Even if you remember 1998 graduate Beth Richards' performance in the Willowbrook High School production of "Kiss Me, Kate," you might not recognize her in her latest acting gig.
"Don't let the purple goo deceive you," Richards says as she wraps a towel around her freshly dyed hair. "It will be black, with a hint of a violet overcast."
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Her switch from a rich red hairdo isn't nearly as dramatic as the other change in the Oak Brook native's appearance.
"My ears," Richards says. As the only Vulcan and non-Klingon performer in "A Klingon Christmas Carol," Richards dons the pointy ears made famous by Mr. Spock in TV's "Star Trek" series and the spinoffs beyond. The 33-year-old actress portrays an academic with The Vulcan Institute of Cultural Anthropology who leads a comparative literature discussion on the differences between Earthling Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and the Klingon version.
In Dickens' version, Scrooge vows to be a kinder person after he is visited by Christmas ghosts who show him the error of his miserly ways. In the Klingon version, which includes English subtitles, SQuja' vows to be a more honorable warrior after he gets visited by ghosts who harp on his cowardly past.
Not only does Richards' role challenge her acting chops, it speaks to her. "I am a geek," Richards says. "I'm very much into 'Star Trek.'"
The idea of the Christmas classic performed in the made-up language of fictional TV aliens was hatched as a joke while looking for a quirky way to entice people to a fundraiser, remembers show co-writer Christopher Kidder-Mostrom. He is founder and current artistic director of Commedia Beauregard, an independent professional theater company that started in St. Paul, Minn., with the mission of producing translated works. Dickens' holiday classic has spawned versions from The Muppets to Mr. Magoo, so the group toyed with producing a version in pig Latin.
"But honestly, an hour and a half of pig Latin gets old," says Kidder-Mostrom, who chose to write a Klingon version instead, starring the warrior tribe of aliens known for the deep ridges in their foreheads.
The company relocated to Chicago in 2010, and the show now has been seen by theatergoers from 46 states. "All but Hawaii, New Mexico and I forgot the other two," says Kidder-Mostrom, who celebrates his 40th birthday today.
Don't confuse this performance with a skit at a "Star Trek" convention.
"This is the hardest play you've ever been in," the director warns actors.
Auditions in June for this year's show, with new costumes, new sets and new people playing the 15 characters, drew 150 actors, including one fan who brought his own bat'leth, the "Klingon sword of honor." But fans don't win roles. In addition to acting, the audition included fight scenes and a lesson in tlhIngan Hol, the language of Klingons. Dialogue must be learned syllable by syllable and has an alien guttural sound that makes familiar characters such as Tiny Tim (tImHom), Fezziwig (veSIwIq) and Mr. Cratchit (QachIt) hard to pronounce.
"It's like memorizing an Italian opera if you don't speak Italian," Kidder-Mostrom says. Linguist Marc Okrand, who created the language for one of the "Star Trek" movies, added words specifically for this production, the director says.
Richards admits that "I was personally a little relieved" that most of her lines are in English. The audience sees English subtitles for Klingon dialogue, while small screens are available to prompt actors if needed. "You can barely improvise in Shakespeare if you are good enough," Richards says. "You can't improvise Klingon."
President of the thespian club in high school, Richards studied theater at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She fell so in love with the bleak, dramatic plays of Samuel Beckett that she now has a cat named Beckett. Working behind the scenes in everything from set design to lighting, Richards also wrote an award-winning performance piece for her senior year project titled "Welcome to my Living Room."
The Klingon play allows her a chance to perform with other professionals on a complicated piece, but it's also "a load of fun," she says. Like many cast members, Richards remembers watching "Star Trek" shows on TV as a kid.
"I started in season three of 'Next Generation' and never looked back," she says, noting that she embraces the science fiction and fantasy worlds. She's already looking ahead to next year's Gen Con gaming conference in Indianapolis.
"I'm going to roll D-20s until I can't see anymore," Richards says, referring to the 20-sided dice used in many role-playing games.
Weapons in "A Klingon Christmas Carol" look like pieces in a violent board game. Actors wield large bat'leths with curved blades in the choreographed fight scenes. The minuet dance scene from Dickens' version is a fight scene in the Klingon version. Fred's party scene from Dickens' version is also fight scene in the Klingon version.
"Klingons are warriors," Richards says with a shrug.
"A Klingon Christmas Carol" opens Saturday at The Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago, and runs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights as well as Sunday afternoons through Dec. 29. For tickets ($20 to $30) and information, visit raventheatre.com or phone (773) 338-2177. A special suburban performance will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at Elgin Community College's Blizzard Theatre, 1700 Spartan Drive, Building H, in Elgin. For tickets ($32) and information, visit tickets.elgin.edu or phone (847) 622-0300.
People comfortable with the Dickens' version might be taken aback by the Klingon take, but Richards says her mother, Barbara, who still lives in Oak Brook, is looking forward to seeing the play and her daughter's alien character.
"I've been her kid long enough that she's been exposed to all of it by default," Richards says. She suggests people who have seen Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" dozens of times might appreciate something new.
"C'mon," Richards says. "Where else do you get to see the 'Christmas Carol' with fight scenes?"