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.

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