Seasons of Returning to My Roots

“When are we going to see you on stage again?”

You’d be surprised at how often I’ve heard that question recently.

“The next time I audition” is what I would like to say, but, as my regular readers have learned, we actors have very little control over when we get our next role.

“When a role I want intersects with a director seeing me in said role,” might be a little closer to the mark, but I still don’t think it’s the right answer.  It’s also a mouthful to say.

I have the answer, but I’ll wait until the end to reveal it.

It’s been a while since I’ve had enough tales built up to merit writing an entry, but this season and the close of last season have provided some pretty interesting fare.

It began late last season with auditions for One Man, Two Guvnors over at the Omaha Community Playhouse and guest directed by Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek.

This is a modern day rewrite of A Servant of Two Masters and tells the story of Francis Henshall, a minder (British slang for bodyguard), lackey, and all around gofer for two criminals and his desperate shenanigans to prevent the two bosses from ever meeting.

There was only one role I really wanted in this show and that was Alan Dangle, a wannabe actor who is constantly on and a pretty poor performer to boot.  With a lot of Omaha’s finest auditioning for this one, I figured there would be a lot of good playing around at this audition.

While that may have been true, it simply wasn’t going to be true for me.  My instincts were on target.  A sad pity that my execution was not.  The vision in my head did not match the interpretation coming out of my mouth.  I had stumbled getting out of the gate and never managed to regain lost ground.

I didn’t even hold a faint glimmer of hope about this one.  I actually had a weird sense of satisfaction being able to look into a mirror and saying, “Hey, buddy.  That one was all on you” after I got the rejection.  After years of being rejected for reasons other than my prowess, it was almost refreshing to know I was the cause of my own downfall.

Then came this season.  My defeat in One Man, Two Guvnors was a return to my roots in the wrong way albeit an oddly satisfying wrong, but now I was getting back to the right way with the most auditions I had done in quite a long time.

I would begin with the OCP’s season premiere of Sweat which would be guest directed by Susie Baer-Collins.

Sweat is inspired by the story of Reading, Pennsylvania.  This steel mill town went from being one of the most prosperous in the country to one of the poorest due to the Great Recession.  The play focuses on the employees of a steel mill and the bar where they enjoy hanging out.  The steel mill employees are lifers looking towards fat pensions at their retirements.  When the recession strikes, the employees go from looking at lucrative pensions to unemployment.  As things go from bad to worse, tensions rise and racism rears its ugly face until the show’s devastating conclusion.

Now this sounded like a great show.  But I was up against stiff circumstances.  There were only roles for 2 Caucasian actors and I fell right in between their ages.  The younger one was completely out of the question.  Even with my unusually youthful features, my hair and hairline were going to put me out of the running.  However, I hoped they might prove helpful in playing the older man who was suggested to be in his fifties, but I was hoping that maybe he could be bought as a man in his mid to late 40s at a push.

That idea was quickly blasted when I read the line that stated he had been on the floor for 28 years before an injury ended his mill career.  I still had fun with the read as it was a different character from my real personality:  rougher and coarser.  I think I even stunned Susie a bit with my take as she looked at me with a surprised look in her eyes as she walked me out of the room and said, “Good job!” with a bit of wonderment in her voice.

To no shock at all, I wasn’t cast.

Next on my list was the Blue Barn Christmas show, A Very Die Hard Christmas which would mark my first audition with the theatre and Susan Clement-Toberer in five years.

Believe it or not, I have never seen Die Hard in its entirety, though I have seen enough of it to know the story.  Not that it mattered because the character I wanted to play was original to the script and that was the Narrator.

Imagine a role where you just rattle off variations of Twas the Night Before Christmas, sing at inappropriate moments, and just react to the lunacy going on around you while being somewhat separate from it.  This would be a role of great fun.

Even better, the Blue Barn was planning something a bit different this time.  Not only did they want you to sign up for an audition time, but they were encouraging actors to bring monologues.  At last!!  The moment for which I had been waiting.

I’ve long kept a secret weapon for just this opportunity.  A monologue from one of my favorite plays that’s guaranteed to make any director who knows me see me in a brand new way.  To make sure the monologue would be in top form, I revealed the weapon to my friend and ace director, Lara Marsh, who spent an afternoon helping me to polish and refine it.  I was even amazed by the new discoveries made during the process.

The day of the audition arrived and I was practically bursting with excitement though I kept a cool exterior.  I arrived in plenty of time for my 3pm audition which allowed me to engage in some small talk with friends and acquaintances and then the auditions started.  Though I had been expecting to read at 3pm, I didn’t actually get to read until 4:10pm.  But the extra time gave me an opportunity to run through my monologue again and center myself.

When I was on deck to audition, I was handed a side for the Narrator by Blue Barn’s dramaturg, Barry Carman.  I was surprised as I thought they wanted monologues.  But I figured I’d be asked about it once I got inside.

I entered the theatre and met a group consisting of Susan, Susie Baer-Collins, Barry, and Hughston Walkinshaw who would be playing the role of Hans Gruber in the play.  I nailed the read to the floor, managing to infuse a bit of my sheepish humor into the character.  Susan said, “That was really awesome, Chris (pause as she thinks for a moment).  I may or may not be having callbacks for this one.  But you know how things run here and you know I know you” before thanking me for coming.  For a brief moment, I thought I should ask if she would like to hear the monologue, but I pushed it aside, deciding that the idea must have been scrapped.  I was happy with my read and thought I had a good chance based on its strength.

In hindsight, I wish I had obeyed my instinct.

That Friday, I had a thoroughly wretched day.  I mean it was foul!  When I got home, I started to open my mailbox and stopped.  I just had this terrible notion that my day was about to end on an awfully sour note.  I told God that I feared my rejection was in there and asked if it were possible to please hold off for one day if I was rejected just so I could end the day somewhat easier in mind.

I opened the mailbox and saw one letter.  I grabbed it and slowly turned it to face me to see the Blue Barn stationery.

I exhaled a mighty sigh.  I really didn’t want to open the envelope, but did in the faint hopes that maybe it would be a personalized rejection to help cushion the blow.  It wasn’t.

“That’s it.  I’m going to bed,” I thought to myself.

I admit it.  This one got to me.  I really wanted to be part of this project and thought I had a good chance of being involved and the rapidity of my defeat got me in the breadbasket.  As I laid down on my bed, I wondered what might have happened had I brought up the monologue.  Getting to perform it may not have altered the result.  Heck, I may not have even been permitted to read it. But, in either case, at least I would have known that I had my biggest and best bite at the apple as dictated by the circumstances.  On the plus side, I do have it in my back pocket for the future.

My next audition (more than likely, my last of the season) was a real return to my roots.  It marked my first audition for the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company in. . .I couldn’t tell you how long.  It also marked my first audition for Scott Kurz since he originally read me for Dracula all the way back in 2003.

BSB’s holiday show was going to be a night of one acts capped with an original version of The Monsters are Due on Maple Street which was being reimagined by Scott.  I was looking forward to this one as I’m a big fan of the works of Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone.

My audition night came and I was up for the game and feeling good.  I shook Scott’s hand and began filling out the audition form.  As I scanned the top, I did a double take.  I looked away and blinked.  Then I looked at the form again.

According to the website the show was supposed to end on December 15, but the form said the last day was going to be Dec 22.  I asked Scott if the dates had been changed.  He said there had been an issue scheduling the show with the venue holding it and it had to be pushed back a week.  Internally, I crumbled.  I had to sheepishly admit that I had to fly out to Phoenix at 8am on Dec 22.  Scott seemed just as bummed as I felt.  I offered to stay as an extra body so Scott could have another reader and he thought that was a good idea.

With no stakes to speak of, my reads lacked the full power of my heart.  Not to say they were bad.  On the contrary, technically I was solid.  There were a few characters that didn’t feel quite right, but I loved my takes on Tommy who I reimagined as an autistic man and as the mysterious boss figure to whom I gave a quiet malevolence and a slight edge of insanity.

Scott had said he’d send e-mails out by the end of the week, but it ended up being two weeks later.  A lot had changed in that interim as Scott had informed us that The Twilight Zone was experiencing another burst in popularity and ten classic episodes were being released to the big screen in November, one of which was “Monsters”.  As such, CBS would not release performance rights.

Scott spent that two weeks searching for a new show and found it, but wanted to ask if actors still wanted to be part of it.  Due to my inescapable conflict, I formally took myself out of the running though I suspect my conflict had outed me anyway.

And so my season has come to an end.  It didn’t quite work out the way I planned, but it did open the doors to pleasurable non-theatre activities that would not have been possible had I been doing one of the Christmas shows.  And, of course, it raises the question:

“When are we going to see you on stage again?”

When the time is right.

‘Sweat’ing Bullets

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From left to right, Laura Leininger-Campbell as Tracey. Brandon Williams as Chris. Josh Peyton as Jason. Kathy Tyree as Cynthia.

A steel mill in Reading, PA begins to shut down.  Suddenly lifelong employees set to retire on fat pensions are facing joblessness with no nest egg and no hope.  As their very survival is threatened, friends become enemies, latent racist and xenophobic tendencies take over minds, and a mountain of emotional kindling is laid that only needs one small spark to set off a raging conflagration.  This is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and it has kicked off the latest season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

There is certainly nothing subtle about Nottage’s script.  From the very beginning, it grabs the viewer by the throat and gleefully paintbrushes her or him for the better part of 2 ½ hours.  The play is chock full of devastating themes such as betrayal, racism, xenophobia, entitlement, corporate greed, depression, and the danger of having one’s sense of self defined solely by a job.  It also skillfully presents a mindset that demonstrates just how our political climate might have reached its current volatile state without making any judgment calls.

From an actor’s perspective, this show is a treasure trove.  Every character is unique and well-defined.  It is truly an ensemble piece with each character getting a moment in the sun and no true leading role.  With a perfectly cast group of magnificent talent, OCP’s season gets an explosive start with a drama for our time.

Susan Baer-Collins returns to the Playhouse to direct this powerful piece.  Her knowledge of the story is deep and certain which allows her to fully explore every beat and help each performer realize his or her fullest potential and become fully formed and realistic persons.  The staging is pretty strong for the most part with the actors making full use of the performance space and constant movement to animate the dialogue.  However, the performance space of the Howard Drew is a bit of a mixed blessing as its intimacy is crucial to pulling the audience in, but the way the characters have to interact makes it difficult to play to the entire audience at various points.

In a night of outstanding interpretations, a stellar performance is provided by Emmanuel Oñate who makes an excellent debut as Oscar, a likable young man trying to make his way in the world who draws the ire of locked out steel mill workers due to the double whammy of his crossing the picket line and the perception that he is stealing work from “real” Americans due to his Hispanic heritage.  Thomas Becker also shines as Stan, the manager of the local bar who serves as a sounding board to everyone’s issues and also acts as a voice of reason to the burgeoning turmoil bubbling up from the plant’s lockout.  L. “James” Wright gives a tragic performance as Brucie whose sense of identity was completely wrapped up in his job.  Robbed of his ability to provide, he sinks into a deep abyss of depression and addiction.

Kathy Tyree is a geyser of talent with her rendition of Cynthia.  Tyree’s Cynthia is a rock and tough as nails.  She is the friend who will have your back no matter what, but also knows when to draw the line as she has to keep her husband, Brucie, at arm’s length while he battles his personal demons and refuses to take any garbage from her friends after winning a promotion to warehouse supervisor that has her perceived as one of “them” due to a combination of jealousy and things going south at the mill.  What I liked best about Tyree’s take is that she never made an obvious choice or reaction.  She was so extemporaneous, it was almost as if she was writing her own dialogue on the spot as opposed to reciting learned lines.

Laura Leininger-Campbell is a firecracker as Tracey.  Tracey strikes me as a person who isn’t easy to friend, but, if you manage to do so, you have a friend for life.  She is brusque, mouthy, and has a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.  She can also be fiercely loyal, but watch out if you cross her as she holds grudges.  Leininger-Campbell is incredibly effective as this complex character.  She well communicates Tracey’s latent racism that gains strength when she loses a promotion and is further fueled by Oscar’s crossing of the picket line.  Leininger-Campbell is particularly mesmerizing in two scenes.  One where she is arguing with Cynthia and manages to convey the sense that she loves and hates her simultaneously with her on the dime emotional beat changes.  And a second where the show leaps into the future and she is having a conversation with her estranged son, Jason, and seems to age years before your eyes with pure body language that seems to bow her back, make lines appear on her face, and add a few pounds.

Josh Peyton succeeds with his handling of the role of Jason.  Arguably, this may be the show’s most difficult character to play due to the two widely different personalities he has depending on when the show is in the past or the present.  Peyton gives past Jason a happy go lucky personality.  He’s a pretty decent guy who doesn’t give much thought to tomorrow and just likes having fun, though he does exhibit some of the personality traits and thinking of his mother, Tracey.  Present Jason is an angry, bitter, potentially violent man whose facial tattoos suggest that he might have been part of a white supremacist group.  Peyton not only does good work in playing the two variations of his character, but he also succeeds in showing the transition from one to the other and planting the seed that past Jason’s good qualities may overpower his present’s darkness.

Brandon Williams has a dandy debut as Chris.  This is the play’s most positive character as he is a good man in both past and present.  Williams has a great likability as Chris who is good to his parents, a hard worker, and has a plan for his life all mapped out.  His one weakness is that he might be too loyal to Jason as that loyalty leads him into a truly bad moment in the past.  In the present, Chris is an even better man who has found Jesus and now shares that faith to bolster others and gives him the strength to right some past wrongs and to try to have closure with Jason.  In the present, Williams exudes a confidence granted by faith and well executes the determination to correct a past error even while he clearly feels guilt and embarrassment over it.

Jim Othuse has designed a nice little local bar that is clean, welcoming, and comfy and is further enhanced by the properties of Darin Kuehler whose bottles of liquor and hanging chips make it feel like a real hangout.  Othuse has also well lit the production especially with his use of darkness and light.  The past was always bright and got a little darker as things went bad and the present is shrouded in darkness until a literal light of hope at the end.  John Gibilisco brings some great sounds especially the creepy effect as present transitions to past and the use of a TV showing news footage of the day when our country slid into the Great Recession.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are quite realistic with the work overalls, the everyman clothes of the working class, and the somewhat poorer garb of the present version of some of the characters.  Timothy Vallier provides a sad and moving score.  I did think a fight scene could have used a bit more speed and a crucial moment needs to be cleaner as I wasn’t sure exactly what happened until the final moments of the show.

Sweat is definitely a play for our time.  You won’t be able to turn your eyes away from it and it might give you a better idea of how we reached our present state of affairs.  And understanding the past is always the first step to making a better tomorrow.

Sweat plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

These Sisters Got Soul

Struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder.  To protect her until the trial, Deloris is placed in a convent under the guise of Sister Mary Clarence.  Her antics and personality bring her into conflict with the staid, old school Mother Superior as well as inspires the other nuns to get their Jesus on by jazzing up their lousy and archaic singing.  This is Sister Act written by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  It is inspired by the hit comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg.

The singing and dancing are worth the price of admission on their own.  Menken’s peppy music is enhanced by another stellar performance from Jim Boggess (who also has a nice cameo as Pope Paul VI) and his orchestra who deftly handle the 70s style soul and gospel rock score.  Melanie Walters surpasses herself with choreography that was original, perfectly precise for the show’s era, and utterly flawless.  No dancer missed a step and they were so skillful and smooth, you’d think you were watching a professional troupe.

Kimberly Faith Hickman nails her debut as the Playhouse’s Artistic Director to the floor with her directorial work for this piece.  Scene changes were smooth as silk.  The energy of the cast was sky high.  She managed to cull the very best work out of her performers from the experienced veterans to the fresh newbies and misses nary a beat in her coaching.

Ms Hickman’s directing is especially impressive as the script did not give her a lot to work with.  I’m not sure what the Steinkellners were thinking when they wrote this show, but they took the story of the movie and shaved it to its barest bones.  Important supporting characters had their roles cut to next to nothing and so much of the story was stripped away that the show’s second act is, more or less, a sung through musical with just a touch of dialogue here and there.  For those who know the movie and are expecting rocked up hymns, expel that notion.  None of those songs are in the play.

Zhomontee Watson stuns as Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence.  In Act II, she is everything that you’d expect Deloris to be.  She’s got sass, swagger, and razzmatazz.  She also does a nice job showing Deloris’ transformation from diva loner to soul sister.  Ms Watson has a really strong alto voice which she uses well in “Take Me to Heaven” and in a fine dramatic turn in “Sister Act”.  Now Ms Watson just needs to do all the things she did in Act II and move it to Act I.

Likely due to opening night nerves, Ms Watson was a little slow getting out of the gate.  Her diction was a bit mushy and she needed to project more.  But that improved markedly as her confidence grew and had mostly vanished by Act II.  I’d also suggest for her to be even bigger and take things just a little bit farther in her interpretation of the role.

Even with some time to think, I’m not sure how I feel about Judy Anderson as the Mother Superior.  Not that she was weak.  From a technical standpoint, her work was quite solid.  Her own alto voice did justice to showing Mother Superior’s fears about the world in “Here Within these Walls” and her frustration with Deloris shaking up the convent in “Haven’t Got a Prayer”.  But something about her character seemed off.  As an old schooI nun, I thought the role needed to be more of a straight man and it seemed too jokey and I’m not sure if the problem lies in the writing or the acting choices, but I tend to lean towards the former.

Brian Priesman milks the role of Curtis for everything that it’s worth.  As Deloris’ gangster boyfriend, Priesman is a bullying brute who easily cows his underlings.  Priesman’s diction and projection are of excellent quality and his light tenor easily handled the show’s best number “When I Find My Baby” with just the right touch of grim humor.

Marcel Daly does a pretty serviceable job as Eddie, the police officer who protects Deloris.  He needs to loosen up a bit as some of his dialogue sounded stiff and memorized, but he did have a nice meekness to him.  He also fakes bad dancing really well in “I Could Be That Guy” which is also strengthened by his beautiful tenor.

The supporting cast does terrific work in bolstering the story by always staying within the thick of the action.  Special notice goes to Sally Neumann Scamfer who is delightfully acidic and acerbic as Sister Mary Lazarus and Sara Mattix who is just so sweet and innocent as Sister Mary Patrick.  But I want to stand up and bow to Justin Eller, Jonathan Smith, and Adam Fulbright who steal every scene that they are in as Curtis’ lackeys Joey, TJ, and Pablo.  Their comedic timing is spot on.  Their dancing is so effortless.  And I was extremely pleased by the falsetto work of Smith and Fulbright.

I think the light and scenic work of Jim Othuse for this show ranks among his best.  I loved the gorgeous church interiors with its wood textures and the red light district of Philadelphia.  Georgiann Regan should be proud of her costumes especially the performing habits of the nuns.

I’d highly recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because the Playhouse has another hit on its hands as evidenced by a nearly full house for this preview night performance.  Any shortcomings in the story are more than overcome by the songs and presentation and you’ll want to get your praise on before the night is done.

Sister Act plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through October 16.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Wednesday night shows are $32 for adults and $20 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.