The Big Bad Woolf

A late night party between a pair of couples begins civilly.  As the couples continue to imbibe, old wounds and frustrations begin to manifest, resulting in a hideous game of oneupsmanship between the older couple that threatens to tear both pairs apart.  This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.

Edward Albee had a real talent for revealing the unsavory underbelly of humanity.  And he does it so subtly and with a tragic poetic beauty.  What starts out as good natured jabbing between an older couple while hosting a young couple transforms into something much darker as the ripostes and reactions become a little more cutting and a bit more brutal.  Suddenly the younger couple gets dragged into the tidal wave of verbal sewage until the disaster hits its peak.  Then it drains slowly away and under all the bilge is still a touch of hope and beauty.

Gordon Cantiello does quite superlative work with his direction.  He makes wonderful use of the theatre in the round space with highly animated staging which allows the actors to keep up the energy of the show and play to all sides of the theatre.  He also thoroughly did his homework on this piece as he understands the numerous twists, beats, and climaxes of each scene and has his insanely talented cast play them to perfection.

Delaney Driscoll rules the stage as Martha.  Ms Driscoll’s Martha is truly a vile piece of humanity.  At one point she says she wears the pants in the family and that’s certainly true as she rules with a iron fist.  She derives a sadistic pleasure out of torturing her husband with vicious comments about his failures and embarrassments or just simply ogling and seducing the young new faculty member visiting their home while guzzling booze and snacking on liquor soaked ice cubes.

Ms Driscoll’s presence defies belief and fills the entire theatre as she charmingly essays a bag of human misery.  And yet, she still is able to make you feel a bit of sympathy towards her when you finally understand what fuels her vicious behavior.

Brent Spencer gives a nuanced, well-balanced performance as George, Martha’s husband.  The best way to describe Spencer’s George is if Machiavelli were a spineless weakling.  Nobody with an ounce of self-respect would put up with the abuse with which Martha subjects George.  Not that he’s a wimp.  He can give as good as he gets with his verbal shots and Spencer’s understated delivery allows him to spout insults that leave people wondering if they have just been zinged.  But when he’s pushed too far, watch out!

When this worm finally turns, he does so with devastating effect.  Spencer’s George gleefully develops horrific games such as “Get the Guests” and “Bringing Up Baby” to inflict maximum punishment on his wife and guests.

Mark Booker underplays Nick so beautifully.  He is clearly the parallel to Martha as he is the boss of his family unit and also trapped in a unsuccessful marriage.  Unlike Martha, he can be kind as he does defend his wife, Honey, from some of the verbal fusillade spewing from George’s mouth.  My favorite part of Booker’s interpretation was how he slowly revealed the spiteful, vengeful side of his personality as he got further into his cups.  This is not a man I would want to cross as he delivers double the punishment for every blow he gets.  Not only can he stand toe to toe verbally with George, he unabashedly makes love to Martha just to twist the knife a bit further.

Katie Otten broke my heart with her take on Honey.  She is the lone, wholly sympathetic character in the piece.  Her ramrod posture indicates the constant level of tension she lives with and is only able to cope with copious amounts of alcohol.  When she’s blitzed her real personality of a fun-loving, uneducated party girl shines through. Miss Otten’s Honey seems a poor match for her genius husband until the truth of their relationship is revealed.

One of my friends once described watching this show as the verbal equivalent of having the skin flayed off his body.  That seems a rather apt description as the power of Albee’s words combined with a superior cast will take the audience along on a bitter, intense roller coaster ride that will leave you feeling beaten and wearied by the end.  That feeling is further enhanced by the skillful sound effects of Doug Huggins as his noises buoy the show’s most powerful and key moments.  It is not an easy show to watch, but it is enthralling.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at the PART through Feb 17.  Showtimes are 7pm Fri-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors (60+) and $25 students.  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-706-0778.  Due to mature themes, the show is not recommended for children.  The PART is located inside of Crossroads Mall next to Target at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

 

A Season of Exploration, Part IV: From the Other Side of the Table

Well, it’s been a while since my last theatre tale and this one will actually conclude this season of tales.

As I stated in my last entry, I was going to serve as an Assistant to the Director for Lara Marsh for the Playhouse production of Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods.  This was an interesting process from start to finish as Lara actually put me through an orientation of sorts before launching me on the project.

First and foremost, she wanted to know why this particular show because she knows how selective I am about the projects I choose to take on.  I’ve always been particularly attracted to scripts that feature great strength of spirit and this play has that in spades in the form of its two leading characters, Christine and Gabriel.  Since I had also read for the role of Michael Dolan back when the show was a staged reading, I had enough familiarity with the script to decide it would be a good project to learn the ropes of directing.

My first assignment was to do some background research for the show.  As the story centers around helping a young refugee from the Sudanese Civil War, I compiled some research about Sudan, the Sudanese Civil War, Sudanese culture and customs, and Somalia and its culture (due to one of the characters being from that region).

Lara had done a large amount of research as well.  Over the past two years Lara had become a living encyclopedia about the Sudan and the Lost Boys in her efforts to bring this show to life.  She had mastered the extremely difficult Dinka dialect, had watched a number of documentaries, and read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a very hard to read, but eye opening account of the trek of the Lost Boys through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng who lived through it.

I am a big “devil in the details” type of person and Lara is of a similar bent which is why we worked so well together during this process and saw eye to eye on 98% of things.  Some directors prefer actors to have done no prep work before beginning the creative process so they can grow organically.  Others want the actors to have read the script before auditioning.  But Lara wanted her cast to be well grounded in the history behind this play so they would be able to better develop their characters.

Then came the night of auditions where I got to formally meet Jeanne Shelton, a stage manager I had read in front of on numerous occasions.  The auditions were a little less than I hoped for in terms of size.  I had secretly hoped for a slew of actors so we could have an overwhelming selection to pick and choose from.  We had enough people show up to cast the play with just a little overage.  But the lack of quantity was, by and large, made up by the quality shown by the people who did come to audition.

I had once heard it said that a director only needs 15 seconds to determine whether or not he or she is going to cast you.  I agree with that to an extent.  We may need more than 15 seconds to decide to cast you, but it only takes about 15 seconds to decide not to cast you.  And don’t think that means that the audition was bad.  I mentally eliminated a couple of people who had great reads immediately simply because they were not suitable for any of our roles.

Fortunately, we were able to cast most of our cast from the auditions.  A couple of roles didn’t have enough people audition and those that did were not quite right, so Lara had to find people to fill those roles.

Now we had a cast and could begin the creative process.  During the process I learned that directing is a lot more than just handling the artistic side of things.  I’m used to coming early and staying late as an actor, but a director needs to be there much earlier than anyone else and must stay much later.  Countless details need to be considered like sounds, lights, props, etc.

I even learned that directing has its own political side to get the things one needs for a show to be the best that it can be.  One prominent thing I learned is that the season finale in the Playhouse’s smaller theatre is nicknamed the “death slot”.

This isn’t a bad moniker.  But this show takes place at the end of the season so a great deal of money has already been spent by this point and there is still the final musical to be produced on the Playhouse’s Main Stage which is going to need a lot of money as they are usually big, lavish affairs.  It just means that some strategy and negotiation is necessary for the shows in this slot to get what it needs.  Keep in mind that some of the Playhouse’s best shows have taken place in this slot such as Biloxi Blues, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and our little effort which has become a critical darling.

As Assistant to the Director, you may think that my job duties were relegated to getting Lara’s coffee, sharpening her pencils, and being her all around gofer.  The reality was that I was closer to an Assistant Director.  I gave ideas to Lara and took very copious acting notes for the performers.  Lara took me very seriously, often incorporating my ideas into her own notes.

I learned a great deal about directing under Lara’s learning tree.  Like acting, directing is also an art because it’s about a lot more than telling actors how to perform.  It’s about working with all types of learning curves, temperaments, and experience levels.  It’s about knowing where, when, and why to give a note.

As a details guy, I was ready to get into the grit and gristle of things right away.  Lara taught me that you have to let the actors experiment at first.  Early notes are simple as the performers build the frame of the house.  Directors gently guide it so the proper foundation is built.  As that confidence grows, the notes become more detailed and nuanced to refine and shape the story.

I would have to say that my favorite directing moment came when I was working on a scene with our lead actress, Julie Fitzgerald Ryan, and Victoria Luther, who was playing her daughter.  They were having an argument and Julie’s character has a line where she says, “We’re supposed to be living in circles.  Concentric circles.  Circles within circles.”

When I heard that line, I said, “Do I dare?  Yes, I dare.”  Then I asked Victoria to mouth the words along with Julie as I felt her character had heard this speech about a million times.  It’s hit the mark every single time.

One thing I’ve noticed about working in this slot is that the rehearsal period seems to be a bit reduced.  There’s only about 4 weeks of rehearsal as opposed to the 5 or 6 weeks I’m used to.  That means rehearsals almost every day for 4 to 5 hours at a clip to get where we need to be.

So fast forward to preview night.  I hadn’t been so nervous for a show since my first one.  What will the audience think?  Will they love it?  Will they hate it?  Will they ride me out of town on a rail?

I wait with baited breath until the end of the show and the audience rose to its feet for a standing ovation.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  One hurdle crossed.

Now it’s opening night.  The extra real deal, as it were.  The cast came out all guns a blazing and just nailed it to the floor.  Every review (5 of them at this point) has been glowing making Lost Boys Found at Whole Foods one of the most critically well received shows of the season.  And I had helped make it happen.

I rank this event as one of my prouder accomplishments in theatre and something more remarkable happened.  As I helped to guide this cast, my own skills as an actor were reinforced and, for the first time in a long while, I good and truly felt the itch to perform again.  So now I’m looking to tell a story again and found at least one promising show next year.

Well, that wraps up this season of tales.  I will return with a new season that I like to call “A Season of Renewal”.  We’ll see you then.

2015 Playhouse Awards Night

Last night the Omaha Playhouse held its annual Awards Night to honor the contributions of its numerous volunteers on all sides of the stage.

Volunteer Awards

PRESIDENT’S AWARD:  Trish Liakos and Steph Gould, Act II

EDWARD F. OWEN AWARD:  Carter and Vernie Jones

TRUSTEES’ AWARD:  Mary Dew and Bob Fischbach

Acting Awards

FONDA-MCGURE AWARD (Best Actor)

Brennan Thomas for his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Melanie Walters for her performance as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot

MARY PECKHAM AWARD (Best Featured Actor)

Musical

Dave Wingert for his performance as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone

(Tie)  Megan McGuire for her performance as the Drowsy Chaperone in The Drowsy Chaperone and Molly McGuire as Janet Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone

Play

Matthew Pyle for his performance as Jeffrey Skilling in Enron

Charleen Willoughby for her performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?

BARBARA FORD AWARD (Best Supporting Actor)

Musical

Brian Priesman for his performance as Patsy in Spamalot

Rebecca Noble for her performance as Norma Valverde in Hands On a Hardbody

Play

Andrew Prescott for his performance as Caleb DeLeon in The Whipping Man

Megan Friend for her performance as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

ELAINE JABENIS CAMEO AWARD (Best Cameo Performance)

Musical

Matthias Jeske for multiple roles in Spamalot

Roni Shelley Perez for her performance as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar

Play

Paul Schnieder for his performance as Kenneth Lay in Enron

Julie Fitzgerald Ryan for her performance as Felicia Dantine in I Hate Hamlet

BILL BAILEY DEBUT AWARD (Best Debut Performance

Nick Albrecht for his performance as King Arthur in Spamalot

Sarah Query for her performance as Cindy Barnes in Hands On a Hardbody

A Season of Exploration, Part I: The Writer & The Actor

I know.  I know.  You weren’t expecting another story so soon.  Well, I got an early start of things this year.  Earlier than you may think as this tale does not begin with an audition, but with a review.

In early May I went to the Playhouse to review Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and my dear friend, Sonia Keffer, was working the TAG (Theatre Arts Guild) table.  She said she needed to talk to me and asked me if I heard that Bob Fischbach (the critic for our newspaper, Omaha World-Herald) was retiring.  I replied that I had.

Sonia then said Bob had contacted her and the newspaper was not quite certain as to what they were going to do with his position.  The most popular idea was that, at least for the upcoming season, the newspaper would gather a pool of writers, send them out on reviews, and pay them by the article.  He had wanted to include her name and she agreed to be part of it.  Then he asked Sonia, “Do you know a Chris Elston?  I understand he writes reviews.”  She said, “Yes, I know him very well and he writes excellent reviews.”  Bob then asked if she could put him in touch with me and she asked me if it was all right to give him my phone number.

The power of speech momentarily eluded me as I was so pleasantly shocked by this good bit of news.  “The answer is yes,” said Sonia with a smile.  “Yes.  Absolutely yes.  And thank you,” I replied.

When I started this website, I had only hoped to become a viable alternative to the reviews put out by the various papers.  But only now, in less than 2 years’ time, was I beginning to understand the impact my writings had actually had.  And that would be revealed to me even further over the next few weeks.

My review for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ended up becoming my most acclaimed to date.  It really struck a chord with people at the Playhouse as it promoted the heck out of that play with my words.  I cannot tell you what a joy it was to see my words featured when the Playhouse promoted the show on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail marketing.  It was every bit as satisfying as enjoying a really great role on stage.  Thanks to the constant promotion, my readership doubled over the 5 week run of the show.

Aside from the review, I did speak to Mr. Fischbach who told me a little about the paper’s potential plan and asked if he could include my name in the pool he was gathering for his editor.  I agreed to be included and am still waiting for news on that end.  Even if the paper opts to go in a different direction, it was still an honor to be asked to be considered.  Though I freely admit, getting paid to write about theatre would be icing on an already delectable cake.

A few weeks after my review I attended a Playhouse even in order to meet the new Associate Artistic Director, Jeff Horger.  As I filled out my name tag, the person behind the table said, “Oh, so you’re Chris Elston” before complimenting me on my writings.  That person was the Playhouse’s Marketing/PR Director, Katie Broman, who put me onto the Playhouse’s press list as of that night.  What this means is that I’ll receive a press pass whenever I’m reviewing a show at the Playhouse.  Winning!!

At the meet and greet, I also bumped into my old friend, Lara Marsh, who is getting to direct Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods at the Playhouse next season after getting to direct it as part of their Alternative Programming season this year.  I may audition for it again this year, but I have not yet decided if I’d rather act in it or learn about directing from it.  I asked Lara about the possibility of shadowing her for it if I decided not to act and if my schedule allowed it.  While nothing is set in stone, it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that this show may be my foot in the door of directing.

Actually, Lara became the second director I might be able to shadow next season.  The first was Amy Lane, the Playhouse’s former Resident Director now Assistant Professor of Theatre at Creighton University.  My old friend, Sherry Fletcher, recommended her to me as someone who was very big on developing talent in that field and she happens to be a close friend of Sonia’s, too.  Both of us happened to be at TAG Nite Out for Sabrina Fair and I approached her about the possibility of sitting under her learning tree for direction and she asked me to message her closer to the time that she is about to start her guest directing stint at the Playhouse for Love, Loss and What I Wore.  So I may have 2 possibilities to learn a bit about directing next season.

With all of these wonderful opportunities presenting themselves to me, I felt a semi-dormant part of me begin to awaken.  I wanted to tell a story again.

So I auditioned for the Playhouse season premiere, Mauritius, which marks the solo directorial debut of Jeff Horger.  I do not know much about the story except that it centers around 2 half-sisters who may own 2 rare Blue Mauritius stamps.  One girl wants to sell them and three thieves (a charming con artist, a crabby stamp expert, and a dangerous psychopath) want to get their hands on the stamps.  I went into the audition with nothing more than the hope of making a good impression.

It was good to keep my hopes at that level because, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this play has a very small cast (2f 3m).  A lot of people came out to audition.  I’d estimate that close to 90 people came out over the two nights meaning that 85 people were going to hear the dreaded “no”.  And there was some keen, heavyweight competition at the auditions.

For my part I was pleased with my work and I believe it had a positive impact.  Based off of my observations, the new style of auditions is designed to make decisions very quickly.  By that I mean, if you do not have the qualities the director is looking for, you will get one read before being dismissed.  I got to read twice so I must have been doing something right.  I read for the con artist and the psychopath.  Of the two I felt that my read for the con artist was probably the better of the two, especially since the psychopath needs a dominating physical presence that I lack.  Putting it in plain terms, I don’t look like the type of guy who would beat someone to a pulp.

I did not receive a callback, so I knew I would be out of the running, but was pleased at the new and fresh faces that did make it into the show.  Luckily, I had another audition all lined up.

The Playhouse is bringing back their Alternative Programming season in full force this season with 9 events.  Three of the shows all had auditions last week.

I had been expecting wall to wall actors for this event, but imagine my surprise when I saw maybe a dozen actors at the second night and I could not imagine the first night being of much greater volume.  I ended up reading 9 times over a 75 minute period.

The first show I read for was A Steady Rain which is a 2 man duologue (meaning that both actors are giving monologues to the audience) about best friends who are cops.  One is dirty and the other is an alcoholic.  It was being directed by Christina Rohling and I first read for the dirty cop.  It was a pretty good read, though I seemed to be fighting myself a bit for some reason.  I instinctively felt the need for physical action and was squashing it to a degree.  Still the read was on target.

After my first read, Christina said, “That was really good” before asking me a bit about my theatrical background.  I told her I had been in theatre for 20 years, but had not performed in 2 and that my past two years had been focused on my website.  When she heard about the website she said, “I think I’ve read some of your stuff”.  It was then that I was struck by the oddity that I had become better known in the  theatre community for 2 years of writing than for 20 years of acting.  Amazing where those roads can take us.

Anyway, I then read a scene as the alcoholic cop with another guy named Tony (who read brilliantly).  It was a pretty good scene, but very tricky to pull off due to not being certain when I was simply telling a story and when, or if, I was interacting with Tony.  It was my last read for that show and I knew it would be the toughest to get into due to the numbers game.

I then read for Take Me Out which tells the story of a baseball player who comes out of the closet.  This one was being directed by Noah Diaz and I first read for the team manager.  Noah asked me to do some big physical action at some point and I had the perfect spot.  I read the letter very professionally.  The thrust of the letter is how the manager admires the player for his bravery in making his revelations and how honored he’d be if he were his son’s teacher or lover.  But he finishes with the whiny cry, “But did it have to be baseball?!!!” and I collapsed to the ground in a loud babyish whine.  In fact, my only regret was that I didn’t go more over the top since I had been given carte blanche to do so.

Noah had me read it again, but told me that he felt the scene had 3 tonal shifts and he wanted me to read it again with those shifts.  I did and Doug Blackburn’s acting boot camp came back to me and I felt I shifted 5 or 6 times and I was pleased with the work.  Finally, Noah had me read it once more with Tony and we read a scene between the baseball player and his best friend.

We read the scene and I made the friend, Kippy, laid back and jokey.  It was a nice read, but I actually reversed one of the jokes since I mistakenly thought Kippy was gay and his comment about being on the same team was a reference to the 2 characters shared orientation.  Noah had us read it one more time with some adjustments and he asked me to make Kippy a bit more serious and dependable and he corrected my mistaken interpretation of Kippy so I got the team joke right on the second go around.

After that, Noah said he seen all he needed to see from me which left me one more show for which to read.

That show was Civil War Voices which is based off of actual letters, diaries, and other writings that took place during the Civil War and will be directed by Jeff Horger.  Again, I was doing something right as Jeff read me three times.  First I read a love letter from a character named Theo.  Then I read a diary entry from a military commander named Chamberlin.  Finally I read a historian, but he asked me to do it in a Presidential voice since I had expressed an interest in Abe Lincoln.  I felt I did well in all of my reads.  Then Jeff asked me a bit about my theatrical background and I gave him the same story I had given to Christina.  After those reads, I went home for the night.

A week passed which I took as a most promising sign.  The longer I avoided rejection, the better my chances, I reasoned.  But late Wednesday afternoon, I took a quick one-two combo to the ego.  I was checking my e-mail and I saw I had rejection notices for both A Steady Rain and Take Me Out waiting for me.

I was quite surprised by how much the wind had been taken out of my sails.  But in a strange way, I was also glad because it told me that my mojo had not faded as I had feared.  I had genuinely wanted to do these shows and was truly disappointed at not being selected.  But there was still hope as I had not yet had any word about Civil War Voices.

Then came Thursday afternoon.  My office phone rang and on the other end was the bright voice of Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Administrative Assistant.  She said that Jeff wanted to offer me the role of Abraham Lincoln.

That was about the last role I expected to get.  In a full production, I don’t think I would have been seriously considered for the role as I’m not a physical match for Honest Abe.  But in reader’s theatre, I thought there might be a chance.  And it worked out!  After giving one of the firmest yeses I’ve ever given, I hung up the phone with a song in my heart and a jaunty tune on my lips.

And that brings us to the end of this tale.  Rehearsals begin in August just after I get back from a theatre festival in Whitehall, MI where I’ll get to watch one of my favorite shows, Cotton Patch Gospel, and review 3 B & Bs on the long journey.  I look forward to this new adventure as well as more stories during this season of exploration.

Until we meet again. . .

Beware of the Woolf

Two marriages.  One is irrevocably broken and the other should never have been.  One night the two couples trapped in these marriages get together after a faculty party.  The older couple, George & Martha, engage in a war of words that devolves into a hideous game of one-upmanship in which the younger couple, Nick & Honey, become unwilling pawns.  This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opening Friday in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Edward Albee’s ability with the written word is second to none.  His writing is lyrical, almost operatic, as each scene is a movement that slowly builds onto the previous until the work reaches its epic crescendo.  To that end, director Hilary Adams has conducted an absolute masterpiece with this work.  Every nuance is so rich and subtle.  Each discovery is fresh and wonderful.  All the actors are so vibrant and mesmerizing.  Mark my words, this play is going to go down as one of the great classics in the illustrious history of the Playhouse.

Passive-aggression, thy name is George.  Brennan Thomas plays this role in the same fashion a violin virtuoso plays a Stradivarius.  Utilizing a clean, simple delivery, Thomas’ George comes off as a quiet, soft-spoken man.  But this soft-spoken nature barely covers a smoldering cauldron of anger and frustration that peeks out when George lets his emotions get the better of him.

Thomas skillfully and nimbly dances from beat to beat and each comment and revelation from George is extemporaneous and original as a result of Thomas’ fine work.  Thomas’ George is quite smug and smarmy.  He knows a lot of fifty dollar words and fires them like bullets from a gun at whoever raises his ire or simply because he can.  However, he also has an unbelievably fragile ego.  Despite his disdain towards his wife, Martha, her opinion actually means something as he melts down like a child when she presses just the right button.  And, like a child, he decides to retaliate with such games as Get the Guests, Hump the Hostess, and a tragically final endgame in Bringing Up Baby.  The only thing keeping Thomas’ performance from perfection is that he needs to increase his volume.  At some points, he was so whisper quiet that it would have been impossible to hear him if not for his naturally strong and carrying voice.

Charleen Willoughby has a career defining performance in the role of Martha.  Ms Willoughby’s Martha is a two fisted drunk and she is only too happy to pummel you with those fists.  As Martha, Ms Willoughby unintentionally fires the first rounds of the war with George by breaking their cardinal rule. . .she talks about their son with Honey.  But she doesn’t shy away from the fight and she fights dirty.

Ms Willoughby is at turns cruel, vixenish, pitiable, and heartbreaking.  With ease, her Martha mocks her husband’s first novel and scoffs at Nick’s inability to “get it up”.  She flirts with and seduces Nick in a very intense makeout session that will make people blush.  She engages in a haunting monologue at the top of Act III where she plays both sides of a conversation with George that shows a longing for something better and she ends the play tragically broken as a result of Bringing Up Baby that will leave you in tears.

There are not enough superlatives to describe Megan Friend’s performance as Honey.  Her talent is simply staggering.  Ms Friend plays Honey as a flakey, less than intelligent, overgrown party girl.  She arrives at the party slightly stewed and is five sheets to the wind by the end of the show.  Honey’s drunkenness is deftly essayed with a loose, awkward body language and spectacularly slurred speech.  Ms Friend also adds a stunning sympathy factor to the role.  You cannot help, but feel sorry at her inability to recognize George’s mockery of her or ignore the sympathy that comes with the understanding of the tragedy that drives her behavior.

I salute Steve Hartman’s heroics in stepping into the role of Nick at the 11th hour.  Hartman replaced the original actor last Friday, leaving him less than a week to prepare this difficult and arduous character.  His performance is not as polished as the other three due to his limited prep time, but he has done some truly excellent work in the short time he had to get ready and this includes the Herculean task of memorizing a sizable chunk of dialogue in 6 days.  By the end of this run, Hartman’s work will easily be on the level of the other 3 actors.

Hartman brings an energy to the role of Nick.  A young genius who got his Master’s degree at the age of 19, Hartman’s Nick is determined to make the most of his career.   He attends this get-together simply because George is a respected associate professor and Martha is the daughter of the university president.  Hartman comes off as politely aloof, at first, as he makes small talk and deflects George’s subtle barbs.  But he’s also got a spine and will stand up for himself as well as defend his wife’s honor, even though it’s implied that he didn’t marry Honey out of love. As the night’s drinking takes effect, Hartman peels off the aloofness and reveals some rather unsavory qualities of Nick such as his eager willingness to take revenge on George by sleeping with Martha, simultaneously revealing that he’s not very dedicated to Honey.  Hartman’s Nick can also be a bit childish such as his excuses for his poor performance in Martha’s bed and his petulant demands that Martha not call him a houseboy (the penalty for the bad performance) in front of George.

Jim Othuse has designed a lovely living room set for this play and Darin Kuehler’s properties give it just the right touch of home.

Albee had a knack for revealing the uglier side of human nature in his writings and this play is certainly no exception.  Yet, in all of the ugliness, there is still a tiny glimmer of hope that these characters can overcome their situations.  The show is an exhausting and emotional roller coaster ride and the audience will be just as exhausted as the actors by the end of it.

“Truth or illusion”, says Martha.  The illusion that is this play actually reveals a lot of truth about the human condition.  You will be changed by watching it and that is what great drama does.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse from May 8-June 7.  Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets prices are $36 for adults and $22 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.  This show contains strong language and adult situations and is  meant for mature audiences.

Haunting Albee Drama to End Playhouse’s Howard Drew Season

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

May 8–June 7, 2015 (Wed-Sat at 7:30pm & Sundays at 2pm)

The Tony Award-winning drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is one of the greatest theatrical masterpieces of all time. As George and Martha’s marriage falls apart, their new friends, Nick and Honey, become pawns in their cruel mind games. A war of words and exercises of wits drive Edward Albee’s revolutionary play.

This production contains adult content and strong language and is intended for mature audiences.

Tickets go on sale April 28.  Tickets prices are $36 for adults and $22 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cast Street in Omaha, NE.

media sponsor: Cox

Directed by Hilary Adams

Stage Managed by Lara Marsh

Cast

Charleen Willoughby as Martha

Brennan Thomas as George

Steve Hartman as Nick

Megan Friend as Honey

A Season of Change, Part V: The Biggest Change of All

You better sit down for this one.

Comfortable?

And off we go.

With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? not panning out, I thought another season had come to its end.  Luckily, I had things to keep me occupied.  A potentially good opportunity for my real life had dropped into my lap and I began pursuing it, though things seemed to cool off after a promising start.  Then I got a message from Sonia Keffer saying that she hoped to see me at auditions for Sabrina Fair which she would be directing for the Bellevue Little Theatre.  Since my opportunity appeared to have evaporated, I decided to audition.

Sabrina Fair will go down as one of my personal favorite auditions.  There were two roles suitable for a gentleman of my age.  One was David Larrabee, the younger son of the powerful Larrabee family who marries and divorces at the drop of a hat.  The other was Linus Larrabee, Jr., the older son and the CEO of the family business.

Of the two roles, Linus was by far the more interesting and very anti-me.  Linus is a bit insufferable, emotionless, and completely dedicated to making a profit.  He does care for his family and is concerned about doing what’s best for them, but goes about doing it in ways that make him seem a little shady.  At least, that’s what I gleaned from the character from the little bits I read.

I had a ball with the character and just let loose.  I rank it as one of my top five reads as I was engaged, moving, and just having fun.  Sonia said words which I shall always treasure after the audition.  She said, “You really surprised me up there.  You’ve got more than a little Linus in you.”

Without aiming for it, I had accomplished another goal in theatre.  I had finally convinced a director that I was capable of playing a role that was outside my real personality.  It felt really good.  That was Sunday night.

On Monday night, nothing happened.

Then came Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, I finally heard back about my personal opportunity and the other party was still quite interested in going forward.  That provided a bit of a dilemma for me as there would not be a way for me to have my cake and eat it, too.  If I were cast and did the show, I’d lose out on the opportunity.  If I pursued the opportunity, I’d have to give up the show as my weeknights would get eaten up.  What to do? What to do?

Ultimately, my real life won out.  Theatre isn’t going anywhere and there will always be another show and I had to take a chance on the other opportunity.  Having made my decision and since casting decisions had not been announced yet, I decided I would write Sonia a quick note after work letting her know that I would have to withdraw myself from consideration.

Now I had forgotten my phone that morning which would become important later.  I ended up getting home very late that Tuesday and prepared to write a little note to Sonia.  Then I checked my phone and Sonia had left me a message.  D’oh!!

At that point it was too late to return the call, so I decided to call her the next day.  But when I checked Facebook, I saw Sonia had messaged me on there as well.  I didn’t want to leave her hanging, so I wrote her a quick note letting her know what had happened and that I would call her tomorrow.

We had a good conversation the next day and she voiced the same thoughts I had that real life had to come first and theatre would always be there.  She did say that my withdrawal had broken her heart and if you think it was because she was going to offer me the role of Linus, you’d be right.  I told her that would have been nice, but thanked her for the opportunity and told her I looked forward to working with her again.  I also offered to use my website to help promote the show if she wanted to send any press releases my way. Sonia said she’d hope I would come see the show which I certainly will do so I can put the power of the pen behind it.

On Thursday I began my little B & B sojourn and on Friday morning I made a most shocking realization.

I was not upset by having had to give up the show.

If you’re standing, I bet you’re sitting.  And if you’re sitting, I bet you exploded up from your seat.

Don’t get me wrong.  I was a little disappointed by having had to give it up, but I know me and my regular readers know how ardently I’ve pursued acting for the past 20 years.  Not that long ago, having had to give up a role, not to mention a leading role, would have devastated me.  But, relatively speaking, I actually felt pretty good about the whole thing and that’s when I understood the full extent of the miracle granted to me by Leaving Iowa.

Leaving Iowa did much, much more than irrevocably restore my confidence in myself as an actor.  It also scratched my itch good and proper.  I realized that over the past 2 years, I had only auditioned 6 times.  In years gone by, I would have auditioned that many times in just one season.  I was further stunned to realize that, with the exceptions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sabrina Fair, the shows didn’t have the heft of my heart behind them.  My acting mojo simply had not been there as Leaving Iowa had satisfied me so thoroughly.

Through this website, I had managed to stay involved in theatre without having to act.  And I had, and have, been ecstatically happy serving as theatre’s champion by giving notice to shows that might otherwise have been ignored by the local papers and writing good, solid reviews for the public.

When you add that to my growing interest in directing and wanting to shadow someone for that, I realized there was something I needed to give to myself that I had not yet done.

It’s time for a break. . .at least, that was what I thought when I originally began writing this article.

I had planned to announce that I was going to take a season’s break from the acting side of things next year, but it seems that Sabrina Fair did a little magic of its own and I can feel the creative juices stirring again.  So I don’t think I’ll be taking a break, per se, but I will slow things down a bit so I can attempt to learn a thing or two about directing.

It’s a bit ironic that I called this series the “Season of Change” because the biggest changes were with me and, most assuredly, for the better.

Sadly, this story ends this season’s theatre tales.  But I’ll be back soon when I begin the “Season of Exploration”.

As always, until the next time.