A Well Acted Puzzler

A man mourns the loss of his family and friends.  This is the plot of The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn and currently playing at the Circle Theatre.

This play is much, much more than my simple one sentence summary.  This is the most perplexing play I have ever watched.  There is a narrative thread, but due to the disjointed and fragmented nature of Shawn’s writing, it takes the focus of a Sherlock Holmes to locate and grasp it.  The play was about ¾ of the way over before I had enough clues to put things together.

The play takes place in a totalitarian society where being an intellectual is a crime.  The play is presented as a triologue between the characters of Jack, Judy, and Howard as they share their broken and unconnected memories with the audience.  Pay very close attention to what each character says as their stories and thoughts weave in and out from the present and the past, leading the audience on a very convoluted path to the endgame of this story.

Ryle Smith plays the role of Jack and directs the play.  As director, he has chosen to present the play as a reader’s theatre production.  I found this to be a very wise choice as this is a very static play.  It is completely dialogue driven with zero action and presenting it as a narration gives this play the best possible chance for success.  He has also guided himself and his other two thespians to strong performances which is absolutely vital to holding the audience’s interest in this talky production.

As Jack, Smith serves as the chief narrator of the story and is the designated mourner.  Smith does a good job of presenting Jack as a wannabe intellectual.  He is intelligent and has an appreciation for fine literature, but cannot converse about it on the same level as his wife, Judy, and father-in-law, Howard.

Though Jack has the veneer of a laid-back personality, it covers a much darker side.  Jack is a coward, has utter contempt for his father-in-law due to his being highbrow while Jack is lowbrow, cheats on Judy, and runs with his tail tucked between his legs when the government begins to threaten Judy and Howard.  As unlikable as Jack is, Smith’s interpretation does permit an understanding of, if not sympathy for, Jack.  He is somewhat pitiable as he loses his sense of identity for the sake of his survival and there is a gleam of hope for him as he recognizes the poetry of beauty in the simple things of life at the play’s end.

I found the character of Judy to be the most baffling of the play and that is not a negative criticism.  Due to the esoteric nature of Wallace’s writing, I simply had trouble getting a grip on Judy’s function in the story as her stories and memories are the most ethereal of the three characters.  Luckily the acting of Laura Marr makes up for the rather ghostly nature of Judy.

Ms Marr always remained fully engaged in the action and I was enthralled as I watched her reactions to the stories told by Howard and Jack as her expressions told a story all their own.  She was also a master of the beats as she altered tone, expression, and body language with each shift of the story.  Most compelling was her storytelling when Judy was dying of an unknown illness as her body seemed to deteriorate before my eyes to coincide with the sickliness of Judy.

David Sindelar once again proves himself to be one of the city’s underrated talents with a rare, and excellent, dramatic turn as Howard.  As Howard, Sindelar breathes a rather lofty air into his performance.  He is the intellectual’s intellectual.  Howard is a master of prose and wrote several political essays which may play into the woes he eventually suffers during the course of the show.  He truly enjoys a good debate and comes off as a bit of a snob.  This trait was most telling during a conversation with Jack about a mutual friend.

When Jack says he would have done things differently than this friend about a certain event, Sindelar’s Howard persuasively argues that if Jack had been the friend he would have been motivated by the same thoughts and reactions as that of the friend and, therefore, have done exactly the same thing.  Sindelar did this with a wonderful superior attitude that made me wonder if the contempt between Jack and Howard were equal on both sides.  Sindelar could also give lessons on projection and voice control as his powerful speaking voice filled the theatre space.

While the acting was quite strong, I felt that the pace could have been picked up quite a bit.  Ms Marr and Smith also need to project a little bit more into the microphones as they were a little quiet at the start of the show.

It’s hard to write a proper conclusion to this review due to the mysterious nature of the show.  I believe this play will be quite polarizing.  You will either love it or you will hate it.  Buckle yourself in for a long ride as a lot will be thrown at you in a short period of time, but the performing abilities of the trio of actors will go a long way in bolstering the peculiarities of the script.

The Designated Mourner plays for the Circle Theatre through February 27.  Showtimes are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and this production is playing at the Urban Abbey located at 1026 Jackson St in the Old Market district of Omaha, NE.  For reservations, contact the Circle at 402-553-4715 or via e-mail at dlmarr@cox.net.  Tickets cost $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $10 for students, active military, and T.A.G. members.  This play contains strong language and mature themes and is not suitable for children.

“A Steady Rain” is an Emotional Storm

How far would you go to protect your best friend?  Would you lie for him?  Would you cover for him?  Would you betray him?  These are the themes explored in Keith Huff’s heavy drama A Steady Rain to be presented at the Omaha Community Playhouse on November 9 as part of their Alternative Programming Series.

Huff’s script is one of the most inventive pieces of drama I’ve come across.  It’s designed as a duologue with its two actors sometimes talking to the audience and sometimes to each other.  It’s also one of the mightiest pieces of drama I have ever seen.  Huff starts this story in a pretty rough spot and proceeds to drag it into darker and bleaker places using the metaphor of rain that gets heavier and harder as the tribulations pile on the two characters.

Christina Rohling’s direction is pluperfect.  This show has a large number of beats and Ms Rohling fully understands each and every one intimately.  She has mined this show and discovered a treasure trove of emotion and storytelling to share with the audience through the 2 dynamite performances she has shaped with her two actors.

Out of the many characters Nick Zadina has created for the Omaha public, I truly believe his portrayal of Denny eclipses them all.  Zadina has all of Denny’s complexities firmly in the palm of his hand and presents them in a piece of acting majesty.  When the play begins, Zadina’s Denny appears to be a jokey, lighthearted police officer who is helping his best friend and partner, Joey, beat the bottle.  A noble act, to be sure, but Denny is not a good man.  Yes, he does love his family and friend, but he is abusive, corrupt, a philanderer, and arrogant.

Zadina’s mastery of the beats is jaw dropping as his delivery just drips nuance from moment to moment.  Zadina remains engaged in the performance for the duration and some of his best moments occur when he isn’t speaking and is simply reacting to the things Joey says.  Zadina paints a masterpiece of a man on top of the world who slowly devolves into a shadow of his former self due to 2 tragic events.

Aaron Sailors is equally up to the challenge as Denny’s partner, Joey.  When the play begins, Joey is at rock bottom due to alcohol addiction.  Thanks to Denny “adopting” him, he’s been able to overcome the addiction and begin building a better life for himself.  Sailors brings a fierce loyalty to Joey which is rather surprising considering that Denny roughed up Joey quite a bit as a child.  But he has remained staunchly loyal to Denny.

At first, Joey seems a bit similar to Denny as both seem slightly racist and are frustrated with their inability to get promoted to detectives.  After attending a race seminar, Joey proves he was always a better man than Denny.  Sailors gives Joey an inherent decency which is sometimes misguided as he covers Denny’s more sordid doings, but he also proves himself a better father and companion to Denny’s wife and children than Denny himself.

What I found most intriguing about the show was that, whether by design or coincidence, Zadina and Sailors bear a very strong resemblance to each other.  This aids the story as it shows how remarkably similar they are and makes the parallel roads they travel more marked when Joey rises as Denny falls.  I wish this could be a full scale production as this show is truly something special.  Do not miss out on your chance to see this production as it will be a highlight of the season.

A Steady Rain plays at the Omaha Playhouse for one night on November 9.  Showtime is at 7:30pm and admission is free.  This show contains extremely strong language and mature subject matter and is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Dramatic Duologue on November 9 is Next Offering for OCP’s Alternative Programming Series

A Steady Rain

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by Keith Huff | Directed by Christina Rohling

Joey and Denny have been best friends since kindergarten. After working together for several years as police officers in Chicago, they are practically family. Joey helps out with Denny’s wife and kids. Denny keeps Joey away from the bottle. When a domestic disturbance call takes a turn for the worse, their friendship is put on the line as they start a harrowing journey into a dark ethical arena.

Contains mature content.

Location:  Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE)

Date & Time:  Monday, November 9 at 7:30pm

The performance is free.

Cast

Nick Zadina – Denny
Aaron Sailors – Joey