Hir, Hir

A young soldier returns home to assist his ailing father who has suffered a massive stroke.  When he returns, he finds his world turned upside down as his mother has revolted against the patriarchy and his sister is now becoming his brother.  This is Hir by Taylor Mac, now playing at the Blue Barn.

Mac has certainly crafted one of the most cerebral comedies I have ever seen.  You’ll constantly need to be on your toes as the story winds over many peaks and valleys before reaching its final destination.  It isn’t your typical dark comedy.  Rather it’s more of a tragic comedy with laugh out loud moments and instances where you’ll feel as if you were punched in the gut.  Mac also has a beautiful knack for phrasing as his acrobatic wordplay keeps the play zipping along.

Susan Clement-Toberer scores again with tight, crisp direction as she leads her magnificent cast of 4 through every high and low of this tale.

Few things thrill me more than getting to see new talent on stage and this play comes up big with the debuts of Joe Mendick and Nickolas Butt who are pure magic.

Mendick plays Isaac, the young soldier.  Isaac was clearly a good soldier, but was dishonorably discharged due to drug usage. Shocked at the changes in his family, Isaac mounts a counterrevolution against his mother to restore his family to a more improved version of the way they were before he joined the Marines.

Mendick brings incredible intensity to the role.  His ramrod posture is the perfect choice for Isaac as he is so wound up that he vomits with alarming frequency.  Mendick also has a wonderfully rich voice capable of the subtlest nuances and a face capable of the widest range of emotions.  One of his best moments occurs at the end of Act I where he engages his father in a conversation where his gestures, tones, and expressions show how much he loved and hated his father at the same time.

Nickolas Butt was, quite frankly, a sheer joy to watch.  For someone with very little acting experience, Butt possesses poise and confidence many experienced actors would envy.  Butt stars as Max, Isaac’s transgendered sibling and absolutely nails it.  Max is a rather amusing philosopher with his views on life and his reinterpretation of history (or herstory, as he is so fond of saying).  Max’s wit and wisdom conceal the fact that he doesn’t really know what he wants for himself.  He has a lot of wild dreams and wishes, but lacks follow-through until the very end when he begins to find himself.

Butt excellently communicates all of Max’s intricacies with a fluid body language and clear as crystal facial expressions that always lets one follow his thoughts as he observes his rather dysfunctional family.

“I’ve gone a little batty,” says Paige and this sums up her character well.  Kim Jubenville brilliantly essays this character who has undergone an awakening after her husband, Arnold, suffered his stroke.  Freed from his tyranny, she decides to revolt against Arnold and the patriarchy in general by refusing to clean or cook, keeping the air conditioner on at all times, homeschooling Max, taking trips, and just doing whatever she fancies.

Going over the top would be an easy temptation for this role, but Ms Jubenville always takes it just to the top which keeps Paige’s realism intact.  She also has some of the most difficult dialogue in the play as Paige spouts out a lot of complicated jargon especially when she tries to teach Isaac about the new pronouns of ze and hir which he must use in reference to Max.

But don’t be fooled by Paige’s goofiness.  There is a lot of darkness to her.  Ms Jubenville slowly reveals the nastier aspects of Paige throughout the play with her cruel and callous behavior towards her husband such as keeping him docile by feeding him estrogen, making him wear dresses, and forcing him to sleep in a box.  This darkness finally reaches its crescendo during a climactic confrontation between Paige, Isaac, and Arnold.

Brent Spencer gives what I consider to be his finest performance to date as Arnold.  He is an incredibly convincing stroke victim with his staccato walk and twisted face, barely managing to eke out a few words here and there.  As helpless as he is, Spencer is also able to show the audience glimpses of the fiend that Arnold was before his stroke.  His disdain for Paige is palpable and he doesn’t hesitate to resort to violence against her as feeble as it now is.  You’ll surely feel a strange mixture of pity and disgust at this man.

Martin Scott Marchitto does it again with his design of a pleasant, comfortable starter home.  However you won’t see it in its full glory until Act II as it is hidden by Amy Reiner’s well staged clutter in Act I.  Lora Kaup’s costumes are well suited to the character especially the butch clothing of Max and the humiliating dresses and wigs of Arnold.

Some line bobbles took nothing away from this excellent play which teaches a profound lesson.  The past cannot be obliterated, only learned from and those that fail to learn from it are surely doomed to repeat it.

Hir plays through Feb 26 at the Blue Barn.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The performances for Feb 3 and 4 are sold out and there is no performance on Feb 5.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Due to strong language and mature subject matter, Hir is not recommended for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

You’ll Feel this One ‘In The Bones’

A young man dies.  What are the factors that led to his death?  What are the consequences of his passing?  How do his family and loved ones cope now that he is gone?  These are the questions posed and answered in the drama, In The Bones by Cody Daigle-Orians, currently performing at SNAP! Productions.

Though the theatre season has just begun, SNAP! stakes an early claim to this year’s best drama with a tip top script that fuels one of the finest pieces of ensemble acting that I have seen in many a season.  Daigle-Orians’ story manages to strike all the right notes at precisely the right times.  It is serious where it must be.  Funny where it should be.  Heartbreaking where it needs to be.  M Michele Phillips’ direction is absolutely flawless.  She has missed no beat, maximizes each moment to its fullest potential, and has produced a bumper crop of fantastic performances from this amazingly talented cast.

In the hands of a lesser actor, the role of Luke could easily be treated as a throwaway part.  But Eric Grant-Leanna gives one of the best performances of his career in the role of the young soldier whose death drives this story.

The play opens on the day of Luke’s death and from there goes back and forth through time through the use of pre-filmed vignettes for the past and stage acting for the present and future scenes.  Grant-Leanna’s natural, boyish charm makes him ideal for the role of Luke.  Clearly, this young man is the glue that held his family and loved ones together.  One cannot help, but be infected by Luke’s sweet innocence.  He’s fun and a bit of a prankster and seems fixated on getting people to say nice things for his videos.

But Luke also carries some heavy burdens.  He is a closeted homosexual who has finally decided to reveal to his mother that his “renter” is actually his long term boyfriend.  Luke is also a soldier who has done 2 tours of duty in Afghanistan.  On one of those tours, he made a choice which haunts him until his death.  Grant-Leanna’s delivery during the more serious moments is nothing short of mesmerizing and some of the best scenes in the play are when Luke is watching the video footage he has shot where Grant-Leanna’s clean and clear facial expressions tell you all the story you will need.

Sally Neumann Scamfer is splendid in the role of Dee, Luke’s mother.  Through Ms Neumann Scamfer’s wonderful storytelling abilities, you will know the angst and anger of a woman unable to cope with the death of her son and unwilling to accept his sexuality.  At points, Ms Neumann Scamfer’s Dee will seem like a heartless shrew as she, more or less, forces Luke’s lover out of their home before disavowing his existence, makes her daughter feel like she ranks a distant second to her dead son, and nastily (sometimes hilariously) snipes at her sister.

Then, just as easily, Ms Neumann Scamfer will show Dee’s better qualities such as her kindness and witty sense of humor.  Her Dee is not a bad person, merely broken and devastated that so many things were left unsaid with Luke.

Dan Luethke is sympathetic as Ben, Luke’s partner.  At the play’s beginning he is already a crushed man as his slightly bent shoulders and soft-spoken delivery reveal his immense sadness over the loss of his lover.  As the years go by in the show, Ben’s sadness transforms into anger not only due to Luke’s demise, but because his part in Luke’s life is essentially erased by Luke’s family, especially Dee.  This anger could easily be overplayed, but Luethke keeps it perfectly real.  It’s neither too much nor too little.

Luethke is just as strong in the pre-filmed vignettes where he plays Ben as a much happier man with a dry wit and a willingness to play with Luke and his sister, Chloe, who was aware of their relationship.  My only criticism about Luethke’s performance is for him to be a little more natural with his gestures.  In tonight’s performance, some of his hand movements seemed rehearsed.

Corie Grant-Leanna (the real life sister of Eric Grant-Leanna) is sweet and vulnerable as Chloe.  The casting of a real life brother and sister was a stroke of casting genius as it lent gravitas and power to Ms Grant-Leanna’s interpretation of Chloe.  All of the emotions she feels towards Luke are so very, very real and natural.  You’ll be brought along for the ride as you share her pain at Luke’s death, her uncertainty when Luke decides to reveal his sexuality to their mother, her skittishness as she tries to connect with an old army friend of Luke’s, and her anger with her mother who just cannot move on from Luke’s death.  Ms Grant-Leanna does need to put just a tiny bit more power into her projection as she sounded a touch breathy, but this did not take away from her beautiful performance.

Stephanie Anderson kept the audience in stitches with her energetic and raucous rendition of Kate, Luke’s aunt.  Ms Anderson easily handles the comedy of Kate with well aimed zingers and imbues Kate with a strong zest for life.  But Ms Anderson also takes care of Kate’s more serious moments with equal grace.  A meeting between Kate and Ben a year after Luke’s death and a heart to heart talk with Dee at the play’s climax will have your heart aching.

David Mainelli returns to the stage after a four year hiatus and has not lost a step.  Mainelli plays Kenny, a friend of Luke’s from the army.  Mainelli makes for a fine Southern gentleman as his Kenny is laid back and easy going, but a little persistent as he constantly tries to contact Chloe to learn why she was trying to get hold of him.  He is also thoughtful and intelligent and has a wonderful monologue towards the end of the play where he discusses his thoughts on his faith and marriage which I consider the most thought provoking moment of the play and was enhanced by Mainelli’s straightforward, sincere delivery.

Aside from the tremendous acting and directing, this show was equally brilliant on the technical side.  Ronnie Wells’ simple, broken wall set accurately depicts the brokenness caused by Luke’s death.  Joshua Mullady’s light design is well suited to the shifting moods of the play.  Daena Schweiger’s visual media and sound design, especially her music choices, bolster this play admirably.

A young man dies.  His death means different things to different people.  I do not know what Luke’s death will mean to you after watching In The Bones, but I do know that you will be in for an epic night of theatre and a drama that will rank among this season’s best.

In The Bones runs at SNAP! Productions through September 13.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The closing performance on Sept 13 will be at 2pm.  Tickets cost $15 for adults and $12 for students, seniors, T.A.G. members, and the military.  Thursday night shows cost $10.  Due to the subject matter and coarse language, In The Bones is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California St in Omaha, NE.