Deck the Halls with Gales of Laughter. Fa La La La La Ha Ha Ha Ha

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

And then everything goes to hell.  This is Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Less a play than a piece of Christmas metafiction, this show features three actors, playing highly exaggerated versions of themselves, who delightfully and hilariously educate the audience on Christmas beliefs and traditions from around the world while lampooning various Christmas tales.  Susan Clement-Toberer’s masterful direction hits all the right notes as her trio of comic geniuses will have your sides splitting by the time the night is over.

Ben Beck plays the leader of the troupe.  A serious actor, he simply wants to share the story of A Christmas Carol.  He is constantly thwarted by his two cohorts who would rather run through every Christmas story know to humanity.  Beck reluctantly goes along for the ride on the condition that A Christmas Carol is performed as part of the anthology.

Beck is a bit of a hapless sad sack as he constantly gets the short end of the stick in this spectacle.  He is forced to play the Grinch, receives impossible questions during a fruitcake quiz show, and is accused of not believing in Santa Claus (which he does not).  Yet he bravely soldiers on in pursuit of performing his beloved story.  When he finally gets his opportunity, he becomes a manic force of energy as he effortlessly and blitzingly changes identities from Scrooge to George Bailey (doing a Jimmy Stewart that Stewart would envy) on the turn of a dime due to his story getting hijacked by one of the other performers.  Beck did trip over his lines on a couple of occasions, but that appeared to be due to the breakneck pace of the show.

Bill Grennan is a riot as he plays a naïve, lovable man-child.  He is truly a wide-eyed innocent who loves the Christmas specials of his childhood and still believes in Santa Claus.  Grennan’s role is arduous as he constantly zips around the stage and theatre, almost warping between various unusual spots.  He’s allowed the chance to do some brilliant character works as he portrays Gustav, the Green-Nosed Reingoat (to avoid copyright infringement), a slightly lascivious Frosty the Snowman (who sounded like Charlie in the Box from Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer), a pirate searching for the white bearded whale, Moby Nick, and a sweet, dramatic turn as Linus Van Pelt delivering the “what Christmas is all about” monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Grennan also subtly shows that his character may not be as innocent and dimwitted as he appears.  He is determined to get his own way and is the one who actually gets the ball rolling on sharing Christmas tales due to his refusal to do A Christmas Carol.  Grennan’s usurping Beck’s A Christmas Carol with It’s a Wonderful Life is quite a sly move from someone Beck claims “isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree”.

Teresa Sindelar’s comic acumen has never been sharper than with this performance.  Ms Sindelar willingly goes along with Grennan to present all of these Christmas stories, but seems to do it because she simply wants to have fun and not to avoid A Christmas Carol as she willingly assists Beck in his telling of that story in Act II.  Her chameleon-like ability to assume any character is allowed to shine as she transforms herself from a slightly psychotic Yukon Cornelius, to a parody of Barbara Walters commentating (sometimes under her breath) on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come earnestly pantomiming an important message to Beck’s Scrooge that nearly had this writer falling out of his chair.

In the end, words cannot do justice to this show.  It must be experienced.  The sureness of the direction and the devastatingly accurate comic timing of the three performers played out on a stage beautifully designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, painted by Craig Lee, and lit by Carol Wisner makes Every Christmas Ever Told. . .And Then Some a hit for the holidays.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some plays at the Blue Barn Theatre though December 21.   Tickets are going fast.  The only shows with tickets remaining are Dec 11 and 18 at 7:30pm and December 21 at 6pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.

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Drought, Part 2

I must admit things were starting to get very bleak for me in theatre.  For those of you who have read my anecdotes from the beginning, you know that I spent my first 4 years in theatre just trying to get cast once and that the difficulties and frustrations of that time often weighed on me.  Let me assure you that the period I have dubbed “the drought” made those first 4 years seem like a trip to the amusement park.

I auditioned 10 times during my first 4 years in theatre and failed to get called back or cast.  During the nearly 3 ½ year drought, I auditioned nearly 20 times without getting cast and was only called back twice.  During the first bad period, I didn’t know if I could act or not.  Now I was giving some of the best auditions of my life and I still couldn’t get cast.  The flurry of rejections I had received truly became an unbearable burden.

Becky’s New Car was my first audition for the new theatre season and the first since The Odd Couple that I was able to apply the skills that Doug had taught me.  Again, I had a really great audition.  I found the beats and gave a seamless performance.  However, this time, I was up against a guy (Matthew Pyle) who gave an even better audition for the role I wanted.  It was amazing.  When he finished reading, I wanted to stand up and say, “We have a winner.”

Unsurprisingly, I was neither cast nor called back and Matthew did eventually win the role I wanted.  That audition did not bother me because I have never minded losing a fair fight.  It was all the auditions that I seemed to lose based on factors separate from my performances that sapped my vitality.

Then I finally caught a break of a kind.  The Circle Theatre was having auditions for An Inspector Calls and I decided to show up to them.  As soon as I finished reading, Doug Marr asked me which of the two young men I wanted to play and I immediately picked Eric Birling, the loutish, drunkard son.  And that’s why I really cannot count this play as an end to my streak.  I knew I’d be in the play just be showing up because that theatre likes to use me a lot. 

This is a very political business and I’ve benefitted from it and suffered because of it.  I don’t mind being pre-cast once in a while, but it’s not the same as the thrill I get from winning a role.  Still, Eric Birling did temporarily boost my waning confidence in myself as an actor.

I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to get cast in roles that reflect my real personality.  But I usually aim for roles that are different from my real personality or at least emphasize aspects of my personality that aren’t always seen.  With Eric, I finally got the chance to really do that.  Aside from being a drunk, Eric was rude, arrogant, lazy, and insulting.  And I enjoyed every moment of doing that.  However, by the end of the play, Eric actually becomes penitent for the sins he’s committed, so it’s a good role for versatility.  The difficulty lies in the fact that the transformation occurs offstage.  Eric leaves as a lout in Act I and enters as remorseful in Act II.

Using Doug’s lessons, I created a story behind the scenes for Eric to explain his transformation and I ran through it each and every time to make the change.  Eric is well dressed in a tuxedo when he leaves, but when I came back on, I had lost the jacket and tie and had loosened my collar.  I also dipped into my emotional wells, so I could enter Act II crying.  The first time I tried this, one of the actresses, Erin Moran, thought I was genuinely upset about something.

In many ways, the show was a great personal triumph as I showed I could handle some very complex acting.  A friend of mine, Don Harris, said it was the best thing he had ever seen me do.  My crowning moment was that my best friend drove 3 ½ hours to see me act for the very first time.  After the show, he said, “You know, you were a real a$$hole.”  My other friend, Reed, said, “Yeah, that was my favorite part.”

In the midst of rehearsing for An Inspector Calls, I found myself auditioning for the Blue Barn Christmas show once again.  This time around it was Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some.  Once more it was a truly funny script and I knew there was a lot I could do with it.  One role in particular was right up my alley as the characterization was of a clueless, naïve, but sweet, man-child. 

I arrived at the theatre and wound up having a huge shock when I was the one and only person who showed up at the audition.

With no other actors to work with, I ended up reading with Susan Clement-Toberer and had what I like to call a “sound bite” audition.  I read a brief scene that just didn’t feel like it had enough length to really demonstrate the character’s personality.  Enough to give one a taste, but that’s about it. 

When I finished, Susan looked at the script, cocked her head back and forth a couple of times, and said, “I think that’s all I need for now.  I’m planning to call in some actors to read for this and I may call you in to read with them.  On the other hand, I also know what you can do.”  And that was the end.

I found out a few weeks later via Facebook that I had not been cast when one member of the cast talked about looking forward to starting a grand adventure with two of the best performers he knew.  Really, it’s not the best way to find out you’ve lost.

Again, it was a pretty bitter pill to swallow.  And that was because previous experience has taught me that most people come to the first night of auditions which is when I attended.  That means there was a very strong possibility that I was the only person who showed up either night.  If true, this means that I lost, quite literally, to nobody.

Does this mean that my audition was truly that foul?  No.  I think it was just the reverse lesson of my audition for the previous year’s Christmas show at the Blue Barn.  If someone can show up and be deemed perfect for a role from the word go, then the opposite must also be true.  Someone can show up and give a good audition, but just be perceived as not having the right qualities for the director’s vision from the word go.

I ended up being asked to do the Circle Theatre’s Christmas show as well which was an original play by Doug Marr called The Yuletide Phantom.  This show was a bit of a mixed bag as the script was rushed a bit.  I thought the story lacked a needed centrality and changes were made to it up until the night before we opened which slightly frustrated me.  On the other hand, it did allow me a wonderful pantomime moment when the nearly vegetative soldier I was playing gets possessed and gets forced into writing a message.

Several months would pass before I attempted another audition and it was for Lend Me a Tenor at the Omaha Playhouse.  This would be my first audition for Carl Beck in six years as he had primarily been directing musicals which is a genre I stay away from due to my limited singing range.  And I was ready to show him just how much stronger I’d become.

Once more, I had another fabulous audition.  Without question, it was the strongest I’d ever had with Carl and it showed as he asked me to read three times.  Given that only 2 other men were accorded the same honor, I think it is safe to say that we were the cream of that night’s crop.

I was gleefully looking forward to the callback which I thought was sure to come.  Then I got a rather rude awakening a few days later.  For the first time in my experience, Carl did not hold callbacks.  He cast the show based on the original auditions.  I ended up getting a rejection slip, but Carl did write, “Very nice read, Chris” on the bottom of it.  So I did find a small measure of comfort in the defeat.

By this point, it had been nearly 3 years since I had earned my way into a show by virtue of an audition and my spirits were paying a heavy toll.  What good had it done me to have struggled so hard to become a good performer if nobody wanted to use me?  It seemed as if I had enjoyed more success when I was weaker and less experienced.

The axe finally fell when I auditioned for the season premiere of last year’s Playhouse season.  The show was called August:  Osage County and would be directed by Amy Lane.  This show had actually been done as part of a new Playhouse series called the 21 and Over Alternative series.  The one night only performance had been a huge success and I was more than a bit surprised that open auditions were occurring as it seemed to make more sense just to utilize the people who had been in the original production.  Ultimately, that’s what happened for the most part.

For the first time in a long while, I was in an auditioning frame of mind.  Even better, I was the strongest young actor on the night I had gone to audition.  I didn’t quite know what was going to happen next as I knew I could not attend a callback due to my being out of town when they were held.  I had to hope that I had been strong enough to merit consideration based on my one bite of the apple or hope that Amy would want me for an extra read after I returned.

It was another defeat.  I returned home to a rejection slip.  In an unusual reversal, more people must have gone to the second night of auditions instead of the first because I heard that the callbacks had been the most talent laden affair in Omaha history.  Of course, that meant I would have had to have been in town for a callback to have had a chance, assuming I would have received one.

It was too much for me.  I finally realized that I had lost the one thing that differentiates me from other actors and that was my heart.  My unconquerable heart had finally been conquered.  Theatre no longer made me happy.  It made me miserable.  Even with a weakened heart, I had managed good auditions and performances.  How much mightier might they have been if my heart had been fully into them?

That Saturday morning, I made the fateful decision to step away from theatre for a while.  I felt so strongly about it that I actually posted the announcement on Facebook in one of my (at the time) rare, serious posts.

How long I would stay away was anybody’s guess.