Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011

Omnium Gatherum: It's All About Ensemble

Windfall Theatre’s OMNIUM GATHERUM works only through solid characterization

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ Omnium Gatherum is an interesting, little exercise. Written in the shadow of September 11th, 2001, the idea is to build a solid intellectual conversation around certain celebrity archetypes that attempts to make sense of a world where the US could be attacked using its own infrastructure.

As nice an idea as it might be to have analogues of Tom Clancy, Martha Stewart, and various other contemporary intellectual archetypes sit down for a conversation about current events sounds kind of quaint, but the script in and of itself never really manages to be insightful. To be sure, the subject matter discussed over the course of the two hour dinner conversation really should be discussed and much of what is brought-up here should be part of everyday conversation in a really, really big way.

It’s very, very provocative stuff even over half a decade after it first graced a stage, but merely being topical and provocative isn’t enough for a conversational dialogue to carry a stage play in and of itself. If this WAS the case, every political discussion on talk radio or cable news could be turned into a stage play. What a decent production of Omnium Gatherum really needs to justify its existence onstage is a decent ensemble willing to bring what in many cases are vague cultural archetypes to life. In that department, director Maureen Kilmurry and company do a speldid job of making Windfall Theatre's season-opening production of Omnium Gatherum well worth the price of admission.

It’s difficult to know exactly where to start when discussing the case and given that the plot such as it is doesn’t really have any central characters, I guess I’ll just go through them in chronological order. Let’s see . . . who’s first?

Mohammad ElBsat plays Khalid—nice to see a new face here playing the modern face of progressive Islam. The actor is from Lebanon—an engineering student at Marquette who turns out to have major talent for very heartfelt stage acting. Nice to see a sympathetic portrayal of a Muslim, but then, it always is . . .

Christopher Elst plays a firefighter by the name of Jeff. My god but this must have been a tremendously difficult role to take on. He’s playing one of those valiant and iconic firefighters who was one of the first people on the scene at the World Trade Centers on 09/11/’01. There’s a bit of monologue about that—one that Elst delivers with a brilliant sense of restraint that makes it feel remarkably authentic.

Ben George plays a Brit names Terence. Couldn’t possibly ask for better casting here. George is perfectly fused with the role of the charming upper-class Brit who is impeccably well-educated. Probably one of the more elegantly-rendered characters in the script, George takes that depth and runs with it in a remarkably charming performance. One of his best that I’ve seen so far.

Amy Hansman plays a flat stereotype of a vegan feminist. The playwrights give her some depth with a bit of monologue, but it fels kind of perfunctory. She and Kevin Hogan (see below) play two of the weaker characters who carry opinions that the playwrights don’t seem to understand well enough to deliver to the stage in a very convincing way. For her part, Hansman has so much raw intellectual magnetism onstage that she’s able to overcome the shallower aspects of her character quite effectively.

Kevin Hogan plays Roger. He’s the conservative intellectual—the Tom Clancy analog. Being one of the more extremes in political perspective, his character comes across as being remarkably flat. Not an enviable role, but Hogan plays it with precisely the right kind of compassionate bluster of a man who knows he’s right even when he’s wrong.

Tony Martin plays Julia. Martin is a UWM graduate. I believe this is the first thing I’ve seen her in outside UWM and she performs splendidly here in the center of the table. Martin is absolutely beautiful in a role that asks a great deal of an actress. At one point, she must contend with the rather risky proposition of deliberately singing a song off-key without compromising on charm. A really, really fun and engrossing performance.

Shayne Steliga plays a Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. It’s a very sympathetic portrait. Steliga plays it with a respectable amount of fire. With this character’s addition to the conversation we finally get into the issue of US foreign policy as it pertains to the causes of the attacks on September 11th. When the play finally reaches this point, it feels kind of anti-climactic. This is not for lack of energy on the part of Steliga, who puts in an admirable performance.

Carol Zippel rounds out the cast as the Martha Stewart analog Suzie—a woman absolutely obsessed with manners, etiquette and the fine art of hosting dinner. It’s a fun role and Zippel summons a really charming obliviousness in the role that occasionally jostles into a more intellectually coherent package at unexpected times.

It’s kind of a large cast for a casual conversation over dinner without intermission, but Maureen Kilmurry and company have found a compelling rhythm to it that makes it easy to forget just how many different personalities are involved. The whole thing is remarkably well-orchestrated.  

Windfall Theatre's production of Omnium Gatherum runs September 23rd through October 8that Village Church Arts. For reservations, call 414-332-3963.

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