Battle of the Bards

Nick Bottom is determined to be the bard of bards, but has to topple William Shakespeare from his perch to reach that goal.  Desperate to get out of debt and provide for his wife and soon to be newborn, Bottom consults a soothsayer in order discover the next big thing in theatre and to stick it to his hated rival by stealing Shakespeare’s greatest idea.  However, ol’ Will has a thing or two to say about that.  This is Something Rotten! and it is currently playing at Springfield Little Theatre.

This article is a personal milestone as it marks my 200th play review.  I was truly hoping to find something special for the occasion, but failed to do so with this show.

I didn’t find “something special”.  I hit the theatrical lottery.

I knew I was on to something from the first notes of Connor Sanders’ Minstrel and what I got was the pinnacle of theatrical kismet.  This show has everything.  An original and endearing story.  Marvelous melodies.  Dazzling costumes.  Stunning sets.  A director who knew how to put it all together.  A cast more than ready to perform and an audience hungry to be entertained.

Jamie Bower’s direction was nothing short of masterful.  The pace of the show was blitzing and started on high octane and worked its way up to volcanic fury by the end.  He had a nearly symbiotic connection with the beats as he knew when to be fast and funny, when to be slow and sweet, when to be heart attack serious, and when to be farcical and bold.  Bower made this anachronistic world quite believable and guided his troupe to virtually flawless performances.

The entire ensemble gets a standing ovation from me for their work.  All of them were always in the moment and you could see and feel the joy of performing radiating from them and contributed so much in bringing the audience into this world.  Some outstanding work in the supporting cast came from Claire Caubre as Nick Bottom’s wife, Bea.  Caubre’s Bea is the rock in her marriage and willing to do whatever it takes to support her man and makes sure he knows she’s his “Right Hand Man”.  Dean Price is hilarious as the holier than thou stick in the mud, Brother Jeremiah, determined to quash immorality (i.e. fun) while constantly making unintentional double entendres.  Joseph Galetti provides some yuks as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who sounds like a Jersey version of Jerry Seinfeld.  Todd Smith darn near steals the show as the soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus, with his over the top summoning of his visions and his ability to wring a boatload of laughter from the delivery of a single word.

Kaleb Patterson is superb in his SLT debut as Nick Bottom.  Patterson brings a real sincerity and, dare I say, vulnerability to the frustrated writer.  Patterson’s Bottom is a good man, but is slowly losing himself due to his jealousy of Shakespeare and his increasing desperation to be a good provider and make his mark in the theatrical world.  Patterson also has a gentle, soothing tenor and merges it with a wide range of interpretative ability whether he is snarking out in “God, I Hate Shakespeare”, being broad and theatrical in “A Musical”, or being honest and forthright in “To Thine Own Self”.

Andrew Wilson matches his “brother” step for step with his take on Nigel Bottom.  Wilson is wonderful as the shy, unassuming poet with an incredible gift for language.  His initial awkwardness around his love, Portia, is so natural and spot-on and his raw honesty with his brother about writing from the heart and truth always hits the mark.  The only tiny, tiny, tiny change I would make is that he got a bit shrieky on a couple of cries when a more plaintive cry would have had the audience sobbing.  Wilson has a mighty tenor of his own which is blessed with a gorgeous falsetto and put to excellent use in “I Love the Way” and his own take on “To Thine Own Self”.

Katie Orr is comedic gold as Portia.  I believe her to be sincere about attempting to be a good Puritan, but she just can’t deny her poetry loving heart.  Orr is just a scream as she has a “When Harry Met Sally” climax moment as she swoons to Nigel’s poetry and is a convincing drunkard after accidentally chugging a stein of alcohol at Shakespeare’s party.  Orr also has an angelic soprano, beautifully utilized in “I Love the Way” and “We See the Light”.

Eli DePriest is an arrogant, smug prick as William Shakespeare.  The Shakespeare of this story is the equivalent of a modern rock star and he just laps up the adulation.  DePriest’s Shakespeare is fully aware of his status as #1 and lords it over all and appears to have a pansexual appetite as he openly flirts with girls and guys and would sleep with himself if he could.  DePriest is also gifted with his own strong tenor as he wallows in his own greatness in “Will Power” or grouses about the hard work involved in being the best in “Hard to Be the Bard”.

This is my third time reviewing a show at SLT and, in my nearly thirty years in the business, I don’t think I’ve found a choreographer to match the skill of Chyrel Love Miller.  Miller’s dance numbers are always flashy, big, and full of pizzazz and this show is no exception.  Favorite numbers of mine were “Welcome to the Renaissance”, “A Musical”, “We See the Light”, and “Make an Omelette”.  John R. “Chuck” Rogers has designed another sensational set with the period correct village buildings, but my favorite piece of scenery was the raised stage with the lanterns for Shakespeare’s “Interpretation in the Park”. Jamie Bower pulled triple duty as he also designed the lights & sounds along with directing and my favorite moments with these were “Will Power” with the lit lanterns, star patterns in the spotlights, and the colorful backdrop which looked like the NBC logo and was also reused in the closing number, “Welcome to America”.  Kaley Jackson and Bailey Doran nailed the costumes with the period correct jerkins, cod pieces, tights, Puritan outfits, and petticoats and bustles.  But I truly loved the zing of the colorful Puritan garb when they started rocking out in “We See the Light”.  Danielle Hardin and her orchestra’s handling of the score was heavenly and pinpoint precise.

Truly, I can’t say enough good things about this show.  You just have to go and see it.  I promise you a good time and you may just want to go back again and again before the run is through.  It is amazing!!

Something Rotten! runs at Springfield Little Theatre through Sept 25.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets range from $23-$37. For tickets, visit http://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org or call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.  Springfield Little Theatre is located at 311 E Walnut St in Springfield, MO.

Something’s Rotten, But it Sure Ain’t this Show

Nick Bottom is determined to write a hit play and best his hated rival, William Shakespeare.  Saddled with debt and with a child on the way, Bottom consults a soothsayer to dip into the future and decides to create the world’s first musical and steal Shakespeare’s greatest idea to create his magnum opus, Omlette.  This is Something Rotten! and it is currently playing at Ralston Community Theatre.

Let me get this out of the way first:  not only is this the new best musical I’ve seen mounted on an Omaha stage, it’s now also one of my personal top five shows.  If you love musicals, you’re going to love this show.  If you HATE musicals, you will still love this show because it points out that genre’s inherent absurdities and plays them up to the fullest especially with the musical in the musical.

Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell came up with something truly unique with this show.  It’s historical, anachronistic, parodic, and even brings in some literary theory concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  Throw in a score by Wayne & Karey Kirkpatrick that not only lifts elements from all types of musicals, but includes a showstopping number that includes a mash-up of some of the biggest musicals ever written and you’ve got the elements for a heckuva good time.

Todd Uhrmacher gets this show and his sparkling direction reflects that.  This show goes in a lot of different directions and Uhrmacher knows when to be serious and when to be silly.  His staging is top notch.  The pace is lightning quick.  The characterizations are sublime and the cue pickups were right on the button.

The ensemble did a very good job of breathing life into this world and there were some incredible standouts in the supporting cast.  Chloe Rosman brings the comedy stylings of Kate Micucci along with an angelic soprano in her rendition of Portia.  Jenna McKain is the rock of her family as Bea Bottom and can really belt out a tune, burning brightly with “Right Hand Man”.  But I specifically want to shine a spotlight on Jon Flower who gave his best performance to date with his take on Nostradamus.  Flower was not only hysterical, but I think the operatic world lost a potential star with that magnificent tenor and he just soars in “A Musical”.

David Ebke is pitch perfect as William Shakespeare.  Ebke brings a Johnny Depp/rock star vibe to the role and is arrogant, oozes sex appeal, and wallows in the excesses of celebrity.  Ebke’s Shakespeare admits the work it takes to get famous isn’t as fun as the being famous part and it’s implied he uses a few shortcuts to retain that fame and fortune.  Ebke also possesses a dynamic tenor and made the ladies swoon with “Will Power”. 

The role of Nigel Bottom seems to be tailor made for Kyle Avery.  Avery is utterly natural and perfectly believable as the gentle, soft-spoken poet & writer.  His gentle tenor can either tug your heartstrings or fill you with the warm fuzzies and has two hallmark turns with the romantic “I Love the Way” and the moving “To Thine Own Self Be True”.  However, he does need to be careful not to go overboard with the pitch on his speaking voice in some of his more lamentable moments.

Steve Krambeck adds some serious layers to the role of Nick Bottom.  Bottom is a pretty conflicted guy.  He’s a decent sort, but his jealousy of Shakespeare’s success and his desperation to dig himself out of a financial and creative hole compel him to act recklessly and behave childishly.  Krambeck admirably balances and reflects Bottom’s many sides and adds his own mighty tenor with turns in “Bottom’s Going to Be on Top” and “God, I Hate Shakespeare”.

Chris Ebke and his orchestra show some impressive versatility with their handling of the highly varied score.  Debbie Massy-Schneweis has supplied the best piece of choreography I’ve seen in a local production.  This show has big numbers and Massy-Schneweis rises to the occasion with some of my favorite numbers being “A Musical” and “Make an Omlette”.  The production was fortunate to have the skills of Joey Lorincz as he designed yet another stellar set with the Renaissance building cutouts and utilizing a screen which projected illustrations of London Bridge, streets, and parks to indicate locale changes.  His lights always add something special such as tight spotlights on intimate numbers and his going to town with colors in “A Musical”.  Leah Skorupa-Mezger’s costumes suit the Renaissance period with the poofy pants, the colorful jerkins, the period correct dresses, and an elaborate scene with dancing eggs and omlettes.

Some of the dancing needed to be a bit cleaner and relaxed and a few bits of dialogue weren’t picked up by the mikes, but that did little to stop the avalanche of awesomeness that was this show.

If you’re looking for some fun and are a fan of theatre or even an opponent of musicals, then this is the show to see.  It’s the best thing going this summer.

Something Rotten! plays at the Ralston Performing Arts Center in Ralston High School under the auspices of Ralston Community Theatre through July 24.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 2pm.  Tickets cost $23 and can be purchased at the Box Office, calling 402-898-3545, or visiting www.ralstoncommunitytheatre.org.  Parental discretion is advised for this production.  Ralston Community Theatre is located at 8969 Park Dr in Ralston, NE.

The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse

Lovely little nutcracker, isn’t it?  Well, this nutcracker has a very interesting story behind it.  This nutcracker is both a trophy and a reminder of the time I assisted Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in solving a murder at the Victorian Villa in Union City, MI.

I had alluded to this story when I wrote my remembrance of the inn back in 2014, but enough time has passed that it is now safe to share the tale.  Some elements must still remain hidden, so some names may be changed and some details removed and altered, but those that know the truth will understand.

Many believe Holmes and Watson to be fictional characters, but that is a myth perpetuated by Dr. Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published Dr. Watson’s stories under his name.  In truth, they are real and much older than one would believe. 

In his retirement, Holmes had cultivated a royal jelly elixir and ingestion of it had greatly extended his life span and that of Dr. Watson.  Over the years Holmes and Watson had regularly visited the Victorian Villa as its owner, Ron Gibson, is the great-grandson of Senator Neil Gibson referenced in the case known as “The Problem of Thor Bridge”.  Aside from their friendship, Holmes also enjoyed visiting Union City as, in his own words, “it is a hellhole of crime of great depth and brilliance”.

When I learned that Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson would be visiting, I immediately booked a weekend stay to meet the famed detective and his trusted associate.

It was September of 2005 and I was making my second foray out to the Villa.  I was a bit weary as I had mistakenly forgotten to schedule myself as unavailable for Hamlet rehearsals the night before so I had put in a long night of rehearsing before setting off on my drive at 10pm.  By midnight, I was exhausted and collapsed at a Motel 6 in Des Moines, IA before driving another 8 hours to Union City the next morning.  The welcome sight of the gorgeous Victorian mansion served as a salve to my spirits and boosted my energy level as I pulled into the tiny parking lot.

The Victorian Villa

Once more, I was greeted by Ron and his two sons, Zach and Josh, before being led to my room for the weekend:  the Victorian Country Bedchamber.  As I got myself situated, I found a note under my pillow.  It was rather snarky and, I noted, written in a feminine hand.  I put it away before freshening up and reacquainting myself with the Villa.

Around 6pm, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson arrived at the inn.  I introduced myself to Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson who politely shook my hand.  Holmes was just as Watson had described him with his aloofness and unmistakable air of authority.  Watson was friendly and every bit the gentleman.

I retired to the parlor with Holmes and Watson and the other guests who had come to meet the legendary duo.  Among them were Ted and Rhonda Cowell and their Holmesian scion society, The Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay; the Mallon family; George Ault; and Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Harbaugh.

We opened up the night with a round of Sherlockian Trivial Pursuit.  We formed into two teams and Mr. Holmes asked diabolically difficult questions relating to the many cases he had investigated.  As the two teams battled back and forth, Mr. Holmes would vacillate between contentedly smoking his pipe and brooding about some vexing problem.  On several occasions he alluded to a case he was working on before returning to the game.

Sherlock Holmes relaxes

By the end of the game, the two teams were locked into a tie, though I ended up stealing a symbolic victory for my side when I answered the question “Who killed Victor Savage?”  After the hard-fought game, we entered the dining room where Mr. Holmes gave us a demonstration on the art of observation and deduction while we dined on one of Ron’s fine meals which consisted of English Cheshire Cheese Soup and roasted loin of boar among other delicacies.  I did note that Ron had brought on some help for the event as a placard on the table said the meal had been partially catered by Maxine Simons.

Upon finishing our meal, we returned to the parlor where Mr. Holmes told us he was investigating a murder that had taken place at the Villa a few days prior.  A man had shown up at the Villa around 11am on the fateful day and asked Ron if he could have a room.  As Ron had no reservations, he rented a room to the man who gave no name, but simply went upstairs to his bedroom with his dressing bag.  A short while later, Ron saw him descend the stairs sans bag and enter the parlor.  Ron left him to his own devices as he had to leave the Villa to run some errands.  When he returned later, he found the man collapsed on the floor, arm outstretched in front of him, and clearly dead.  Ron contacted the police who found no identification on the man nor in his room.  The labels on his clothes had been cut off and the only items found on him were a handkerchief, some cigarettes, and a pen.  Ron had told Mr. Holmes of the baffling death and he agreed to look into it.

Mr. Holmes wanted us to be his eyes and ears and help him investigate.  He asked us to discover the following:

  1. Who was the victim?
  2. How was he killed?
  3. Who killed him?
  4. Find a way to link the killer to the crime and unmask him or her.

Certain rules were set in place for us.  As Mr. Holmes had already investigated the private areas of the mansion, we were not to enter them.  He also told us not to snoop into Ron’s desk as only he would be allowed to investigate it.  Short of that we were free to investigate as we chose. If we managed to discover any evidence, we were only to hold onto it for 10 minutes before returning it exactly where it was found.  Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson bade us good evening and left the Villa promising to return after breakfast in the morning.

Exhaustion had found me again so I retired to my bedroom, vowing to rise early and begin looking into the case.

I arose the next morning feeling refreshed.  After heading to the dining room and enjoying some of Ron’s special scrambled eggs and sausage patties, I began to look into the case. 

From re-reading Ron’s statement, I realized that the victim had not carried his dressing bag back down with him so I immediately went to the second floor and began searching for it, but was unable to find it.  I searched the mansion from top to bottom and then made my way over to the Carriage House.  Up in the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber, I discovered George Ault and Glenn Harbaugh discussing something and they froze when they saw me.  I asked if I could enter and Glenn said I could.  I quietly closed the door and noted they had the dressing bag.

“So you found it,” I said.

Realizing I had already deduced the clue, George and Glenn opened the bag and we all looked into it.  Among the toiletries, we found a letter addressed to James Fitzsimmons requesting a meeting in the parlor of the Villa to discuss the matter of a deadly toxin that had been developed by the writer of the letter.  Apparently Fitzsimmons had been the letter writer’s boss and had aspirations of selling the toxin to the highest bidder who would likely weaponize it.  The toxin caused almost instantaneous paralysis before shutting down the body’s vital organs.  Death would occur in a matter of minutes.  The writer wanted Fitzsimmons to destroy the toxin and begged for a meeting to convince him of this.  It was simply signed Max, though I recognized the handwriting as being the same as that on the note in my bedroom.

After examining the evidence, I asked the two men if they had found notes as well.  They admitted they had and let me read them.  Red herrings and smart alecky comments.  After reading this, we looked at each other and I suggested pooling our resources to which George and Glenn readily agreed.

“All right, we’re now a team,” I said.

Upon forming our alliance we headed down to the parlor to meet Mr. Holmes who asked if anybody had anything to share.  I casually blurted the bag clue to which Mr. Holmes looked at me and said, “You’re a rather blithe young man, aren’t you?”

After unintentionally giving out the clue, the race was on.  Though we were investigating a crime, it was treated more like a competition and ended up as a three way battle between The Stormy Petrels, the Mallons, and my little triumvirate.  The Petrels played for keeps and were not above providing a few red herrings.  The Mallons were smart and crafty, though I engaged in a little quid pro quo with Mrs. Mallon which I’ll get to in a bit.

Mr. Holmes was always available for private consultation where we could bring our discoveries and theories and he would make comments and subtle suggestions to help light our path.  When we first informed Holmes about the letter we found, Glenn kept referring to the writer as a he, to which Mr. Holmes asked, “Why do you keep saying ‘he?’”.

“What do mean?” asked Glenn.

“He means how do we know it’s a man,” I replied.

“Precisely,” said Holmes as he clasped my shoulder.

A vital clue, indeed.  While not a guarantee, we did have to open our minds to the possibility that Max, if that was the real name, was a woman.

We continued to investigate.  I realized that no matches or lighter were found on the corpse, though cigarettes had been discovered.  No smoker would ever lack those items and there was no reason for the killer to take them.  Remembering the outstretched arm, I assumed the position of the corpse and found a book of matches under the coal scuttle.

Taking them, I opened up the packet and found a scrawled message which said “Beware TR-70”.  The name of the toxin had been found!!

Outside the parlor, I found a business card book on a stand and began thumbing through it and saw Mrs. Mallon watching me.  When I leafed to the third page, she suddenly coughed.  I looked up and saw her smiling at me, I took a hard look and found the business card for Maxine Simons—Caterer.  However, “caterer” had been written in pen over a blacked out word.  Reversing the card and holding it up to the light, I saw “chemist” written under it.  I had the name of the killer!!  I then shared with Mrs. Mallon the name of the poison out of gratitude.

My team had another consultation with Holmes where Glenn spun an amusing, but outlandish, theory that Ron Gibson was the killer or, at least involved with her.  Mr. Holmes and I shared some glances and after Glenn finished his theory, Holmes simply stated, “I sense you have some misgivings about his theory.”

“One or two,” I replied.

I then finally had a chance to fill in Glenn and George on my discoveries and had a private conversation with Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Mallon while I made my deductions.  When I finished, Mr. Holmes looked to Mrs. Mallon and said, “You know, I have great faith in this young man.  He’s quiet, thoughtful, and observant and everything he says is based soundly on logic.”

Then we took a break and had a reading of one of Watson’s stories followed by a pop quiz.  I ended up winning the quiz contest and surprised Mr. Holmes with one of my answers.

“This number is the square root of the number alluded to by Watson,” said Holmes.

“Sixteen,” I readily answered.

“Sixteen is correct!!” said Holmes with some wonderment.  “Tell me, young man, how did you come up with that answer?”

“Watson mentioned the wait was like the night the two of you faced the Andaman Islander which was a reference to the case known as The Sign of Four,” I said.

Holmes smiled and nodded approvingly.

After the quiz we had afternoon tea where Ron had prepared a whole turkey and we helped ourselves to little sandwiches with a bit of homemade mustard and fixings.

The case was solved, but there was still one last item:  how to unmask Maxine.  There was no real proof tying her to the death and all my deductions wouldn’t hold water in court.  I had a final consultation with Holmes where I told him everything I had learned, but felt I was just one step away from the total truth. 

“Think of the problem of the three Moriartys.  All of them were named James and were identical.  How would one tell them apart?” said Mr. Holmes.

I began to see the light when he gave me one final nudge.

“You have two pieces of vital evidence.  What you need is a third.”

The truth hit me like a thunderbolt.  The letter on my pillow plus the letter in the bag were my pieces of evidence.  What I needed was a way to get a third example of Maxine’s handwriting to connect her with the other two.  Handwriting was how you’d distinguish the Moriarty boys from each other.

Piecing the puzzle together

I expressed this problem to Glenn and George and we threw around ideas until I said, “Maybe we could get a card of some sort.”

“My son is serving over in Iraq.  We could get him a Wish You Were Here card,” said George.

“Yes, and we’ll have everybody in the inn sign it!!” I exclaimed.

The three of us dashed to Mr. Holmes where I laid out the scheme.

“An excellent plan,” said Holmes. 

I shook hands with Holmes and Watson and dashed to the bar area where I found Ron.

“Is there a drug store nearby?” I asked.

“Yes, just a few blocks up on Main Street,” said Ron.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then I speed walked through the front door and vaulted over the steps to the sidewalk.  I then sprinted and I do mean SPRINTED to the drug store where I bought the card and repeated the process back to the Villa where I hurdled the steps once more.  George later said it was the funniest thing he ever saw.

As I walked back in, I heard Mrs. Mallon’s daughter ask if there were a drug store nearby.  I then politely coughed and gently waved the card.  Knowing that the game was up, the Mallons signed the card and Mrs. Mallon’s daughter assisted me with finishing the job by asking Ron if there were any other people in the kitchen as Maxine was also helping to cater tonight’s dinner.  Ron stepped into the kitchen and asked Maxine to step out.  I told her about the card while George showed a picture of his son and Maxine signed the card.

I then led my team back to the parlor where the other guests had gathered. 

“Do you have something to show me, young man?” asked Mr. Holmes.

I presented the card to him and he looked at it.

“Were there any witnesses?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.   Myself, (Mrs. Mallon’s daughter), George, Ron, Zach, and Josh all witnessed this.”

“Very good,” said Mr. Holmes.  “This case has been solved.”

Then we proceeded to have a debate about what to do with the killer.  Her motivations were understandable.  Fitzsimmons would have unleashed a plague of death on the world.  He had committed no crime, but would have had the blood of countless people had he sold the toxin.  Maxine shouldn’t have killed him, but her act had thwarted a much greater evil so I pled for leniency.  Holmes said he would consider the situation.

Glenn gave me a hug and then bought George and myself a drink at the bar.  Mr. Holmes approached me privately and asked me to present the denouement after dinner.

A splendid dinner was served and after we were all satiated, Mr. Holmes signaled for silence, indicated my two partners and then clasped my shoulder acknowledging our victory.  He then presented me with the nutcracker as a trophy for the case.  Then he brought Ron, his two sons, and Maxine into the dining room where I presented my findings.

I walked the group through the maze of the case, casually keeping an eye on Maxine who whitened with every revelation.  When I explained about the card we had purchased and how the killer had sealed her fate by signing it, I calmly looked at Maxine and said, “Isn’t that right, Maxine?”

At that point, Maxine begged for mercy and Holmes gently led her out of the dining room while discussion resumed.  Shortly afterwards, he returned and he and Watson made their final farewells and exited.

And that was how I helped Mr. Holmes solve The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse.  I would later learn that Holmes did show mercy to Maxine, letting her leave the country.  George did send the card to his son with an incredible story.  I had made new friends and had a reminder of the case forever gracing my mantle.  And the next morning, I enjoyed some of Ron’s incredible cream cheese stuffed French Toast.

Little did I know that I would return to the Villa a few years later with my trusted friend, Mat O’Donnell, to engage in a peculiar investigation centering around a crying woman.

But that is a story for another time.

Unlocking the Painful Past

Morgan and Angus are farmers living their quiet lives until Miles enters the scene.  Miles is an actor wanting to study them in order to write a play about farming.  One night Miles overhears Morgan telling Angus the story of the Drawer Boy which she includes in the play.  When Angus, who can only remember the here and now due to a head injury, sees the play, he begins to remember his past. . .and the painful truths hiding there.  This is The Drawer Boy and it is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is what theatre is all about.  A brilliant story shaped by a genius storyteller and told by 3 masters of their crafts.

Michael Healey’s script contains the finest usage of voice I have ever heard in a tale.  The play has to be seen to understand what I mean, but most plays use the characters to tell the story.  Healey uses the characters to create the story.  It’s almost like there was no plot, but the three actors were simply conjuring the entire play out of thin air and it had me enraptured and on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.  The storytelling is meticulous and well-constructed as it builds up steadily and sturdily to a climactic peak and then slowly and surely descends to an epic resolution.

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek’s direction is the sharpest I’ve seen this season.  His creation of this world is akin to a Bob Ross painting.  It seems so simple and rudimentary at first, but he constantly adds subtle colors and details until a beautiful masterpiece leaps from the canvas.  The staging is absolutely impeccable with the story taking place in a dilapidated farmhouse (another Jim Othuse winner) and he managed to make it feel small and enclosed while still keeping his performers socially distanced.  His control of the pacing was sure and confident and he guided his 3 actors to sterling, immaculate performances.

Olivia Howard has a naturalness and believability to her acting that is astonishing to behold.  Her Miles is a free-spirited, experimental actor with a genuinely good heart and her performance had me hooked from the word go.  Howard’s storytelling just rings with pure honesty.  Some of my favorite moments were her trying to get into the mind of a cow as she struck bovine poses and mooed as well as her telling the story of Hamlet in the first person to an enthralled Angus.  I also admired her drive and determination to helping Angus achieve peace by helping him to remember his forgotten past.

Erik Quam brings a delightful childlike innocence to Angus.  His body language always suggests that he is trying to remember something with the way he stares at a patch on the wall where something once hung or the way he parses out the sky to count stars which clearly brings him joy.  Quam convincingly portrays Angus’ affliction as he visibly winces and groans with the onset of debilitating headaches and is constantly surprised by seeing Miles anew after she briefly leaves his sightline.  His joy and agony as he slowly remembers his hidden past is equal parts wonderful, tragic and right on the money.

When I think of a farmer, Mark Thornburg’s portrayal of Morgan is the image that pops into my head.  Thornburg has a terrific laconic drawl to his delivery and a methodic lope to his movements.  His deep bass voice is perfect for narration especially with his telling of the stories of the Drawer Boy.  And his voice captures amazing nuance.  Morgan has tight control over his emotions and its just little tonal changes Thornburg makes to show when Morgan is happy or when he’s starting to lose his cool.  And Thornburg will make your heart shatter when you learn of the sacrifices Morgan has made to aid his friend.

Aside from his stellar farmhouse, Jim Othuse’s lights flesh out the play with sweet transitions from day to night and back again.  He also uses the lights to match the show’s emotions.  Yellow and bright for fun and happy moments.  Blue for sad and somber moments.  Black for moments of bitterness.  John Gibilisco’s sounds help create the countryside with the tweeting of birds and the roar of a tractor.  J. Isaiah Smith has composed a score that sent me to another world and his use of piano and keyboard sent chills through me.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes breathed life into the characters with the simple and poor clothing of the farmers to the 70s threads worn by Miles.  The properties of Darin Kuehler and Greg Combs gave the farmhouse a long, lived-in quality with its supplies and knick-knacks.

If you appreciate the art of storytelling then this is the play for you.  It’s guaranteed to take you on an emotional roller coaster and make you appreciate the treasure of true friendship.

The Drawer Boy runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through May 2.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets begin at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by calling 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The show is also available for streaming at https://www.showtix4u.com/events/ocp. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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

Brave Actors Buoy Bland Script

Andrew Rally, a former TV star, accepts the most arduous role in theatre when he is offered the role of Hamlet in a Shakespeare in the Park Production in Manhattan.  The trouble is that he is intimidated by the role and has no faith in himself as a stage actor.  Luckily, Andrew lives in the apartment once owned by legendary Hamlet performer, John Barrymore, whose ghost arrives to help mentor him in the role in the comedy I Hate Hamlet opening tomorrow at the Omaha Playhouse.

Paul Rudnick’s idea had a tremendous amount of potential.  Regrettably, his script fails to make any use of that potential.  It is incredibly slow, never really gets anywhere, and is frightfully dull.  Occasionally a good one liner pops up, but this is a script that really forces a director and cast to work to get anything out of it.  Guest director, Ablan Roblin, and his troupe of artists deserve a standing ovation for milking the few precious drops of comedy out of this yawner.  Roblin especially deserves praise as he made the most out of this script by cutting as brisk a pace as possible and coaching some solid performances out of his cast.

Ben Beck gives one of the most honest performances of his career as Andrew Rally.  With a nice, simple straightforward delivery, Beck imbues Rally with warmth, honesty, and sincerity.  This is especially impressive as Rally actually has some unlikable qualities.  He got into acting solely for the fame and money and not for its artistry.  Beck’s Rally is also a bit obsessed with having sex with his virgin girlfriend, Deidre, but demonstrates his basic decency as he genuinely wants to marry her and refuses to cheat on her despite his dislike for the chaste lifestyle.  Beck also does some nice work in showing the fears and insecurities of Rally as he does not believe himself to be a good actor.  He sees himself as just a pretty face.  But in playing up that self-doubt, Beck is able to make Rally’s final choice of a career on stage vs a return to TV very believable.

Kevin Barratt’s work as John Barrymore is quite exceptional.  He does a marvelous job playing up Barrymore’s drinking, theatricality, and womanizing, but it is always so natural and real.  Especially impressive was Barratt’s delivery of a monologue in Act II where Barrymore laments escaping from the stage to sell himself out to Hollywood and the sad moment when he realized he was no longer capable of acting.  It was a heartbreaking moment and the most beautiful of the show.

Suzanne Withem delights as Deirdre McDavey, Andrew’s innocent girlfriend.  Ms Withem was amazing as her Deirdre had a heart nearly as pure as a crystal.  Ms Withem’s Deirdre is an old soul trapped in a young woman.  She has a love for the classics and dreams of saving herself for her knight in shining armor.  For all of her decency, Ms Withem was also able to slip a tiny bit of the temptress into her character as she does wonder what sex with the wrong man would be like and is ready to pounce on Andrew after his failure on opening night gets her engine running.  Ms Withem does need to be certain to hold for laughs as I lost bits of her dialogue when she would speak during the audience’s merriment.

Dave Wingert brings quite a bit of energy to the role of Gary Peter Lefkowitz.  As Andrew’s TV director friend, Lefkowitz schemes to get Andrew away from the stage and back into television.  Wingert portrays Lefkowitz with a polite snideness as he completely disdains theatre since he doesn’t understand it and loves television as one doesn’t really need to think while watching it and likes the fact that tons of money can be made from the most banal pap.  I especially liked the opportunistic nature Wingert gave Lefkowitz, particularly when he uses Andrew’s determination to play Hamlet to negotiate a better deal for the TV series he is trying to sell.

Kim Jubenville and Julie Fitzgerald Ryan shine in smaller roles.  Ms Jubenville plays Andrew’s agent, Lillian Troy.  Ms Jubenville gets everything she can out of this role and demonstrated some remarkable versatility as she transitioned from the slapstick comedy of hacking up her lungs due to a heavy smoking habit to a sweetly dramatic moment with Barrymore, whom she can see, as they rekindle an affair they had when Barrymore was alive.

Ms Fitzgerald Ryan was quite entertaining as Felicia Dantine, Andrew’s real estate broker and psychic.  Her New Yorker accent is spot on and her eccentricities are wonderful as she can literally smell supernatural activity, yet somehow cannot sense or see Barrymore.

Jim Othuse’s set is of tremendous quality and perfectly duplicates the Jacobean furnishings of Barrymore’s apartment and his lighting design is quite ingenious with its use of candlelight and lightning.

The hard work, dedication, and talent of the actors and directors go a long way in overpowering the weaknesses of the script and I believe I Hate Hamlet will provide some lighthearted enjoyment to its audiences.

I Hate Hamlet runs from April 17-May 10 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Tickets prices are $36 for adults and $22 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cast Street in Omaha, NE.  The show does contain a little strong language and some adult situations.  Parental discretion is advised.

Supernatural Comedy Opening On Omaha Playhouse’s Main Stage

I Hate Hamlet

Show Dates:  Apr. 17–May 10, 2015

Showtimes:  Wed-Sat at 7:30pm.  Sundays at 2pm

By Paul Rudnick

Andrew, an aspiring actor, has landed the role of a lifetime as Hamlet. There is just one problem…he hates Hamlet. As fate would have it, Andrew’s new Manhattan residence is the former apartment of the brilliant actor John Barrymore, whose portrayal of Hamlet was legendary. When Barrymore’s ghost appears to Andrew, he mentors Andrew on all the tricks of the trade. Will Andrew’s debut be a triumph or a tragedy? Find out in this fast-paced, fencing-packed and funny play.

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.

sponsor: Carter & Vernie Jones
media sponsor: Q98.5

Directed by Ablan Roblin

Cast

Andrew Rally – Ben Beck
John Barrymore – Kevin Barratt
Deirdre McDavey – Suzanne Withem
Lillian Troy – Kim Jubenville
Felicia Dantine – Julie Ryan
Gary Peter Lefkowitz – Dave Wingert

Soaring, Part 3

Biloxi Blues still ranks as one of the greatest experiences of my theatrical life.  Just like my very first show, I had an incredible cast that all liked each other and all egos were checked at the door.  Susan had the most amazing directing style I had ever seen.  It’s so subtle that you don’t always know that you’re being directed, but then. . .BOOM!  You’re right where she needed you to be.

I looked forward to rehearsal each and every night and when opening night rolled around, all of us were just white hot and ready to tear it up.  We were so skilled, that we could have swapped roles around amongst our group and our show would have been just as strong, I kid you not.

Biloxi Blues was considered one of the top shows of the season and the reviews were glowing.  One paper called our cast “the next vanguard of theatre”.  I garnered a tremendous amount of praise both in the papers and within the theatre community and I was riding Cloud 9.  Thanks to Susan’s direction, my game had been advanced to a whole new level and I was finally able to win over the 2 artistic heads of the Playhouse (Carl Beck & Susie Baer-Collins).  Susie gave me a big hug after she saw the show and told me I had been absolutely wonderful.  That show accomplished for me with those two what might have taken 20 auditions apiece ordinarily.

At the Playhouse Awards that year, Biloxi Blues won every actor award on the non-musical side of things.  The show would go on to garner a Best Show nomination at that year’s Theatre Arts Guild Awards as well as another in the inaugural Omaha Entertainment Arts Awards Show.  And then Hamlet got nominated for Best Show in the OEAs as well.  So I had been in two highly regarded shows in the same season and I had helped them gain that acclaim.  All of my trials, perseverance, work, and hope were finally paying dividends and, man, did it feel good.

During the run of Biloxi Blues, I even found time to gain a feeling of redemption from The Elephant Man.  Kevin Lawler was returning to town to guest direct a one man show for SNAP Productions called I Am My Own Wife.  This appealed to me on several levels.  Not only would a one man show really allow me a chance to test my ever increasing abilities, but it felt like a way I could close the book on The Elephant Man.

Despite the crushing blow I received from that audition, I never bore a grudge or any anger towards Kevin.  I understood that he did what he felt was right for the show based on what he saw and thought at the time and I respected that.  By just showing up for this audition, it felt like I would be saying, “Everything is fine between us.”

I ended up using a monologue from a one man musical called Cotton Patch Gospel and. . .What’s that?  You’ve never heard of Cotton Patch Gospel

Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised.  The show was a big hit when it was released in 1982, but has fallen into obscurity over time.  It’s the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew told southern style.  It’s one of my favorite plays and I often use it when I need to perform a monologue as most directors will not be aware of the show.

Due to having to perform in Biloxi Blues that afternoon, I signed up to be the first person to audition.  And I was quite nervous.  Kevin came out of the performing area, said hello, and we shook hands.  And I thought everything would be cool after that.

I walked into the theatre and did a double take at the set which was decked out like a Catholic Church for their production of Defending Marriage.  Kevin asked me about my acting work since the last time we met and I had told him I had done 11 more shows and was currently working on Biloxi Blues.  He asked me what I thought about working with Susan and I sang her praises.

Then he asked me to do my monologue and I nailed it exactly the way that I wanted to hit it.  When I finished, Kevin said, “That was really good, Chris.  I can really see the growth you’ve made, even from The Elephant Man which I think was the last time you auditioned for me.  It’s obvious you’ve been doing a lot more of this.  That was such an interesting piece.  Where the hell did you find it?”

And I told him the story of how the show had been produced when I was in high school and it had always stayed with me and I found a copy of the original production and bought it.

Kevin then asked me if I could do the monologue again, but do it as if I were really bored.  I thought for a moment, then did a sleepy take on the passage.  Kevin stopped me and said I was doing it, but on a scale of 1-10, I was at a 4 and he needed me at an 8.  I tried again and really slathered on the boredom.  I’m not sure if I was at an 8, but I think a 6.5 might be accurate.

Then he asked me to do it again as a fire and brimstone preacher.  I thought back to televangelists I had seen and did my best to emulate them, feeling I had done a respectable job.  Partway through the read, Kevin stopped me and asked me to try my strongest Southern accent.  Fortunately, I’ve got a pretty good ear for accents and had a fairly decent Southern preacher going.  When I finished, Kevin thanked me for my time and said I would hear something either way.

It took five weeks, but I was finally called and informed that another actor had won the role.  But I had gained peace of mind.  And I must have made it down to the final cut if it took that long to finally be rejected.

But even that wasn’t the end of the saga of The Elephant Man.  The true end actually came two years later when I bumped into Kevin at the inaugural Mid-Plains Theatre Conference.  We chatted a bit and then he floored me when he said:

“You know you had a really wonderful audition for The Elephant Man.  It was amazing to see an actor come in with that type of heart and passion.  I’m really sorry I couldn’t cast you.”

That’s when I closed the book because I knew that the audition had meant something if he still remembered it so vividly after six years.  And that is why I suspect I really might have been the runner-up for the role.

Still riding high from my banner year in theatre, I started off the 2006-07 season with an audition for The Talented Mr. Ripley for Susie Baer-Collins at the Playhouse.  My string of really good auditions stayed intact as I had another solid showing.  I managed to differentiate my Ripley from other actors by emphasizing his ability to think on his feet and not backpedaling whenever caught in a lie.  I would just cover the lie with another lie.

When the audition ended, Susie told me I had given an excellent audition and I earned another callback.  That was exciting enough, but when Susie told me she was considering me for the role of Tom Ripley, my jaw hit the floor.  The title role.  That’s when I knew I had come a really long way.

Eight of us were called back for the show and seven of us could have easily played any of the roles.  I ended up coming up on the short end of the stick, but got a novella of a rejection from Susie who praised my audition to the heavens.

Change was definitely in the air.

Soaring, Part 1

After the awakening and having sampled a taste of Shakespeare, I was ready to tackle what is widely considered the greatest play ever written:  Hamlet.

I had decided to pursue the role of Laertes, the brother of Ophelia and the son of Polonius.  This character is a bit of a hothead and somewhat arrogant which made him the perfect character in my mind because his personality was so drastically different from my own.  A friend of mine suggested I would make a good Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend.  I really wanted Laertes, but decided I would take a look at Horatio.

As I prepared for the audition, I got more and more into the character of Horatio.  He was so intelligent, loyal, and deep that I thought I could really do a lot with him.  I ended up changing my focus to Horatio, but kept Laertes prepared as I would then be able to display some versatility at the audition.  I also made a fateful decision.  Prior to this audition, I had always been willing to take any role in a production.  Now I had been in theatre for nearly 10 years and many of my roles had been small or bit parts.  I felt it was time to view things from a business perspective.  If directors saw that I was only doing unchallenging roles, there was a real danger that they may begin to think I was not capable of handling anything with some heft.  So I stated that I only wanted to be considered for Horatio and Laertes.  I knew I was taking a colossal chance, but I felt it to be well worth the risk.

Audition night came and I ended up reading first and as Horatio.  And I started off very strongly.  I had a great read with Scott as Hamlet and I felt natural and believable.  When I finished my turn, I noticed a lot of people in the theatre looking impressed, but my biggest badge of honor came from my friend, David Sindelar, who smiled and nodded at me.  Dave has always told things as he sees them, so to have won him over was a well earned prize, indeed.

I did get to read as Laertes and I didn’t do too badly, but there were a few others who I thought had a better attitude for the character as well as being a better fit physically.  Still, Cathy asked us to return the next time to be read some more.  Strangely, I was not asked to read as Horatio again, but read several times as Guildenstern which I found peculiar because I was very clear on whom I wanted to play.  And I also vowed that I was going to stick to my guns.  At this point, being take seriously was more important than getting cast.

That Friday, July 15, I received a call from Cathy at 6:30pm.  I’ve always found this to be a little eerie and ironic because it was exactly three years to the minute I had stepped foot in the Playhouse for The Elephant Man three years prior.  Our conversation went as follows:

“Chris, I’d like to talk to you about Hamlet.”

“All right.”

“Before I begin, I just want you to know that I think you are tremendously talented and that you have a very bright future in theatre, but at this point I just don’t think you’re experienced enough to play Horatio.” 

“I see,” I replied as I sat on my couch and felt my heart plummet to the pits of my stomach.

“I really want you in this play, but you have such a young look and I just envision Horatio as being older and more settled than you are.”

“I understand,” I said, feeling my face flush white as a sheet.

“I just haven’t worked with you enough yet.  But I still really want you to be part of this production because it would be a tremendous loss if we didn’t have you, but I’d like to give you a different role if you’re still interested.”

(Pause)  “All right.  I’ll play somebody else,” I said in a very soft voice.

“I’m really glad to hear that.  I won’t be casting the show for a few more days because I’m holding callbacks for Polonius and Claudius, but I’ll be in touch soon.”

As I suspected, I ended up with the role of Guildenstern and I don’t regret taking the part.  For one thing, it began my acting partnership with David Sindelar who played Rosencrantz.  Although we shared a scene in Dracula, I felt this was the first time I was really working with him as my skills had now evolved dramatically and could now experiment a bit with him.

One of my fondest memories of the show actually began 2 years prior in His Girl Friday.  Cathy and Scott are very big on what they call “walla wallas” which is actors improvising dialogue in crowd scenes to make it more believable.  On the last day of the show, I asked Dave’s character where the editor of the newspaper was and he looked at me and, with a deadpan expression, said, “You go to hell.  Go straight to hell.  Don’t pass Go.  Don’t collect $200.”  I had to pull my hat over my face to cover the laugh that was threatening to bust out.

In Hamlet, I got a bit of payback.  There is a scene where a troupe of actors arrives at the castle and Hamlet tells me of a monologue he once heard and begins to recite it.  I forget the exact line, but it had to do with the color of some item.  Dave took to saying that he remembered this monologue and kept trying to remember the color.  During rehearsals, I kept supplying normal colors.  On opening night, I said the first color which popped into my head which was, “Periwinkle”.  Dave’s expression told me I caught him somewhat off guard, but he recovered with the beautiful comeback, “It’s not periwinkle”.

Another fond moment is when Hamlet was talking to the leader of the acting troupe and, in the background, Dave and I improvised a story about why we came to Denmark.  It was something about Rosencrantz losing all of our money when he bet on a horse named Sloth.  This story grew bigger and bigger every night, but the best thing is that nobody in the cast or audience knew what we were saying.  We both were skilled enough and subtle enough that we were able to do this in a way that did not distract from the primary action.

I gained a great sense of satisfaction from this role.  One actor, David Dechant, praised Dave Sindelar and myself for being able to add a third dimension to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern just through sheer strength of acting ability.  We even gained notice in the review in the Omaha World-Herald which cited us as being good.  My greatest compliment came from the mother of one of the BSB regulars.  She was an actor, herself, and when she came to the show, she walked up to me afterwards and said, “Young man, you have shot up miles.”  I felt real pride after that praise.

Unfortunately, I hit a major stumbling block after Hamlet.  Scott asked me if I would play the role of Paul Trochard in the BSB’s second production, My Three Angels.  I accepted and looked forward to playing a sort of villainous role.  The show was plagued with trouble from the start.  We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time.  We lost an actor partway through the rehearsal process due to a death in the family and he had to be replaced.  And I think Hamlet took a toll on Scott’s directing and certainly on my acting. 

Hamlet had been a grueling show.  It’s very long and we had a 2 month rehearsal process as opposed to one, plus the 4 week run of the show.  And then we jumped straight into rehearsing for My Three Angels.  Playing the title role was undoubtedly arduous for Scott and I think it dulled his creativity a smidge when directing this show, especially when he was compelled to take a role in it and have his focus split.  My acting, to be blunt, sucked. 

I simply could not get a firm grip on the role.  I had some moments that weren’t too bad, but for the most part, I just didn’t believe myself and it showed in the reviews.  Although I wasn’t mentioned by name, references were made to “wooden” and “uneven” acting and I knew the references were about me and I carried it like a weight on my shoulders.

It was my first real failure as an active performer. . .but the breakthrough was soon to follow.

To be continued. . .