of identity so deeply that he rarely speaks (the narration is done via voiceover) and pretends to be deaf and dumb so he won’t have to react to anything around him.  It’s a joy to watch Henning’s Chief slowly blossom to life under the encouragement of McMurphy and his antics and his emotional breakdown during the play’s resolution is one of the finest heartbreaking moments I’ve seen in Omaha theatre.

I can’t say enough good things about David Frolio’s performance as Randle P. McMurphy.  It is a truly a nuanced, spellbinding interpretation and I foresee Frolio being in the running for some Best Actor prizes come awards season.  Frolio is just a force of nature.  He comes blowing into the asylum like a storm and is so animated and fun to watch.  His McMurphy is truly a rebel.  He cares little for rules and authority and loves to fight and f—k.  But he also has a heart of gold as he truly befriends the patients and fights for them even when he’s causing trouble for his own amusement.  Frolio carefully walks the line with McMurphy’s battles with Ratched as he expertly acts as the burr under her saddle while tempering his behavior so she is unable to counterattack with the resources at her disposal.  Frolio steadily builds and builds the tension until his McMurphy is finally forced to take drastic action when a beloved comrade falls victim in the war between he and Ratched.

Shelly Gushard gets an awful lot right with her take on Nurse Ratched.  Gushard’s Ratched is the god of this little world and woe betide any who thwart her commandments.  She’s also clearly the yang to McMurphy’s yin, not just in personality, but physicality as she is clearly the stronger of the two which added to her aura of power.

I liked how controlled she was and never allowed Ratched to get overly emotional.  With a look and a glare, Ratched is even able to cow and bend the asylum’s doctor to her steely will.  I also enjoyed how she would take little moments to exert control over her emotions when McMurphy pushed her buttons.  But I think she’s got the room to be even colder, downright frigid I dare say, which would well suit the machinelike Ratched who genuinely believes her routines and rules and morality will help cure the patients.

Tim Mantil gives an extremely moving performance as Billy Bibbit.  Mantil nails Billy’s shy nature with his soft-spokenness and believable, naturalistic stuttering.  He also brilliantly communicates Billy’s constant thoughts of suicide with his twitchy movements, distressed expressions and persistent touching of his bandaged wrists.  He just needs to be a little careful with his voice as it sometimes went into too high a register which made Billy seem more childish instead of childlike.

Cecelia Sass and Syrian Black did a pretty good job with the costumes from the classic nurse’s outfits to the T-shirts and dark sweats of the patients to McMurphy’s leather jacket and trademark hat.  I did think the costumes for McMurphy’s female friends could be a bit trashier as they seemed a little too elegantly garbed for the crowd he’d likely run with.  Derek Kowal and Stuart Anderson provided some lovely sounds for the show with ducks quacking during a morning sunrise to the ominous sounds of electro shock therapy when McMurphy and Chief are dragged away for treatment after a brawl with the orderlies.

It is a story of a battle of wills and this cast takes you on the emotional roller coaster ride of this slugfest with a strong, measured hand.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You may even be in stunned silence at some moments.  But you’ll definitely be hooked from beginning to end.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs at Florence Community Theater through Feb 23.  Showtimes will be Fri-Sat at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets cost $12 ($10 for TAG members/60+/groups of 8 or more).  For reservations, call 531-600-8634 or visit www.florencetheater.org.  Due to some strong language and sensitive subject matter, this show is not recommended for children.  Florence Community Theatre is located inside of Florence City Hall at 2864 State St in Omaha, NE.

Magnificent “Man of La Mancha” Reaches the Unreachable Star

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“Facts are the enemy of truth.”—Miguel de Cervantes

This line is the crux of the deepest and most philosophical musical ever written.  When minor nobleman, Don Miguel de Cervantes, find himself in prison awaiting the Spanish Inquisition, he is put on trial by his fellow prisoners.  To protect his manuscript, Cervantes pleads guilty and presents the tale of his mad knight, Don Quixote, as his defense.  This is Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion and is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Hilary Adams’ direction is outstanding, flawless, and inventive.  This includes subtle little touches such as having prisoners moving around the dungeon and sharing conversation before the play even begins to the pinpoint accuracy of the beats to the effortless scene changes.  Ms Adams has also coached stellar performances from a dynamic and talented cast which was more than up to the challenge of this epic musical.

Cork Ramer is sensational in the grueling triple role of Miguel Cervantes/Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana.  Ramer’s awesome physical presence draws eyes to him, but it’s his powerful interpretation that will keep eyes riveted to his performance.  Ramer glides smoothly from the witty and well-spoken Cervantes to the staunchly noble Don Quixote to the kindly, but sickly, Alonso Quijana with body language that is just as appropriate.  As Cervantes, he exudes a smooth confidence.  As Quixote, honor and decency.  As Quijana, a withering weakness of the body.  His transition from Quixote to Quijana was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the night as Ramer’s body seemed to collapse in on itself as he transformed from the proud knight to the gravely ill old man.

Ramer is also blessed with a rich and supple deep baritone voice that was capable of an astonishing musical and emotional range.  Ramer was an absolute joy to listen to whether he was heroically singing about finding great glory (I, Don Quixote) or singing about and to his perfect lady (Dulcinea) or proudly reaching tenor quality notes in the play’s signature song, The Impossible Dream.

Noel Larrieu, who plays Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, has, without question, the most natural delivery style I have ever heard.  Every word and syllable that came out of his mouth was completely extemporaneous and Larrieu underplayed Panza so beautifully that it made his proverbs and observations infinitely funnier.

Larrieu was just as spot on with the singing.  His sweet tenor voice shyly telling Aldonza why he squires for Quixote (I Really Like Him) or trying to galvanize the dying Quijana (A Little Gossip).

Jennifer Gilg gives a strong, multilayered performance as Aldonza/Dulcinea.  She does a fine job of evolving from the sullen, hopeless whore to the fair and honorable lady as her eyes are slowly opened by Don Quixote’s philosophy.  However, I thought her Aldonza needed to start at a much lower level to make the evolution to Dulcinea more marked.  Ms Gilg assuredly had the right intentions in mind, but just needs to take it a bit further and be even coarser and bitterer to begin the show.

Ms Gilg’s performance was strengthened by her gorgeous soprano voice.  She also displayed a strong talent for being able to act through a song as she found the precise emotional points of each number whether she was listlessly singing about her life as a whore (It’s All the Same) or trying to get Quixote to look at her the way she perceived herself (Aldonza) or accepting herself the way Quixote saw her (Dulcinea Reprise).

Steve Krambeck excelled himself with the finest performance of his career as The Duke/Dr. Sanson Carrasco/Barber.  The triple role permitted Krambeck to demonstrate some incredible versatility.  As the Duke, he is a cynical, odious prisoner who is bound and determined to see life as it is and requests to prosecute Cervantes due to his dislike of Cervantes’ idealism and his own hatred of “stupidity, especially when it masquerades as virtue.”  As Dr. Carrasco, he is arrogant and selfish, but motivated by good, if misguided, intentions.  He truly does want to help restore Alonso Quijana to sanity, but wants to do it because he doesn’t relish having a lunatic for an in-law.  However, his flamboyant Barber is the showstopper as his energetic and wimpy interpretation had the audience splitting their sides.  Krambeck also makes for a pretty convincing horse.

John Morrissey is cast perfectly as the Governor/Innkeeper.  As the Governor, he rules the dungeon and presides over the trials with an attitude that he is one to be respected.  As the Innkeeper, he is humble, a bit befuddled, and hilarious as he readily accedes to Don Quixote’s fantasies.  He also has a nice lower tenor singing voice that hits all the right moments after he dubs and renames Quixote The Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

The ensemble also deserves praise for always being in the moment which lent vitality to the show.  Special acknowledgement goes to John E Jones for his portrayal of an exuberant, somewhat dim prisoner who transforms into the kindly and pious Padre and to Ryan Pflug, Andrew Stone, John Ryan, and Adam Hogston for their portrayals of the rowdy and raucous muleteers.

Jim Othuse’s dungeon/inn set is a masterful bit of stage craftsmanship, but it is his lighting design that truly makes it all worthwhile as the simple light changes is what transforms the set from dungeon to inn and back again.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes are pitch perfect from the rags of the prisoners to the cheap armor of Don Quixote.  Jim Boggess and his orchestra deliver once more with a seamless musical performance.

There were a few flaws present in the evening’s performance.  Several lines and lyrics were mixed up and a few actors needed to project more strongly.  A huge fight scene also could use some tidying as it was a bit on the clunky side.

Man of La Mancha gives the audience much more than an enjoyable night of theatre.  It also gives them the gift of hope and the courage to see life as it should be.  How much better would this world be if we all pursued the good in life instead of accepting things as they are?  To paraphrase Cervantes, “God help us.  We should all be men of La Mancha”.

Man of La Mancha plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Oct 18.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students on Wednesday and $40 for adults and $25 for students Thurs-Sun.  Contact the Box Office at 402-553-0800 or visit their website at www.omahaplayhouse.com. The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

A Season of Change, Part IV: Is There a Woolf at the Door?

“The wonderful joy at being able to say ‘yes’ to a talented artist is often undercut by the horrible responsibility of having to say ‘no’ so many more times to equally talented artists.”—Unknown

I don’t envy the lot of directors when it comes to casting.  As difficult as things are on the acting side, there is also a tremendous amount of difficulty on the casting side.  Getting just the right blend of performers to tell the best possible story is truly an art form and I believe the above quotation best reflects the plight of directors.

Having to break a lot of hearts is not fun.  I’m also certain the criticism for doing so is even less enjoyable.

“It’s not fair.”

“He/she hates me.”

“It’s all politics and favoritism.”

I’m certain directors have heard variations of the above remarks and then some on numerous occasions.  Sometimes the criticism may be well founded and true.  But, by and large, I believe a director’s choices are impersonal and rejection simply comes from the fact that you did not suit the director’s vision.  This is something I’ve grown to understand and appreciate more over the last year and a half since I became an independent theatre critic.  I’ve grown to appreciate it so much that I’m thinking about trying my hand at direction one day, so if any of my director friends are reading this and are interested in letting me shadow them for a show next season, drop me a line.

I once read an article by a director who said, “I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors”.  Truer words were never spoken.  This is the only business I know where you can be a failure and a success all at the same time.  But I’d also like to take a moment to try to respond to that statement.

The reason actors see the casting as the yardstick of their worth as performers is that it is the only validation we have of our skills.  Sometimes a rejection can be done in such a way that it almost completely salves the disappointment of not getting the job.  But the bottom line is if we’re not the ones on stage or in front of the camera telling the story, we instinctively feel as if we failed even if we intellectually know that the work we did in the audition was good.  After all, everyone likes to taste the fruit of their labors.

Now I’ve told you all that to set the stage for my latest theatre tale.

After the victorious defeat of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I began preparing for a return to the Playhouse with an audition for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  For me, it would be my first audition under the new Playhouse artistic director, Hilary Adams.

I knew the odds would be long going into this show.  The show is only a 4 person cast and there is only one role for a younger man.  Knowing that up front actually took a considerable amount of pressure from my shoulders.  I headed into the audition solely with the intention of making a good showing and leaving with my head held high.  Anything else would simply be icing on the cake.

The turnout was smaller than I expected, but still more than enough to be able to cast the show from our night alone.  As I glanced around the room, I knew the role of Nick (the one I was eligible for) could be cast three times over at a minimum as I noticed both Nick Zadina and Sean, who read so well for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in attendance along with myself.

Under Hilary’s leadership, auditions have changed at the Playhouse and I would say for the better.  Now pictures of the actors are taken to go along with their audition information sheets.  Hilary also prefers to bring the performers in as small groups.  I think this brings a double edged advantage to the actors as they not only know that they have the director’s full attention, but I think it unleashes their creativity to the Nth degree.  They do not have to worry that their interpretation is similar to another performer’s.  Every actor can be secure in the knowledge that everything done in the audition will be perceived as completely original.

I ended up being in the second group called in to audition.  It was an older gent named Lance and myself who would be reading the roles of George and Nick.

This first read presented one of the interesting challenges of the audition process as actors of varying levels of talent are often paired together.  My partner was very inexperienced and it showed.  When experienced/naturally talented performers work together, the energy of the performance is like a ball that’s tossed around in a game of hot potato.  Toss in an inexperienced/less talented person and it’s like throwing a ball against a wall and watching it drop.

Before we began reading, Hilary made the interesting request for us not to block anything.  Another hurdle removed as some performers are so intent on the words that movement sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

The pressure was really on George in this side as he has the bulk of the dialogue and gets the ball rolling.  Lance read and it sounded like reading as well.  For my own part, I was pleased with my work.  I fired the ball with energy, made some decisive choices about Nick, and presented a character I liked.  I did find it humorous that in the back of my head I kept thinking, “Oh, this feels like a movement line.  That feels like another.  There’s a third.”

About a half hour later, I was called in again.  This time I read with two people.  A man named Jeremy would read as George and Sydney Readman would read as Nick’s wife, Honey.  This time I felt that ball being tossed around.  Jeremy had some nice chops and instincts and had a really rich speaking voice.

Again I was pleased with my work and really enjoyed the byplay between the three of us in the scene.  After we had read it once, Hilary asked us to read it again, but gave some direction to Sydney and me.  For Nick, she wanted me to make him “more beta and less alpha”.  She explained that at this early stage, Nick wouldn’t be standing up to George quite so much.  This was a business meeting and Nick is trying to make a good impression.  She also asked me to be a bit more loving towards Honey.  I processed these changes and gave a more beta interpretation.  Though in hindsight, I think I should have kissed Sydney’s hand to seem more loving.  The words had the right intention and I did tenderly clasp her arm, but my gut says a stronger action should have been used.

Twenty minutes after the read, Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Artistic Administrative Assistant, told me that Hilary had seen all she needed from me and that I could go home.  I had been there for 2 ½ hours, read three times, and took some direction.  All in all, the signs of a very positive audition.  Callbacks would be on Saturday so I knew if I didn’t get notification by the end of Friday, I could officially consider myself out of the running.  I had nothing to be ashamed of as I accomplished my main task.  I had a good showing and, hopefully, gave Hilary something to remember for future auditions.

Regrettably, I did not receive that callback.  Fortunately, I was braced for it, but it’s still a mild disappointment.  But I did the best I could with the material I had.  The only regret, as it were, was that I would have liked to have read a meatier side for Nick.  Then I would have known that I had truly given it all that I had.

With such a small cast, other good actors also, unfortunately, heard the word, ‘no’ for this one, too.  And, believe me, there was some heavyweight talent that did not make it in.  Let me see if these numbers put it in perspective.  Four people heard the word ‘yes’.  At least twenty others heard the word ‘no’.  Chew on that for a bit.

While there’s no Woolf at the door for me, I do remain content that there will be something for me in the future.  A friend once told me that becoming a stronger actor doesn’t mean the number of roles you obtain goes up.  It just means that the quality of your rejections goes up.  With some of my adventures over the past couple of years, I think there’s quite a bit of truth to that statement.  But, if I may add to his statement, I think the quality of the rewards goes up, too, and that’s something all actors should keep in mind.

Until the next time.