Khan-do spirit

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These days, 'Who is Omar Khan?" is the most-prequently-asked question in Winnipeg theatre.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/02/2008 (5310 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

These days, ‘Who is Omar Khan?” is the most-prequently-asked question in Winnipeg theatre.

When the applause dies down following the potent MTC Warehouse production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, the inquiries begin as to the identity of the mystery man who portrays shark-like real estate salesman Ricky Roma. Khan is such a revelation that it was taken for granted that he must be from out of town.

Not true.

Khan is a lifelong Winnipegger with an extremely strange career arc. He finished a four-year acting program at the University of Winnipeg in 1990 but only showed up for his first audition last year. Today, this 40-year-old theatrical virgin is over-the-moon about his first fling with stage glory.

“It was wild to stand on stage in a David Mamet play, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and look out at the biggest crowd I had ever played in front of,” said Khan during an interview earlier this week. “I’m 20 years late, but that’s what makes it even sweeter.

“Life begins at 40. That seems to be true in my case.”

The list of his professional acting credits boasts a single entry: The supporting roles of Morocco and Lorenzo in the city’s first professional production of The Merchant of Venice, presented last spring by Shakespeare in the Ruins. Curiously, his second, as Glengarry Glen Ross‘s acid-tongued con man, is also in a play making its Winnipeg debut.

“Of course I am surprised by Omar’s performance,” says his dressing roommate Harry Nelken, who heads the all-Winnipeg cast directed by local Tony Award winner Len Cariou. “More surprising than could he do it is how he’s doing it. He’s so cool out there. He’s approaching it like a seasoned actor.”

Khan finds it hard to believe that anyone would ever describe him like that. To explain, he remembers being part of U of W’s graduating acting class with the likes of Lora Schroeder, Paul Gray and Michael Lawrenchuk. He, Gray and another wannabe actor, Douglas Livingston, co-wrote and performed a play called Cusp at the 1990 Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

“It was pretty horrendous,” recalls the tall, slim, former Kelvin High School student. “We all thought we were great but we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.”

Kahn had intended to pursue theatre as a profession but meekly never got beyond being on the cusp of a career.

“I turned my back on the whole thing,” he says. “I didn’t even go to see any plays. I didn’t have the confidence coming out of school. I was just afraid to fail. Rather than try and fail, I just didn’t try at all.”

As the drummer/vocalist for local rock bands The Bards and The Libertines, he headed for other stages in search of musical nirvana. Ultimately, he drifted into early childhood education, a career that he continues to maintain.

In 2005, as his marriage broke down, Khan resolved to pursue his lost love of acting. His old school friend Paul Gray had returned to Winnipeg with the Tara Players theatre troupe and lured him into a couple of productions, including a non-professional staging of The Rope in O’NeillFest 2006 and a reading of The Iceman Cometh, directed by Chris Sigurdson.

It was the latter who urged Khan to read for a few parts in The Merchant of Venice, which Sigurdson helmed. His first professional appearance inspired him to audition for MTC and Prairie Theatre Exchange last year. For Cariou, he prepared to read for both Roma and the much less flashy role of Williamson, the loathed office manager.

“I was initially drawn to Roma but I thought, ‘I can’t be so ballsy and bold to go into my first MTC audition and read for the role in the play,'” he says. “When Len asked, ‘What are you going to do for us today?’ I decided on the spot to read for Roma.”

Of course, he was stupefied when he got the news he would be making his MTC debut as Roma. Such roles — this one made famous on the big screen by Al Pacino — don’t often go to unknowns. Khan, decked out in a light beige polyester suit, dines voraciously on Mamet’s pungent language as an amoral sharpie living only for the thrill of the deal.

“He has the most malleable appearances I’ve ever seen,” says Gray of Khan’s Mediterranean look (his father is Pakistani; his mother is white). “He can play Canadian or American, Italian or Greek or Jewish or Arabic. He can still look young.”

The recent Glengarry Glen Ross opening coincided with the airing of a Steinbach Credit Union TV commercial in which Khan has brief face time as a guy with a comic collection.

“I’m all over; people will get sick of me soon,” he says, tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “I don’t know if destiny is the word — it certainly seems like things are going my way.”

Gray is just as surprised at his pal’s sudden good fortune.

“I tell him his rise has been nothing less than meteoric,” Gray says. “Then he swats me in the head and he tells me to be quiet.”

What a #%*$@ festival! It’s hard to have spent two weeks listening to David Mamet’s macho males and not pick up a few new words. MametFest 2008, or F-word Fest as it could be dubbed, has nine days left. Still time left to see what Free Press theatre critic Kevin Prokosh rates as the must-sees at this year’s Master Playwright Festival.

The Gamut of Mamet

BEST PRODUCTIONS:

1. Glengarry Glen Ross — The city’s first professional production of Mamet’s seminal Pulitzer Prize-winning drama captured the world of cut-throat real-estate hucksters and did it with an all-Winnipeg-production helmed by Tony Award-winner Len Cariou.

See it at the MTC Warehouse until next Saturday.

2. Speed-the-Plow — Mamet gets his revenge on Hollywood for butchering his screenplay of Sexual Perversity in Chicago with a hard-hearted satire about Tinseltown values and dog-eat dog ambition. The final act of the WJT production is classic Mamet.

See it at the Berney Theatre until next Sunday.

3. Squirrels — This quirky tale about a writer who has been working on the same paragraph for 15 years is given a sharp performance by a trio of local actors who make sense of Mamet’s chaos of unfinished, short-circuited, clashing sentences.

See it today or tomorrow at PTE’s Colin Jackson Studio.

BEST PERFORMANCES:

1. Harry Nelken — Hard to top Nelken’s turn as foul-mouthed Shelly Levene, the glad-handing former high earning real estate hustler whose eagerness to climb back on top smells pathetically of desperation in Glengarry Glen Ross.

2. Jonas Chernick — As the wannabe movie producer Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow, the twitchy Chernick beautifully negotiates Charlie’s third-act transitions from disbelief, dismay and fury at his friend’s betrayal.

3. Any one of the three actresses in Boston Marriage — Great ensemble work by Brenda McLean, Mia Star van Leeuwen and Heidi Malazdrewich who make Mamet’s very arch dialogue intoxicating.

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