Day 12: 2019 was a great year to welcome veterans back to the stage
Dan O’Neill sure knows how to make a re-entrance. In Benchmark Theatre’s 1984, the mild-mannered middle-school teacher stepped on a stage for the first time in seven years and delivered a harrowing and grisly performance that you felt down to your broken, bloody bones.
Make that: He stepped on a stage, cut off a man’s fingertips, smashed his teeth and put his face in a cage with a rabid rat (in a harrowing and grisly performance that you felt in your broken, bloody bones.)
O’Neill’s was one of several noteworthy performances by powerhouse local actors returning to the stage from long sabbaticals in 2019. O’Neill, Natalie Oliver-Atherton and Sheryl Renee had been away for a combined 25 years before taking their places back this year as among our very best.
Oliver-Atherton was enticed back to play Billie, a character named after Billie Holiday, in the Arvada Center’s Trav’lin, the 1930s Harlem Musical. Renee’s return was two-fold: First she played Gina in the Lone Tree Arts Center’s Beehive, a role she first performed at what is now the Garner Galleria Theatre 30 years ago. Then she commanded the stage like the disco diva she is as Deloris Van Cartier in the Town Hall Arts Center’s Sister Act.
While Oliver-Atherton and Renee’s musical performances were nostalgic and (mostly) fun, O’Neill’s was abjectly terrifying. In part, director Neil Truglio says, because fully one-third of this 80-minute stage adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian 1949 cautionary tale was O’Neill’s O’Brien torturing our presumed protagonist, Winston. In the tight confines of the Benchmark Theatre, no audience member was more than a few feet away from the gore. So when O’Neill attached a cage to a game Sean Scrutchins’ face with a rat inside, sending his victim screaming in agony, I … laughed out loud. Not because this onstage savagery was funny. It was more an “I can’t believe what I am seeing” nervous laugh at a “Saw” movie. You laugh or else you’ll scream.
“It’s bloody, horrific and extended,” wrote Alex Miller for OnStage Colorado. “O’Neill revels in O’Brien’s understated sadism. It’s a long scene and hard to watch, but ultimately, this in-your-face pain is necessary.”
And what made it most frightening was not Scrutchins spitting out mouthfuls of viscous blood. It was the realization that, in the midst of all that torture of Winston, who has been arrested for thought crimes, O’Neill’s character has somehow managed to worm his way into our favor.
“It’s easy to see O’Brien as the enemy, but Dan’s performance was so nuanced that even while he is torturing Winston, you realize that Dan has managed to create something of a dual protagonist – for all the wrong reasons,” Truglio said. “When he yells at Winston, ‘The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening!’ you can just see people in the audience going – ‘You know what? He’s right.’ ”
(If nothing else, Orwell certainly predicted the eventual power of smartphones!)
“Let’s face it: That scene is gross and visceral, Truglio said. “But Dan’s ability to connect with the audience was something that I was unprepared for. He had this frightening ability to reach out and connect with you and make you feel like you have been a co-conspirator this whole time. At the start, you are with Winston. And by the end – you’re part of O’Brien’s Army.”
- 2019: Billie in Trav’lin, the 1930s Harlem Musical at the Arvada Center
- Most recent role: Mother Wisdom in Magdalene Woman of Light at the Denver Civic Theatre in 2008
- The character: Billie is the sweetheart George (the unofficial mayor of the block) left behind 30 years ago. She’s now a survivor with a sharp tongue, a strong will, an open heart and a deep spirit.
- Real world: Founder and Executive Director of Namaste Works, a vocal and acting studio she runs with her husband, Jeffrey Atherton. She describes herself as “Lightworker, Mother, Wife, Singer, Actress, People-lover, Change agent and Diva4God.”
- Says her director, Rod Lansberry: “Working with Natalie was a complete joy. She’s not only an amazing performer but an amazing woman. She made me laugh more than I have in years. And at the same time, she took this role completely to heart. Those tears were real.”
- Website: namasteworks.net
- 2019: Deloris Van Cartier in Town Hall Arts Center’s Sister Act; Gina in the Lone Tree Arts Center’s Beehive
- Most recent role: Featured performer in Home for the Holidays at the Lone Tree Arts Center in 2012
- The character: Deloris is an aspiring singer who witnesses a murder and is put into protective custody in the one place the killer will never look: A convent. Disguised as a nun, she breathes new life into the church’s moribund choir.
- Real world: Renee, who sang the national anthem for Barack Obama at the signing of his 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill, has co-written and starred in several stage musicals. She is also a busy commercial and concert singer. She owns a private event house called The Black Swan, and she is both a children’s safety advocate and web designer.
- Critics’ corner: “Sheryl Renee’s voice is big and strong, just like her stage presence – which makes her a perfect Deloris.” – Jane Reuter, OnStage Colorado
- Says her director, Bob Wells: “It was a thrill to watch her work. Everything about the role came to her so naturally: The lines, the relationships, and of course the songs. It was a lot of hard work, but she was always open to trying new things. She’s just an incredible spirit.”
- Next: Renee will appear in Lone Tree’s 2019 edition of Home for the Holidays from December 18-22 (720-509-1000 or lonetreeartscenter.org)
- Website: sherylrenee.com
- 2019: O’Brien in 1984 at Benchmark Theatre
- Most recent role: Peter Kien, a reclusive “sinologist” in Rebecca Gorman O’Neill’s Auto da Fé for The LIDA Project in 2012.
- The character: O’Brien is the savage, sinister, double-crossing tool of the state who has Winston arrested and tortured for thought crimes.
- Real world: O’Neill, a graduate of the Denver Center’s National Theatre Conservatory, is a longtime drama teacher at Graland Country Day School.
- Critics’ corner: “O’Neill’s matter-of-fact psychopathic monologue sends chills throughout the house – and that’s even before O’Brien tortures Winston. If you thought Olivier and Hoffman’s torture scene in ‘Miracle Man’ was intense, hold on to your hat for this!” – Bob Bows, ColoradoDrama.Com
- Website: graland.org
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org