This Operation is a Bittersweet Triumph

Imagine that it’s a night like any other night.  Suddenly a warning siren begins to blare throughout the night sky.  You begin to hear loud whistles growing closer and closer.  Then explosions rip through the air.  Buildings collapse around you.  The ground shakes with the force of an earthquake.  Your heart feels as if it will burst through your chest as your life flashes before your eyes.  If you can imagine that, then you can imagine the terror of the Sheffield Blitz.  Operation Crucible by Kieran Knowles lets the audience experience those horrifying nights through the eyes of four young steelworkers.  It is currently playing at the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.

Knowles’ script can best be compared to a runaway freight train.  It starts at a fever pitch and keeps you holding on for dear life until the bitter end.  Be prepared for a most unique night of theatre as Knowles’ script completely rewrites the rules of the game.  The fourth wall dissolves as the actors interact with the audience.  The set consists of a few benches and chairs which the performers manipulate to create the scenes in conjunction with vivid vocal descriptions.  The time of the play rapidly shifts back and forth from present to past and from reality to memories.

Lara Marsh has constructed a powerhouse show as she shares Knowles’ tale of the Sheffield Blitz.  Occurring on the nights of December 12 and 15, this event was the devastating bombing of Sheffield, England (the munitions center of the country during World War II) by the German Luftwaffe.  Ms Marsh’s meticulous direction leaves no beat unearthed in the telling of this heavy tale.  The staging is unbelievable as her 4 actors make full use of the tiny performance space in an exhausting feat of acting as these men are constantly on the move from start to finish.  Ms Marsh has also led her thespians to sterling performances making for one of the best pieces of ensemble acting I’ve seen in quite a spell.

Before getting into individual performances, it’s important to understand the effectiveness of this ensemble.  This play has long stretches of broken, fragmented dialogue with cues that don’t follow a normal flow of conversation.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such tight cue pickups from a cast as these gentleman just came in right on top of each other on all but a couple of occasions.  This is doubly impressive when one considers that there were often no clues to tip the actors off to their next line.  Their physicality was also splendid as the actions and scenes of this story are told largely through the body language of the performers as they paint pictures of luxury hotels, the work of a munitions mill, or the crippling injuries from being caught in a collapsing building.

Daniel Sukup is outstanding in his BSB debut as Tommy.  Sukup imbues Tommy with a wonderful sense of playfulness as he leads the hazing of the new boy, Bob, at the mill.  He’s also an incredible observer of human nature, depending on his ability to judge character to assess situations and form relationships.  Yet he also uses that talent to see to the heart of people in order to keep them at arm’s length.  Tommy’s gregarious nature is also somewhat of a mask that hides his desperate loneliness as he has no family and perpetually grieves a father lost to the horrors of war.  Sukup’s ability to switch from the fun-loving prankster to the haunted and lonely man at a moment’s notice is nothing short of uncanny.

Eddie McGonigal’s Bob is a wonderful treat for the audience.  He’s just full of sunshine and optimism and brightens situations just by stepping into a room.  McGonigal does a superlative job of portraying Bob’s innocence and naiveté.  As the new guy, McGonigal’s Bob is subject to a few practical jokes to test his mettle at the mill, but comes through them with flying colors, especially with his tireless efforts on the job.  Nothing gets Bob down for long and, even in the heart of mortal peril, his positivity serves to buoy the spirits of his friends in their darkest hour.  But McGonigal also gets to shine in a dramatic moment when Bob shares a story about his dog.  Be sure to have a tissue ready.

Eric Grant-Leanna expands his resume by another top flight performance with his interpretation of Phil.  I found Phil to be the most interesting character in the show as he is a Scotsman which makes him the outsider of the group as his friends are all British.  I found this very apropos as Phil certainly feels like an outsider due to the fact that he was drafted to go fight before a foot injury rerouted him to the mill.  Grant-Leanna does an exceptional job revealing the self-doubt that is constantly on Phil’s shoulders as he tries to make himself believe that he was not a coward for not being able to fight.  Indeed, so heavy is this doubt that Phil’s final monologue in the aftermath of the bombing had me slumping in my seat as he made a defining choice about his life.

There aren’t many who can pack intensity into a role like Daniel Dorner.  Making a rare appearance on stage, Dorner plays the role of Arthur, the leader of the group.  Dorner’s Arthur is a pillar of strength for these four friends as he grew up dirt poor yet has such strength of spirit as he always believed that someone always had it worse.  That nobility serves Arthur well as he suffers a horrific leg injury partway through the show and struggles to work through it.  Dorner sells the injury flawlessly, dragging and/or limping on the useless limb for the remainder of the play.

Charleen Willoughby’s workingmen costumes suit the era of the play to a T.  Darrin Golden’s lights are magic from the red hot glow of a forge to the yellow alert for the bombing raid to the stale shine of a single light bulb when the men are trapped in a hotel.  Eric Griffith’s sounds enhance the play’s story and drew me so deeply into it I actually jumped at a few moments when the attacks and destruction began.

Director Lara Marsh had said this play would help the audience see World War II from the British side and that it certainly does.  It is a tale of friendship, tragedy, and the strength of the human spirit.  It also removes the blinders and shows that the horrors of war often transcend the battlefield.

Operation Crucible will be performed by the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company at the Jewish Community Center through Nov 19.  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm.  There will be a 6:30pm performance on Sunday, Oct 23.  Tickets cost $25 ($20 for students/seniors (65+)/Military).  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-502-4910 or visit the website at www.bsbtheatre.com.  The Jewish Community Center is located at 333 S 132nd St in Omaha, NE.

Triumphant “Frost/Nixon” Goes the Distance

Edwin Starr’s War is the perfect segue into Frost/Nixon which opens at the Blue Barn Theatre on Feb 4 for a war is what you will get.  Disgraced former President, Richard Nixon, verbally spars with talk show host, David Frost, in a series of in depth interviews in which only one man can emerge victorious.  For Nixon, it is a chance to resurrect his blasted political career.  For Frost, it is a chance to revive his dwindling TV career.

This play is good.

I mean it’s REALLY good.

Not only do I consider Frost/Nixon to be one of the best shows of the season, I also consider it to be one of the best (possibly the best) shows mounted on the Blue Barn’s stage.  Peter Morgan’s script crackles with taut, intense dialogue mixed with interesting characters that actors can really sink their teeth into and a story that will keep viewers enthralled from the first syllable to the final verbal riposte.

Randall Stevens’ direction and staging are dead on accurate as his actors weave the story of the setup, preparation, and execution of, arguably, the greatest political interview of all time.  His actors know their beats, fully realize their characters, and have the best diction I have ever heard out of a cast.

While a great deal of the play does focus around Frost and Nixon, the show’s supporting cast deserves recognition for their rock solid performances.

Matthias Jeske is especially impressive as John Birt, the producer of the interviews.  With ramrod posture and a spot-on accent, Jeske is indeed very, very British, but his delivery adds a warmth and friendship to the character as he tries to ready Frost for the upcoming conflict.  Dave Wingert does well with his interpretation of Bob Zelnick, the editor of the interviews.  Wingert bestows a genuine likability on Zelnick and expertly communicates Zelnick’s ability to navigate the morass of politics’ underbelly.  Brent Spencer has a nice turn as slimy agent, Swifty Lazar, who is devoted to getting as much money for Nixon, and himself, as possible.

Ben Beck is marvelous as James Reston.  Reston has no love for Nixon and is bound and determined to see him pay for his crimes and abuses of power.  This is a role that could easily gravitate to the obvious choice of anger, but, in Beck’s capable hands, it becomes a clinic in nuanced acting.  Beck plays the role of Reston with a quiet intensity.  His hatred for Nixon actually seeps from his pores, but he is never angry.  He simply wants justice.  This need for justice falls just shy of getting Nixon at any cost, but Beck ably shows the intellectual side of Reston as he constantly searches for the smoking gun needed to pry an admission of guilt from Nixon’s clamped jaws.

On the other side is James Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff, and played with confident assuredness by Mike Markey.  Brennan and Reston make for interesting mirror images as Reston’s hunger for Nixon’s punishment is matched by Brennan’s staunch loyalty to and protectiveness of the former President.  Markey plays Brennan with a military preciseness.  I truly enjoyed his eagerness as he fully believes the Frost interviews will get Nixon back in the political game.  His loyalty is also unimpeachable as he tries to protect Nixon by attempting to get Frost to log all of Nixon’s failings under Watergate and buying his boss valuable time during the climactic final interview with Frost.

Ultimately, this play does need to be supported by the two lead actors and Stevens found two mighty thespians to carry the burden of this production in the forms of Aaron Zavitz and Paul Boesing.  One could not envision better casting as the chemistry between Zavitz and Boesing seems so right.  At times friends of a sort and at others, bitter rivals, Zavitz and Boesing decisively explore the many levels of their own characters and their unique relationship and present it to the audience in a storytelling masterpiece.

Boesing not only has a firm grip on Nixon’s mannerisms, but he also bears an uncanny resemblance to the controversial politician.  Boesing’s Nixon is the politician’s politician.  He oozes a charm that almost borders on insincerity and is prepared for almost any contingency.  He easily bats off inconvenient questions by tooting his own horn and is quite adept at turning dangerous situations to his own advantage.

But Boesing also makes you feel real sympathy for Nixon in the rare moments when Nixon takes his mask off.  For all of his political savvy, Nixon never felt likable despite choosing a profession where that quality is essential.  His body language is also spectacular, especially when the life slowly bleeds from his body when Frost finally gets his fingers around Nixon’s proverbial throat.

Aaron Zavitz mesmerizes with his interpretation of David Frost.  Zavitz’s Frost is a gadfly.  He is simply a talk show host with an ability to hold real, albeit simple, conversations.  He is not a hard-hitting investigative journalist.  He picks Nixon as an interview subject solely to save his dying career.  Zavitz’s Frost claims he can wring a confession from Nixon, but has no plan in how to do so.

Zavitz’s finest moments come during the interview sessions with Nixon.  Markey’s Brennan compares the interviews to a boxing match in which the challenger finds himself sorely outclassed at the beginning and I found that apropos as Zavitz convincingly portrays a man who is out of his depth.  His body language well conveyed his uncertainty and doubt with slumped shoulders and laid back posture as Nixon controls the tempo of the interviews.

That all changes with a nighttime phone conversation that galvanizes Frost.  Zavitz demonstrates this newfound strength by standing straighter, expanding his chest, and adopting a firmer sitting posture during the last interview.  That final interview is truly an actor’s, not to mention audience member’s, delight as Zavitz’s Frost takes the fight to Nixon with haymaker questions to K.O. Nixon once and for all.

Martin Marchitto’s TV studio set is a perfect match for the setting of this show and the actors are well costumed by Lindsey Pape.  Bill Grennan’s projections also enhance the story as the images are projected onto a gigantic television on Marchitto’s set.

I was fortunate to be permitted to see a technical rehearsal of this show and I tell you now, I’ve seen full productions that haven’t had as much polish.  The few missteps in tonight’s performance were simply the ones one would expect to see as the show goes through its final tweaks.  As hard as it may be to believe, this show is actually going to become more amazing than it already is as Stevens and his crew continue to tidy and tighten things.  The Feb 6 show is already sold out, so buy a ticket before the rest of them vanish.

When pushed to the edge one either finds the strength to win or gets shoved off the cliff.  When two people pushed to the same edge duel, only one can survive.  Frost/Nixon presents that struggle in the most definitive and triumphant fashion imaginable.

Frost/Nixon plays at the Blue Barn Theatre from Feb 4-28.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  There is no show on Feb 7. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit their website at www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

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.