In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

Find Your Grail

The search for the Holy Grail takes a turn for the absurd and ludicrous when God charges King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to find the cup of Christ in the raucous musical, Spamalot, currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This story, based off of the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is actually a natural fit for a musical thanks to the unique, nonsense humor of Monty Python.  Since anything could, and often did, happen in Monty Python sketches, the thought of songs suddenly breaking out of nowhere seems like another day on the job for the Python crew.  The script is sharp and witty and a fairly good translation of the film due to the fact that it was written by Python alum, Eric Idle, who also composed the music with John Du Prez.

Even if you have seen the film, the musical promises lots of surprises with new scenes and characters not present in the original movie.  The flip side of this is that some of the classic moments of the film do not make it into the musical which may disappoint purists.  The new material is very good for the most part, but some of it is actually based off of old Python sketches causing those particular jokes to feel a bit forced since they were gags meant for something other than this play’s source material.

The directing of Mark Robinson and Jeff Horger is excellent.  This is a very high energy show and the pace never drags, slows, or pauses.  It is also very well staged and the two directors have shaped some strong, sharp performances from their group of actors.

Nick Albrecht blasts a home run in his Playhouse debut in the role of King Arthur.  Albrecht’s presence fills the theatre and his powerful baritone imbues Arthur with just the right blend of majesty, authority, and, dare I say, humility.  It is easy to see why people would want to follow this Arthur as Albrecht seems like a natural leader.  He also has a wry, subtle sense of humor best exemplified in numbers such as “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and “Knights of the Round Table” with the latter being a particular highlight due to his “dancing”.  At the same time, Albrecht was also capable of fine dramatic moments with “Find Your Grail” and “I’m All Alone”.

Melanie Walters nearly swipes this show from the rest of the cast with her turn as the Lady of the Lake (as well as doing double duty as the show’s choreographer).  Beginning as an otherworldly fairy who granted the sword, Excalibur, to Arthur, Ms Walter slowly morphs into a diva as her acting gets a little bigger each and every time she appears on stage, culminating in her big moment “Whatever Happened to My Part?” which is actually a massive gripe about her lack of stage time.  And, heavens, can she sing!  Aside from her featured number, Ms Walters’ nearly superhuman alto also belted out several variations of “The Song That Goes Like This” (once in a dead on mimicry of Bette Midler) that was a treat for the ears.  Her performance alone is worth the price of admission and was one of the funniest performances of the season.

I would like to know where Matthias Jeske has been hiding because his is a phenomenal talent.  Jeske is a marvelously versatile performer as he leaps between multiple characters in his Playhouse debut.  So skillful and nuanced were Jeske’s changes in voice and body language that I found myself looking at my program several times and was stunned to discover that I was watching the same actor that I had only seen moments before.  Whether he was the erudite, if slightly pompous, Historian, the imposing Knight who said Ni, or the land hungry, music despising king of Swamp Castle, Jeske could do no wrong in a stunning, tour de force performance.  Jeske was equally impressive on the singing and dancing side of things with gut busting turns as Not Dead Fred in “I’m Not Dead Yet” and Sir Robin’s chief minstrel in “Brave Sir Robin”.

Other standouts in the cast were Zach Kloppenborg as the brutally violent, Sir Lancelot, who has his own secret (“His Name is Lancelot”) and the mercilessly funny French Taunter.  Brian Preisman’s coconut clapping and laconic Patsy.  Adam Hogston, whose cowardly Sir Robin joins the Knights because he wants to sing and dance and gets his chance in “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”.  Don Harris as the intelligent Sir Bedevere (channeling a little Bill Murray) and the widowed, lonely mother of Dennis/Sir Galahad.  Ryan Pivonka as the acerbic Dennis who is transformed into the dashing Sir Galahad.  Marcus Benzel who dominates the stage in an awesome cameo performance as the effeminate Prince Herbert.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra strike gold again with a precisely performed and spritely score.  Steven Williams’ lighting and special effects add the right bit of atmosphere.  Steve Wheeldon’s scenery dazzles as we roam from old castles to “very expensive forests”.

A few minor flaws were present in the night’s performance.  There were sound issues on a few occasions and some of the dancers were slightly off at a couple of points.  The duel between King Arthur and the Black Knight also needed some tidying.  But these small quibbles are instantly forgotten in this hilarious and energetic romp.

Deep this show is not.  It’s all about fun and entertaining the audience.  Yet there is one deep thought prevalent in the show and that’s when Arthur refers to the quest for the Grail as a search for the Grail within ourselves or finding the one thing which makes us happy which all of the characters in this show are able to do.  I found that quite profound and a valuable life lesson.  So come see Spamalot for the moral lesson, but stay for the comedy.  Just watch out for that rabbit. . .

Spamalot plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through June 28.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Wed-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $40 for adults and $25 for students.  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Legendary Comedy Turned Musical is Playhouse’s Season Finale

Spamalot

Lyrics by Eric Idle; Book by Eric Idle
Music by Eric Idle & John Du Prez

Show Dates:  May 29-June 28 (Wed-Sat at 7:30pm & Sundays at 2pm)

Tony-award winner for Best Musical, Spamalot is the uproarious comedy “lovingly ripped off from” Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Off-the-wall humor fills King Arthur and his companions’ quest for the Holy Grail. Their journey is side-splittingly interrupted by the Knights who say Ni, Harold the Shrubber, The Black Knight and countless other iconic characters. Whether you are a die-hard Monty Python fan or as you read this, you wonder, “What is a ‘Monty Python?’” you will no doubt love the hilarity of Spamalot.

Tickets go on sale May 12.  Tickets prices are $40 for adults and $25 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.

sponsor: TD Ameritrade
orchestra sponsor: Paul & Oscar Giger Foundation
media sponsor: WOWT

Directed by Mark Robinson

Cast

Nick Albrecht – King Arthur
Kyle Avery – Ensemble
Marcus Benzel – Prince Herbert
Katy Boone – Ensemble
Josh Davis – Ensemble
Jason DeLong – Ensemble
Brooke Fencl – Ensemble
Colin Frye – Ensemble
Don Harris – Sir Bedevere, Dennis’ Mother, Concord
Adam Haverman – Ensemble
Adam Hogston – Sir Robin
Megan Ingram – Ensemble
Matthias Jeske – Historian, Fred, Herbert’s Father, Ni, Frenchie, Minstrel
Melissa King – Ensemble
Zach Kloppenborg – Sir Lancelot, Mayor, French Taunter, Tim the Enchanter
Aaron Lawrence – Ensemble
Connor Meuret – Ensemble
Ryan Pivonka – Sir Galahad/Dennis, Black Knight
Brian Priesman – Patsy
Samantha Quintana – Ensemble
Sydney Readman – Ensemble
Emily Tencer – Ensemble
Lindsey Ussery – Ensemble
Melanie Walters – The Lady of the Lake

McNeill Stone Mansion: Oskaloosa’s Fortress of Solitude

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My eyes fell upon this bed and breakfast while I was preparing my hunt list and once they did, I immediately moved it to the top of my visitation list and I certainly am glad I did so.  My stay at the McNeill Stone Mansion has proved to be one of my most enjoyable visits to date.

This trip was blessed from the start.  On a day that was supposed to be cloudy and cool, I ended up getting a proper spring day, full of sunshine and warmth.  I arrived in Oskaloosa a little earlier than I intended, but found that they had a college (William Penn University) nearby.  I wandered around the tiny campus for a little bit and even managed to get a small workout in as I did two miles on the indoor track in the school’s fitness center.

From there I attended worship services at St Mary’s.  I was fortunate to be attending the school’s First Communion service and it warmed my heart to see these children begin another step on their journey with God.  Most interesting, the children actually prepared the communion wafers used at this service.  They were just made out of wheat and water and Father Jeff said they would be different from traditional wafers.

He was quite right in that aspect, but I liked the message he tied it to after Communion.  Father Jeff said that people’s faces seemed to indicate, “Whoa!  That was different” and he said people are just like that when they allow Jesus into their hearts.  And he hoped that people would see us and say, “Whoa!  He or she is different.”  I’ve never heard the message of salvation so simply and aptly put.  Right on, Father Jeff!!

After church, I headed over to the McNeill Stone Mansion which is an imposing edifice at the end of a block.  I was heartily greeted by Ginny Walker who gave me a tour of the inn.  Ginny really knew her history, showing me articles and photos from when the mansion was originally built up until the present day.  At one point, the home had been abandoned for 18 years and was buried beneath an overgrowth of trees until Ginny and her husband, Gary, bought it and spent 7 years restoring it to its original splendor as pictured below.

Dining Room

Dining Room

Foyer

Foyer

Living Room

Living Room

 

I stayed in the Far East Room which was the mansion’s guest room when originally built.

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This room was a palace.  By far, the biggest room I have ever stayed at a bed and breakfast and one of the nicest, as well.

Once I had settled in and relaxed for a few hours, I headed into town and enjoyed a meal at Tasos’ Steakhouse.  This must be a popular restaurant as it was jammed to the rafters.  Fortunately, I was able to be seated very quickly.  I decided to try Tasos’ House Ribeye sautéed with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers.  It was one of the best cuts of meat I have had in a while.  It was cooked to absolute perfection and I took most of it to go for my lunch today.

It was about 9pm when I got back to the inn so I drew a hot bath in one of the deepest bathtubs I have ever seen and nearly fell asleep as I was so relaxed.  As I prepared for bed, I realized I had forgotten the small fan I travel with for the white noise I use to help me fall asleep.  Fortunately, the room had an electric fireplace which I turned on and the illusory flames lulled me into a deep and restful slumber.

Upon awaking the next morning, I headed down to the dining room for one of the most enjoyable breakfast experiences I’ve had in a bit.  After three straight reviews where I was the only guest at the bed and breakfast, I actually had some company.  I had the privilege of meeting Dave and Monica Settle of St Charles, MO who were visiting the McNeill Stone Mansion for their 30th anniversary.  Happy Anniversary!!  So aside from the outstanding food, I also had the pleasure of some wonderful conversation.

Breakfast was a grand affair, beginning with a dish of fruit topped off with a yogurt.  I enjoyed several bites, but knew I had to save stomach capacity for the other courses.  After the fruit, was a cinnamon roll topped with almonds that was moist and delicious and practically melted in my mouth.  Afterwards was the main course of egg casserole which looked like a quiche stuffed with ham, cheese, and other tasty items along with some bacon for a side dish.

When breakfast had been eaten, Ginny surprised the Settles with a little yellow pudding cake she had made for their anniversary.  And if you’re wondering, yes, the Settles were kind enough to share a bit of their cake with me.  It was delicious, btw.

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Before I knew it, 75 minutes had passed and I knew I  had to hurry if I were going to write up this adventure before I left.

If you find yourself in Oskaloosa, make a point of staying here.  You’ll be treated to a truly delightful pair of hosts, some excellent food, and brilliant conversation.  Even better, if you like classic cars, start up a conversation with Gary as he has a national reputation for restoring them.

Faith vs Logic: War of Ideologies Expertly Waged in Freud’s Last Session

Does God exist?

This question has confounded mankind for generations and the continuing debate blossoms wonderfully in the drama, Freud’s Last Session currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

It is 1939 on the eve of World War II and Sigmund Freud (Bernie Clark), the father of psychoanalysis, has a visitor, C.S. Lewis (Nick Zadina), author of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Freud is a militant atheist and Lewis was known as the Apostle to the Skeptics and their discussion of this topic is the thrust of this play.

On the face of it, it may seem like a rather dry subject, but author, Mark St Germain, has crafted a wry, crackling debate which is only further enhanced by the stellar acting from Clark and Zadina.

As Freud, Bernie Clark sparkles as Sigmund Freud.  Aside from being nearly a dead ringer for the real Freud, Clark does an astounding job at portraying Freud’s analytical nature, logical intelligence, and his suffering.  This play occurs near the end of Freud’s life where he suffered from oral cancer and Clark absolutely nails the horrific pain Freud must have undergone with constant coughing, gravelly voice, and a scene near the end where Freud desperately tries to remove his painful prosthetic tugs at the heartstrings.

Nick Zadina is equally up to the challenge as C.S. Lewis.  Presenting Lewis as an affable professor (diametrically opposite from the gruff Freud), Zadina is up for the thrust and parry of his intellectual duel with the psychoanalyst as he is able to construct logical arguments of his own which soundly deflect the relentless logic of Freud.

Despite the fact that neither character can see eye to eye on this particular topic, both actors do an outstanding job of presenting the debate as a mere difference of opinion between two professionals.  Both men staunchly defend their ground, yet have a deep respect, even friendship, with each other during moments such as an air raid siren blaring through the night sky or when Lewis aids Freud in removing his prosthetic.

Not that the play is completely without flaw.  The play is a bit static, but is livened by the direction of Kevin Lawler who has helped his actors find the perfect beats which keeps the play moving and interesting, in spite of the minimal movement.  At this performance there was also a little bobbling of lines, stepping on cues, and a moment where one actor may have gone up on his lines.  But this did not distract from the epic storytelling.

“One of us is a fool,” says Freud near the end of the play.  But I disagree.  What we have are 2 excellent representatives for the debate of the existence of God and a play that will entertain you as well as make you think.

Freud’s Last Session continues until Nov 17 in the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Community Playhouse located at 6915 Cass St.  Performances run Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Ticket prices are $35 ($21 for students).  Reservations can be made at 402-553-0800.