Age in the Cage

Ladies and gentlemen!  This is it.  The battle for the heavyweight championship of the room.  In the house right corner, wearing the muted colors, she is known as the Brooding Brawler. . Abby!!!!  Her opponent, fighting out of house left, wearing the light, bright colors, she is called Sinfully Sweet. . .Marilyn!!!  And now. . .LET’S GET READY TO RIPCORD!!!!!!!! at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Ripcord tells the story of two senior home roommates who mix about as well as oil and water.  Curmudgeonly Abby is used to having the room to herself and cannot stand her new perky roommate, Marilyn.  When Marilyn claims never to get angry and Abby claims never to get scared, the two ladies make a bet.  If Abby angers Marilyn, then Marilyn will move to a different room.  If Marilyn scares Abby, she gets Abby’s bed by the window.  The result is an escalating war of pranks between the two women as they pull out all the stops to win the bet.

Lindsay-Abaire has written a clever script reminiscent of The Odd Couple with the exception that the two main characters are not friends, giving their interactions a bit more of an edge.  The script moves quite fast and is seasoned with hot zingers, sautéed with some well placed over the top moments, has a dash of drama and sensitivity, but has a peculiar palate cleanser of an ending.

Kimberly Faith Hickman has gathered a gaggle of comedic talent which she leads to solid and uproarious performances.  Ms Hickman has mastery of the beats as she knows when to let her performers go huge, be normal, or pluck the heartstrings.  The staging of the show is quite strong as, even in the slower moments, there is always a bit of movement from the actors to keep the scenes animated.

Three character actors playing multiple roles support the action of the play, but each also has a particular role that allows them their best moment in the spotlight.  Matt Tarr’s towering presence and rich voice serve him best as a zombie butler in a haunted house.  Kaitlyn McClincy serves up some laughs as Marilyn’s somewhat devious daughter who gleefully assists her mother in winning the bet.  Kevin Goshorn shines in the show’s most poignant scene as the estranged, recovering addict son of Abby who visits her for the first time in years.

For a debut performance, Sahil Khullar is quite capable in the role of Scotty, the aide at the senior living center.  Khullar definitely has the personality for the kindly Scotty who is implied to be a struggling actor.  He also has a good instinct for timing, though his gestures need to be a bit more economical and precise.

But this show does indeed rest on the shoulders of its leading ladies.  Rest assured that Charleen Willoughby and Judy Radcliff are more than up to the task as the pair deliver gutbusting performances and have a chemistry and repartee bordering on the symbiotic.

Charleen Willoughby is a bitter delight as Abby.  Ms Willoughby well communicates Abby’s cynicism with a stony, stoic expression and bearing that says, “Just let me read and leave me alone”.  She always has a quiet sense of mourning about her, lamenting the things she either lost or never had.  Despite this downer description, Ms Willoughby does make this stick in the mud quite entertaining as her sense of delivery always makes Abby’s retorts and put-downs funny.  Ms Willoughby also allows Abby’s long buried decent heart peek out from time to time with her love of her plants and the wistfulness of wanting grandchildren.

Judy Radcliff is a darling scream as Marilyn.  Ms Radcliff makes Marilyn so sweet and sunshiney that one could probably spit in her face and she would laugh it off.  Ms Radcliff brings an incredible sense of fun and kindness to the chatty Marilyn who just wants to bring a little brightness to the days of others.  But a bit of orneriness lies beneath the sweetness as Marilyn dreams up the more dangerous pranks played in her war of oneupmanshp with Abby and the fact that she does it with a smile on her face makes it all the funnier.

Paul Pape has designed a fluid, open set bordered by ropes that easily transforms into the bedroom at the senior living facility to an airplane and to the airiness of a haunted house and the outside.  Jim Othuse’s lights are some of the best I’ve seen in a Playhouse show as they really help define the scenes with the eerie greens and reds of the haunted house to the shadows of trees and sunlight outside of Abby’s window.  John Gibilisco delivers on sound once again, especially with an impressive propeller sound effect in the skydiving scene.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes well define the personalities of the leading ladies with Marilyn’s bright, pretty dresses and Abby’s muted, sedate pantsuits.  I also was quite pleased with the original score composed by Timothy Vallier.

There were a few blips in this preview night performance.  Actors broke character on a few occasions with some of the jokes.  There also seemed to be a bit of a dead spot on house left as microphones didn’t seem to work quite as well there as they did on house right.  But these are easily fixable items.

I also thought the leading ladies were a little young to be in a senior living facility, but I also recognize the tough balancing act as I’m not certain older ladies would have been capable of handling the needed physicality for the roles.

This show has all the right ingredients for a most amusing night of theatre.  It’s got laughs.  It’s got heart.  It’s got sensitivity.  Get a ringside seat and watch the comedy brawl to win it all.

Ripcord plays at the Omaha Playhouse from Jan 19-Feb 11.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  A little discretion is advised due to some coarse language and inappropriate gestures.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Drought, Part 1

It did seem like I was heading down an unwelcoming road.  After all of my struggles to get into theatre and be taken seriously as a performer, it appeared that my candle was slowly being snuffed out.  

I started off the new theatre season with an audition for A Thousand Clowns at the Omaha Playhouse and directed by Amy Lane.  And it was a very strong audition.  I only read for one character the entire night and that was the lead role and I was spitting out hot, good interpretations each time I got up to read.  The next day I was asked to come back for a second reading.  So I now had two callbacks in a row and I was beginning to hope that the slow period I had been experiencing was now coming to an end.

The callback was unique.  I would have to mark it as the oddest experience I have had in theatre.  I got to the theatre and, of course, I was hoping that the callback meant I was being strongly considered for the lead role as he was the only one I had read.  However, Mister Roberts had taught me that directors sometimes see qualities for characters other than the ones actors are reading so my positivity was tempered with a bit of caution.

My first read was for the de facto villain of the piece.  It was a moderate read.  I definitely know I could have done a better job than I did.  Amy said she’d have something more to read for me in a little bit so I went outside and began to converse with some of the other actors.  About 25 minutes later, the stage manager came out and said we could all go home.  “What about my second read?” I thought.

I went home feeling rather befuddled and a rejection slip followed shortly thereafter.  To this day, I still do not know what to make of the experience.

My next audition was the one I really had been looking forward to for the year and that was Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol over at the Blue Barn Theatre.  This play tells the story of Jacob Marley’s redemption and it was one of the funniest scripts I had read in a long time.  I was particularly drawn to the role of the Bogle:  a mischievous little sprite who serves as Marley’s spiritual guide/pain in the butt.  Once more, Kevin Lawler would be directing.

Auditioning for Kevin is like walking a tightrope as it is always a high stakes affair.  The shows he directs tend to have small casts and the smaller the cast, the stronger the actors have to be.  This is why I usually get put through the paces at his auditions.  This show would be no exception.

First I tried reading the Bogle my way.  I envisioned him as an extremely high energy character so I gave a read that can best be described as Bugs Bunny on an acid trip.  Kevin asked me if I could do a Cockney accent, so I started reading again, but with the Cockney lilt and pronunciation.  He stopped me about a paragraph or so in and said, “That was actually pretty good.”

Kevin then asked if I had heard of the actor, Alan Cummings.  I had not.  He explained that his characters tend to be very sarcastic and sardonic and he asked me if I could infuse that into the Bogle.  So I read again, this time giving the dialogue a bit more lip and attitude.

Kevin then threw another change at me.  He told me the Bogle was very nimble with his words and asked me if I could mix a bit of that in there.  I thought for a moment and then went with a stream of consciousness approach.  The Bogle says a lot of complicated things, but it’s all from the top of his head, so I read without stopping for thought or breath.

By the end of the fourth read, I was feeling pretty drained.  I had been giving it my all and this had been the longest audition I had had with Kevin at nearly 20 minutes.  After the last read, Kevin thought for a bit and then said, “I don’t need to see anymore, Chris.  Good changes.  Nice work with all of my directions.”

I went home and felt pretty good about things.  After that grueling audition, I felt I might have a pretty good shot at the Bogle as Kevin had never run me through the wringer like that.  A few days later, I was out of contention with the arrival of a rejection slip from the Blue Barn.  I later found out that an actor came in right after me who was deemed “perfect” for the Bogle from the moment he stepped through the door. 

When I learned that, the blow was a bit harder than I expected.  It was simply difficult to accept that all of that hard work had been ground to dust in a matter of moments.  Sadly, sometimes that’s just the way things happen in this business.

Then it was time for me to go to school.

I entered Doug Blackburn’s one on one boot camp to improve my acting.  Doug is a masterful performer who holds 2 Master’s Degrees in theatre.  He is classically trained according to the Stanislavsky method and is almost method when it comes to acting.

The first thing he had me do was the first exercise he did when he was studying Stanislavsky in Russia.  He wanted me to take a few minutes and then tell him the story of the best thing that ever happened to me and then he wanted me to tell him the story of the worst thing that ever happened to me.  After I had recovered from sharing these tales, Doug told me that whether I had known it or not, I had just done the best acting of my life.

“I wasn’t acting,” I replied.

“Thank you,” he said, grinning at my understanding.  “That’s the point we’re going to get you to.”

Doug explained that we all have wells of emotion to draw from and part of good acting was to dip into those wells and apply them to the scenes I was in.  For instance, if I were doing a scene where the character has his heart broken, then pull the emotion from my own memory of having my heart broken.

He also taught me about the importance of beats, or the tactile change in direction of dialogue, and how to find them.  He showed me that whenever I prepare a character, I should take some paper and split it into 3 columns:  what I say about myself, what I say about others, and what others say about me.  Then he said I should find dialogue that fell into each column and from those bits of dialogue, I would form my character.

Doug gave me imagery exercises so I would know how to envision my character.  He also taught me the importance of eye contact.  I had long had a bad habit of not looking people in the eye, both onstage and in reality.  I was too much in my head because I constantly think and I usually thought about 10 steps ahead of the conversation so my eyes were actually looking a person in the jaw or neck area.  Thanks to Doug, I was able to eliminate this habit in my real life and my theatrical life.

As I trained, I felt new life flowing into my acting blood and I would be ready to fly by the time auditions for The Odd Couple rolled around.  My final test was to attend the final of Doug’s acting class at the local community college and I would be reading with his students.  What he wanted me to do was control the stage and force the other actors to play to my speed.  I passed with flying colors.

I was ready to go, but then I got an ominous piece of news.  The audition requirements were released for The Odd Couple and they were looking for 40-50 year olds.  I was 33 years old and looked younger still.  But I had come too far to stop and plunged ahead.  Time and again, I had seen actors change a director’s perception of what they were looking for with a top flight audition.  There was no reason I couldn’t do the same.

Judith Hart directed The Odd Couple which gave me a bit of needed hope as she had always liked my auditions.  I got up on stage and felt like magic.  First, I read a poker scene as one of the friends of Oscar and Felix and did really well.  Then Judith asked if anybody wanted to read a Felix and Oscar scene and my hand shot up.  I launched into it and I. . .was. . .on.  It was the best read I had given in a long time and I kept my eyes riveted to the eyes of the actor playing Oscar.  One auditioner, Scott Kroeker, later told Doug it was the smoothest he had ever seen me.

Judith dismissed me after that and I was brimming with confidence that I would get a callback.  About midnight, I awoke with a terrible feeling of anxiety.  I didn’t know why.  That morning, I got up and checked my e-mail and found Judith had written me a message about midnight.  It thanked me for my audition, but told me I was no longer being considered for the show.

My spirits were low.  All of that training and I had just had the carpet jerked out from under my feet.  But that was just the beginning.  Soon I was going to be rolled up in the carpet and pitched into the river.

To be continued. . .

Transitions, Part 2

As we left off in Part 1, W;t marked a transition for me, but I didn’t know where the road was leading just yet.

During the rehearsal period for W;t, the audition I had been waiting for all season rapidly approached.  That was Twelve Angry Men for the Omaha Playhouse and guest directed by Susan Clement-Toberer.  This play is one of the true classics of theatre and tells the story of a jury deliberating on the guilt of a teen accused of murdering his father.  At the start of the play, eleven of the men are convinced of his guilt and one man isn’t certain.  As the play progresses, the lone standout (Juror 8) slowly convinces the others that there is a reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt resulting in the exoneration of the accused.

I was interested in the role of Juror 8, but any of the jurors were interesting characters.  I spent a little time preparing for the show with a friend I had made during Macbeth named Doug Blackburn.  Doug would go on to play an extremely vital role in my development as an actor, but that will be a story for a future time.

Now back to the audition.  With very rare exceptions, I always prepare for a show by reading the script first and figuring out which characters catch my interest.  Once I’ve selected my characters, I spend some time polishing them a bit for the audition so I can be seen in my best light.  Needless to say, the bulk of my energies went towards preparing Juror 8.

I got to the audition and noticed there were quite a few men there.  The classics do have a tendency to bring people out of the woodwork.  I ended up being in the first group read and I was given the character of Juror 2.  Juror 2 is a very nervous, reticent man and in this particular scene, he only had 3 little lines so I couldn’t really do much more than act between the lines and listen as a very nervous, reticent man would listen.

There were a couple of more rounds of reading and then Susan said she was going to start sending people home.  I was the first person to go.  Now I had put a lot of work into Juror 8 and I was bound and determined to go down swinging so I asked Susan if I could read one time for that role.  I could hear the gears moving in her head as she cocked it back and forth a couple of times as she considered my request.  Finally, she looked at me and with a look of sympathy on her face said, “I don’t see you as Juror 8.”

Those words hit me with all the subtlety of a gauntlet punch to my stomach.  I thanked Susan for her honesty, took a moment to collect myself, and half-dazedly left the rehearsal hall.  As I stepped into the hallway, Susan tapped me with her clipboard to get my attention and said, “Hey!  Don’t feel bad because I’m sending you home so early.  I know you.  I know what you can do and I just don’t need to see a lot of you.”

I’d like to interrupt the thread of the tale for just a moment to state an important fact.  Directors never intend to make a person feel bad.  A director wants you to be the answer to his or her casting dilemma, but has a duty to the vision of the whole.  A rejection isn’t a rejection of you as a quality performer.  It’s just that you didn’t fit that particular director’s vision of that particular role in that particular play at that particular moment.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled tale.

I said I understood and gave her a hug and a kiss on the forehead and drove to finish off the rehearsal for W;t.  There was no callback and no casting. . .at least not in the usual sense.

Several weeks later I got to the Blue Barn earlier than normal because parking is such a bear down around there.  I was reading a book to pass the time and Susan came in, greeted me, and went to her office area.  A few minutes later, she came back and said, “I know I didn’t cast you in Twelve Angry Men, but I still need someone to play the guard and I’d like to offer him to you.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  This was the first time I had ever been offered a role after being formally rejected.  I was also perplexed because 90 men had auditioned for this show and I was amazed that Susan was not able to find a worthy guard in all of those people.  I thought about it for an hour, then told her I would take the role.  In addition to playing the guard, I would also be understudying for Jurors 2 and 5.  I later found out that Doug, who had been cast as Juror 3, had suggested my name to Susan, telling her that I knew how big the show was going to be and that I just wanted to be involved in it.

I was still doing W;t while rehearsals for Twelve Angry Men began and I thought the role would permit me a few days off here and there to recoup my energies.  It turns out that my appearances were spaced out in such a way that I ended up being at rehearsal every night, too.  And that was fine by me.

I got a different type of joy out of Twelve Angry Men because the privilege was just watching the show slowly come to life before my eyes.  I even got to stretch myself a bit as a performer as Susan would let me sub for other actors on nights when they couldn’t be at rehearsal.  Really the only downside, such as it was, was when we actually opened because I was the only character who left the stage.  This meant I had long periods of time by myself which I used to read a John Lennon biography.

Twelve Angry Men was a magnificent triumph.  It was a highly lauded show which earned a standing ovation each and every night.  Just like in Biloxi Blues, this show won every actor award on the non-musical side of things at the Playhouse awards.  Unlike Biloxi Blues, I was unable to recapture my momentum.

I started the next season with a Playhouse audition for a show called Almost, Maine directed by the Playhouse’s new Resident Director, Amy Lane.  This is a quirky show that features 9 vignettes which all take place at 9pm in the town of Almost, Maine.  I had another solid showing and was even asked to stay behind for an extra read.  But once more, I experienced total defeat.  No callback.  No casting.

That seemed to set the tone for the season where I would have good auditions, but just couldn’t seem to get cast.  It all built up to my audition for Mister Roberts at the Playhouse and directed by Susie Baer-Collins. 

Now this audition was a return to the way I had been used to things after the banner season.  I read twice and had stellar reads for Ensign Pulver (whom I wanted) and Mister Roberts (whom I certainly would not have objected to).  And then I got a callback which had me feeling pretty good as I naturally assumed that because I had been called back based on the strength of my reads for those 2 characters then I must be being considered for those 2 characters.

I was in for quite a surprise at the callback when I was never asked to read for either for those characters again.  Instead I spent the entire evening reading for various crew members.  I did get a very positive comment from Doug, who was gunning for the role of the ship’s captain.  He said I had shocked the s$@# out of him as that was the most animation he had ever seen out of me and he loved how I had just thrown caution to the wind.  I explained that in our previous auditions together, he had only seen me audition for more conservative characters which required less animation.

That Friday, Susie called me and offered me the role of Wiley which I accepted.  Truthfully, I did want a more challenging role, but Susie did tell me that I was one of the first people she cast, so she saw something “Wiley” about me.  So I was honored, but wanted more all at the same time.

The day after my casting, I went down to the Blue Barn to audition for their season finale, Rabbit Hole.  That was the intention, but I didn’t even get in the door.  I knew there was going to be some crossover with Mister Roberts, but I hoped it would be at the tail end so I would be able to do both.  My eyes bulged when I noticed that rehearsals would start smack in the middle of the run of Mister Roberts, resulting in the missing of 10 days of rehearsal.

Rabbit Hole was only a 4 person cast, so every person and every role would be vital.  I knew that missing that much rehearsal might be a death knell for my chances.  But, with my never say die attitude, I vowed to go down fighting.  And then I got stopped in my tracks.

Lara Marsh, a dear friend who was stage managing this show as well as Mister Roberts, suddenly materialized by my side and delivered the bad news that Susan was not going to let me audition due to the conflicts with Mister Roberts.  I was let down, but completely understood.  I trashed my audition sheet and drove for home.  Later that night, I did get an e-mail from Susan saying she was sorry that I couldn’t audition, but to push my way through next time and say hi.

Mister Roberts was another hit for the Playhouse and I once again had that sense of contribution that had somewhat eluded me in Twelve Angry Men.  During the run of the show, Doug Blackburn (who won the role of the captain) came up to me at one point and said, “Dude.  Next season.  Go out and be Felix Unger (for the production of The Odd Couple).  I’ll help you.”

I accepted his offer, but after the close of Mister Roberts, I finally found where my road was taking me and it seemed like a brick wall.