Bitter Fruit

A mother and her genius, but ill-mannered, son relocate to Crested Butte, CO to begin a new life.  Running parallel paths, the mother begins to find happiness once again while the son takes a step towards living life for the very first time.  But an insatiable need to know may tear both of their lives asunder.  This is Wildflower by Lila Rose Kaplan and is currently playing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

While Ms Kaplan’s script is interesting in some respects, it suffers from the flaw of not being a strong narrative.  By that I mean there really isn’t an arc to this play.  It’s really vignettes of the lives of the characters of this show.

Where the writing excels is in the characters themselves.  Not only are the characters fully formed people, but they have distinctive and well developed arcs with plenty of meat in which actors can sink their teeth.  The powerful characters help to cover the fact that the overall story lacks a unifying core.

Lara Marsh is a bit of auteur with this production as she not only directs, but also designed the set and helped to design the sounds.  Her direction is tight and sure.  Each character gets its fair due and chance to shine and Ms Marsh knows how to maximize each climax and resolution in the interrelationships of these characters.  Her staging is admirable with the entire blackbox being utilized and her mastery in crafting emotional moments cannot be argued.  She also gets thoroughly capable performances out of her cast.

Solid supporting performances are supplied by Francisco Franco and Jarod Cernousek.  As Mitchell, Franco plays a former burlesque performer turned hotel owner/chef who dispenses wise advice and has found peace in his life in the most extraordinary way.  Cernousek’s James is a forest ranger with a power complex and the rod up his back has a rod up its back which I’m pretty certain has a rod up its back.

Aaron Sorilla is exceptional in his performance as Randolph.  Randolph is a high functioning autistic and Sorilla does truly wonderful work in communicating the aspects of autism such as his focus on self, rudeness, fixations, and a bit of a sing-song cadence to his speaking patterns.  His timing is excellent and he knows how to elicit a good laugh from a line.  But he also handles the drama side of the role equally well.  There is a real tragedy to his character as he is unable to understand emotion and his literal nature means everything needs to be spelled out to him in excruciating detail.  And that need to know leads him down a treacherous path.

Jocelyn Reed plays Erica, Randolph’s mother.  Ms Reed does a good job of encasing Erica’s core of sadness in a bubbly personality.  The bubblyness is not a put on.  It’s more like if Erica focuses on being happy, then she’ll forget the sadness which is always threatening to rear its ugly face.  This is a person who has had a rough go of things.  It’s implied she was in an emotionally abusive marriage from which she is trying to recover and while she loves her son, Ms Reed’s body language conveys the sense that she sometimes feels chained to him due to his special needs.  Indeed, as a loving mother, she makes sacrifices to her own happiness for the sake of her son.  But her shining moment is when we get to see her exude utter joy when her son forms a special friendship with a girl.  Not only is she happy for him, but she is happy for herself as she sees the possibilities that each of them can live their own life.

Hannah Davis makes her acting debut as Astor and does quite well in her first outing.  There’s a lot of fun to this character.  One is never certain if she is also a high functioning autistic or just very immature due to a combination of an odd upbringing and her own exceptional intelligence.  She comes off as much younger than 16 especially when she’s bossing Erica around in the visitor’s center and engaging in childish arguments with Randolph.  Yet she has startling moments of pseudo-sophistication and clearly has the longings of a young girl coming of age due to her wanting intimacy so she isn’t inexperienced when she shortly heads off to college.  While Ms Davis’ character foundation is rock solid, I think she has the leeway to amp up what’s she’s doing a notch or two.

Lara Marsh has provided a simple, but effective set for the production with a counter full of brochures, seeds, and flowers for the visitor’s center and a rolling counter for Mitchell’s kitchen.  Kendra Newby’s costumes well suit the personalities of the characters from the perfectly pressed forest ranger’s uniform of James to the too big sports coat (it’s his father’s) of Randolph to the childlike clothing of Astor as well as her beautiful sundress as she comes of age.  Riley Campbell and Craig & Lara Marsh team up for some fantastic sounds such as the hotline’s ringing telephone and the blast of fireworks.  Rebecca Roth’s lights are top of the line especially with the stars of the outdoors and the flash and colors of exploding fireworks.

In spite of a missing centrality to the story, this show is a strong showcase in character work aided by surefire direction.  It’ll make you laugh.  It’ll make you wonder.  It’ll even tug at your heartstrings a little.

Wildflower plays in the Weber Fine Arts Building in Room 006 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha through April 28.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets are free.  Due to adult subject matter and language, this show is recommended for mature audiences.  The University of Nebraska-Omaha is located at 6001 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

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Ashes to Ashes

Sholem Asch is a young, hungry Jewish playwright who wishes to write stories about his people that show they are just as flawed and human as anyone else.  Members of his own community refuse to let him produce his play, The God of Vengeance, in Yiddish theatre as they perceive his work as anti-Semitic, so he takes the show on the road.  After a long, successful run in Europe, he manages to bring his show to Broadway.  Then trouble really begins for his show.  This is Indecent by Paula Vogel and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Assuredly, this is one of the most difficult and challenging shows I’ve seen produced in quite a while.  Ms Vogel’s script borrows from quite a few genres:  drama, musical, comedy, Yiddish, play in a play, and wraps it in a sheen of surrealism that gives the production an almost dreamlike quality.  This quality is well suited to this show as it is a show of memories of what once happened.  Going along with the motif of memory, which is a tricky thing, after all, some of the events depicted are fiction or embellished.

Ms Vogel’s script well handles the difficulties Asch faced with his script.  Some of the subject matter and themes in The God of Vengeance such as blasphemy, prostitution, and homosexuality are still taboo by today’s standards, let alone in the early 1900s when they would have been viewed as downright abhorrent by society, especially American society.  Even worse was the fact that many missed the point Asch was attempting to make due to only seeing the surface of his work and not digging a little deeper.

Truthfully, this show would test the mettle of any director, but Susan Clement-Toberer rises to the challenge and manages to merge all of this play’s disparate elements into a rock solid production.  Not only has she led her troupe to stellar, nuanced performances, but she was quite creative with her staging and transitions.  From having her actors sitting on stage before the show, still as statues until the lights breathe life into them, to original transitions using song, dance, and music, this show is a master’s level class in direction and storytelling.

Ezra Colon sizzles in his Blue Barn debut as Sholem Asch.  He well essays the young Asch as a youthful, energetic artist bound and determined to tell stories about his people.  One of my favorite moments was the respectful defiance he showed to his leaders and peers at the play’s first reading as he knows what he is saying with his play and is confident that he can find ears receptive to its message, even if those ears are others than his own community.

Colon is equally as impressive as a middle aged Asch and he somehow seems to age decades in a matter of moments with a slump of his shoulders and a haggard, wearied expression on his face.  His whole being seems to wonder if his work is a noble fight or a curse as trouble mounts for the Broadway production.  He finds himself unable to properly defend the work or his troupe due to his limited command of English and things he has witnessed as part of a delegation which have broken him in half spiritually.

Jonathan Purcell provides a powerhouse performance as Lemml.  He works wonders as the shy tailor whose eyes are opened by Asch’s work which he considers a life changing masterpiece from the very beginning.  Watching him tentatively begin a new career as stage manager for The God of Vengeance to growing into a confident, new person who takes full command of the show to keep it alive is a complete and utter joy.

Suzanne Withem is marvelous in multiple roles.  With a pair of glasses and shawl, she is Asch’s supportive, loving wife, Madje, and the first fan of his bold script.  With a change of clothes and a slightly vacuous expression, she becomes Virginia McFadden, an inexperienced performer who has taken the role solely to shock her parents on multiple levels.  But her best role is that of Ruth/Reina, the Yiddish actress who originally portrays Rifkele in the American production of The God of Vengeance.  She is proud of her Yiddish identity and has much in common with her character, right down to knowing the love of another woman.  Her scenes with her lover, Dorothee Nelson/Dine, are some of the best in the show as they are charged with a raw power and honesty and I consider “The Rain Scene” one of the best moments I’ve ever seen mounted on a stage.

Leanne Hill Carlson also lights it up in multiple roles.  But her two best are Freida Neimann, a slightly egotistical and prejudiced actress who finds her characters through intuition as opposed to reading the script and Dorothee Nelson/Dine, the American Manke for The God of Vengeance.  Her chemistry with Ms Withem just ripples with life and she well plays the age old agony of love vs career as the chance to be a Broadway star nearly causes her to sever her relationship with Ruth/Reina as well as subsume her ethnic identity to be more palatable to American audiences.

Strong supporting performances are supplied by D. Scott Glasser, especially as Nakhmen, a Jewish scholar who opposes Asch’s script; Judy Radcliff, as her portrayal of Esther Stockton playing the role of Sarah in The God of Vegeance provides some wonderful levity; and Jonathan Wilhoft who shines as I.L. Peretz, a Polish writer who gently advises Asch to burn his script.  Samuel Bertino, Kate Williams, and Olga Smola also do fine work as a trio of musicians who provide the score of the production.

Steven Williams provides a beautiful, broken down stage with its cracked and crumbling walls and raised platform.  His lights are equally good and quite ethereal at points, especially with the ghostly blue of “The Rain Scene”.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes are spot on.  Fine examples of her work are the quiet elegance of Asch’s suits, the well-made, but lower quality garb for Lemml, and the deadly accurate Hasidic dresses for the women.  Bill Kirby sounds are inspired and his use of artillery effects towards the end had me jump out of my seat.  Melanie Walters provides some unique choreography for scene transitions.

Indecent is the epitome of the Blue Barn mission and makes for an interesting case study into The God of Vengeance. Was it the work that was corrupting or was it corrupted by others once it hit American shores?  What was the play’s truth and did it get lost in the presentation?  Was it a curse or a blessing?  You may ask yourselves these and other questions as you watch the production.  You may not come up with a definitive answer, but you’ll certainly have a lot of food for thought.

Indecent plays at the Blue Barn through April 14.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on April 7.  The shows for March 23, 30, and April 6 are sold out.  Tickets are $35 ($30 for seniors) and are available at www.bluebarn.org or at the box office at 402-345-1576.  Due to mature subject matter, this show is not suitable for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

A Life Captioned

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The Three Faces of Alison (From left to right: Analisa Peyton, Sasha Denenberg, and Angie Heim)

Alison Bechdel is a lesbian cartoonist drawing her life story.  As she draws, she struggles to remember something about her father.  And in her struggle she revisits her relationship with her dad through the course of her life and through the lenses of her adult eyes.  Join her on this journey through the halls of memories at the Omaha Community Playhouse in Fun Home with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori based on Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel.

I salute Ms Bechdel for opening herself to the world with this deeply personal tale.  In conjunction with Kron and Tesori, these three women have managed to create something beautifully original and eminently poignant.  The story does not follow an ordinary narrative track as it weaves back and forth between the present and the past, yet it is remarkably cogent and Ms Tesori’s music makes it blossom with magic.  This story is a true slice of life that is warm and witty and also raw and heartbreaking.

Roxanne Wach brings some true directorial splendor to this piece.  It’s the most unique piece of staging I’ve ever seen in a production and also some of the best as it is so precisely suited to the story.  Characters flit on and off the stage like living thought balloons as Adult Alison keeps a measured distance away from them as they are only her memories.  Her guiding of the piece is magnificent as each of her actors give their all and immerse themselves in their characters, drawing the audience deeper into Alison’s world.

Potent performances come from Julia Ervin who plays Alison’s first love and Jennifer Gilg who plays Alison’s mother, Helen.  Ms Gilg does an extraordinary job playing a woman who seems distant from her family, but is actually broken from carrying the burden of her husband’s secret.  Ms Gilg is especially impressive when she reveals all to Alison in “Days”.  Josh Peyton does admirable work playing the entire male ensemble altering his voice, attitude, and posture to suit each character.  He also has a nice, light tenor voice which shines brightly in “Raincoat of Love”.  Ryan Laughlin and Tyson Bentley provide vital energy as two of the Bechdel children and, along with Sasha Denenberg, brought the house down in the night’s best number “Come to the Fun Home”.

Michael Trutna excels in the role of Bruce, Alison’s father.  Trutna astutely shows the difficulty of being a closeted gay man in the 60s and 70s.  His inability to come to grips with his orientation causes him to adopt some dangerous sexual practices.  Indeed, his lack of control in this aspect of his life compels him to exercise extreme control over other aspects.  His family must always look perfect.  He personally restores his home to meet exacting specifications.  He’s willing to talk about anything and everything as long as it deflects from himself showing how sad and alone he truly is.

Trutna also has a wonderful tenor voice and uses it to fullest effect in “Edges of the World” where he finally takes a hard and honest look at himself.

In the case of Sasha Denenberg, big things really do come in small packages.  The theatre barely contained this little dynamo’s talent and energy and she gives a remarkable performance as Small Alison.  She is ever so much the imaginative child who wants to play airplane with her dad and draw cartoons.  And yet she shows wisdom beyond her years as she knows she’s different from other girls with her desire to wear pants and shirts, let her hair be wild, and her fascination with women shown when she humorously belts out “Ring of Keys” when she sees “a classic butch” for the first time.

Analisa Peyton creates a delightful coming of age character with Medium Alison.  Ms Peyton wonderfully essays Alison as she makes that awkward transition from childhood to adulthood as she enters college.  Along with the struggles of making the grade and making new friends, she believably wrestles with her burgeoning sexuality until she happily comes to terms with it in “Changing My Major”.  Then she just as easily plays the nervousness of sharing this truth with her parents as well as the shock of learning the truth about her father.

Through all of this looms the presence of Adult Alison as played by Angie Heim.  Ms Heim is spellbinding as she narrates the tale, makes wry and honest observations about herself and her family, or simply stays in the background reacting to her memories.  Ms Heim does a sensational job building to Alison’s epiphany about her relationship with her dad and the peace and sorrow that epiphany brings her.  Ms Heim also has a wide vocal range as she seems to be a natural alto who easily jumps to soprano when the need arises.  Her magnificent voice gets the night’s most thought provoking number, “Telephone Wire”.

Jim Othuse has crafted a small, but simple set of the Fun Home’s music room that evokes a real sense of elegance and is further enhanced by Darin Kuehler’s props of piano and antiques.  Othuse’s lights are also very emotional.  They change with the feelings of the characters from happy pink to melancholic blue to depressed black.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes not only capture the appearance of the real Alison Bechdel with Adult Alison’s glasses, shirt, and pants, but also the clothes of yesteryear with the late sixties style clothing of the Bechdel family and the 70s style outfits of “Raincoat of Love”.  Courtney Stein provides some clever choreography especially with “Come to the Fun Home”, a song and dance routine so fun and funny that I may come back again just to watch it.  John Gibilisco and Tim Burkhart team up to craft some subtle sounds to drive the tale, especially the sound of night traffic in New York City.  Jennifer Novak Haar and her orchestra bring their A game to the score adding crucial zip and pizzazz.

The Playhouse has kicked their latest season off with a red hot production and it is well worth your while to see it.  You’ll laugh.  You might cry.  But you won’t have a bad time.  Come to the Fun Home.

Fun Home plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 16.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets range from $24-$50 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 402-553-0800 or visiting www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  This show contains strong language and mature themes and is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

The Death of Innocence

A group of youths in provincial Germany experience the thrill of their emerging adulthood and the pain of losing their childhood innocence.  This is Spring Awakening with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik based off of Frank Wedekind’s original play of the same name.  It is currently playing at the UNO Theatre.

I’m not familiar with Wedekind’s original play, but have read praise for Sater remaining reasonably faithful to the original work.  Wedekind’s tale poses some very challenging ideas and themes that still resonate today.  The theme of emerging adulthood takes the form of their sexual awakening and the youths are thrilled and unnerved by the changes taking place within them.  However, this awakening comes at a price.

The change into adulthood comes at the cost of their innocence and hope.  Even worse, they are ill equipped to handle these changes due to a society of adults which refuses to educate and help them cope with these changes.  Instead they label the youths’ burgeoning desires as evil and hypocritically hide their own evil and cruelty to maintain a world that suits their vision.

Sater does a fine job updating Wedekind’s work for a modern audience and Sheik has written a punchy score full of catchy, memorable tunes.

It’s unusual to see two directors at the helm of a show, but Doran Schmidt and Wai Yim do quality work in guiding this musical.  Clearly both are on the exact same page with their vision, fusing their unique talents to create a strong show.  Their performers know what they are doing with their roles and where they are going.  Ms Schmidt’s musical direction is spot on and Yim’s gift for designing movement keeps this story going as there is never a static movement.  The actors make full use of the performance space in an effortless and unceasing flow of movement and action.

The supporting cast is skilled and unified.  They harmonize well.  They play well off each other.  All manage to find the ebbs and flows and the humorous and serious moments of the production.  But I’d like to single out Bethany Bresnahan for a memorable cameo performance as Ilse.  Ms Bresnahan’s Ilse is the lone character who seems to retain her childhood innocence as she transitions into adulthood.  She had a dynamic presence, beautiful animation, and a haunting sequence in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind”.

Ryan McCann is wonderful as Melchior.  McCann well plays the duality of this character as Melchior is both the angel and the devil.  He is a playful, intelligent wit and loyal friend.  But he also has the makings of a fiend within him with his whipping (albeit requested) and possible raping of a childhood friend.  Truly, he seems to be the character in the most danger of becoming part of the cruel, hypocritical society he lives in until he finds the strength to overcome it with a little help from his spiritual friends.

McCann’s tenor was in fine form all night.  His voice captured all of the important nuances both musically and orally.  He especially shone in “The Guilty Ones”, “Those You’ve Known”, and the night’s best number, “Totally F@!#ed”.

Seldom have I felt the kind of empathy for a character as I did for Nick Jansen’s Moritz.  Moritz has pressures on him that few adults could be expected to handle, let alone a child.  His parents demand perfection from him.  He studies beyond the point of exhaustion.  He’s uncomfortable with his new “sticky dreams”.  Jansen does superior work in communicating the ever mounting weight on Moritz’s shoulders until he collapses under the pressure.  Jansen also has a fine tenor and falsetto best utilized in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” and “And Then There Were None”.

Roni Shelley-Perez soars as Wendla.  Wendla may be the show’s most tragic character as her innocence makes her truly childlike.  An overprotective mother refuses to help her understand her transition into adulthood.  Her safe lifestyle has rendered her unable to feel, pushing her to request to get whipped by Melchior so she can empathize with a classmate who is routinely beaten by her father.  Due to her safety and immaturity, Wendla simply does not know how to protect herself and those who should protect her fail utterly.

Ms Shelley-Perez brilliantly essays the confusion and innocence of Wendla.  I was especially impressed with her facial expressions during her moment of intimacy with Melchior which left it beautifully ambiguous as to whether or not it was rape.

Ms Shelley-Perez can also belt out a tune with a monstrously strong soprano in “Mama Who Bore Me” and “The Word of Your Body”.

Steven Williams has designed a simple, yet imposing set of black pillars and balcony with chalk drawings all over it.  Audrey Wardian’s lights were incredible with strobe flashes and emotional colors which were all variations of the rainbow leading to subtler shades of meaning.  Valerie St Pierre Smith’s costumes invoked the sedate elegance of 19th century school uniforms and clothing.

At this preview night performance, the cast started off a bit hesitantly and quietly.  Once they reached “Totally F@!#ed” they were firing on all cylinders and the theatre was overflowing with their confidence and I do believe they are on to something quite magical.  Sound also suffered a touch from either microphone issues or dead spots on the stage.

Growing up is hard to do, especially when there isn’t an instruction book or a person with experience to lend a helping hand.  Spring Awakening does a dandy job in sharing the difficulty and pain of growing up, but it also leaves a glimmer of hope that the current generation will fix the mistakes of the previous.

Spring Awakening plays at the UNO Theatre in the Weber Fine Arts Building through Dec 2.  Showtimes are 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays.  Tickets cost $16 (a 2nd preview night performance on Nov 16 will be $6).  UNO students can attend the show for free.  For tickets, call 402-554-PLAY or visit www.unomaha.edu/unotheatre.  Due to strong language and sensitive themes, Spring Awakening is not suitable for children.  The UNO Theatre is located at 6001 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

Pretty Powerful Poison

Molina and Valentin are as different as night and day.  Molina is a flamboyant homosexual imprisoned for corrupting a minor.  Valentin is a young revolutionary full of piss and vinegar.  Yet an unlikely friendship grows between them which will be tested by a cruel warden.  And over all of this looms the specter of the Spider Woman in Kiss of the Spider Woman currently playing at the Barn Players.

Turning Manuel Puig’s heavily dramatic novel into a musical is certainly a tall order.  But Terrence McNally’s script combined with the incredible score of John Kander and Fred Ebb and the amazingly talented cast of the production makes for much much more than an effective musical.  It makes for one of the best shows I’ve seen in over 20 years of being involved with theatre.

Eric Magnus doesn’t miss a trick with a masterful piece of direction.  The staging is the strongest I’ve ever seen with Magnus’ cast making full use of Doug Schroeder’s simple and beautiful set of bars and stairs.  Magnus has pulled nearly perfect performances out of his entire cast and decisively navigates the multiple twists and turns of the plot with pinpoint accuracy.

Rarely have I seen a nuanced performance the likes of the one supplied by Joell Ramsdell as Molina.  As Molina, Ramsdell is unabashedly and unashamedly gay.  But his flamboyance covers a desperate loneliness.  All he wants is a friend.  He survives the hell of this prison by escaping into fantasy.  He thinks of his mother.  He fondly recalls the numerous movies he’s seen.  He remembers lavish musical numbers with his favorite actress, Aurora.  But he fears Aurora’s character of the Spider Woman who is Death incarnate and that character he often sees in his daily life.

The depth and range of Ramsdell’s acting is truly astonishing.  Starting off as a coward, he shows small signs of strength as he helps Valentin survive his imprisonment.  A strength that grows as his friendship with Valentin blossoms.  This leads to some of the show’s best scenes as Ramsdell shows the intense agony of a man forced to choose between his friend and his mother before making a choice that shows the meaning of courage.

Ramsdell also has a fabulous tenor which he adapts easily to comedy in “Dressing Them Up” or heart-wrenching drama in “Mama, It’s Me”.

Paul Brennan III matches Ramsdell step for step with his stirring rendering of Valentin.  Valentin is an angry revolutionary who fully believes in his cause and wants nothing to do with his new cellmate at first.  As he slowly accepts Molina’s friendship, Brennan beautifully evolves his character to show him capable of love, humor, and a bit of shocking Machiavellism.  Up until the end of the show, Valentin’s cause and desires still are the most important things in his life and he manipulates Molina’s feelings for him with an act that is both tender and selfish to get him to do what he wants.  But Molina’s choice at the play’s climax finally pushes Valentin to look beyond himself.

Brennan’s tenor will make your insides turn to jelly with a velvet voice that effortlessly knocks emotional pitches out of the park with numbers such as “Marta”, “Anything for Him” and “The Day After That”.

JC Dresslaer gets the show’s most interesting character in the form of Aurora/Spider Woman.  She’s mostly a fictional character in this world whose purpose is to help Molina, later Valentin, maintain sanity in the nightmare world in which they live.  But this allows her to do some brilliant character acting as she portrays Aurora’s various characters.  Most notably a wild rumba number (“Gimme Love”) to close out Act I and a hilarious piece of melodrama complete with over the top Russian accent to open Act II.

But Ms Dresslaer’s character of the Spider Woman haunts the world of the show with a most eerie reality and finality.  Dressed in a simple black dress, the Spider Woman exudes menace and, dare I say, gentleness with every appearance.  Yes, her appearances mean death, but she also wants to show that death is not something to be feared.

Ms Dresslaer’s dancing is so silky smooth, it makes all of her musical numbers showstoppers.  She also has a pitch-perfect alto used to excellent effect in “Come” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.

I was extraordinarily impressed with the mileage Emerson Rapp got out of the role of the Warden.  It’s not a big role, but the evil which Rapp imbued into the character made sure the audience was spellbound each time he appeared on stage.  He clearly considers the prisoners animals suitable for torture and murder.  He will do anything and I mean ANYTHING to get what he wants.  Poisonings, beatings, emotional manipulation, bribery. . .it’s all fair game to one of the most insidious characters I’ve seen brought to life on stage.

Paul Secor Morrel and his orchestra deftly handle the varied score with an evening of precise instrumentation.  The costumes of Fran Kapono-Kuzila are well suited to the show from the tattered rags of the prisoners to Molina’s kimono and scarves to Aurora’s numerous costumes for her numbers.  The ensemble cast also stayed in every moment to add crucial life to the story as well as adding strong voices to the chorus.

Musicals often get flak for being shallow on substance, but Kiss of the Spider Woman proves that a musical can be just as challenging and deep as straight theatre if given a chance.  If you love great theatre then you need to go and see this show.  Then you need to tell others to go get a ticket so they can see this show as it deserves a sold out run.

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at the Barn Players through October 2.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 2pm. There will be an Industry Night performance on Sept 26. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID), and groups of 10 or more.  Industry Night tickets will be $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Due to sensitive thematic material and some strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

War for the Heart, War in the Soul

It’s a twist on the love triangle when John takes a break from his boyfriend only to fall for a girl.  Now forced to decide between the two, John finds himself in the middle of a vicious, emotional cockfight between the two loves in his life.  This is Cock by Mike Bartlett and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

I confess to being a little taken aback when I was asked to review a show with such a title as many connotations of the word flew through my mind.  And, yes, this play does utilize multiple definitions of the play’s title from the innocent to the vulgar.  More importantly, this show is also one of the season’s best.

Mike Bartlett has written a whip smart script with dialogue that surges with intensity and compelling characters.  Bartlett leaps straight into the action with little build, but manages to fill in the gaps as he rapidly moves John between his boyfriend and girlfriend until the inevitable confrontation between his two significant others.

Without question, Joshua Mullady’s direction is the finest I have seen this season.  Mullady displayed an intimate understanding of the script with brilliant staging.  Not only is there not a single static moment in the show, but Mullady uses the play’s words to establish the movements of the characters.  As they grow apart, they physically move further from each other.  As they grow closer, they literally move closer and show intimacy.  Mullady has also perfectly cast this show with 4 actors who have pitch perfect chemistry and give nearly flawless performances.  Mullady also designed the beautifully simplistic lights which pulsed with a life of their own as they shifted with the beats of the show.

Joseph Schoborg’s portrayal of John is as haunting as it is powerful.  Schoborg’s John is a complete train wreck of a human being as he struggles to determine who and what it is he wants.  Schoborg’s body language is deadly accurate.  With his failing relationship with his boyfriend, he is stiff-necked with his shoulders up in his ears.  With his burgeoning relationship with his girlfriend, he is relaxed, loose, and tender.  Schoborg also has an incredibly nuanced voice capable of capturing deep frustration and running the gamut to whispering sadness.  The only tiny issues were that Schoborg spoke too quickly at the top of the show and I lost some of his dialogue, but he brought that under control as the play continued.  He also needed to keep his vocal strength up as it was just a hair below where it needed to be.

I was blown away by Eric Grant-Leanna’s interpretation of the nameless boyfriend.  Grant-Leanna gives what may be his best performance with a character he has developed down to the minutest detail.  As M, Grant-Leanna misses no beat as he bounces from lightly teasing John about his lousy cooking, to intense arguments about John’s cheating with a woman, to delivering nasty verbal jabs to the other woman, to nearly begging John to stay with him.  Grant-Leanna’s always spot-on facial expressions greatly added to his brilliant line readings which he enhanced even further with always appropriate gestures.

I was absolutely gobsmacked with Caitlin Staeball’s work as the unnamed girlfriend.  At the show’s start, she sat with the audience watching and reacting to the byplay between John and M.  Jealousy was quite apparent as she glowered at M.  Ms Staeball beautifully maneuvered through the ebbs and flows of her character’s story arc with clear and clean delivery and sure understanding of where she was heading.  Most telling was a scene where she sleeps with John for the first time.  Using just the power of her voice along with Mullady’s stellar lighting, she paints a vivid picture of what is happening without either performer actually doing anything physically.  Her subtle emotional manipulation of John in the climactic confrontation was also a nice piece of character work.  I look forward to seeing Ms Staeball in other roles after this fantastic Omaha debut.

Brent Spencer is very capable in his role as M’s father.  His British accent needed a bit of work, but his interpretation was quite good.  As F, Spencer is clearly devoted to his son and cares a great deal about John as he is quite hurt that John wants to leave his son for a woman.  Spencer also was responsible for some of the night’s more humorous moments as he jousts with John’s girlfriend.

What I found most interesting about the show was that it was not about whether John was gay, straight, or bisexual.  The show’s true tragedy was that John had lost himself.  He didn’t know what he needed in order to be happy and was fearful to take the risk of finding out for himself.  That is a message that will echo profoundly in every person who watches this wonderful dramedy.

Cock plays at SNAP! Productions through March 27.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Tickets cost $15 for adults and $12 for students, seniors, T.A.G. members, and the military.  Thursday night shows cost $10.  This show contains adult situations and extremely strong language and is not suitable for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California St in Omaha, NE.

You’ll Feel this One ‘In The Bones’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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