Winston Churchill: The Blitz – A Legacy Remembered

Winston Churchill 300×250

TEEN AMBASSADOR: ZANE COX |  MARCH 11, 2019

You’ve probably never had the privilege of meeting British Prime Minister and World War II hero Winston Churchill – seeing as how he passed away in 1965 – but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience the next best thing.

 

Randy Otto has been researching Winston Churchill for over 40 years, and the self-described “Churchill Leadership Expert” has learned a thing or two along the way. After developing a passion for the life and times of Churchill while studying at the University of Wisconsin in 1972, Otto decided to put a theatrical spin on his research, and the rest is history – the history of Winston Churchill, that is. Since discovering his love for all things Churchill, Otto has toured around the U.S. as a Churchill impersonator – and a remarkably accurate one, at that. Otto’s strive for accuracy in his impersonation has even lead Winston Churchill’s very own great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys, to meet him – Sandys says of Otto, “Randy does not attempt to be Winston Churchill, Randy Otto IS Winston Churchill”.

 

Otto’s performance at the Zeiterion was a showcase of one of his pre-written productions, simply called “The Blitz”. Referencing the infamous German bombing campaign of 1940-1941, The Blitz premiered at the San Angelo Performing Arts Center in April 2017, and since then has gone on to become one of Otto’s most widely-performed pieces. The Blitz is split up into two acts, and while the second act focuses solely on Churchill’s role in the production’s namesake, it’s Act 1 where we get to see a side of Churchill that we don’t hear about as much – the human being behind the war face. Simply put, Act 1 answers the question, “who is Winston Churchill?”, and Otto gives us no shortage of Churchill’s personal anecdotes. Churchill loves his wife. Churchill loves his country. Churchill likes hard liquor every now and then. Eventually, as we come to find out, Churchill developed a love of painting as an escape from his life, after facing criticism for the failed Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. All of this and more is expressed through Otto’s undeniable accent and charm, and for such a witty character, we also get a sense of wonder through Churchill’s eyes – the way he looks at the world around him is reminiscent of his wide-eyed curiosity during his childhood in the United Kingdom, and Otto touches on this as well. We’re informed of Churchill’s close relationship with his childhood nanny, Elizabeth Everest, and his grief after her death in 1895 – closely resembling the sadness felt by Randy Otto after the loss of his beloved British History professor Dr. Maxwell Schoenfeld in 1996. Winston Churchill and Randy Otto are, of course, entirely separate human beings, but it seems that the latter is able to use the parallels between Churchill’s life and his own to drive genuine emotion into his performance – when speaking about Everest, we can feel the pain behind the guise of Churchill as Otto reflects on his own experience.

 

Act 2 of The Blitz kicks off with the blaring of air raid sirens, as we’re thrown right into the fray of wartime in the United Kingdom in September 1940. As Otto sits silently amid a simulated London cityscape, we hear sound effects of bombs echoing around us, peppered with gunfire, the screams of civilians, and the whizzing of German aircraft overhead. It’s a cold reminder of how our world was less than 100 years ago, and Otto makes no secret of the desperation of the situation. We hear the epic tale of how Churchill was able to lead his troops while sitting on the roof of some long-abandoned London building, and we once again get to witness the raw emotion that Otto is able to express through Churchill. Otto is able to pull off the rising of Churchill’s emotions somewhat more subtly than we might expect, and although we never see his character completely brought to tears, we learn to recognize the telltale signs of Churchill coming close to breakdown – the glasses come off, the lip quivers ever so slightly. Combined with the horrifying tales of Britain’s destruction, the display is so powerful that it almost seems to be Otto himself who is on the verge of tears – it’s a testament to just how well Otto has been able to attach himself to the character. This seems to be the singularity spoken of by Jonathan Sandys, the notion of Otto’s oneness with the Churchill image – whatever the latter feels, so does the former. It’s a bit like a possession, with the mind of Winston Churchill being channeled through the body of Randy Otto – except instead of a horrifying paranormal experience, it’s a beautiful resurrection of a man whose true brilliance was crushed underneath the weight of a battle-weary history.

 

Even in the post-show question-and-answer session, aptly named “Ask Winston”, Otto seems to be unfazed by any historical question coming his way. Not only does he possess the extraordinary ability to fully recall information from nearly any point in the life of Winston Churchill – which means storing a full 90 years of knowledge – he’s able to convey this knowledge in the way that Churchill himself would’ve wanted it to be told. If you’ve got a question, don’t just expect the answer – you’ll get it, but you’ll also get an amusing observation, brief anecdote, or personal musing to go with it. No matter what the discussion, Randy Otto is fully immersed in the Churchill character; that is, until he isn’t. When he announces that he’ll be in the lobby for photos, the switch is flipped and Randy Otto is Randy Otto once again. In this way, we’re shown the other side of the coin – not only is Otto able to attach himself perfectly to the Churchill character, he’s able to detach himself just as easily. For Otto, Churchill isn’t a spectrum to be toyed with – it’s all or nothing.

 

Randy Otto is an incredibly talented and versatile performer, combining a vast historical knowledge with a flair for storytelling and acting to create a performance that will keep you listening intently all night long. Otto’s production is big enough to be immersive, but just small enough to feel like a one-on-one conversation with Winston Churchill himself. Even if you previously knew nothing about Winston Churchill or his many accomplishments, you’ll feel like you’ve witnessed a piece of history that’s come alive once again after experiencing The Blitz.

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