click to enlarge The lead actors of Garden Theatre’s Ben Hur

Photo by Steven Miller

The lead actors of Garden Theatre’s Ben Hur

Universal Orlando show director Jason Horne couldn't resist the chance to direct Ben Hur at Garden Theatre 

As a member of Orlando's arts scene for nearly 25 years, one of my greatest joys is watching someone I knew early in their stage career achieve well-deserved success. The only thing better is watching that same person turn around and give back to the institutions that helped them out along the way. Nobody better represents that journey for me right now than Jason Horne, who I've watched climb from performing in scrappy community productions to helming big-budget theme park spectacles. Horne recently carved time out of his hectic work schedule to direct Patrick Barlow's comedic adaptation of the pseudo-Biblical epic Ben-Hur at Winter Garden's Garden Theatre, where he and I recently reunited for an interview ahead of last weekend's premiere.

A native of Columbus, Georgia, Horne earned a degree in theater performance from Columbus State University and spent a semester studying in England (where he took classes from the Globe Theater's Mark Rylance) before moving to Orlando in 2000. "I literally came into town and started auditioning for everything there was. Anything I could find," Horne recalls. "I've been everywhere from the Shakespeare Theater to Mad Cow to the Rep." That's around when I met Horne and cast him as Xander Harris in a fan convention staging of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. (He nailed the dance number.)

After that, I watched Horne's career with interest, especially his work with Jester Theatre (now defunct) and the PB&J Theatre Factory (now known as Gromalot), whose silent comedy Sport was part of the Garden Theatre's inaugural season in 2008. Horne went on to perform in several productions at the Garden, including Crimes of the Heart and Noises Off, in addition to helping create PB&J's long-running hit Sleigh for the venue. At the same time, Horne was also making his way up the theme park entertainment ladder, initially at Walt Disney World, then at Universal Orlando, where he began as a performer before taking on writing and directing duties. Today, he's a senior show director, and has created numerous characters and shows (including some seasonal event fan favorites) that have been seen across the resort.

When former Garden Theatre artistic director Rob Winn Anderson initially invited Horne to direct Ben Hur, his first reaction was, "Is it a comedy? Do you know who you're calling?" But after reading Barlow's wordplay-filled satire, which follows a deluded theatrical impresario's misguided attempt to dramatize the entire 900-page novel (chariot race and all), Horne thought it was something that definitely fell into his wheelhouse. And although fitting the rehearsal schedule around his commitments at Universal wasn't easy, "The thought of going back and dabbling in theater for just a little while is hard to say no to," Horne admits.

Ben Hur's melodramatic narrative about a vengeance-seeking Israelite in ancient Rome is almost incidental to the show. "We're not making fun of Ben Hur, that's not the joke. The joke is how poorly they're doing it, when they think they are doing a good job," Horne explains, comparing the show to The Play That Goes Wrong with shades of Waiting for Guffman and "a tiny hair" of Noises Off. "They could be doing anything; it just so happens to be Ben Hur." The company's incompetence extends to Chris McKinney's seemingly slapdash scenic design, as Horne points out when we walk in on the technical crew hard at work. "Things don't line up, things are mismatched. One column is smaller than the other column [and] the door doesn't quite close."

Horne says that he avoided viewing prior productions of the script "because I really want this to be one that belongs to the Garden Theatre," adding that they've been able to inject "a little of our flavor" into this Ben Hur. Horne found his comedic quartet of first-rate performers through open auditions, and says he feels very fortunate with who showed up. Folk singer T.J. Washburn plays the egomaniacal writer-director-star, Daniel Veil, with Mason Criswell, Kristin Shirilla and Adam Graham as his long-suffering co-stars. "Some of them are folks I've never worked with, but have been on my radar for a while now. I've seen them in the community doing other things, and have always wanted to work with them."

But Horne saves his loudest praise for Joseph C. Walsh, the Garden Theatre's newly installed artistic director, who kept Horne on after his predecessor's departure. "He is an incredible positive force for this theater," says Horne, praising his supportive rehearsal notes. "He is going to move this theater in a new direction that is only going to benefit the community."

Ben Hur runs through March 15, and the Garden Theatre's annual Encore fundraising gala, featuring Broadway star Kelli O'Hara, is March 14; visit gardentheatre.org for tickets.

This story appears in the March 4, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters.

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