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The Tomkat Project

A new play takes aim at our fascination with celebrity.

popio Photograph: stumpf photography
Brandon Ogborn

If you’re among the Trader Joe shoppers who made a reservation for The Tomkat Project in January because “Crew Member” Brandon Ogborn told you about it while he was stocking Trader Ming’s Pad Thai or ringing up your Two-Buck Chuck, consider yourself among the lucky. Ogborn’s also a writer and comedian, and his brilliant new play about the celebrity courtship, marriage and divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes sold out its entire run at the Upstairs Gallery (where tickets are donation-based or free) in January before it even opened. “It’s been the greatest response I’ve gotten for anything I’ve done in my whole life,” says Ogborn. The Tomkat Project is currently playing at the Playground Theater in Lakeview through April. Please go see it.

The Tomkat Project is part docudrama, part comedy and part thriller, and as in Hollywood itself, fact and fiction blur together effortlessly as seven actors, including Ogborn as the narrator, take turns playing more than fifty characters such as Cruise and Holmes, Steven Spielberg, Scarlett Johansson, Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Matt Lauer, entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, Scientology frontman David Miscavige and others. The play relentlessly feeds its hungry audience juicy and salacious details about the Cruise-Holmes courtship, while sticking its knife deep into the gullets of both Tinsel Town and the Church of Scientology and building toward an unexpected finale. “I think why it resonates with people is that it’s not a story about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes,” says Ogborn. “It’s about how we view celebrity gossip and how far from the truth we can really be.”

Ogborn, 29, has a script-worthy story of his own. In high school, the Michigan native met Santa Barbara–based college recruiter Dein Sofley, 14 years his senior—and raising a child—over the phone and moved to Southern California to pursue a relationship with her. They’ve been married seven years. At the time, Ogborn began commuting 90 miles each way to Los Angeles to study improv at the Second City, which operates a training center there. “It was a lot of actors whose agents were like, ‘you got to do an improv class,’ ” he says.

Ogborn relocated to Chicago with his wife and stepdaughter in 2007. He pursued improv and sketch comedy and also took time away from both to write scripts. Inspired by the docudrama format of The Laramie Project and darkly comic melodramas like August: Osage County, Ogborn sat down to write a two-person sketch show and instead banged out an 80-page account of the Cruise-Holmes saga in just two weeks. An admitted fan of Cruise’s work as an actor, Ogborn says his interest in the subject matter surprised even himself. “Why the fuck do I care,” Ogborn remembers asking himself. “Why am I picking up this Us Weekly and following it, because I’m not that into this stuff.”

Thanks to director Elly Green’s fast pacing and bare-bones staging, superb writing that screws with our perceptions—what if Katie Holmes is the villain, it dares to ask—and a cast that does a canny job recreating known celebrities, the show soars at every gut-busting turn. “I went into this writing the play that I wanted to see,” says Ogborn. “In order to achieve that I wanted there to be a fight and I wanted everything to fall apart.” That might be a sour note on which to finish this article, but what were you expecting, a Hollywood ending?

The Tomkat Project happens Wednesdays 20 through May at the Playground Theater.

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