The Brits are here: Good acting, sharp storytelling

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.

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

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