“It’s all about the money.”–Jeffrey Skilling.
This line aptly describes the Omaha Playhouse’s season premiere Enron. This play is based on the company of the same name, whose fall in 2001 defined corporate greed run amok.
The play is a very bold experiment in that it presents drama with an absurdist take. The story component of the play works very, very well. This is dramatic storytelling that will get you to think, will make you angry, will make you laugh, and will make you shake your heads at those who worship at the altar of cash. The absurd parts of the play are a bit of hit and miss. Velociraptors, blind mice, two headed monsters, and bullying puppets are just some of the oddities making appearances in this show. As peculiar as it may seem, it still manages to stay grounded in reality, thanks to top notch directing from Kimberly Faith Hickman and her troupe of performers.
Enron contains a Greek chorus who deserve a rousing round of applause for their stellar work. Each cast member always stays within the moment and adds unique spices to flavor the performance. Special kudos go out to Danielle Smith and Raydell Cordell III for some brilliant character acting in multiple roles as well as Riley Perez, who is sweet, haunting, and exudes a stage confidence far beyond her years in the role of Jeffrey Skilling’s daughter.
Matthew Pyle admirably carries the load of this play as Jeffrey Skilling, the disgraced CEO of Enron. In Pyle’s capable hands, he manages to imbue a certain charm into Skilling, who is a thoroughly unlikable man. He’s arrogant and not a people person, but he is full of ideas and that is what ultimately dooms him. An avid devotee of mark to market, the theory that companies can define their own profits based on potential future earnings, Pyle’s Skilling builds Enron up to the pinnacle of success on a foundation of hope and belief. However, the grim reality that Enron is not profitable compels Skilling to unethically hide the debt in order to keep the company strong and his pockets lined.
Pyle really gets to shine in Act II as his empire crumbles around him. Pyle’s expressions and nimble nuances beautifully depict the fall of a man who has never known defeat. Even worse, they depict a man so used to being treated as a god, that he truly doesn’t understand what he has done to the mere mortals who worked under him as their life savings evaporate in the midst of Enron’s chaotic collapse.
Chris Shonka matches Pyle’s performance step for step with his epic rendition of Andy Fastow, Enron’s CFO. As unlikable as Skilling is, Fastow is even worse as he is little more than a sycophantic, antisocial, weaselly misanthrope determined to obtain the top financial position at Enron. Shonka is sensational as he portrays Fastow as a less than suave, yet financially savvy man who develops the means to hide Enron’s crushing debt. Shonka easily transitions from supreme confidence to cowardly jellyfish when he sells out Skilling to save his own hide and callously demands to be recognized as a hero for his actions.
Connie Lee is also outstanding as Claudia Roe, a fictitious high powered executive created for the play. Lee’s Roe is not nearly as bad as Skilling and Fastow. She’s more soiled than rotten. Ms Lee presents Roe as a politician, a showman, and a very powerful woman used to getting her own way. Yet she also ingrains Roe with a tender humanity. She really believes in Enron and only wants to make the company strong in its original market of gas and oil. Ironically, her department, which is constantly whittled down after Skilling is named CEO, is the only one to produce a profit.
Paul Schneider gives a shockingly sympathetic and underplayed performance as Kenneth Lay, the founder of Enron. Schneider’s Lay is the least villainous character in the show. He is genuinely a good man whose only crime seems to be trusting Skilling and appears to be completely unaware of the shenanigans going on behind the scenes in his company. But Schneider also subtly plants a hint of doubt into Lay’s complete innocence in Act II when he suggests that he does know that something shady is going on behind the scenes. He simply chooses not to pursue the matter further.
This evening’s performance did have some difficulties with volume and line bobbles, but these did not detract from the wonderful show. Superior directing, sharp acting, a marvelous, sterile set by Jim Othuse, and a neat score by Lindsay Jones make Enron an excellent season premiere for the Omaha Playhouse’s 90th season.
Enron plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 14. Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. The show contains strong language and an adult situation and is not recommended for children. Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students). Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com. The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.