In the Garden of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scenic South Dakota: Sioux Falls & Steever House

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Steever House

It was one of those weekends where everything falls into place.  I’m just finishing up a stay at the Steever House in Lennox, SD and my only regret is that I can’t stay for an extra day or two.

But let’s start at the beginning.

It was an absolutely perfect spring day for one of my jaunts.  The sun was bright.  There wasn’t a cloud to be seen.  And the temperature was, mmm, just right.

I hopped into my car and began the drive to the Sioux Falls area of South Dakota where I would be staying at Steever House as well as reviewing Jesus Christ Superstar for the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.

The drive was great and it was nice to enjoy some new scenery as I headed north to South Dakota.  Once I crossed the border into the state, I admit I did a double take when I saw the 80mph speed limit.  Maybe I’ll try the max speed on the empty Sunday roads, but not being used to that type of speed, I kept things to about 75mph.

I arrived in town about 12:30pm.  Regrettably, I was only doing an overnight so I didn’t have the normal time that I usually allow my explorations.  But if I were going to do one thing, it had to be a visit to the town’s namesake falls.  So off I went to Falls City Park.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in a park in my life.  As a testament to the absolutely gorgeous day, families galore were having picnics, exploring the Sioux Falls, riding bikes, and meandering.  Heck, a group was even taking wedding photos there.

The Sioux Falls once powered a hydroelectric plant for the city and you can actually take a self-guided walking tour full of informative tidbits about the falls’ past including the remains of the first hydroelectric plant and mill.

The falls themselves were quite the sight and I found myself mesmerized by the beautiful waterfalls and even saw salmon trying to swim upstream for the first time.  The day was so pleasant that I took a nice shady spot under a tree to catch up on my reading.

About 2:15, I headed over to the small town of Lennox to check into Steever House, owned and operated by John & Sara Steever.  This lovely home is certain to trigger relaxation as it is on a secluded piece of property about ten miles outside of Sioux Falls.

As I pulled into the driveway, I was greeted by John who introduced me to his wife Sara.  He led me to the Dakota Suite, the inn’s newest room and my base of operations for the night.  This is the biggest room I’ve ever had at a B&B and I instantly felt calmer with the room’s soft blue walls and carpeting.  It consisted of a massive bedroom/living room area with a comfortable king sized bed and a couple of plush leather easy chairs set in front a fireplace.  I also had a sitting room and a ginormous bathroom with a whirlpool bathtub.

I had an early dinner reservation so I organized my belongings and drew a bath.  The tub was actually a “smart” tub with a little computer panel to activate the jets and even warm up the water (so I assume as I saw the temperature go up a few degrees during my bath).  I rested my head on the bath pillow and let the jets work their magic.  There was a set of jets shooting water into the small of my back and it felt like a massage therapist knuckling the area.  I could have sat there for an hour or more having the area kneaded.

But since I didn’t have an hour or more, I lingered for as long as I could then got into my suit for dinner and a night of theatre.

I had made dinner reservations at Carnaval Brazilian Grill and, trust me, if you’re in the area, you need to eat here.  Reservations are highly recommended as the place was packed when I got there and it was only 5pm.  Thanks to my reservation, I was immediately led to my table where I ordered a Brazilian cream soda and the famed Rodizio meal.

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Carnaval Brazilian Grill

Brazilian steakhouses are fun because it’s almost like a buffet.  Instead of ordering a standard meal, you get to visit a hot and cold salad bar plus waiters will bring skewers of meat to your table so you can have as much or as little as you want.

This was probably the most in depth and impressive salad bar I have seen with gourmet style vegetables such as champagne soaked onions.  I whipped up a little plate of spinach salad topped with onions, fresh jalapenos, bacon bits, and ranch dressing along with a spoonful of roasted garlic mashed potatoes and caviar medley.

I returned to my table to enjoy my salad, then flipped my tower for the meats.  Brazilian steakhouses give you a disc (or a tower in my case) that is green on one side and red on the other.  When you want some meat, you turn it to green so the waiters will stop by with their skewers and flip it to red when you want a break.  Over the next 90 minutes, I had a sampling of top sirloin, lamb, glazed barbecue pork, and a signature beef marinated in Carnival’s homemade marinade.  That last was the tastiest dish.  I also tasted grilled pineapple basted in cinnamon which was amazing.  Coming from me, that’s something as pineapple is one of the few foods that I genuinely dislike.

I realized I had made a wise choice in having an early dinner as I exited.  Where the restaurant had been packed before, it was now overflowing and spilling out the doors.

From there I hopped into my car and made my way to the downtown area of Sioux Falls which is quite reminiscent of the Old Market area of my hometown of Omaha, NE right down to the lack of parking.  I easily found the Sioux Empire Community Theatre and you are permitted to use most of the empty business parking lots in the area which one-ups Omaha since you now have to pay at the Old Market parking meters during the weekend.

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Sioux Empire Community Theatre

This was one of the best nights of theatre I have experienced.  The theatre is beautiful and it was a sensational production.  You can read my review here.  I even had the pleasure of meeting the theatre’s artistic director Patrick Pope and the show’s director, Eric Parrish.  Patrick told me I’d be welcome back at the theatre any time so I look forward to reviewing more shows at this little jewel.

Then it was back to Steever House for a little writing and a most restful night’s sleep on my bed’s soft mattress.

I felt fully refreshed when I awoke the next morning and went downstairs to enjoy a tasty meal of fruit, granola and yogurt, ham, Dutch baby, and baked apples.  I also had a pleasant conversation with the Steevers and another couple staying at the inn.

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But now it’s back to reality.  But if you’re in the Sioux Falls area, stay a night at Steever House.  It’s comfortable, secluded, quiet, and the hospitality can’t be beat.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Sioux Empire’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Explodes with Awesomeness

His best friend betrayed him.  His followers can’t understand his message.  His Father needs him to die to fulfill his mission.  This is Jesus and this is the story of his last week of life in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, currently playing at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.

There are certain shows that I hold to higher standards due to my affinity for them.  Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows and after the first act, the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production had eclipsed nearly all of my standards.  This show is incredible!!  It’s got tip top acting, stellar singing, inventive choreography, outstanding technical elements, and spot on direction.  This particular production has entered my top 10 of the best shows I’ve seen and my top 3 of the best out of state shows I have reviewed.

Eric Parrish takes on the demanding task of serving as both director and musical director of this show and is superb in both roles.  Parrish’s band (Garret Hansen, Tyson Conn, Trace Mahoney, Royce Kuenzli, and Rod Jerke) starts off red hot and just gets hotter as the night goes on as they never miss a trick or note of this legendary score.  Parrish’s direction is simply a thing of beauty.  He has set the show in a post-apocalyptic society where Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees, and the Romans are depicted as rival gangs which I found positively inspired.  His staging is phenomenal and exhausting.  Static this show is not as his actors hurtle about the stage non-stop.  He also knows how to pull the very best out of his actors as I couldn’t find a weak link in the lot.

The supporting cast does excellent work as they enhance the show with their reactions, but they also acted through the scene changes which was crucial to keeping the show’s energy up.  Standout performances include Dennis Berger as Peter and Devin Basart as Annas.  Berger has a bright, light tenor that I could listen to all day and really shone in “Could We Start Again, Please?”.  Basart is a wonderful bootlicking lackey to the high priest whose operatic tenor soared in “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money”.

Darren Lee’s take on Judas Iscariot has to be seen to be believed.  He presents Judas as a man whose relationship with Jesus has been frayed to the final thread.  He still respects Jesus, but he thinks Jesus is leading them all to their deaths due to his delusions of grandeur of being God’s son.  I loved how he skulked about in the darkness, glaring at Jesus whenever he did something with which Judas disagreed.  So realistic was the tension that I almost thought that Judas was going to slug Jesus at a couple of points.  Lee also ably portrays the regret and guilt of Judas after he betrays Jesus.

Lee also has a monstrously powerful tenor.  His voice is reminiscent of a young Meat Loaf as he belts out power numbers with “Heaven On Their Minds”, “Damned for All Time”, and “Superstar”.

What words could I use to describe Raine Jerke’s rendition of Jesus?  Mind blowing.  Staggering.  Powerful.  Haunting.  Good words to be certain, but they seem to fall short of the true awesomeness of his work.  I was gobsmacked to find out that Jerke has very little acting experience as he has an ease and naturalness equivalent to an actor with years of experience.  His expressions are pitch perfect.  His reactions deadly accurate.  His acting so nuanced as he swings between love for his followers in “Poor Jerusalem” to boiling frustration with them in “The Last Supper” and the extreme agony and fear of his death in “Gethsemane”.  So moving was that last number, that tears welled up in my eyes.

Jerke’s singing voice is astonishing.  His soaring tenor captured every tiny emotional beat of every number and managed to hit the nearly inhuman falsettos required of the role without popping a sweat.

Jenn Evanson Lee is wonderfully sweet as Mary Magdalene.  Her work is admirable as she portrays Mary as Jesus’ most loyal disciple.  Indeed she is the only one who actually tries to give Jesus the comfort and support he needs instead of just taking from him.  She also has a fabulous soprano which ranged from soothingly calm in “Everything’s Alright” to emotionally puzzled as she wrestles with her own feelings for Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.

James Van Oort radiates menace and authority as the high priest, Caiaphas.  This is truly a dangerous man and not someone you want as an enemy.  His deep and mighty bass driving home those points in “This Jesus Must Die”, “Hosanna”, and “Trial Before Pilate”.

I rather liked Rick Weiland’s original take on Pontius Pilate.  His first appearance is the only time we see him without his mask and he is a decent and just man puzzling over his dream about the Nazorean (“Pilate’s Dream).  In all of his other appearances, it’s clear that his authority is in his position as he lacks the confidence to withstand the extreme pressure the Pharisees are putting on him to crucify Jesus.

Neil Simons’ lights were the best I have ever seen in a show.  His lights were almost separate characters enhancing every moment of the show.  I was especially impressed with how they would go red or dark whenever evil seemed to be getting the best of Jesus.  Kathryn Pope’s costumes were amazing.  Keeping with the gang mentality, you had the leather jackets of Jesus’s crew and the suits and sunglasses of the Pharisees.  What I found most intriguing was that every character wore black to symbolize the darkness they were in while Jesus wore an off white shirt showing him as the light of the world.  Tiffany Koppes’ choreography was highly entertaining and inventive, especially her hilarious routine for “King Herod’s Song”.  I also adored Brad Waltman’s crumbling Colosseum set.

There were a few minor glitches in the show.  Some microphone issues cropped up in Act II and a little of the dancing could have been smoother, but these tiny things pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the show.  As the house was nearly full, I suspect a monster hit is on the hands of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.  I heartily recommend getting a ticket before it’s too late.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre through May 21.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com.  The Sioux Empire Community Theatre is located at 315 N Phillips Ave in Sioux Falls, SD.

Sioux Empire Community Theatre Presents ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Jesus Christ Superstar

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Location:  Sioux Empire Community Theatre (315 N Phillips Ave, Sioux Falls, SD)

Performance Dates:  May 5-21 (Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat, 2pm on Sun)

Ticket Prices:  $30

Box Office:  605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com

Description

It seems especially fitting that the first rock opera, created as a concept album at the end of the turbulent ’60s, should have at its center a social and political rebel. Jesus’ meteor-like rise in renown provides, as the title suggests, a parallel to contemporary celebrity worship. As his radical teachings are evermore embraced, Judas increasingly questions the enlightened motives of this new prophet, resulting in betrayal. Christ’s final days are dramatized with emotional intensity, thought-provoking edge and explosive theatricality. Propelled by a stirring score, by turns driving and majestic, satirical and tender, Jesus Christ Superstar illuminates the transcendent power of the human spirit with a passion that goes straight to the heart.

Cast

Raine Jerke as Jesus

Ryan Harr as Judas

Jenn Lee as Mary Magdalene

Rick Weiland as Pilate

James C. Van Oort as Caiaphas

Devin Basart as Annas

Darren Lee as Peter

Paul Ridgway as Simon

Robin Byrne as Herod

Abigail Chapdelaine and Lenora Hintze as the Soul Girls

Ensemble features Tyler Johnson, Dennis H. Berger, Landon Javers, Brandon Tople, Megan Davis, and Cecily Fogarty

Wonderfully Worshipful ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Flies with the Angels

He was laid in an apple crate in Gainesville, GA, baptized in the Chattahoochee River, and lynched for the sins of humanity.  If you think this story sounds awfully familiar, you’d be right.  It is the story of Jesus presented in a countrified fashion in Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz based on works by Clarence Jordan with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin.  It is currently playing in the LRS Theatre at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

While lesser known than some of its contemporaries, I’ve long considered Cotton Patch Gospel to be the best of the Gospel musicals.  Tonight’s production only served to strengthen that belief as Ken Bradbury and his cast and musicians came out with all guns a blazing in the best iteration of this show I have seen in a truly magical night of theatre.

Bradbury carries an unusually heavy load in this show as he served as director, musical director, played several instruments, and essayed a couple of roles too.  His direction is exceptionally sharp with strong staging that makes use of the entire performance space, sometimes even the entire theatre.  He has also led his 2 primary actors to unbelievably nuanced and gripping performances.

His musical direction is virtually flawless as he and his band (Carrie Carls, Barry Cloyd, Rob Killam, Mark Mathewson, and Danny McLaughlin) brought Harry Chapin’s score to bright and colorful life.  Bradbury is also an exceptional actor in his own right, projecting subtle menace as Herod as he calmly orders the bombing of an orphanage in an attempt to kill Jesus and milks a pregnant pause to fullest effect as the oily Governor Pilate.

The band not only supplies the music, but they also sing a great deal of the tunes and become characters in the story at various points.  Rob Killam is cool and smooth with the stand up bass while Mark Mathewson brings a lot of fun with the mandolin.  Danny McLaughlin is not only a great guitar player, but is an incredibly energetic performer whether he was hoofing it across the water before nearly drowning as Simon “Rock” Johnson or raining fire and brimstone on sinners as John the Baptizer.  Though his intentions were pretty spot-on, McLaughlin does need to tighten his internal cues a bit.

I thought the work of Carrie Carls and Barry Cloyd was truly something special.  Ms Carls has a very wide singing range, being a natural soprano who can easily go alto on a moment’s notice.  She was quite adept at picking out the emotional beats of a song, particularly shining as a grieving mother who cannot accept the death of her baby in Mama is Here and bringing a soft jubilance in Jubilation.

Cloyd is a master of the banjo and also shows some good comedic chops of his own as he wrestles with a fish when Jesus tells him he’ll catch a big one if he casts with his left hand.  But his lower tenor voice is his greatest asset best utilized in the melancholic Are We Ready? and the wistful You Are Still My Boy.

As essential as the band and music are to the story, this musical also needs top notch actors to drive the narrative and this show has that needed quality in the forms of Nathan Carls and Greg Floyd.  Both men brought a passion, energy, and animation to their roles that kept me hooked from start to finish and made them astoundingly fun to watch.

Nathan Carls is outstanding as Matthew.  As the play’s narrator, Carls carries the bulk of the show’s dialogue, skillfully navigating its numerous beats.  At one moment he does a little soft shoe because he’s excited about going to Atlanta, in the next he’s the rigid taxman meeting Jesus for the first time, the next heartbreakingly devastated as he relates the story of Jesus’ lynching.  And his expressions. . .so clean and clear.  His disgust at singing Spitball and the aching sadness in his face as he slams a chair to the ground to indicate Jesus’ lynching were highlights of the night.  Carls also possesses a fine tenor voice best featured in the hopeful When I Look Up and the spritely We’re Gonna Love it While it Lasts.

Greg Floyd is an absolutely remarkable Jesus.  He brings an innocence and purity crucial for the Son of God to the role and yet he still manages to exude a quiet confidence and authority that shows he is Lord.  Floyd is also able to capture the heavier moments of Jesus’ mission with equal aplomb.  Some of the play’s best moments occur when his beautiful high tenor voice musically asks, “What does Atlanta mean to me?” in Goin to Atlanta and his haunting request to God that he be able to accomplish his Father’s mission without suffering his vicious death during the Agony in the Rock Garden.

This production also rates strong praise for its technical quality.  Steven Varble’s beautifully simple set evokes the sense of a rural setting with its outline of a ranch house, windmill, and crates. Gene Hinckley’s lights greatly added to the emotional tone of the show with their vibrant colors.

I thought a beat here and there could have been struck differently and the pacing needed some fine tuning at a couple of points, but these minor quibbles were easily overlooked in the overall quality of the play.  My biggest disappointment is that a show this good only gets a 2 week run.  With that being said, I would recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because when the word starts getting out, this show is going to start selling out.

Cotton Patch Gospel runs at the LRS Theatre in the Hoogland Center for the Arts through March 12.  Showtimes are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors and can be obtained by calling 217-523-2787 or visiting www.hcfta.org.  The Hoogland Center for the Arts is located at 420 S 6th St in Springfield, IL.

They Give the Gift of Laughter

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Noah Diaz (above), Jonathan Purcell (left), and Bill Grennan (right) star in The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) at the Blue Barn Theatre.

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas pageant and this is nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas pageant.  This is The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) by Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Once more, the Blue Barn presents a piece of metafiction as Bill Grennan, Noah Diaz, and Jonathan Purcell play embellished versions of themselves trying to salvage the Annual Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant at St. Everybody’s Non-Denominational Universalist Church after a winter storm prevents all of the show’s acts from appearing.  Martin & Tichenor’s script walks a fine line between inspired genius and haphazard mess.  Martin & Tichenor rely on considerably more improvisation and audience participation than I’ve normally seen in scripts of this type.  In the hands of less capable actors and directors this show could easily fall on its face.  Luckily, this show has the benefit of the strong guiding hand of Randall T. Stevens and his trio of gifted comics to make the most out of this spectacle.

Feigning chaos is difficult.  Mimicking that sense of frustration, desperation, and flat out being lost requires a fine touch and Randall T. Stevens provides that touch with confident, surefire direction.  At no point did I doubt that his actors were not making up stuff off the tops of their heads and his staging is quite crafty as his performers make full use of the theatre as they vainly try to cobble together a watchable show.

Bill Grennan is a raging doofus and a hammy overactor.  Those are indeed compliments.  Grennan presents himself as a somewhat naïve waif who loves everything about Christmas, but is pretty oblivious to the world around him.  Whether he’s singing a racist version of White Christmas which goes over his head because he prefers music to lyrics or letting his cohorts hold an excessively long note because he interrupts a song for a speech, Grennan consistently proves himself to not be the brightest bulb on the tree.

The energy Grennan throws out is unbelievable as he maintains a frenetic pace throughout the show as he races about the theatre and especially when he indulges in scene chewing luxury as King Herod in an English panto about the Nativity.  Grennan also has a great light tenor voice as he leads the audience through a unique version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, a terrific medley of Christmas songs, and a rousing version of Jingle Bells.

Jonathan Purcell plays the stick in the mud of the group.  His exaggerated self is an ultra Christian with a pathological fear of Santa Claus and is quite hypocritical with his constant judging of others, referring to Grennan as a pagan, and growing angry when a holiday greeting other than Merry Christmas is used.

Purcell has comedic timing that simply cannot be taught.  He shines as a very Jewish Mary in the Nativity sequence, is quite a strong percussionist playing bells and xylophone in Jingle Bells, slays in a dual performance with Grennan as the Rat King in a miniature ballet version of The Nutcracker, and does an expert job of seeming like he has several rods shoved up his back at all times.

Noah Diaz brings his own strong comedic chops to bear by interpreting himself as a greedy little slob.  For him, Christmas is all about the getting as he pines for high dollar Christmas gifts, tries to steal gifts from a gift exchange, and cons his two friends out of money by pretending to be collecting for the Salvation Army.  Diaz excels in high energy farce especially in a signature number extolling the virtues of Mrs. Claus as he laments about an overall lack of strong women in Christmas.  Diaz does need to keep his projection up as I lost his lines on a few occasions when he dropped his volume.

I give this show an A+ on the technical side of things.  I absolutely loved Martin Scott Marchitto’s simple set of Christmas tree, gifts, and cutouts of Santa, fireplace, and Nativity.  Carol Wisner’s lighting was festive and always apropos to the moments of the show.  Melissa Penkava Koza’s costumes were perfect and outrageously funny, especially a getup for Grennan when he misinterprets gay apparel complete with Juicy shorts and a, ahem, well placed piece of mistletoe.  Craig Marsh does it again with pitch perfect Christmas sounds that hit the mark for the holiday season.

Some of the improvised jokes fizzled and the audience participation scenes will always hinge on how creative and on the ball that particular crowd is, but this rather zany and irreverent show will provide some deep belly laughs and a truly good time at the Blue Barn this holiday season due to the amazingly talented trio running amok.

The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) plays at the Blue Barn through December 18.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Additional performances will be held on Dec 7 and 14 at 7:30pm and at 2pm on December 4 and 17-18.  Please note that performances on Dec 2-3, 9-11, 16 and the 6pm show on Dec 17 are sold out.  Ticket prices are $30 for adults $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, or groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Parental discretion is advised for this production.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  During intermission, stop and visit the Giving HeART’s Tree in the Blue Barn lobby.  The Blue Barn is partnering with ENOA (Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging) to bring a Merry Christmas to the elderly in eastern Nebraska.  A $20 donation to ENOA will allow you to select an ornament from the Giving HeART’s Tree and your $20 will be used to buy gift cards for the elderly in eastern Nebraska.  For some, it will be the only gift they receive.  Please be generous this holiday season.

Matters of Faith

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell which voice is God’s and which is our own wishful self.”—Elizabeth

This quotation is the central theme of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

I don’t get to say this very often, but this show is absolutely perfect.  From top of the line direction, pluperfect acting, a gorgeous church set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, a dandy little choir, and an intelligent script rippling with multifaceted characters and pristine dialogue, this show is nothing but tens.

Lucas Hnath rose to the challenge when he wrote the story of Pastor Paul, a megachurch pastor who rocks the foundation of his congregation when he announces there is no such place as hell from the pulpit.  From that shellshocking declaration, Hnath’s script proceeds to tackle the consequences of that belief.

The power of Hnath’s script is that, aside from asking potent questions about faith, it approaches the subject matter in very non-judgmental fashion.  There is neither rancor nor anger between the characters about Pastor Paul’s extreme change of heart.  There is only confusion, debate, and discussion as the multiple sides try to understand each other or make another see their point of view.  Because of this very wise approach this is a play for everybody from the devout to the uncertain to the non-believer.

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek departs from his recent high energy comedic roles with a subtle, raw, and revealing performance as Pastor Paul which is certain to put him into the running for Best Actor come awards season.  Clark-Kaczmarek’s command of the dialogue is nothing short of astonishing as he delivers his lines with a soft-spoken, nearly hypnotic voice that seems to make every syllable an emotional beat of its own.  Clark-Kaczmarek’s interpretation of Pastor Paul is almost Christlike as he is a man of God who is leading his flock down a radical new path just as Jesus did.  The question is whether he is leading his people to Heaven or to Hell.

Clark-Kaczmarek’s performance is extraordinary as he navigates the many emotional twists and turns Pastor Paul takes on his trek and he does it with such humanness.  Even with Pastor Paul’s new vision, he still wrestles with doubt about the nature, possibly even the existence, of God.

Raydell Cordell III’s performance as Joshua, Pastor Paul’s associate pastor, is a feat of underplayed genius.  Cordell’s Joshua is the hardest hit by Pastor Paul’s new message as he was brought to Jesus by the pastor and believes acceptance of Christ as a personal savior is the one and only way to salvation.  Cordell brilliantly eschews the easy road of anger for a sad and deep disappointment in Pastor Paul.  He openly challenges Pastor Paul’s belief, but does so with an understated frustration which is best exemplified when he and Pastor Paul engage in a debate over interpretation of Bible verses.

Despite his disappointment with Pastor Paul, Cordell also infuses a great loyalty into Joshua’s character.  He never gives up on Pastor Paul, even going so far as refusing to supplant him as lead pastor and sharing a story about the death of his mother in a last ditch effort to convince Pastor Paul he is on the wrong path.  So earnest is Cordell’s performance that one and all will be deeply moved.

Bill Hutson does no wrong with his turn as Jay, an elder in Pastor Paul’s church.  Hutson’s portrayal of Jay is that of a diplomat.  He supports Pastor Paul due to their long friendship, but doesn’t agree with his ideas.  Hutson ably depicts a man who may be on the cusp of losing his faith.  Yes, he does believe in God, but his position on the Board of Directors for the church has had him focused on secular matters rather than spiritual ones and Pastor Paul’s proclamations just may push him away from faith once and for all.

Kaitlyn McClincy rolls a strike in her Blue Barn debut as Jenny, a congregant in Pastor Paul’s church.  Ms McClincy’s performance is as heartbreaking as it is illuminating.  Her Jenny had nothing before she found Pastor Paul’s church.  Divorced and broke, she found salvation, aid, and family with Pastor Paul.  In a heart-wrenching monologue which will have tears falling, Ms McClincy talks about having a faith so fervent that she tithed 20% of her meager earnings because she loved God so much and believed in Pastor Paul so much.  When she vocally wonders whether all of Pastor Paul’s good words were simply part of an elaborate con game, my heart shattered for her.

Jill Anderson provides a unique twist on the role of the minister’s wife with her portrayal of Elizabeth.  Ms Anderson’s Elizabeth does not meekly follow her husband down his rather difficult road.  She is strong.  She is smart.  And she does not accept her husband’s new way of thinking.  Ms Anderson gives the audience some interesting food for thought with Elizabeth’s logical argument about the inequality of her marriage with Pastor Paul as he always kept her in the dark about his questions, fears, and messages and is mesmerizing when she is willing to try to save the church by countering Pastor Paul’s message in her own Bible study group.

Susan Clement-Toberer may have topped herself with her direction of this piece.  The staging is magnificent.  The pacing of the story is rock solid.  The coaching of her actors is of championship caliber and she smoothly moves from beat to beat to beat, making the most out of each and every moment.

The Christians is the epitome of transformative theatre.  This show is going to give you a lot to think about.  Wherever you lie on the spectrum of belief in God, your beliefs are going to be challenged and that is a gift only the best theatre can grant you.  As two shows are already sold out, be certain to get a ticket as tonight’s nearly full house is an indicator of the monster hit this show will be.

The Christians plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through April 17.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Easter Sunday (March 27) and the March 26 and April 2 shows are sold out.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit the Blue Barn website at www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.