‘Sweat’ing Bullets

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From left to right, Laura Leininger-Campbell as Tracey. Brandon Williams as Chris. Josh Peyton as Jason. Kathy Tyree as Cynthia.

A steel mill in Reading, PA begins to shut down.  Suddenly lifelong employees set to retire on fat pensions are facing joblessness with no nest egg and no hope.  As their very survival is threatened, friends become enemies, latent racist and xenophobic tendencies take over minds, and a mountain of emotional kindling is laid that only needs one small spark to set off a raging conflagration.  This is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and it has kicked off the latest season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

There is certainly nothing subtle about Nottage’s script.  From the very beginning, it grabs the viewer by the throat and gleefully paintbrushes her or him for the better part of 2 ½ hours.  The play is chock full of devastating themes such as betrayal, racism, xenophobia, entitlement, corporate greed, depression, and the danger of having one’s sense of self defined solely by a job.  It also skillfully presents a mindset that demonstrates just how our political climate might have reached its current volatile state without making any judgment calls.

From an actor’s perspective, this show is a treasure trove.  Every character is unique and well-defined.  It is truly an ensemble piece with each character getting a moment in the sun and no true leading role.  With a perfectly cast group of magnificent talent, OCP’s season gets an explosive start with a drama for our time.

Susan Baer-Collins returns to the Playhouse to direct this powerful piece.  Her knowledge of the story is deep and certain which allows her to fully explore every beat and help each performer realize his or her fullest potential and become fully formed and realistic persons.  The staging is pretty strong for the most part with the actors making full use of the performance space and constant movement to animate the dialogue.  However, the performance space of the Howard Drew is a bit of a mixed blessing as its intimacy is crucial to pulling the audience in, but the way the characters have to interact makes it difficult to play to the entire audience at various points.

In a night of outstanding interpretations, a stellar performance is provided by Emmanuel Oñate who makes an excellent debut as Oscar, a likable young man trying to make his way in the world who draws the ire of locked out steel mill workers due to the double whammy of his crossing the picket line and the perception that he is stealing work from “real” Americans due to his Hispanic heritage.  Thomas Becker also shines as Stan, the manager of the local bar who serves as a sounding board to everyone’s issues and also acts as a voice of reason to the burgeoning turmoil bubbling up from the plant’s lockout.  L. “James” Wright gives a tragic performance as Brucie whose sense of identity was completely wrapped up in his job.  Robbed of his ability to provide, he sinks into a deep abyss of depression and addiction.

Kathy Tyree is a geyser of talent with her rendition of Cynthia.  Tyree’s Cynthia is a rock and tough as nails.  She is the friend who will have your back no matter what, but also knows when to draw the line as she has to keep her husband, Brucie, at arm’s length while he battles his personal demons and refuses to take any garbage from her friends after winning a promotion to warehouse supervisor that has her perceived as one of “them” due to a combination of jealousy and things going south at the mill.  What I liked best about Tyree’s take is that she never made an obvious choice or reaction.  She was so extemporaneous, it was almost as if she was writing her own dialogue on the spot as opposed to reciting learned lines.

Laura Leininger-Campbell is a firecracker as Tracey.  Tracey strikes me as a person who isn’t easy to friend, but, if you manage to do so, you have a friend for life.  She is brusque, mouthy, and has a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.  She can also be fiercely loyal, but watch out if you cross her as she holds grudges.  Leininger-Campbell is incredibly effective as this complex character.  She well communicates Tracey’s latent racism that gains strength when she loses a promotion and is further fueled by Oscar’s crossing of the picket line.  Leininger-Campbell is particularly mesmerizing in two scenes.  One where she is arguing with Cynthia and manages to convey the sense that she loves and hates her simultaneously with her on the dime emotional beat changes.  And a second where the show leaps into the future and she is having a conversation with her estranged son, Jason, and seems to age years before your eyes with pure body language that seems to bow her back, make lines appear on her face, and add a few pounds.

Josh Peyton succeeds with his handling of the role of Jason.  Arguably, this may be the show’s most difficult character to play due to the two widely different personalities he has depending on when the show is in the past or the present.  Peyton gives past Jason a happy go lucky personality.  He’s a pretty decent guy who doesn’t give much thought to tomorrow and just likes having fun, though he does exhibit some of the personality traits and thinking of his mother, Tracey.  Present Jason is an angry, bitter, potentially violent man whose facial tattoos suggest that he might have been part of a white supremacist group.  Peyton not only does good work in playing the two variations of his character, but he also succeeds in showing the transition from one to the other and planting the seed that past Jason’s good qualities may overpower his present’s darkness.

Brandon Williams has a dandy debut as Chris.  This is the play’s most positive character as he is a good man in both past and present.  Williams has a great likability as Chris who is good to his parents, a hard worker, and has a plan for his life all mapped out.  His one weakness is that he might be too loyal to Jason as that loyalty leads him into a truly bad moment in the past.  In the present, Chris is an even better man who has found Jesus and now shares that faith to bolster others and gives him the strength to right some past wrongs and to try to have closure with Jason.  In the present, Williams exudes a confidence granted by faith and well executes the determination to correct a past error even while he clearly feels guilt and embarrassment over it.

Jim Othuse has designed a nice little local bar that is clean, welcoming, and comfy and is further enhanced by the properties of Darin Kuehler whose bottles of liquor and hanging chips make it feel like a real hangout.  Othuse has also well lit the production especially with his use of darkness and light.  The past was always bright and got a little darker as things went bad and the present is shrouded in darkness until a literal light of hope at the end.  John Gibilisco brings some great sounds especially the creepy effect as present transitions to past and the use of a TV showing news footage of the day when our country slid into the Great Recession.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are quite realistic with the work overalls, the everyman clothes of the working class, and the somewhat poorer garb of the present version of some of the characters.  Timothy Vallier provides a sad and moving score.  I did think a fight scene could have used a bit more speed and a crucial moment needs to be cleaner as I wasn’t sure exactly what happened until the final moments of the show.

Sweat is definitely a play for our time.  You won’t be able to turn your eyes away from it and it might give you a better idea of how we reached our present state of affairs.  And understanding the past is always the first step to making a better tomorrow.

Sweat plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

It is a Brilliant Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War for the Heart, War in the Soul

It’s a twist on the love triangle when John takes a break from his boyfriend only to fall for a girl.  Now forced to decide between the two, John finds himself in the middle of a vicious, emotional cockfight between the two loves in his life.  This is Cock by Mike Bartlett and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

I confess to being a little taken aback when I was asked to review a show with such a title as many connotations of the word flew through my mind.  And, yes, this play does utilize multiple definitions of the play’s title from the innocent to the vulgar.  More importantly, this show is also one of the season’s best.

Mike Bartlett has written a whip smart script with dialogue that surges with intensity and compelling characters.  Bartlett leaps straight into the action with little build, but manages to fill in the gaps as he rapidly moves John between his boyfriend and girlfriend until the inevitable confrontation between his two significant others.

Without question, Joshua Mullady’s direction is the finest I have seen this season.  Mullady displayed an intimate understanding of the script with brilliant staging.  Not only is there not a single static moment in the show, but Mullady uses the play’s words to establish the movements of the characters.  As they grow apart, they physically move further from each other.  As they grow closer, they literally move closer and show intimacy.  Mullady has also perfectly cast this show with 4 actors who have pitch perfect chemistry and give nearly flawless performances.  Mullady also designed the beautifully simplistic lights which pulsed with a life of their own as they shifted with the beats of the show.

Joseph Schoborg’s portrayal of John is as haunting as it is powerful.  Schoborg’s John is a complete train wreck of a human being as he struggles to determine who and what it is he wants.  Schoborg’s body language is deadly accurate.  With his failing relationship with his boyfriend, he is stiff-necked with his shoulders up in his ears.  With his burgeoning relationship with his girlfriend, he is relaxed, loose, and tender.  Schoborg also has an incredibly nuanced voice capable of capturing deep frustration and running the gamut to whispering sadness.  The only tiny issues were that Schoborg spoke too quickly at the top of the show and I lost some of his dialogue, but he brought that under control as the play continued.  He also needed to keep his vocal strength up as it was just a hair below where it needed to be.

I was blown away by Eric Grant-Leanna’s interpretation of the nameless boyfriend.  Grant-Leanna gives what may be his best performance with a character he has developed down to the minutest detail.  As M, Grant-Leanna misses no beat as he bounces from lightly teasing John about his lousy cooking, to intense arguments about John’s cheating with a woman, to delivering nasty verbal jabs to the other woman, to nearly begging John to stay with him.  Grant-Leanna’s always spot-on facial expressions greatly added to his brilliant line readings which he enhanced even further with always appropriate gestures.

I was absolutely gobsmacked with Caitlin Staeball’s work as the unnamed girlfriend.  At the show’s start, she sat with the audience watching and reacting to the byplay between John and M.  Jealousy was quite apparent as she glowered at M.  Ms Staeball beautifully maneuvered through the ebbs and flows of her character’s story arc with clear and clean delivery and sure understanding of where she was heading.  Most telling was a scene where she sleeps with John for the first time.  Using just the power of her voice along with Mullady’s stellar lighting, she paints a vivid picture of what is happening without either performer actually doing anything physically.  Her subtle emotional manipulation of John in the climactic confrontation was also a nice piece of character work.  I look forward to seeing Ms Staeball in other roles after this fantastic Omaha debut.

Brent Spencer is very capable in his role as M’s father.  His British accent needed a bit of work, but his interpretation was quite good.  As F, Spencer is clearly devoted to his son and cares a great deal about John as he is quite hurt that John wants to leave his son for a woman.  Spencer also was responsible for some of the night’s more humorous moments as he jousts with John’s girlfriend.

What I found most interesting about the show was that it was not about whether John was gay, straight, or bisexual.  The show’s true tragedy was that John had lost himself.  He didn’t know what he needed in order to be happy and was fearful to take the risk of finding out for himself.  That is a message that will echo profoundly in every person who watches this wonderful dramedy.

Cock plays at SNAP! Productions through March 27.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Tickets cost $15 for adults and $12 for students, seniors, T.A.G. members, and the military.  Thursday night shows cost $10.  This show contains adult situations and extremely strong language and is not suitable for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California St in Omaha, NE.

Taut, Tense ‘Mauritius’ a Gripping Tale of Mystery and Intrigue

From left to right:  Chris Shonka (Sterling), Alissa Walker (Jackie), Karl Rohling (Philip), Will Muller (Dennis), Julie Fitzgerald Ryan (Mary)

From left to right: Chris Shonka (Sterling), Alissa Walker (Jackie), Karl Rohling (Philip), Will Muller (Dennis), Julie Fitzgerald Ryan (Mary)

What is the value of two little pieces of paper?  Is it intrinsic?  Financial?  Sentimental?  Whatever the worth, these two little pieces of paper bring out the worst in people in Mauritius, the Omaha Playhouse’s 91st season premiere.

Theresa Rebeck’s script is a nice, modern take on the crime noir genre.  While mostly dialogue driven, the words have a sharp, crisp energy that immerses the audience and makes one lose track of time though the ending is a bit overlong.  Most intriguing is the fact that Rebeck often makes innuendos about what happened in the past to these characters, but leaves it to the audience’s imagination to determine what may have happened.  Sometimes this technique works well such as the reasons for a mysterious grudge between two characters and not so well at other points such as the lack of explanation for a character’s knowledge of a trick involving duct tape and a plastic bag.

Jeff Horger, making his full directorial debut at the Playhouse, and Assistant Director Nick Albrecht have done exceptional work in guiding this mystery story.  The action slowly builds, beat by beat, growing ever tenser until the play’s climax and denouement.  Horger and Albrecht have also done a fine job shaping the performances of their quintet of actors.

Alissa Walker strikes gold in her Playhouse debut.  As Jackie, the younger of two half-sisters, Ms Walker paints a tragic picture of an emotionally dead woman who wants nothing more than to escape her wretched life and be reborn into a better one.  Jackie believes this new life can be bought with a lot of cash and stakes a claim to an album of rare stamps, hoping to sell two Mauritius stamps and be set for life.

Labeled as a lamb by another character early in the show, Ms Walker’s Jackie is anything but.  She is so eaten up by anger that she has nothing left to give emotionally.  Ms Walker skillfully demonstrates this state with a flat, controlled, nearly emotionless tone of voice.  However, her character’s anger does become more volatile when she senses that her dreams of Easy Street may be threatened such as wrecking her late mother’s living room and punching out her half-sister. Ms Walker’s Jackie is also a survivor which has given her a surprising strength and confidence mighty enough to go verbally, intellectually, and physically toe to toe with a dangerous criminal determined to get her stamps.

As good as her performance was, Ms Walker does need to keep up her projection which weakened a bit in Act II.  She also needs to watch her positioning as she upstaged herself on a couple of occasions.

Julie Fitzgerald Ryan is wonderful as Mary, Jackie’s much older half-sister.  She escaped from a bad home situation when she was 16 and has finally returned home to ostensibly pay last respects to her and Jackie’s late mother and attempt to build a relationship with Jackie.  While an element of those sentiments may exist, Mary really wants the stamp book which she says was left to her by her grandfather.

While Ms Walker’s Jackie is almost devoid of emotion, Ms Fitzgerald Ryan’s Mary is almost afraid of it.  Mary also bottles up a lot of anger, but Ms Fitzgerald Ryan has her attempt to ignore it by being overly solicitous and friendly instead.  But her true feelings often explode out of her as she constantly clashes with Jackie over their mother and what to do with the stamps.  But each time she explodes, she catches herself and tries to smother it with more attempts at solicitude.

What I truly enjoyed about Ms Fitzgerald Ryan’s performance was how subtle she made Mary’s true nature.  You may think she’s a nice person.  She isn’t.  Mary is incredibly selfish as she will not share the stamps with Jackie.  Her love of the stamps for their sentimental value is equally as powerful as Jackie’s greed and those motivations coupled with tremendous chemistry with Ms Walker made for some powerful confrontations.

Will Muller is perfectly cast as Dennis, the con artist.  With his babyface and velvet smooth voice, how could you not trust him?  Dennis is the one who first learns of Jackie’s Mauritius stamps and concocts the scheme to get them from her.  Interestingly, Muller gives his con artist a shocking bit of honesty and sincerity.  He is not out to steal the stamps from Jackie.  He merely wants to get them for as low a price as possible so he can profit more from a resale.  Muller’s easygoing, laconic delivery made his Dennis a very enjoyable watch, but he does need to increase his volume.  He was very soft-spoken in the first act, though he did pick up the volume in Act II.

Chris Shonka radiates menace and danger as Sterling.  Sterling is a wealthy criminal who loves collecting stamps despite having no knowledge of philately.  Be wary for he is not one to be trifled with.  What Sterling wants, he gets, and he has no qualms about using threats and violence to get what he wants.  Shonka’s awesome physical presence combined with a venomous delivery from his rich bass voice made his Sterling a beast to be feared and a force to be reckoned with.

Sterling’s love of stamps borders on the creepy and lewd.  He almost seems to view stamps as virgins as he loathes it when they are touched by others and describes his viewing of the Mauritius stamps as a post-coital experience.  The only critique I can make is for Shonka to go even further with Sterling’s nearly lascivious love of stamps.

Karl Rohling is a misanthropic grump as Philip.  He is the only character in the play who is a true philatelist, but even his love of stamps has faded as he has grown fed up with evaluating the worthless stamps of others.  Philip is a wonderfully multilayered character and Rohling deftly peels off the many layers of Philip like a snake shedding skins.  Starting off as rude and obnoxious, Rohling shows these traits to be mere symptoms of the fact that Philip is a broken, haunted man as the result of Sterling being involved in the dissolution of his marriage.  With a slump of his shoulders and a whiplash change in delivery, Rohling shows the deep sadness of Philip.  Later he is given the opportunity to show Philip’s vengeful side when he engages in a game of intrigue against Sterling and eventually indulges in unmitigated joy when his love of stamps is reignited.

Jim Othuse’s collectibles shop set is simple, understated, and pitch perfect.  Combined with Darin Kuehler’s wonderful properties, it becomes a thing of beauty.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are well suited to the characters’ personalities.

The fight scenes could use a bit more rehearsal as the actors seemed a little hesitant and unsure which resulted in the brawls looking a little unrealistic and overly controlled.  However that confidence will come with more practice and performances.  I also thought that the age difference between the two actresses may be too disparate for them to believably be half-sisters, but the quality of their performances made this a fairly negligible issue.

Mauritius is an excellent, well paced mystery story that should enthrall the audiences and I foresee a successful run, especially as this group has built a strong foundation from which they will continue to evolve over the next few weeks.

Mauritius runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through September 13.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $35 for adults and $21 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call the Box Office at 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.  Mauritius contains strong language and violence and is not recommended for children.

Devastation

A grand Saturday to you all.

For all of my adventures in theatre, this one has always been the hardest to share.  So you might want to go ahead and grab a hanky. . .Seriously.  I’ll wait.

Doo de doo de doo doo doo de doo.

Ready?

In “Chasing the Dream”, you learned how I got interested in theatre and pursued the dream for 4 long years before I finally managed to get cast in back to back shows.  A change came over me during the run of The Mask of Moriarty.  I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  I was sad a lot and life just didn’t seem as rosy as it once did.  I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was experiencing the early symptoms of situational depression.

I had been considering going back to school for a master’s degree, but as the depression gained a greater hold, I had to put that plan on hold which only worsened my depression because I felt like a quitter and as my previous trilogy hopefully showed, “quit” is not a word in my vocabulary.  I had hoped that theatre could be the key to shaking my blues, but I was wrong.

Oh, I was so, so wrong.

Due to the depression, I had lost all confidence in myself.  And the small gains I had made in theatre crumbled to dust.  I began to perceive myself as having a lot of shortcomings as a performer.  And I began to overcompensate for these perceived shortcomings and rattled off a series of auditions so terrible, it probably made some people blush.

I hit rock bottom, acting-wise, with an audition for a show called Inspecting Carol at the Omaha Playhouse.  This was, without question, the single, worst audition I ever had. In my early days, I would often attend both nights of the audition and would get called up to read at least once or twice a night, each night for the most part.  This time around, I gave an audition that was so hideously awful that I only got to read once.  I came back the second night and was neither asked to read nor did I volunteer to read because I saw the writing on the wall and realized I could not undo the damage of that wretched first read.

Eventually I had decided that my plan for a master’s degree was in the wrong field.  I realized that my previous credits at Creighton had me not too far from a certification in HR, so I enrolled there instead.  My confidence was still virtually non-existent, but I had always been an excellent scholar, so as I fell into my studies and realized that I could still do that, my depression started to lift a bit.

I even took a gamble and decided to audition at Creighton again.  My first audition back was for a one act play called The Zoo Story by Edward Albee.  This play is about a quiet man named Peter who goes to the park to read.  While there he meets a man called Jerry who tells Peter the story about why he came to the zoo.  As Jerry’s story continues, Peter learns that Jerry is a very dangerous lunatic.  Jerry provokes a fight with Peter and gets stabbed in the struggle and all to prove his point that people are just like animals.

I really wanted to play Jerry, but ended up having an astounding read for Peter.  This was the longest flash I had in an audition because I managed to get a grip on it and ride it through to the end of the audition.  A friend of mine named Paul Thelen looked at me after my first read as Peter and said, “You have a real naturalness for that role”.

I ended up getting to the final grouping of people and ended up narrowly being edged out for the role of Peter.  There was a direction that I didn’t take far enough and Paul thought if I had done so, I would have landed the part and I think he was right.

Still it was a tremendous boost in confidence.  So much so that I auditioned for A View From the Bridge later that year at Creighton.  I had a fairly solid showing, but had a memorable moment towards the end of the audition.  Bill Hutson wanted to improvise a scene where immigration agents came to collect a couple of illegal immigrants (an important plot point in the play).  I opted to go for a very no nonsense agent and when I came to collect the character, he jerked away from to hug his cousin good-bye.  I pried him loose and snarled, “You can send her a letter.”

Immediately, I thought I had erred and that this comment was too comedic for the scene.  But I was delighted to hear the opposite reaction from the other actors.  They erupted into oohs and one person commented, “Wow!  What cruelty.”  A few days later I learned I had got into the play and I credit that moment for sealing the deal.  And it was nice that I could end my time at Creighton with a sense of peace with the theatre department.

It was a good show and I met some good people and my depression lifted a little bit more.  Then I went to the Playhouse to see a show in March of 2002 and I met a friend of mine who worked for the Playhouse’s professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.  I asked him if he knew any shows that would be produced next year and he mentioned several which I mentally filed and then my brain ground to a halt when he said, The Elephant Man.

For the first time in a long time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.  The Elephant Man is my favorite film and play.  I saw the play on TV when I was 9 and I was so struck by the strength of spirit of Joseph (John) Merrick that I learned all that I could about him and became an expert.  For those who don’t know, Joseph Merrick (misnamed John by Dr. Frederick Treves who shared his story) suffered from an ultrarare genetic condition called Proteus Syndrome which not only caused tumors to grow all over and in his body, but savagely disfigured him as well.  He made his living as a sideshow freak until Dr. Treves discovered him at a freak show and thought he would make a good subject for a paper.  Treves discovered the man trapped within the hideous body and ended up giving him a better life.  Despite the tragic life he had led, Merrick maintained a strong faith in God and was a witty, intelligent, artistic man who built a model of St John’s Church with his one good arm and almost entirely from his imagination.  The church remains at a museum in London to this day.

I had long felt that I was born to play this part and knew if I could have the chance that I could really show how good of an actor I could be with this role.  I rapidly completed my studies at Creighton and began to prepare for what I felt would be a momentous audition.  My knowledge of the character already gave me some decided advantages as I knew Merrick’s story intimately and was well acquainted with his physicality from photographs I had studied in the past.  Now I just needed to prepare the audition.

I even got an extra bit of good news when I learned that Kevin Lawler (of The Empty Plough audition) would be directing the show.  I remember the good showing I had given him at the previous audition and admired his philosophy of him having enough faith in his directorial prowess to get the actor out of people.  I believed I would head into this audition on absolutely equal footing with the other performers.

As I worked on my audition, I realized something wasn’t quite right so I asked my old friend, Kay McGuigan, if she would help me with my audition.  She was more than happy to and with her help I discovered the big flaw.  I made Merrick too angry.  I let the injustice I felt at his treatment influence my performance and it was wrong.  With Kay’s help, we spent 2 hours reworking and fixing my interpretation and when we were done I was ready to fly.

Then came the audition night.  Never had I been so nervous for an audition.  I brought a cane with me to help me feel more like Merrick and I wanted to be the first reader so I could set the bar to impossible heights.  After I signed in, I noticed there were only monologues available so I knew it to be a one on one audition.  However, the monologues were only for Dr. Treves and Ross, Merrick’s “owner”.  Even though, he is the title character, Merrick has no lengthy monologues due to the difficulty he had talking because of his affliction.  The first thought that sprung to mind was that all of my work had just gone up in smoke.  But I took a deep breath and told myself that I could just ask Kevin if I could read for Merrick.

I spent a few minutes studying the monologue and was called over by the stage manager.  Kevin was waiting and he took a look at me and said, “I think I remember this guy” before shaking my hand.  Another shot of confidence because it meant he had remembered my audition from The Empty Plough from four years past.  We went into the theatre and he complimented me on my cane and I explained why I had brought it and told him I was hoping I could show him my Merrick as well.  He said that might be a possibility, but let’s see how I handled the monologue first.

I was reading a monologue of Treves where he confesses to Bishop Howe that he feels he has made Merrick a freak again, albeit a high class one.  I attacked the monologue with a very earnest read, almost a sense of desperation.  I saw Treves as trying to explain how he felt, but not quite knowing how to say it, and hoping that his earnestness would explain the situation.  As I got about halfway through the monologue, Kevin stopped me and said, “I want you to try something.  Grab a chair and have a seat.  I want you to pretend that you’ve been in a bar drinking and are sharing this story.  Don’t be so earnest, but more like, ‘This is bullshit and that’s bullshit and my life is a lie’.  And I don’t want to see any anger.”

“HA!” I thought to myself.  “Here’s where I make up for The Empty Plough.”

I redid the monologue with Kevin’s suggestions and it worked very well.  The monologue was directed more towards myself and carried a lot more gravitas as a result.  When I finished, Kevin said, “That was much better.  Good changes.”  Then he allowed me to read Merrick.

He helped me read a scene where Merrick has a final meeting with his former “owner” and declares his humanity.  Immediately I fell into the role, transforming my body into Merrick, and proceeded to have what I still consider the absolute best read I have ever given.  As I finished up a little paragraph from Merrick, I waited for Kevin to feed me the next line and heard nothing.  I looked up at him and saw him staring at me, eyes shining.  To this day I still wonder what he was thinking at that moment.

“Kevin?” I stated.

That snapped him out of his reverie and he said, “Well you’ve certainly been studying photographs.  You’ve got a good grip on his infirmities.”  Then he asked me if I had read the play and I said that I had and told him why I found the character so fascinating.  You see, I was bullied a bit in my childhood which is why I connected so well with Merrick.  He had it worse than I ever did and never lost his faith and stayed a good man and I’m proud to say that I’ve done the same.  When I finished my explanation, Kevin said, “So you feel you have a strong connection with the character?” and I said, “Yes.  I guess I do.”

Kevin had one more task for me.  He wanted me to take a few minutes to study the monologue of Ross and then come back and read it.  If it helped, he told me that Ross was a very oily individual.  I went out, studied, came back and gave a decent accounting of myself.  Right intention.  Right attitude.  But the delivery seemed slightly off target.  Just slightly and in no way undid the other good work I had done.  Kevin seemed pleased and said, “That was just what I wanted to see.  Something completely different.”

I then asked Kevin what would happen next.  He said he needed to cast the play by August 1 and if I didn’t hear anything by then, it would, unfortunately, mean that I hadn’t been cast.  He thanked me for my time and clapped me on the back.  As he did, I got a terrific chill.  I suddenly had the odd sensation that I was not going to be cast.  I chalked it up to nerves and left, fully confident, that I had a real chance.

For the next 3 weeks, I dove at the phone every time it rang, hoping that it would be the call.  On July 31, I came home and found a letter waiting for me from the Playhouse.  All the feeling drained from my body.  I opened up the envelope, removed the card, and read the all too familiar words thanking me for my time, but I was not going to be cast in The Elephant Man.  I went to my bedroom and buried my face in my hands.

I was struck numb.  If I could have cried, I may have felt better, but I couldn’t even do that.  I just felt nothing.  “How?”  I asked myself.  And it rattled in my head like a mantra.  This had been my very best audition.  And it failed.  What did that mean about every other audition I had done or might do?

I didn’t know what to do.  There is an unwritten rule in theatre that says you never ask why you don’t get cast.  And it’s a good rule.  As I’ve stated in a previous blog, there are so many uncontrollable factors outside an actor’s control that dictate whether he or she gets cast.  And I didn’t need to know why I didn’t get cast.  I just needed to know that my audition meant something.  I struggled with the decision for a few hours, but finally sat down and wrote Kevin an e-mail where I simply asked if I had been in the running and what he thought of the audition.

A month later, I got the following response:

Dear Chris,

Yes, you were in the running.  I was moved by the preparation you had done.  I also thought you had done some good work in your preparations, but it worried me that you had done so much work on it.  I wasn’t quite sure where the breathing room would be.  It was almost as if you had worked so hard that there might be little room for change or to begin from scratch even if that’s what was called for.  What I was more concerned about seeing was how versatile an actor you were.  Where your qualities lay in the cold readings.  Having said all that, I must tell you that it was one of the most wonderful displays of heart and care that I have ever come across from an actor in an audition.  I thank you for that.

I am sorry that it didn’t work out this time, but I think you should, and will, keep auditioning if you love theatre as much as it seems you do.

Many thanks, Chris,

Kevin

What mixed feelings I had.  I was deeply touched by the letter, but that was countered by the horror that the things I did to give myself the best possible chance destroyed my chances.  Even worse was the knowledge I had that I had not worked as hard as Kevin had thought.  Remember, most of my knowledge had been acquired over the years.  And he didn’t know that I had reworked the entire audition the previous day and was quite directable.  And never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would not have been cast at all.

This audition haunted me for a long time.  And it wasn’t until a long time later that I saw the good that came out of it.

Most importantly, I believe God sent me the audition because preparing for it was what finally pulled me out of the depression I had been suffering from once and for all.

It was inspiring.  Instead of telling myself that I never could do better, I vowed to get my auditions up to that level on a regular basis.

I did get close.  Perhaps even the second choice.

Finally, Kevin made the right call.  In the sense that if I couldn’t play Merrick, it was best not to be in the show at that stage in my life.  Although I was free of the depression, my acting confidence was still incredibly low.  And Daniel Dorner, who won the role, did a magnificent job and won every major acting award for it.  Had I been cast and watched him work his magic, I would not be an actor today because I would have convinced myself that I could never have matched it and quit.

Nowadays I look back and I take great pride in what I did accomplish with that read.  And there was much to be proud of.

NEXT TIME:  The Awakening.  Our hero’s sleeping powers finally awaken.