2015 Playhouse Awards Night

Last night the Omaha Playhouse held its annual Awards Night to honor the contributions of its numerous volunteers on all sides of the stage.

Volunteer Awards

PRESIDENT’S AWARD:  Trish Liakos and Steph Gould, Act II

EDWARD F. OWEN AWARD:  Carter and Vernie Jones

TRUSTEES’ AWARD:  Mary Dew and Bob Fischbach

Acting Awards

FONDA-MCGURE AWARD (Best Actor)

Brennan Thomas for his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Melanie Walters for her performance as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot

MARY PECKHAM AWARD (Best Featured Actor)

Musical

Dave Wingert for his performance as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone

(Tie)  Megan McGuire for her performance as the Drowsy Chaperone in The Drowsy Chaperone and Molly McGuire as Janet Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone

Play

Matthew Pyle for his performance as Jeffrey Skilling in Enron

Charleen Willoughby for her performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?

BARBARA FORD AWARD (Best Supporting Actor)

Musical

Brian Priesman for his performance as Patsy in Spamalot

Rebecca Noble for her performance as Norma Valverde in Hands On a Hardbody

Play

Andrew Prescott for his performance as Caleb DeLeon in The Whipping Man

Megan Friend for her performance as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

ELAINE JABENIS CAMEO AWARD (Best Cameo Performance)

Musical

Matthias Jeske for multiple roles in Spamalot

Roni Shelley Perez for her performance as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar

Play

Paul Schnieder for his performance as Kenneth Lay in Enron

Julie Fitzgerald Ryan for her performance as Felicia Dantine in I Hate Hamlet

BILL BAILEY DEBUT AWARD (Best Debut Performance

Nick Albrecht for his performance as King Arthur in Spamalot

Sarah Query for her performance as Cindy Barnes in Hands On a Hardbody

The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It 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.

A Season of Change, Part I: The Man in the Mirror

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. . .Take a look at yourself and make that change.”—Michael Jackson

That’s a powerful quotation from an equally powerful song and it sums up my feelings about this season of change.  New shows.  New leadership at the Playhouse.  New possibilities.  New opportunities.

It’s very hard to believe that’s it’s been nearly a year and a half since I’ve done any acting.  Part of that has been the result of a busy schedule, but the other part has been because of changes wrought by the man in the mirror.

I’m going to share a secret with you. . .I’ve dropped three straight auditions.  And after the third loss, that demon of doubt did make a fleeting visit across my mind.  During his brief visit, I raced back through the halls of memory to that period I called “the drought” in my theatre tales and I had a realization.

“The drought” was far more than a battle to get cast.  It was a war with myself.  A duel between my confidence and my doubt and my doubt slapped my confidence silly during that time frame.  It wasn’t until Leaving Iowa that my confidence finally, and irrevocably, defeated my doubt, though it does attempt to pop back in every once in a while.  But all I do is go back to that lovely view I had as Don Browning and I remember I can act and doubt tucks its tail between its legs and runs.

Even though it no longer matters, losing does suck.  It’s a natural feeling.  Everybody wants to be noticed, to win, and to have their efforts rewarded.  The important thing is to not let yourself be defined by the loss.  Not so long ago, a run of defeats would have had me thinking, “They think I can’t act.”  Now my thoughts are, “I just don’t fit the mold they want.”  That moves it from an ability issue to a perception issue and the latter is what really carries the weight in getting cast.  That’s the biggest change that came from the man in the mirror.

Another change is that I’ve become a bit more selective about what I do.  I won’t just audition for anything under the sun.  It’s about finding just the right story and just the right character.  For the first time, I actually chose not to audition for a show.  In fact, I did it twice.

I’ve been thinking I might like to try my hand at directing, so lately I’ve found myself viewing roles through the eyes of the whole.  Do my personal qualities make me well suited to roles that catch my interest?

For example, I was interested in reading for David Mamet’s American Buffalo over at the Blue Barn.  It’s a story about three men who plot to rob an old man of a rare coin.  The play was definitely an interesting read and there was a role that did pique my interest.  His name was Teach and I was drawn to him because he was as diametrically opposed to me as possible.  This guy is jaded beyond belief, paranoid, and curses like a sailor.  It’s a very good role.  But as I read it, I found that I couldn’t get into it as an actor.  Viewing it from the perspective of a director, I felt that Teach has a blue collar quality that I lack.

There was a role for a young junkie who is also a good role and even fit my personal qualities.  But I pictured the guy as a teenager and I was far too old.  Even if I’d been the correct age, I pictured the guy as being very slightly built and I’m pretty powerfully built in the shoulders.  I just didn’t see me in the roles, so I made the decision not to audition, though I will review it.

The second audition was for a show that I was actually quite excited about.  It’s called The Whipping Man and it’s the story of a Confederate Jewish soldier who returns home after the surrender at Appomattox, finds the homestead abandoned, and finds two of his family’s former slaves who inherited the Jewish faith from their ex-masters.  It’s Passover and they have a traditional seder and secrets are revealed.

This is a tight, well balanced script and each of the three actors is given a chance to shine.  I was excited about the possibilities and then the Playhouse released the character descriptions.

The director wanted the soldier to be in his twenties and I’m starting to push 40 from the wrong end.  My hair is receding and is getting pretty silver.  Now my face is still pretty young looking, so I thought I might have a chance, provided I could get the director to see me as a young man who had seen the horrors of war which can badly age a person.

Now that I knew what was being looked for, I reread the script, but with the eyes of the director.  I was trying to understand why the soldier was supposed to be so young.  And I got it.  I really think the solider is supposed to have a sense of immaturity which I no longer exude or even look like I have.

I still strongly considered auditioning just to get my face shown.  Then an opportunity arose for me to travel which would take place during the run of the show and as I weighed my options, guaranteed trip vs. nearly non-existent chance of getting cast, the trip won out.  But my tendency to now view these roles through the eyes of a director is another change brought about by the man in the mirror.

And then fate tossed me a potential bone.  I was contacted by my old friend, Lara Marsh, stage manager extraordinaire, who would be moving into the director’s chair to helm the first 21 and Over event at the Playhouse which was a play entitled, Lost Boy at Whole Foods.  At the time, the audition had not been formally announced so Lara asked me to keep it under my hat.

I had actually been asked to audition and that’s something that hasn’t happened for a very long time.  Even better, I could do this show plus stay committed to my trip as it would only require 5 nights of rehearsal and a one night performance on September 30.  Whatever this role was, Lara already saw me in it and it sounded promising, so I said I’d audition.

Lost Boy at Whole Foods was my first audition in five months and only my third in nearly a year and a half, so I felt something I had never felt before at an audition. . .ring rust.  I really felt clunky.  In a previous theatre tale, I once talked about how my heart often boosted my auditions and I needed every bit of my heart as my theatre muscles had clearly lost their suppleness.  I felt that I hadn’t made a fool out of myself, but not one of my strongest auditions.

I must have done better than I thought, for Lara called me that Wednesday and asked me to return for a callback the next Friday.  I had a genuine feeling of pride as it was my first callback since 2010 and a callback signifies that the director believes you have the talent.  Now it’s just a matter of finding the right composition.

Another friend who was called back, Stephanie Kidd, slipped me the script so I had a chance to study it and I began to have a better idea of what Lara was looking for in the character of Michael.  I went into the callback feeling much stronger than I had at the original audition.

I, at first, thought that I might have already been cast in the play as I was the only person in the room who fit the parameters for the role of Michael.  Then, as Lara was about to begin, a third acquaintance, Karl Rohling entered the room.  Wow!  Literally a one on one callback.  There would be no question of who got the role.  It would either be Karl or me.

Unsurprisingly, both of us did well.  My heart didn’t have to do quite so much heavy lifting as the practice I had done during the week strengthened my theatrical muscles.  As I expected, neither Karl nor I could get the edge on the other.  I read well, executed all of Lara’s directions, and he did the same.  As I told a friend, “Flip a coin.  It could be either one of us.”

On Tuesday, I got a letter from Lara telling me that she did not cast me.  When I saw the telltale envelope in the mailbox, that was when doubt tried to worm its way into my head and tell me, “She thinks you’re a bad actor.”  But he didn’t stay very long.  I’m dead certain that it was a matter of composition.  I know who I would have blended the best with from a cosmetic standpoint and that person not being cast may very well have dictated my not getting cast or vice versa.  My ability to beat back doubt is another (and positive) change coming from the man in the mirror.

Odds are, it’s going to be a few months before my next audition, but it’s going to be a big one.  I don’t want to reveal it just yet, but I will say it’s for one of my big three shows.  I can already see the grin on the face of the man in the mirror.