Theater year in review | KC companies rolled the dice — and their gambles mostly paid off with bold, energetic productions and performances.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Audacious.

That’s the word I would choose to describe much of what I saw on local stages this year. And audacity is a very good measure of a theater community’s artistic health.

In short, we are blessed in Kansas City with theater artists who think big. Who think outside the box (sometimes way outside). Who are constantly looking for new ways to tell old stories. And this year it felt as though the theater scene in Kansas City coalesced in a way it never had.

We’ve reached a point in this town where it’s unusual to see bad acting. Poor technical expertise is rare. There are so many gifted theater artists and crafts people living here that producers have their pick. And many of those artists are creating their own work.

The most well-attended example of audacious theater in 2011 has to be Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “Cabaret” last spring. Director Eric Rosen makes a practice of coming up with unconventional ideas, and for “Cabaret” he hit on a way to present the semi-classic musical about pre-war Berlin that gave audience members radically different perspectives of the same performance.

Chorus girls on the March in "Cabaret" (Don Ipock/KC Rep)

Some ticket-buyers watched the show as they normally would, from seats in the main auditorium at the Spencer Theatre. But you could also opt for one of about 200 seats upstage. I saw the show twice — once from each side of the stage — and preferred the backstage perspective, where you could see actors waiting for cues, chorus dancers coming so close you could touch them and production assistants wearing headsets.

Rosen made it all work because most of the action was set on a revolving turntable that offered viewers a constantly shifting perspective. For a higher price, some theatergoers could sit at little tables right at the edge of the turntable. It was a technically challenging show — Rosen’s usually are — that could honestly be called “experimental.”

At one point before the show opened, Rosen joked (at least I think he was joking) that he had toyed with the notion of ripping out all the Spencer’s seats and replacing them with cabaret tables. That’s an example of a guy who lets his imagination run free. And a free-ranging imagination can sometimes produce spectacular results.

Kansas City Actors Theatre has always been a company willing to take chances and seems comfortable with the risk of falling flat on its collective face. The leadership of the “artist led, artist driven” company follows its own collective muse and this year did something no other company in its right mind would have attempted: KCAT staged four plays by Harold Pinter — the full-length “The Birthday Party” and three one-acts — and performed them in repertory.

Aside from showcasing some exceptional performances — Melinda McCrary and Robert Gibby Brand were stand-outs — the productions offered theatergoers a double injection of Pinter, who until 2011 had been a rarely produced playwright in Kansas City.

Robert Gibby Brand and Melinda McCrary in Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party" (KCAT)

Pinter’s legendary use of pregnant pauses, elliptical dialogue and implied narrative gave audiences a lot to think about in KCAT’s capable hands.

KCAT scored later in the year with its co-production with the Unicorn Theatre of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” in which two civilized couples are reduced to infantile barbarism. The script stipulates, among other things, vomiting onstage.

The Unicorn, after a solid year of staging challenging works by prize-winning playwrights, saved its most entertaining offering until last — “The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge,” a rock musical from the 1990s. Not audacious, you say? With Ron Megee’s bravura performance as Elvis and Missy Koonce’s eccentric directing flourishes, believe me — it was.

We got more Pinter when the Living Room, the small downtown company that has defined itself by taking risks, staged Pinter’s “Betrayal.” The production showcased superior performances by Forrest Attaway, Rick Williamson and Katie Gilchrist and challenged the audience with its “promenade” staging. The audience followed the actors from one performance area to another on two floors of the rambling space.

The Living Room recorded a couple of other bold productions during the year — the disturbing, problematic “Blackbird,” about a sexual-abuse victim who tracks down her victimizer after she’s an adult, which featured fine performances by Vanessa Severo and Scott Cordes.

And Kyle Hatley, KC Rep’s associate artistic director, teamed up with the company to stage a wildly imagination, stripped-down production of “Carousel” and turned it into an actor’s show. Anyone who saw it won’t think of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show the same way. When Gilchrist belted out “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” it was like hearing the song for the first time.

Attaway figured prominently into another act of audacity: Bob Paisley’s decision to form a for-profit company, Central Standard Theatre, as a sort of offshoot of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the nonprofit company founded by his wife, Karen Paisley.

Central Standard’s first production was a nicely executed, well-acted production of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which Paisley later took to the annual fringe festival in Bedford, England. Strong performances were registered by Harvey Williams, Marilyn Lynch and Paisley himself.

Paisley came back as the director of “A Steady Rain,” a gritty play about the friendship between a couple of hardened Chicago cops. Attaway and Cordes were terrific in a piece that relied almost entirely on the power of the language and the actors’ skill.

Forrest Attaway and Scott Cordes in "A Steady Rain" (Bob Paisley/Central Standard Theatre)

Paisley, of course, is also responsible for the second annual “British Invasion” at the MET, which allowed theatergoers to see solo and two-actor performances by talented theater artists from the UK. I hope this becomes a yearly event far into the future.

There were other, smaller audacious acts of theater during the year: The MET tackled “Tommy,” and although the rock musical was just a bit beyond the company’s technical capability, audiences responded to the novelty of seeing a large-scale musical in a small performance space.

And early in the year, the MET staged an evocative production of the challenging “One Flea Spare,” a poetic drama set during the plague years in London. The show allowed Brand and Cordes each to chalk up one more exceptional performance.

The Coterie Theatre, a company with a long track record of taking artistic risks, staged a mind-boggling version of “The Wiz,” in which a major Broadway musical was reconceived for the Coterie’s intimate space. It also featured fine performances by Emily Shackelford, Tosin Morohunfola, Christopher Barksdale and Brad Shaw.

Even the city’s two commercial houses — the New Theatre and the American Heartland — were guilty of artistic chance-taking. Director Richard Carrothers and his designers came up with a whole new take on the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at the New Theatre, lending it a wacky sensibility and bold visual design.

Last spring the Heartland took on the post-modern comedy “The 39 Steps,” which benefited from good performances by John Wilson, Doogin Brown and especially the versatile Emily Peterson, and opened its current season with a serious play — “Nobody Lonesome for Me,” a meditation on country legend Hank Williams’ last night on earth.

Peterson also made in an impression in an exceedingly odd, R-rated farce by Natalie Liccardello called “Pies in the Porn Kitchen,” which was staged at the Fishtank Performance Studio, the tiny Crossroads theater whose very existence is an act of audacity.

Not every production during the year was particularly audacious, but some were simply well done. “Let’s Do It” featured splendid performances by Melinda MacDonald and Cary Mock at Quality Hill Playhouse. Katie Karel blew audiences away with her performance in the title role of “Evita,” staged in concert by Musical Theatre Heritage.

Stephanie Roberts wowed audiences with her one-actor piece, “The Mask of the Broken Heart” at the Kansas City Fringe Festival, which also showcased a remarkable play by the previously mentioned Attaway called “Worth” — a poetic and bleak drama about a middle-class family affected by organized crime.

Perhaps the finest production of the year came from KC Rep when Rosen came roaring back with “August: Osage County,” the sprawling family drama by Tracy Letts that showcased an all-Kansas City cast. The acting was superb, and Merle Moores, as the drug-addled matriarch, has never been better.

So 2011 was a year of memorable artistic successes. But it was also a year of loss. Within a space of a few weeks two admired actors died: Gary Holcombe, a fine dramatic actor who was also a skilled musical-theater performer, and T. Max Graham, a funnyman who could also handle dramatic roles.

Each man made a mark on the local theater community. And each in his own way helped lay the groundwork for a level of dynamic artistry in the Kansas City theater community that is no longer an exception to the rule. These days, it’s simply what we expect.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

‘War Horse’: Lovable horse, scenery to die for | 3 stars

Posted on Dec. 22, 2011

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Who among us cannot be moved by a brave horse in harm’s way?

The self-evident answer would seem to make Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” a slam-dunk in terms of eliciting sobs from a willing audience. And while I did hear a few sniffles as this movie about a miraculous World War I horse drew to a close, the film (opening Sunday) never fully engaged me. It lacks emotional immediacy, despite Spielberg’s usual high level of craftsmanship and committed performances.

Jeremy Irvine and "Joey" in "War Horse" (Dreamworks)

In my teens I read Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the classic novel about the futility of war, and one stark image remains with me to this day: a dying, eviscerated horse.

You’ll see nothing so graphic in Spielberg’s movie, but by some estimates, 8 million horses died in World War I and continued being fed into the carnage factory even after the generals decided that cavalry charges were rather quaint in the age of machine guns.

This was the historical backdrop of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name as well as the extraordinary stage version adapted by Nick Stafford and, now, an epic film from Spielberg, a master manipulator of viewers’ emotions.

The story begins in Devon in southwest England, where teenage Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with a foal named Joey. He eventually gets to train him after his father (Peter Mullan), a tenant farmer with a taste for liquor, pays too much for the horse at auction. The boy is heartbroken when his father, unable to meet rent payments to a greedy landlord (David Thewlis), sells Joey to the army.

So Albert enlists in a go-for-broke effort to find his beloved horse.

I’ve always believed there were at least two Spielbergs — the sadist (“Jaws,” “Saving Private Ryan”) and the sentimentalist (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.”). Films about horses are as sentimental as they come, but Spielberg’s determination to make a PG-13 family film yields interesting results, especially in his depictions of combat.

A charge of British cavalry against a German encampment begins thunderously as the horsemen advance with their anachronistic sabers drawn. The Brits fly through the enemy camp, dispatching surprised Germans with their swords. It’s a fast-moving action sequence, but we don’t see a drop of blood.

As Germans manning machine guns in the woods open up on the advancing cavalrymen, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky produce the film’s most arresting image: riderless horses racing through the machine gun emplacements. Spielberg doesn’t need to show us the bodies of the fallen soldiers. The stunning visuals say it all.

British cavalry charge German machine guns (Dreamworks)

Later in the film, Albert, now an infantryman, participates in an attack on the German trenches. Again, Spielberg conveys the horror and chaos of mechanized warfare without a trace of gore. Bodies fall, men scream and artillery shells throw them skyward like rag dolls. And that’s enough.

The entire look of the film is deeply textured. The early, sunbathed images of Devon seem to explode with color. As the war becomes a bitter slog, gray sludge and mud-caked uniforms become the dominant visual motif.

The actors are all quite good, even though the episodic nature of the story gives them little screen time to establish nuanced characters. Irvine projects three variations of wide-eyed youth — ecstatic joy, depthless sorrow and raw fear. But this newcomer’s performance is so unaffected that you never really question the character’s emotional arc.

The film’s finest performance comes from Niels Arestrup as a French grandfather who with his teenage granddaughter (Celine Buckens) briefly inherits Joey and another horse. The grandfather’s love for young Emilie is overarching and gives the character an inner fire beneath a seeming passive detachment. He also figures into the denouement when he becomes Albert’s unexpected ally in determining Joey’s ultimate fate.

In the film’s best scene, a young British infantryman (Toby Kebbell) advances into no-man’s-land under a white flag to rescue Joey from a latticework of barbed wire. He is joined by a German soldier (Hinnerk Schönemann) who brings wire cutters. The two enemies trade sarcastic fantasies of the “joys” of life in the trenches. (The screenplay is credited to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis.) Ultimately they flip a coin to decide who gets to take Joey and part company with good will and mutual respect.

Spielberg turns to tried-and-true techniques in his effort to move us. His camera repeatedly glides in for close shots when characters are experiencing powerful emotions. And composer John Williams never misses a chance to tell us how we should feel at any given moment with his overly busy “soaring” score.

The film runs almost 2 1/2 hours, and while it doesn’t really feel too long, you’d think Spielberg could have delivered a bigger dramatic punch with that much time on his hands.

As it is, he’s given us a thoroughly respectable movie — visually striking, handsomely mounted, well-acted and frustratingly remote.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources.

British export ‘September in the Rain’ evokes a bygone era

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The prolific John Godber is reputed to be the third-most-produced playwright in Britain after William Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn, but I don’t believe theatergoers in Kansas City had ever seen one of his works until the final weekend of “British Invasion 2011.”

This mini-festival presented by the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre and Central Standard Theatre allowed a small caravan of British theater artists to perform solo works for small but welcoming audiences. Most of the plays had not been performed here before, and I have to say the Brits were a huge breath of fresh air.

Elizabeth Thomas and David Baxter in "September in the Rain" (Blackout Theatre)

Godber’s “September in the Rain” is a sweet, funny and keenly observed two-hander about a Yorkshire couple recalling their annual vacations to Blackpool, the seaside tourist mecca on England’s west coast.

David Baxter and Elizabeth Thomas of the Blackout Theatre Company in Bedford, England, played Jack and Liz, a coal miner and a housewife, who unveiled their history in monologues and scenes carried along by Godber’s economical but evocative dialogue.

This a bittersweet play — sometimes very funny, ultimately hauntingly poignant. Baxter is a burly actor who inhabits Jack with no trace of artifice. Thomas is a short powerhouse who demonstrated an impressive emotional range in this piece.

The play evokes a version of Blackpool from an earlier era — a place of beach bathing, ballroom dancing, musicals at the Winter Gardens and visits to museums of curiosities and grotesqueries for largely working-class tourists. (My main reference for Blackpool is the 1960 film “The Entertainer,” which was based on John Osborne’s play about a fading music-hall star. Some of the film was shot in Blackpool, and even then the movie suggested a city that had seen better days.)

Liz and Jack bicker constantly, but their love runs deep. And their marriage survives the annual vacations, which include absurdly small hotel rooms, rainy days, Jack’s volatile temper, traffic jams on the highway and carnival-like hucksters on the pier.

It all falls on the actors in a play that requires little more than two chairs and some suitcases. And they take us on a journey from the young Jack and Liz visiting Blackpool in their first car to the aged couple who can no longer drive but travel to Blackpool by bus.

At the Sunday afternoon performance, it was a trip worth taking.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources

History, Brits and Yanks: The art of the monologue

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Guy Masterson holds dual citizenship in both this country and the United Kingdom, and his performances are an intriguing mix of American and British sensibilities.

To grossly oversimplify, he writes like a Brit and performs like a Yank. That unique mating of the cerebral and the physical makes Masterson ideal to perform “American Poodle,” a pairing of two short satirical solo plays that contrasts a British view of American history with an arrogant American view of contemporary England.

Masterson performed the show Friday night at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre as part of “British Invasion 2011.”

Masterson wrote “Snowball,” the first half of the piece, in which a Brit offers his view of the colonization of North America and the founding of this country. Masterson weaves together complex history with caustic humor that seeks to explode some of our favorite myths about the founding of the country.

Guy Masterson in “American Poodle”                              (Theatre Tours International)

Masterson’s performances are volatile, as though he’ll burst out of his skin at any moment. He delivers his monologues the aggressive rapidity an anti-aircraft gun. The upside is that there are no dead spots. Every moment counts as Masterson pulls you along at a breakneck pace. The downside is your inability to fully absorb the information he throws at you.

The second half of the piece is “Splayfoot” by Bryan Parks, in which an American businessman arrives in London on his first trip to the UK. As he explores the city he never really understands what he’s actually seeing because everything is filtered through his chauvinistic lens. One of the funniest segments considers the contrast between British shoppers and their American counterparts in terms of escalator etiquette. American backsides receive close attention.

The evening opened with a very different solo performance — Frank Spackman of the Blackout Theatre in Bedford, England, acting Alan Bennett’s “A Chip in the Sugar.” Spackman’s approach employs nuanced understatement, allowing Bennett’s language to deliver the laughs.

Frank Spackman in “A Chip in the Sugar”  (Central Standard Theatre

It’s a funny but poignant piece in its depiction of middle-aged Graham Whitaker, a tentative fellow who still lives with his 72-year old mother. Their life together is comfortable and predictable. That changes when she encounters Frank Turnbull, an old flame she hasn’t seen for decades.

The more persuasively Frank woos his mom, the more unsettled Graham becomes. Eventually Graham discovers that Turnbull has a secret and the revelation brings the old-age romance to an abrupt halt. Spackman’s timing wasn’t what it needed to be at the Friday performance but his handling of the language was unaffected and engrossing.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

Actor Ron Megee proves his resilience in ‘Iggy Scrooge’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

He’s at it again.

Ron Megee is a multi-threat theater artist — actor, director, playwright, choreographer, props maker, carpenter — but he just can’t resist the opportunity to change costumes at breakneck speed as he shifts gears from one character to another.

Take a peek in The Kansas City Star archives and you’re likely to see the name “Ron Megee” in close proximity to “double cast” and “multiple roles.”

In the grand tradition of Sir Alec Guinness in “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” Tony Randall in “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” and Peter Sellers in “The Mouse That Roared” and “Dr. Strangelove,” Megee has distinguished himself among local actors as a performer who can play as many as five roles in one show.

This month theatergoers have seen him do it again in “The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge” at the Unicorn Theatre. Director Missy Koonce has a way of stretching Megee like a rubber band. So far he hasn’t snapped.

The show is a caustic retelling of “A Christmas Carol” set to a rock score. In the place of Ebenezer Scrooge is Iggy — a rock star at once childish, selfish, petulant, demanding, irrational, abusive and delusional.

Ron Megee as "Elvis" in "Iggy Scrooge" (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

Matthew Rapport plays Iggy, but Megee plays four roles: Irene, a pseudo-groupie who wants Iggy to lend his name and talent to the cause of mad cow disease awareness; Oscar, an elderly custodian in the concert hall where Iggy is visited by ghosts who urge him to change his ways; the Ghost of Christmas Present in the guise of a caped, jump-suited Elvis; and Sister Bull, a sadomasochistic nun who runs a boarding school.

Everyone in the show plays more than one role except Rapport. But nobody else plays as many as Megee. Most of them also play instruments with the band at various times. Not Megee, whose talents do not include music.

“He’s very, very busy changing clothes,” Koonce said during rehearsals.

Megee appeared in “Iggy” once before, when the Unicorn first staged the show in 1997. In that one he played the Ghost of Christmas Past, aka Buddy Holly, and Freddie, Iggy’s cheerful nephew.

The script specifies which roles should be double- or triple-cast. But Megee said Koonce decided to shake things up by changing the tracks — the succession of roles played by a given actor. The Irene-Sister Bull-Oscar-Elvis track is new.

“I do a lot of shows where I play lots of people,” Megee said. “You’re never bored, not that I get bored in shows. But I’m constantly going. As soon as I step off stage I’m ripping off wigs and tearing clothes off. I’m running.”

“Iggy” features plenty of good performances, but Megee ended up with the juiciest bits. His first flash of brilliance is in a short but vivid appearance as Mother Bull, as Iggy is forced to revisit his childhood years at a boarding school. Mother Bull can’t help beating herself if she thinks she’s guilty of a sin — which she does rather often.

“I love her,” Megee said. “She is one evil woman. And I love that she punishes herself. The great thing with Missy is that she gives the actors such complete freedom in the supporting roles.

“Another great thing Missy does is she always wants the character to be based in truth. Like Oscar. I love him. He’s just this sweet little old man who’s worked at the concert hall forever.”

Megee said his first professional acting gig in Kansas City was in the Coterie Theatre’s 1992 production of “Neverland,” a retelling of “Peter Pan.” He played three roles, including John Darling and an outrageously effeminate pirate named Smee. The director was Jeff Church.

Church and Koonce, Megee said, are the directors who have cast him in multiples most often. His record so far is five roles in the “Sideways Stories From Wayside School” at the Coterie. Koonce directed it.

In “Iggy,” Megee is first seen before the show begins. As Irene, Megee and Erin McGrane (as Margie) occupy two seats in the the theater. They chatter away in character (Megee said they each created elaborate backstories for their minor roles) before the house lights dim and keep talking during Iggy’s initial appearance as he performs onstage with his band.

“We have a blast,” Megee said. “Each night we get to come out and sit in the audience and watch the first five minutes of the show. It’s funny because people don’t know who we are. Some people have asked us to be quiet. One lady thought we were in her seats and turned us in. There’s sort of a pre-show happening.”

For Elvis, Megee did some homework.

“At first I made the mistake of looking at the young Elvis,” Megee said. “But I found this thing online with little clips of thousands of interviews he did. He had become a parody of himself with the lip and the talking almost in a slur. So I combined that with 1968 Elvis so you could understand what I was saying.”

Megee said attendance has been brisk and some performances have been sold out.

“It’s been a great run,” he said. “And in the talk-backs it’s really interesting to hear what people are saying. We had one woman who just didn’t like Christmas at all but finally at the end, after she saw the way Iggy changed, she thought it conveyed it better than traditional versions of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ One Jewish woman said it made her believe in Christmas.”

We may see Megee in multiple roles in the spring when the Coterie stages “James and the Giant Peach.”

“Rumor is I may play two to four roles in that,” he said.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

Guy Masterson brings a refined sensibility to ‘Shylock’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

In all of Shakespeare there are just two Jewish characters, both found in “The Merchant of Venice.”

One is world famous: Shylock, the moneylender who demands as his security a “pound of flesh,” a role that has been played by the leading actors of every age since the play was first performed. The other is Tubal, Shylock’s friend, who dwells among Shakespeare’s most obscure characters.

That’s the starting point for “Shylock,” a one-actor play by Gareth Armstrong that theatergoers can see Guy Masterson perform as part of “British Invasion 2011” at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. This two-act play is wide-ranging, encyclopedic, profoundly serious and very funny as it intertwines theater history with the perception and treatment of Jews in Britain.

Masterson, a charismatic performer with a booming voice and a larger-than-life stage presence, brings a refined sensibility to this piece. That play is dense and complex but Masterson maintains maximum clarity throughout. Masterson plays our host for the evening, Tubal himself, who insists that even though Shakespeare gives him only eight lines, he is nevertheless an important and influential character.

Some of the history is sobering: the murder in 1140 of William of Norwich, a youth whose violent death was attributed to Jews and originated the myth of Jews using the blood of Christian children in religious ritual; the York massacre of 1190; the ruling by Pope Innocent III in 1215 that all Jews (and Muslims) should publicly wear a yellow badge, long before the Nazis; and the expulsion of Jews by edict of Edward I in 1290.

Oliver Cromwell’s decision in 1656 to allow them to return was motivated in part, the play suggests, by the economically depressed country’s need for some banking expertise.

Guy Masterson as Tubal (Theatre Tours International)

Tubal also guides us through the history of the English theater, beginning with the observation that – because of the expulsion – William Shakespeare had never met a Jew. Nor did he know much about Venice. And he had a jumbled sense of geography.

Early on Shylock was portrayed in the broadest stereotypical way, with a hook nose and ginger hair, depicted as either a clown or a monster. But things began to change when Charles Macklin, an 18th century star of the London stage, played Shylock in an “authentic” manner by researching the traditional Jewish customs and dress. In the 19th century, Edmund Keane established a new tradition of portraying Shylock sympathetically, as a victim of bigotry.

The piece allows Masterson to recreate scenes from “The Merchant of Venice,” sometimes humorously, and to perform amusing asides about the New Testament, the fate of minor characters and the plight of minor actors.

It all adds up to a sumptuous theatrical, historical and intellectual feast served up in a bravura performance.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

Blue Man Group: Comedy meets visual spectacle

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Faking spontaneity is a lot tougher than faking sincerity, but Blue Man Group has it down to an art form.

The touring edition of the show that dazzled, amused and tirelessly entertained what appeared to be a near-sellout audience at the Music Hall on opening night Tuesday was a beautiful exercise in the art of illusion. When the blue men began interacting with video images of themselves and invading the audience’s space in a search for “volunteers,” nothing was quite as it seemed.

The three blue-faced performers who command our attention at all times (Kalen Allmandinger, Kirk Massey and Patrick Newton on opening night) are essentially high-end clowns, but they convey the air of strangers in a strange land – like aliens trying to learn the ways of humans. That’s part of what makes the show fun. These performers exhibit considerable charm.

But the skill of the actors is surrounded by spectacle, sophisticated video projections and explosions of color. Created and written by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, the show that began in an off-Broadway theater has now become a machine that functions with breathtaking precision. It showcases refined performing skills and exceptional musicianship and ultimately seeks to send viewers home reeling after a finale in which enormous inflated spheres bounce through the crowd as the blue men spray streams of toilet paper into the crowd.

Blue Man Group at the Music Hall (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

You can find a vigorous debate on the Internet about whether the audience members brought on stage are plants or actual ticket-buyers and I kept an open mind until a sequence late in the performance. A young man was brought onstage, helped into a pair of white disposable painter’s coveralls, fitted with a protective helmet and led into the wings. We then watched a video transmission labeled “live backstage” in which the “volunteer” was doused in blue paint, bound by the feet, hoisted upside down and slammed into a large canvas to create “body art.”

I suppose he could have been the most cooperative audience volunteer in the history of show business, but I have my doubts. Another bit about 30 minutes into the show when “late arrivals” are captured on camera and bathed in a spotlight as they walk down the aisle is apparently a standard part of the show.

But it’s all so well done that you have to give the production extra points for serving up such clever fakery.

Interestingly, for a show that has somehow acquired a bit of an intellectual patina, there’s a notable reactionary spirit at work in much of the humor. In the opening sequence the blue men create “art” by catching marshmallows and some version of paint balls in their mouths and then spraying or regurgitating the material onto canvases.

And in a prolonged scene involving another audience member and a dinner of Twinkie Lights, one of the best jokes of the night occurs when one of the blue men uses a vacuum cleaner to suck Christina out of a copy of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World.”

On another level, the show is having a field day making fun of consumerism and advertising through mock TV commercials and what might be termed anti-product placement.

In short, the show is anything you need it to be – subversive, satirical, anarchic or anti-intellectual. Just choose one. But it’s something else, too: expansively entertaining.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

The Brits are here: Good acting, sharp storytelling

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

After watching two exceptional performances by Rebecca Vaughan and Richard Fry on the second night of “British Invasion 2011,” one fact cannot be denied – these playwright/actors have taken solo performance to a level local audiences rarely see.

One-actor shows and spoken-word performances are always part of Kansas City’s annual fringe festival, and not so long ago Peggy Friesen, one of our best actresses, performed “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a challenging 90-minute solo piece, at the Living Room.

But the Brits, by continually touring and hitting an international circuit of fringe festivals, are able to refine their work to the point that the performances are unblemished and seamless. In effect you’re seeing shows that have been rehearsed for a year or longer.

Fry’s “Smiler,” the second of two pieces he performed on the first weekend of the invasion at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is a deeply moving work that is at once humor-filled and heartbreaking. Fry is a gifted storyteller and this piece depicts the narrator’s friendship with the title character, a man in his 20s forced to live with permanent neurological impairments after being run down by a drunk driver.

Richard Fry in "Smiler" (Kansas City Star)

Fry performs the piece in rhyming verse and he excels at painting pictures with words. He conjures cinematic images that stick with the viewer long after the house lights come up. His depiction of working the graveyard shift at a combination gas station and convenience store is filled with convincing details, and his description of taking Smiler to his high school reunion is as raucous and immediate as it would have been for the participants.

The piece ultimately poses the most difficult of questions: What would you do if someone loved asked you to help them in a way that goes against every fiber of your being?

This is strong stuff, impeccable performed on a virtually bare stage, save for a reclining lawn chair.

Vaughan’s “Austen’s Women’ is a different sort of play performed with consummate skill. Directed by Guy Masterson, the show allows Vaughan to slip in and out more than a dozen characters from Jane Austen’s novels. She’s easily versatile enough to pull it. One could argue that Vaughan imbues these characters with a few too many 21st-century mannerisms, but the performance is witty, smart and often very funny.

Rebecca Vaughan in "Austen's Women" (Bob Paisley/CST)

Vaughan stitches together the piece with introductions each character – all the words were written by Austen – and she sets it up as though she were addressing an audience in her private dressing chamber.

Vaughan, costumed in an authentic Georgian dress, is already seated at a writing desk as the audience enters the theater. She seems lost in thought as she dips a quill in ink and commits her thoughts to paper. Without explicitly saying so, this is an evening with Jane Austen.

Among the characters we meet are Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice;” the Dashwood sisters of “Sense and Sensibility;” Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of “Emma;” Mary Musgrove of “Persuasion” and Diana Parker from “Sandition.”

As the characters speak and reflect on the qualities of love and marriage and the social position women once occupied among the landed gentry of England, we find plenty to relate to from our 21st-century perspective. In some ways times have changed a lot. In others, not so much.

And what shines through at every moment is Austen’s formidable intelligence. True eloquence, this piece suggests, is a lost art.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

Review | British Performers draw audiences into the fascinating worlds of a troubled queen and a gay suicidal teen.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Two very different one-actor plays inaugurated the “British Invasion 2011” at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, bringing a most welcome touch of class and smarts to midtown.

Rebecca Vaughan’s “I, Elizabeth,” directed by Guy Masterson, is a dense, textured and compelling, if contradictory, portrait of a young queen seeking to balance her fierce personal independence against the demands of domestic politics, foreign policy and potential threats from Spain and France. All the words are Elizabeth’s, and the show effectively puts the audience in the role of confidant as the queen shares her unvarnished opinions, ardent hopes and deepest fears.

Rebecca Vaughan in "I, Elizabeth" (Dyad Productions)

Richard Fry’s “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts” is a clever, amusing and profoundly serious examination of the causes and consequences of gay teen suicides, performed in rhyming verse with a light but heartfelt touch. Fry’s script takes the audience on a touching journey that makes unexpected turns as it juxtaposes upbeat, whimsical projections of the world that could be against the rather grim, unforgiving place that it is.

The MET is the physical host, but the Brit invasion is produced by Central Standard Theatre, a company closely associated with the MET. CST is working with theater troupes in the U.K. and Australia to set up a permanent exchange program that will allow annual performances in Kansas City by artists from both countries.

Vaughan composed her script entirely from extant writings by Queen Elizabeth I, including speeches, prayers, notebook jottings, even acerbic comments scrawled in the margins of legislative documents. In the course of the play we hear Elizabeth rebel against the Parliament’s insistence that she marry and produce a clear-cut heir to the throne. We hear her personal feelings about marriage; the problems posed by Mary, Queen of Scots; and, at times, feelings of helplessness so overwhelming that she prays to the Almighty to guide her.

Vaughan performs the Elizabethan language in a conversational style, which places us in an inherently intimate relationship with the character. We may miss the significance of some of the arcane subject matter, but there’s no mistaking how Elizabeth feels about it.

Ultimately, Vaughan may cover a bit too much history in her 70 minutes of stage time. And the sound of an electrical short accompanied by dimming lights to separate individual episodes seems arbitrary and “post-modern” and does nothing to enhance the material. Even so, Vaughan performs with integrity and deep emotional honesty.

Richard Fry in "The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts" (Bob Paisley/CST)

Fry relates the story of a teenager whose parents gave him the comically incongruous name of John Wayne, who at the age of 14 steps in front of a bus with a suicide note in his inside pocket. Through therapy sessions with a sympathetic nurse, he begins to feel OK about being gay. He goes on to distinguish himself by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, forming a national group of positive-thinking activists who spread the it’s-OK-to-be-gay gospel and eventually, in old age, riding on the first commercial orbital space flight.

If all that sounds too good to be true, you’re right. Fry shows us what could be as a way of underscoring what is. He’s as talented a writer as he is an actor, and his moving performance easily wins over an audience.

Kansas City is, of course, famous for audiences who award standing ovations to performers simply for coming from somewhere else. Indeed, the audience Thursday night stood for both Vaughan and Fry, but in this case it seemed a justifiable reward for the difficulty and quality of the performances.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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

The British are coming: Invasion begins tonight with two one-actor plays at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Tonight a couple of visiting British actor/playwrights pitch their tents at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre for what is being billed as “British Invasion 2011.”

Kicking off the mini-festival of imported one- and two-actor shows will be Rebecca Vaughan performing her “I, Elizabeth,” based on the writings of Queen Elizabeth I, and Richard Fry’s “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts,” an original piece written in rhyming couplets.

Rebecca Vaughan in "Austen's Women" (Dyad Productions)

On Friday Vaughan and Fry return to perform two different shows — “Austen’s Women,” Vaughan’s piece based on the novels and letters of Jane Austen, and “Smiler,” Fry’s account of a brain-damaged friend who was struck by a drunken driver.

Vaughan performed in Kansas City last year as part of the first British invasion brought in by Bob Paisley’s Central Standard Theatre. But Fry is visiting for the first time. In fact, tonight’s performance marks his American debut.

In a telephone interview, Fry said he got to know Paisley first at last year’s fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, and again at the annual fringe earlier this year in Adelaide, Australia.

Fry, 39, said he writes his plays in verse in part because he is a frustrated songwriter, inspired by the singer/songwriters of the 1980s, including Elvis Costello.

“Their songs really meant something to me,” he said. “They could write these complete little stories in a three-minute song. I quickly discovered that I was rubbish on the guitar, but I had this massive folder of work.”

Richard Fry in "The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts" (Bob Paisley/CST)

Fry said the two shows he’ll perform in Kansas City share a certain commonality — they’re one-actor pieces in which he plays more than one role — but they deal with different subject matter.

“ ‘Smiler’ is my fourth show that I’ve written,” he said. “It’s about my friend who got hit by a drunk driver when he was 18, and it’s about how he feels about his life now and our friendship and how difficult it is and how he deals with it on a daily basis.

“I wanted to show how people who live with a disability are essentially like the rest of us. They’re as funny and as interesting and as boring as the rest of us.”

“The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts” deals with a subject that Americans are more aware of than Britons, he said.

“It’s about young gay suicide,” he said. “I don’t want it to sound maudlin because it’s actually a celebration of life, and rather than do a whole hour on suicidal teenagers, it’s actually more of an inspirational piece. It really just explores how we can all make more of our lives and how, if we stop worrying about the smaller things, we can go on and achieve something important.”

He was moved to write the piece, he said, because nobody in the U.K. seemed to really be talking about teen suicide.

Vaughan’s solo and small-show work so far has been taken from literary sources. She crafted each of the shows she’ll perform in Kansas City from the written words of Jane Austen and Queen Elizabeth I.

“Obviously, Jane Austen and Elizabeth I had a lot to do with it,” she said. “I’m a collager, if you will. I’m very interested in taking something that already exists and making something new out of it.”

Vaughan and Fry will dominate the first weekend of the Brit invasion, which continues through Dec. 18.

They will perform “I, Elizabeth” and “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts” in repertory at 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday; and “Austen’s Women” and “Smiler” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Performers slated to perform next week are Guy Masterson in three one-actor shows and, from the Blackout Theatre in Bedford, England, David Baxter and Elizabeth Thomas in “September in the Rain,” and Frank Spackman in Alan Bennett’s “A Chip in the Sugar.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

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