Dishonor Among Thieves

The owner of a dingy junk shop plots to steal back a rare coin that he sold for $90.  His angry, paranoid friend wants a piece of the action, but plans to take far more than the coin.  A recovering drug addict wants to help, but gets more than he bargained for with his two cohorts.  This is the plot of David Mamet’s American Buffalo which kicks off the Blue Barn Theatre‘s 26th season.

This is the most difficult script I’ve ever seen produced.  The characters often speak in fragments with the broken dialogue overlapping each other.  It also requires very intense listening from the audience as the characters never come out and say what it is they plan to do.  It’s hinted at, suggested, and implied.  A work like this requires the best performances from the best actors and needs surefire direction.  Fortunately, that’s exactly what we get as Susan Clement-Toberer’s fabulous staging and directing of a top flight cast make for a intense and satisfying night of theatre.

Martin Scott Marchitto has really outdone himself on this set.  It’s so simple, yet so complex.  The set looks like an ordinary, cluttered basement, yet was designed from scratch.  Throw in the properties from Amy Reiner and you’ve got the perfect setting for a crime drama.

Jerry Longe gives one of the most beautifully underplayed performances of his career as Donny Dubrow, the owner of the junk shop and mastermind of the theft.  Longe’s Dubrow really isn’t a villain.  He’s just slightly shady.  Dubrow clearly doesn’t earn a lot of money from his junk shop, yet always seems to have a roll of cash handy.  As Dubrow, Longe is cool, level-headed, and methodical with a yen for his health which is demonstrated by his fondness for yogurt.  Long also imbues Dubrow with a strong streak of kindness and humanity as he has taken a young drug addict under his wing and is helping him to overcome his demons.

Dubrow desires to steal back a rare coin he sold simply because he’s certain he can get far more money than the $90 he originally received.  Lending credence to his less than villainous nature is the fact that all he wants is the coin.  His only mistake is cutting his friend, Teach, in on the scheme and gets infected by his paranoia.  This error nearly leads to a lethal mistake at the play’s climax, but also permits Longe a beautiful and tender moment of redemption in the end.

Thomas Becker is a wonder as Walter “Teach” Cole.  Teach is a brutish paranoiac who clearly hates his lot in life and believes everyone is against him.  Becker plays Teach with a sensational twitchiness.  The man cannot sit still and constantly moves around like an animal stalking its prey.  It’s almost as if his body can just barely contain it’s seething ferocity.  When he learns about Donny’s plan, he immediately volunteers to help and plan the whole crime.  Teach likes to pretend he’s a criminal mastermind by hiding from police cars cruising by on the street, but his so called plans and failure to think anything through reveal him to be the rankest of amateurs.

Teach’s suspicious nature nearly wrecks everything when he starts to suspect allies as enemies.  When the whole truth of the situation is revealed, Becker’s Teach disintegrates into a temper tantrum that finally removes the mask and reveals Teach as an overgrown child who merely wants to win, just once, in life.

Jonathan Purcell does exceptional work with the role of Bobby.  Purcell paints a haunting picture of a former drug addict struggling to stay clean.  He gives Bobby little tics to indicate his body’s desperation for a hit.  Yet he also gives Bobby a fierce loyalty to Donny as he would do anything to make Donny happy.  Purcell injects some levity into the show as his Bobby is clearly as dense as a brick.  Whether from natural inclination or due to excessive drug use is left to the audience’s interpretation.  When Bobby’s loyalty is called into question, Purcell splendidly adds a sense of tension to the character up until the revelations begin.

A few scenes of violence need some fine tuning to be more believable, but these do not detract from the superlative work of this talented trio.  With acting and direction of this caliber, American Buffalo has all the hallmarks of a major hit.

American Buffalo runs through Oct 25 at the Blue Barn Theatre.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm.  Two Sunday performances will take place on Oct 12 & 19 at 6pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn is located at 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.  American Buffalo contains very strong language and a couple of scenes of violence.  It is not recommended for children.

 

A Season of Change, Part I: The Man in the Mirror

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. . .Take a look at yourself and make that change.”—Michael Jackson

That’s a powerful quotation from an equally powerful song and it sums up my feelings about this season of change.  New shows.  New leadership at the Playhouse.  New possibilities.  New opportunities.

It’s very hard to believe that’s it’s been nearly a year and a half since I’ve done any acting.  Part of that has been the result of a busy schedule, but the other part has been because of changes wrought by the man in the mirror.

I’m going to share a secret with you. . .I’ve dropped three straight auditions.  And after the third loss, that demon of doubt did make a fleeting visit across my mind.  During his brief visit, I raced back through the halls of memory to that period I called “the drought” in my theatre tales and I had a realization.

“The drought” was far more than a battle to get cast.  It was a war with myself.  A duel between my confidence and my doubt and my doubt slapped my confidence silly during that time frame.  It wasn’t until Leaving Iowa that my confidence finally, and irrevocably, defeated my doubt, though it does attempt to pop back in every once in a while.  But all I do is go back to that lovely view I had as Don Browning and I remember I can act and doubt tucks its tail between its legs and runs.

Even though it no longer matters, losing does suck.  It’s a natural feeling.  Everybody wants to be noticed, to win, and to have their efforts rewarded.  The important thing is to not let yourself be defined by the loss.  Not so long ago, a run of defeats would have had me thinking, “They think I can’t act.”  Now my thoughts are, “I just don’t fit the mold they want.”  That moves it from an ability issue to a perception issue and the latter is what really carries the weight in getting cast.  That’s the biggest change that came from the man in the mirror.

Another change is that I’ve become a bit more selective about what I do.  I won’t just audition for anything under the sun.  It’s about finding just the right story and just the right character.  For the first time, I actually chose not to audition for a show.  In fact, I did it twice.

I’ve been thinking I might like to try my hand at directing, so lately I’ve found myself viewing roles through the eyes of the whole.  Do my personal qualities make me well suited to roles that catch my interest?

For example, I was interested in reading for David Mamet’s American Buffalo over at the Blue Barn.  It’s a story about three men who plot to rob an old man of a rare coin.  The play was definitely an interesting read and there was a role that did pique my interest.  His name was Teach and I was drawn to him because he was as diametrically opposed to me as possible.  This guy is jaded beyond belief, paranoid, and curses like a sailor.  It’s a very good role.  But as I read it, I found that I couldn’t get into it as an actor.  Viewing it from the perspective of a director, I felt that Teach has a blue collar quality that I lack.

There was a role for a young junkie who is also a good role and even fit my personal qualities.  But I pictured the guy as a teenager and I was far too old.  Even if I’d been the correct age, I pictured the guy as being very slightly built and I’m pretty powerfully built in the shoulders.  I just didn’t see me in the roles, so I made the decision not to audition, though I will review it.

The second audition was for a show that I was actually quite excited about.  It’s called The Whipping Man and it’s the story of a Confederate Jewish soldier who returns home after the surrender at Appomattox, finds the homestead abandoned, and finds two of his family’s former slaves who inherited the Jewish faith from their ex-masters.  It’s Passover and they have a traditional seder and secrets are revealed.

This is a tight, well balanced script and each of the three actors is given a chance to shine.  I was excited about the possibilities and then the Playhouse released the character descriptions.

The director wanted the soldier to be in his twenties and I’m starting to push 40 from the wrong end.  My hair is receding and is getting pretty silver.  Now my face is still pretty young looking, so I thought I might have a chance, provided I could get the director to see me as a young man who had seen the horrors of war which can badly age a person.

Now that I knew what was being looked for, I reread the script, but with the eyes of the director.  I was trying to understand why the soldier was supposed to be so young.  And I got it.  I really think the solider is supposed to have a sense of immaturity which I no longer exude or even look like I have.

I still strongly considered auditioning just to get my face shown.  Then an opportunity arose for me to travel which would take place during the run of the show and as I weighed my options, guaranteed trip vs. nearly non-existent chance of getting cast, the trip won out.  But my tendency to now view these roles through the eyes of a director is another change brought about by the man in the mirror.

And then fate tossed me a potential bone.  I was contacted by my old friend, Lara Marsh, stage manager extraordinaire, who would be moving into the director’s chair to helm the first 21 and Over event at the Playhouse which was a play entitled, Lost Boy at Whole Foods.  At the time, the audition had not been formally announced so Lara asked me to keep it under my hat.

I had actually been asked to audition and that’s something that hasn’t happened for a very long time.  Even better, I could do this show plus stay committed to my trip as it would only require 5 nights of rehearsal and a one night performance on September 30.  Whatever this role was, Lara already saw me in it and it sounded promising, so I said I’d audition.

Lost Boy at Whole Foods was my first audition in five months and only my third in nearly a year and a half, so I felt something I had never felt before at an audition. . .ring rust.  I really felt clunky.  In a previous theatre tale, I once talked about how my heart often boosted my auditions and I needed every bit of my heart as my theatre muscles had clearly lost their suppleness.  I felt that I hadn’t made a fool out of myself, but not one of my strongest auditions.

I must have done better than I thought, for Lara called me that Wednesday and asked me to return for a callback the next Friday.  I had a genuine feeling of pride as it was my first callback since 2010 and a callback signifies that the director believes you have the talent.  Now it’s just a matter of finding the right composition.

Another friend who was called back, Stephanie Kidd, slipped me the script so I had a chance to study it and I began to have a better idea of what Lara was looking for in the character of Michael.  I went into the callback feeling much stronger than I had at the original audition.

I, at first, thought that I might have already been cast in the play as I was the only person in the room who fit the parameters for the role of Michael.  Then, as Lara was about to begin, a third acquaintance, Karl Rohling entered the room.  Wow!  Literally a one on one callback.  There would be no question of who got the role.  It would either be Karl or me.

Unsurprisingly, both of us did well.  My heart didn’t have to do quite so much heavy lifting as the practice I had done during the week strengthened my theatrical muscles.  As I expected, neither Karl nor I could get the edge on the other.  I read well, executed all of Lara’s directions, and he did the same.  As I told a friend, “Flip a coin.  It could be either one of us.”

On Tuesday, I got a letter from Lara telling me that she did not cast me.  When I saw the telltale envelope in the mailbox, that was when doubt tried to worm its way into my head and tell me, “She thinks you’re a bad actor.”  But he didn’t stay very long.  I’m dead certain that it was a matter of composition.  I know who I would have blended the best with from a cosmetic standpoint and that person not being cast may very well have dictated my not getting cast or vice versa.  My ability to beat back doubt is another (and positive) change coming from the man in the mirror.

Odds are, it’s going to be a few months before my next audition, but it’s going to be a big one.  I don’t want to reveal it just yet, but I will say it’s for one of my big three shows.  I can already see the grin on the face of the man in the mirror.

It Must Be Providence. . .Inn

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For a change, the road has brought me to a place I know very well:  Denison, IA.  I’ve passed through this town on numerous occasions as I’ve traveled to and from Fort Dodge and Eagle Grove to visit my best friend.  This small town actually has a touch of celebrity about it as it is the birthplace of the actress, Donna Reed.

This time my purpose in Denison was to visit the Providence Inn, owned and operated by Duane and Kristy Zenk.  As I drove on the street where the inn was located, I looked in vain for a sign pointing out the inn.  I thought I recognized the inn on my first pass, but blithely passed it when I couldn’t see the sign.  On my third go around, a helpful woman on the porch began waving me down.  I pulled into the driveway and sheepishly asked, “Is this Providence Inn?”  Upon confirmation, I grabbed my laptop and backpack and was welcomed into the inn by Kristy.

The first thing I noticed is that this house is deceptively long.  Kristy led me through the labyrinthine second floor to my room, the Chestnut Suite, which was located at the end of the hall.

The Chestnut Suite

The Chestnut Suite

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The suite had a simplistic elegance about it and the soft green paint on the walls really seemed to induce relaxation.  After settling in, I set about exploring the inn.

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The commons

The commons

The music room

The music room

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After my exploration of the premises, the rumbling in my stomach told me it was time for a little dinner.  I made my way to Cronk’s, a local restaurant at the edge of town where I’ve enjoyed many a meal over the years.

The restaurant was surprisingly empty for a Friday night.  I opted for the Chef’s Special Ribeye dinner.  While I enjoyed the salad course, I read my novel and overheard a rather humorous conversation between an elderly gent and his son about the quality and types of various ribs.

When the waitress set down my meal, I was surprised by the quality of the cut of meat I had received.  I’ve been to gourmet steakhouses that didn’t serve a steak this well cooked.  Grilled and seasoned to perfection, I savored every blissful mouthful and marveled that I was only paying $14.95 for this meal.  If you pass through this town, stop here for a meal.  You will not be disappointed.

After supper, I wandered through the business district and saw the famed Donna Reed Performing Arts Center.  I wished a play had been going on so I could have had to chance to explore the inside (and write a review).  I later discovered that the center only mounts 4 productions a year, but does have various theatre workshops during the year.

Once I had wandered about enough, I returned to the inn and the confines of my room where I enjoyed a hot bath and spent the evening studying David Mamet’s American Buffalo for a possible audition at the Blue Barn in a few weeks’ time.  Once I was good and sleepy, I drifted off to the land of nod.

I had forgotten my fan which I use for white noise to help me sleep, but nature provided nicely when I awoke to a powerful thunderstorm during the night.  As I listened to the heavy raindrops splatter against the windowpane, I felt an immense sense of peace and security as sleep gained a proper hold on me.

When I awoke the next morning, I was ready for a rousing breakfast.  I walked downstairs to the dining room and found a pitcher of orange juice and a small dish of fruit waiting for me.  While I munched on bananas, grapes, and strawberries, Kristy brought out a blueberry crepe stuffed with cream with a side dish of sausage links.

I contentedly munched away as I talked with Kristy about my project, website, and theatre endeavors.  After a half hour of food and talk, I made my way back up to my room.

Denison really is a small gem of a town and this inn is truly a gem of the town.  If you find yourselves here, you won’t go wrong by getting a room at Providence Inn and exploring some of the sights of this little town.

 

Riveting ‘Race’ Pursues Victory and Perception, Not Truth and Justice

In the law offices (beautifully designed by Bryan McAdams) of Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, Charles Strickland, a rich, white man, seeks counsel to defend him of the charge of raping a black woman.  The two attorneys could care less about his guilt or innocence.  Their decision to take on this client will be based solely on whether or not they believe the case is winnable.  When a careless (or is it?) error is made by their law clerk, compelling the two lawyers to defend Strickland, we are taken into a world driven by personal and societal biases.  This is David Mamet’s Race currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Race is compelling drama at its finest.  From the moment the heavy drum beats signal the start of the show, this play takes off like a rocket and goes full throttle until the very end.  I was absolutely mesmerized by the astonishing pace of the production.  These four expert storytellers picked up cues so tightly and effortlessly that one barely had time to think and digest the information before another revelation was made.  With the superlative acting enhanced by brilliantly constructed, crisp dialogue and further bolstered by whip smart directing from Amy Lane, you’re going to get one thought provoking, challenging night of entertainment.

Doug Blackburn’s tour de force performance as Jack Lawson is worth the price of admission alone.  Putting on a veritable acting clinic, Blackburn finds beats within beats and has crafted the most fully developed and real character I have seen on stage in years.  Lawson is neither a good man nor a bad man.  He is a lawyer.  He doesn’t, no, he can’t care about his client’s guilt or innocence.  Lawson’s job is to win, plain and simple and he will do whatever it takes to obtain victory.  In Lawson’s view, trials are won by the lawyer who tells the better story, not who has the truth on their side.

Through Blackburn’s masterful storytelling, we see a man who is deeply cynical, thinks ten steps ahead, and chases down every angle to obtain a not guilty verdict.  Yet he may have made one crucial miscalculation when his fear of being sued for discrimination dictated he hire a black law clerk who, though talented, may not have the firm’s best interests at heart.

As Henry Brown, Lawson’s legal partner and a black man, Andre McGraw is more than able to keep pace with Blackburn’s Lawson.  Nearly as cynical and more distrusting than his white partner, McGraw’s Brown has little respect for their client, believing him to have sought their aid because of the multicultural build of the law firm.  Brutally honest, Brown coldly lays out to Strickland that his color will already make him guilty in the eyes of a jury and he would prefer to drop the case.  When forced to defend him, Brown suggests a defense that will be a little lackluster for the client, but would preserve the image of the law firm in order to obtain future clients.  Though he plays it intensely for the most part, McGraw does have some beautiful, softer moments in his private conversations with Blackburn.

As Susan, a newly hired law clerk, Jonnique Peters gives a stunningly enigmatic performance.  Up until the very end you never really know what she is thinking.  At first, she seems like the bright-eyed, optimistic, fresh out of law school lawyer who is going to pursue truth, justice, and the American way.  But as the play progresses, you will find that there may be a much darker side to Susan.  Her thirst for justice may or may not compel her to commit some highly unethical acts.

Brennan Thomas gets as much mileage as he can out of the role of the accused.  As Strickland, Thomas gives a haunting portrayal of a man who insists he has been falsely accused, yet feels great shame about something.  His Strickland is more of a hindrance than a help to his lawyers as he constantly wishes to go to the press so he can explain his side of the story.  As it happens, he may have quite a bit to explain.

What I truly loved about this play is that Strickland’s guilt or innocence is not important to the plot.  Race is really what this play is all about.  Every action in this play is either driven by race or the perception of race.  Brown believes Strickland will be found guilty by the simple fact he’s a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman.  Lawson won’t accuse the accuser of being a whore because “she’s black and [he’d] be impugning her sexuality”.  Susan just knows Strickland is guilty.  It strongly suggests that as hard as we, as a society, try to downplay the issue of race, our biases will always make it a reality that cannot be ignored.  You will think when this show ends and that’s what great theatre should make you do.

Race runs at the Omaha Playhouse, located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE, from May 9-June 8.  Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  There is no performance on May 17, but an extra performance will be held on June 4 at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $35 ($21 for students).  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800.  Race contains strong language and adult subject matter and is not recommended for children.