Learning Klingon all in a day's work for actress

  • emiI' (Jen Usellis Mackay) poses with her "son" -- actually a lightweight puppet -- at an event promoting "A Klingon Christmas Carol."

    emiI' (Jen Usellis Mackay) poses with her "son" -- actually a lightweight puppet -- at an event promoting "A Klingon Christmas Carol." Courtesy of Molly C. Loar

By Lisa Friedman Miner
Updated 12/9/2011 6:53 AM

Jen Usellis Mackay's current stage role calls for her to:

• Deliver her lines in a guttural, tongue-twisting language that maybe 50 people worldwide actually understand.


• Wear a hot, sweaty prosthetic forehead that, together with her makeup, takes about an hour to get right.

• Act out emotional mother-son scenes with a puppet.

"It's not necessarily the average theater experience," she says.

That's an understatement. Mackay, who grew up in Bloomingdale and Hanover Park, holds dual roles in Commedia Beauregard's "A Klingon Christmas Carol," a "Star Trek"-inspired work that transplants the beloved Charles Dickens tale to an alien world of warriors.

Now in its second year at Chicago's Greenhouse Theater Center, the play is performed almost entirely in the Klingon language.

"The narrator is the only one who speaks English in the whole cast," Mackay says.

With subtitles and a familiar plot, the story is easy enough to follow, even if you don't speak a word of Klingon. And being that no one in the audience actually does, Mackey admits that a botched word or two isn't likely to attract much attention.

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"In general, nobody is going to actually know, but you still want to do it right," Mackay says. "We care. We really do put the effort in to get it right."

The Klingon version of "A Christmas Carol" is a bit different from the usual tale of a miser who discovers compassion and kindness after being visited by various spirits. The Klingon Scrooge SQuja', being from a warrior race, takes another kind of emotional journey.

"They (Klingons) value courage and honor more than charity and goodwill to man. Oddly enough, it translates really well," Mackay says. "You wouldn't think it would work, but it really does."

Mackay plays emlI' and van -- the show's equivalents of Mrs. Cratchit and Scrooge's sister. The Tiny Tim role is filled by a puppet.

"I absolutely love that little puppet," Mackay says. "He creeps quite a few people out but I think he's completely adorable. A face only a mother could love, right?"


Mackay's background is a bit more traditional than her Klingon roles would suggest. She sang a lot as a child, branching out into acting at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream.

"Stepping out of your own skin for a few hours was really attractive to a geeky high-schooler," Mackey says. "And people applauded. That was kind of nice, too."

She studied acting at Millikin University in Decatur. Since graduating, Mackay, who lives in Chicago with her husband, has moved between singing and acting.

Still, her stage work isn't quite full time so Mackey works in the data department for grubhub.com.

"For me," she says, "starving never held a lot of appeal."

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