Breaking the Law of the Gun

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“. . .from the moment a girl gets to be full grown the very first thing she learns, when two men go out to face each other only one returns.”—Gene Pitney

One man represents civilization, order, justice.  The other represents violence, repression, darkness.  The one who stands is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Jethro Compton and based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson and is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

If you have ever seen the film version of this story, blank it from your mind.  While a few elements from the original story made it into the movie, it took many liberties in terms of names, characters, and characterizations.  Compton’s script certainly is not without merit.  It has a methodical build to a climax in each act and some compelling interactions.  But it’s also very talky with little action and takes too long to get where it’s going.  Fortunately, on the whole, this cast is able to make the most out of the script’s strengths.

Jeff Horger’s direction is pretty admirable.  His actors give solid to strong performances, the beats are well developed, and he crafts two decidedly chilling scenes with the malevolent Valance.

The supporting cast does a workmanlike job in the performance, bolstered by an especially strong effort from Chris Berger who has quiet dignity as the Narrator and a good turn from Christopher Scott as the useless, but calculating, Marshal Johnson.

Dennis Stessman’s take on Ransome Foster is a rather far cry from the clean-cut hero.  He does have a good heart and courage with his teaching the townspeople how to read and his willingness to stand up to Valance, but he’s actually an unlikable prick on the whole.  It’s obvious he considers himself smarter than the rest of the citizenry of TwoTrees and considers the town dull and backwoodsy.  This duality in nature makes for a rather interesting character study, but I thought Stessman was a little too controlled in his take on Foster.  He did a good job showing Foster’s intelligence and spine, but he had a very tight rein on Foster’s emotions and there were moments that could have been made stronger with some bolder emotional choices.

There’s no subtlety to Sydney Readman’s portrayal of Hallie Jackson, the saloon owner, and that is just right for the character.  Hallie is a no-nonsense, blunt, in your face type of gal in order to survive in the harsh environment of the West and Ms Readman communicates that attitude by getting in the face of people who annoy her and her sharp speech.  But she is also capable of presenting Hallie’s softer emotions and her mourning of the death of a dear friend is one of the play’s most touching moments.

Isaac Reilly fully embodies the role of Bert Barricune.  You can’t help but be charmed by his laconic speech and respect his toughness.  Reilly brings fantastic swagger and confidence to the role and he is every bit the cowboy.  Reilly also has superior comedic timing as he gets some of the play’s best zingers.

Chad Cunningham darn near steals the show as Jim Mosten, Hallie’s jack of all trades.  Nicknamed the Reverend due to his ability to quote the Bible, chapter and verse, Mosten is the illiterate with the photographic memory as he hears something once and never forgets.  Cunningham brings a gregariousness and openness to Mosten that makes him feel like your best friend.  He also brings great bravery to the role as he calmly faces down Liberty Valance in a game of Liar’s Dice at the climax of Act I.

If I had been casting this show I might have overlooked Brennan Thomas for the role of Liberty Valance due to his elegance and I would have been an idiot for doing so.  Thomas brings a calm savagery to the well-read and well-spoken villain, always managing to let just enough of the animal peek through to leave no doubt that anyone he’s talking with is in deadly peril.  Though he only appears in two scenes, the wait is well worth it as the Valance scenes are the best in the show.

I give this play high marks on the technical aspects.  Jim Othuse does it again with his saloon set from the old fashioned wood building to the swinging doors on the center aisle.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are just right from the classy garb of the gentleman Foster to the tomboy working clothes of Hallie to the riverboat gambler look of Valance.  John Gibilisco’s sounds are truly well done, especially the evil music that plays whenever Valance appears.

I thought the energy and cue pickups were lacking a bit in the play’s first act, but this picked up in the second act.  Projection was also an issue, but the cast also managed to largely overcome this difficulty in Act II.

Due to its talky nature, this isn’t your typical western, but it does bring new depth to the battle of good vs evil.  It’s far more than a tale about the hero battling the villain.  It’s a story of civility breaking the law of the gun.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 12.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Parental discretion is advised due to some rough language.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Dodge Street in Omaha, NE.

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A Season Most Short

I had once planned to call this year’s story series “A Season of Renewal”, but life had other ideas as it’s actually become my shortest season in history.

Picking up from our last tale, Lost Boy Found In Whole Foods continued its critical success into that year’s Playhouse Awards.  All of my actors were nominated for acting prizes which certainly made me proud with my first dip into the directing side of things.  We ended up taking home 4 prizes (Best Featured Actor, Best Supporting Actor & Actress, and Best Cameo by an Actress).

Success followed us to that year’s TAG Awards where Lara Marsh took home the Best Director prize in a three way tie.  I’ve laid claim to the left big toe of the statuette.

Broadway World Awards were next on the list where we ended up taking Best Actor, Director, Supporting Actress & Actor, and Best Set Design (Large Theatre).  I truly was blessed to have been involved with such an astounding production.

But for my own little endeavors as a performer, it was a long wait for my next audition.  In fact, my first audition for the season took place only a month ago.  It had been a year and a half since my last audition, the longest amount of time that had ever passed between attempts.

I auditioned for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Omaha Playhouse under the direction of Jeff Horger.  The film version is one of my favorite westerns and it’s a powerful story of a man standing on principle against the law of the gun.

For those of you familiar with the film, the play is quite a bit different than you may expect.  The play more closely resembles the short story with which the film took quite a few liberties.  Characters have different names.  Some characters in the film aren’t present in the play.  The language is a bit stronger.  Valance is considerably more intelligent.  The play is also quite a bit talkier.

My choices were pretty limited.  Originally I had been interested in the roles of Ransome Foster (played by Jimmy Stewart under the name Ransome Stoddard in the film) and Dutton Peabody, the newspaperman (played by Edmund O’Brien in the film).  There isn’t a Peabody character in the play so that went out.  That left me with either Foster or the Marshal.  Valance didn’t enter my mind as I don’t have the look of a stone cold killer.  Foster was even a long shot as most of the characters in the show were supposed to be in their mid twenties.  While I still look younger than I am in the face, my hairline and hair color more readily reveal the truth that I am about to turn 40 in a few months.

From the start, I felt there was something off about this read.  From a technical standpoint, I was pretty solid.  But the spark of my heart simply wasn’t there.  It just felt like I was going through the motions.  For the first time in years, I walked out of an audition without the glimmer of hope that I had a chance and that ended up being the case.  Given that most of the primary cast is in their mid twenties, I take some solace in the fact that even a top flight audition might not have netted me a role.

I actually had my last audition for the season earlier this week.  I received an invitation from Christina Belford-Rohling to audition for Elephant’s Graveyard, the next reader’s theatre production of the Playhouse’s Alternative Programming series.  The play is based on the true story of the lynching of a circus elephant.

I came to the audition and was pleased to see quite a few faces, many of them new to me.  I’ve noted that the reader’s theatre productions tend to bring out quite a few people since there is a lot more flexibility in the casting.

Aside from the brief synopsis, I knew nothing about the play so I was open to any character.  When I read the character, I felt a pull towards the Ringmaster, Clown, and Preacher.

Let me tell you something.  Monday’s audition was the best type of audition.  I read the monologue for the clown and the beats just fell into place.  I walked into the room and nailed the read.  The spark was there and I was truly enjoying myself.

When I finished, Christina said, “Truly excellent.  I want you to try something for me.”

Then she brought out a music stand and had me place the monologue on it.  She then asked me to actually mime juggling and do the last half of the monologue and really make her feel like I loved that elephant at the end.  I had actually envisioned the juggling when I originally read the monologue so this worked out well.

I started juggling and the physicality of it made my read a little more nonchalant.  And I switched up the juggling as I spoke, moving from two hands to one back to two, tossing it under my leg, and catching it behind my back.  I caught my imaginary balls and delivered the love line which could have been taken a smidge farther.

Christina said, “Really excellent.  I don’t think I need to see anymore if that’s all right with you.”  I had no problems with that and went home, content with a good read.

Let me tell you something.  Monday’s audition was the worst type of audition.  Despite an excellent read, I failed to make the cut.  But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the reward is always in the read.  If you read well, you won.  The casting really doesn’t matter.  It’s just the icing on the cake.

Until the next season.

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

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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