Review | ‘Blackbird’ is a fascinating look into a psychological relationship

The Kansas City Star

Shocking, funny, tragic, sad, thrilling, bleak — these are a few of the words with which you could describe David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” but none of them really convey the unique nature of this unsettling play about sex, love and loss.

The Living Room production, directed by Bryan Moses and featuring the superior talents of Scott Cordes and Vanessa Severo, is as grimly realistic as a Ken Loach movie with its convincingly trashed-out set and naturalistic dialogue.

Scott Cordes and Vanessa Severo in "Blackbird" (Kansas City Star)

Harrower’s characters speak in starts, stops and overlaps in a way that suggests David Mamet, but there’s a key difference: Mamet’s dialogue always seems an artful construction. Harrower’s characters sound like real people stepping on each other’s words and interrupting each other, sometimes aggressively.

The play is set in a break room at the company where Ray (Cordes) works, and where Una (Severo) has tracked him down. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since he was 40 and she was 12. That’s when they had a sexual relationship that landed him in prison and altered her life forever.

Now Ray has served his time, changed his name and rebuilt a life and is stunned when he’s suddenly confronted by Una, whose purpose isn’t initially clear.

As the play unfolds in roughly 90 minutes we learn a lot about the nature of their relationship and its aftermath. Ray doesn’t really see himself as a pedophile and Una doesn’t consider herself simply a victim of abuse. Their feelings are complicated and as they talk we learn why: They were in love.

The state of being in love is, of course, marked by many of the symptoms of psychosis, or so the experts tell us, and the story of Ray and Una in many ways fits that model.

The actors handle this difficult material with breathtaking commitment. Cordes delivers an infinitely subtle, quiet performance as Ray goes through wrenching changes when suddenly confronted by his past. Cordes is a riveting presence, whether he’s speaking or listening.

Severo has opportunities to tap into her comedic skills because, yes, this show delivers some laughs, despite the subject matter. But she’s at her best during a long, intense monologue in which Una recounts her experience on the last day she and Ray saw each other and her subsequent experience as an officially designated victim and social outcast. As Severo negotiates Harrower’s vivid, visual narrative, you could hear a pin drop.

Harrower’s play concludes with a shocker — one that I won’t give away — and leaves his viewers with much to think about. The show is fascinating look into a psychological relationship. It’s provocative and deeply disturbing. And it sticks with you.

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© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

‘Maybe Baby, It’s You’ full of nice surprises

The Kansas City Star

The American Heartland Theatre production of “Maybe Baby, It’s You” is full of all sorts of nice surprises, thanks mainly to the work of two talented actors.

But no surprise is more striking than the spectacle of Jessalyn Kincaid, a fine singer, intentionally singing badly. Very, very badly.

Chase Ashurst and Jessalyn Kincaid

Chase Ashurst and Jessalyn Kincaid (AHT)

The two-actor show by Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson, first produced in 1999, is lightweight, agreeable entertainment that’s just clever enough for audiences to overlook the formulaic nature of the material.

The script is a series of vignettes about relationships — our expectations of love and marriage, our disappointments, the eternal divide between men and women and so on. Kincaid and Chase Ashurst play a range of characters of different ages and they work extremely well together.

We first see them as young people listing off the qualities each of them wants in a perfect mate. As the focus shifts between them like a ping-pong ball, their standards get lower and lower until they admit that they’d take almost anyone as long as he or she was breathing.

In one vignette a young wife wants her husband to be more spontaneous and embarrasses him in a restaurant by singing to him at the top of her lungs. In another a man finds himself on a blind date with none other than Medea of Greek mythology — a woman we could say has some serious relationship issues. The incongruity of thrusting Medea into a mundane modern setting is inherently comical and this episode shows Kincaid at her best.

Towards the end of the show we see them as elderly exes who still have deep feelings for each other. It’s an effective, surprisingly poignant episode in a show that more often than not embraces absurdity and broad humor.

Between scenes the stage goes dark and we listen to man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews about how men and women see each other. Some of these are amusing but for the most part they state the obvious.

Ashurst, an actor I had not seen before, leaves an indelible impression in his Heartland debut. He’s a man with formidable comedic gifts, including a keen sense of timing. Kincaid exercises her prodigious acting skills and quirky sense of humor and together they make this a palatable evening of theater. And when they dance at the end of the show they seem to be having more fun than anyone in the playhouse. (No choreographer is credited in the program.)

Director Paul Hough keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. He also designed the handsome costumes, which are different for each vignette and require the actors to do some impressive quick changes. Shane Rowse’s lighting is effective and Alex Perry contributes a clean, utilitarian scenic design.

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© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.