KC Rep’s quirky ‘Great Immensity’ offers nice music, strong performances, thin story

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City Repertory Theatre in partnership with the Civilians, a New York-based “investigative theater” company, alerts us to the devastating consequences of climate change if we don’t get off our rear ends and do something about it.

The world premiere of “The Great Immensity” opened Friday at Copaken Stage, the Rep’s downtown performance venue, and revealed the risk-taking show to be a rather unwieldy cargo container of theatrical virtues and deficiencies. The show is well-acted, quirky, sincere, sometimes confusing and desperately in need of something resembling dramatic tension. Written and directed by Steve Cosson, with original songs by Michael Friedman, the show seems dedicated to the notion that it’s possible to liberate vital information from research papers and science journalism and present it in an entertaining but no less informative way on stage.

Rebecca Hart and Dan Domingues in "The Great Immensity" (Don Ipock/KC Rep)

The idea, I suppose, is to send theatergoers forth into the world to do battle with – well, with somebody. Politicians? Importers? Corporate polluters? International investment bankers? Doing so would definitely be fighting the good fight. But if you accept this play’s contention that the planet is going down the tubes, is that knowledge really enough? People beset by immediate day-to-day problems – unemployment, health insurance worries – may have a to-do list that doesn’t include defending the eco-ramparts.

The creative highlights of this production include Friedman’s songs, which are graced with clever lyrics and offbeat storytelling devices while remaining melodically infectious. And the actors, all out-of-towners, bring quite a bit of humor, warmth and clarity to a show that isn’t about three-dimensional characters.

The title of the show is taken from the name of a huge Chinese container ship that Cosson and Friedman saw when they were researching the piece in the Panama Canal and the ship, or at least a fictional version of it, figures into the dramatic narrative.

The setup: Phyllis (Rebecca Hart) arrives at Barro Colorado Island, a rain forest and research preserve, in search of her missing twin sister Polly. Polly, a film maker who was apparently working on a cable documentary, has simply disappeared and Phyllis is determined to find out what happened to her.

She enlists the help of some of the island researchers (Dan Domingues, Meghan McGeary, Eddie Korbich) and makes contact via Skype with a cryptic but comical figure known as the Ship Spotter (Todd Ceveris), who knows more than he admits. Cosson jumps back in time and allows us to see Polly (also played by Hart) before she disappeared. We get a clue about what she’s up to in her communications with the Ship Spotter and we get some of her back-story as she shoots a video interview with Julie, an angry teenage “Earth Ambassador” (Mollie Carden).

The first act is set on the island. Act 2 shifts to Churchill, Manitoba, the “polar bear capital of the world,” because Phyllis discovers that Polly may have gone there after she left Panama. There Phyllis meets other quick-sketch characters (McGeary and Korbich as instructors for a gathering of young Earth Ambassadors, Ceveris as the hard-drinking Dr Medvedkov) and eventually connects with Charlie (Domingues), who works at Churchill’s port facility and knows exactly what happened to Polly. Read the complete review at kansascity.com.

 

 

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‘Billy Bishop’: KCAT, UMKC and WWI museum become allies for a play with music about a legendary Canadian ace

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

When theatergoers stream in to see “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” the first thing they’re likely to notice is a Nieuport 17, a French-made biplane that saw plenty of action in World War I.

But it won’t be airborne. On the contrary, the nearly life-sized replica will be nose-down, falling from the sky, crashing to earth.

“Most of the (research) images I found were of crashed planes,” said scenic designer Kerith Parashak. “It was such a striking image that it was hard to get away from that. Billy Bishop was a fantastic fighter. He was a great shot, but he wasn’t too good at landing. He talks about crashing his plane a couple of times in the show.”

Grant Fletcher Prewitt in "Billy Bishop Goes to War" (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

William Avery Bishop, a Canadian pilot who flew with the Royal Air Corps over France, became one of the most decorated aviators of the First World War. He was credited with 72 victories and won the Victoria Cross for his single-handed attack on a German aerodrome. He also claimed to have survived a fight with Manfred von Richthofen, the fabled Red Baron.

“Around we went in cyclonic circles for several minutes, here a flash of the Hun machines, then a flash of silver as my squadron commander would whiz by,” Bishop once wrote in recounting his battle with the Baron and three of his men, all flying red Albatross triplanes.

“All the time I would be in the same mix-up myself, every now and then finding a red machine in front of me, and letting in a round or two of quick shots. I was glad the Germans were scarlet and we were silver. There was no need to hesitate about firing when the right color flitted by your nose …”

“Billy Bishop Goes to War,” written by Canadians John Gray and Eric Peterson, premiered in 1978 with the authors performing. Gray played multiple characters, including Billy Bishop, and Peterson performed original songs written in a style meant to evoke the feeling of World War I-era music. Eventually Gray and Peterson performed the piece on and off-Broadway, as well as in London and at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

As the authors aged, they revised the show a couple of times, allowing for a much older version of Billy to look back at the events of his youth.

A 7/8 scale replica of the French-built Nieuport 17, a model frequently flown by Billy Bishop during the World War I. (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

The new production, directed by John Rensenhouse, is the second collaboration among the National World War I Museum, Kansas City Actors Theatre and the UMKC Theatre Department. The first was the epic-scale “Oh, What a Lovely War,” which was performed at the museum last year.

“We had such a good experience doing ‘Oh, What a Lovely War,’ it was like, ‘Gosh, what else can we do?’” said Rensenhouse, an Actors Theatre board member. He said Tom Mardikes, chairman of the UMKC Theatre Department, and veteran stage manager Jim Mitchell, two Actors Theatre founders, had worked on a 1991 production of the show at what was then called Missouri Repertory Theatre. Mardikes and Mitchell thought it would be a perfect fit for the museum.

And Rensenhouse said the decision was made early on to cast Grant Fletcher Prewitt as Billy Bishop. Prewitt, like Parashak, is a third-year graduate student at UMKC. And he and Rensenhouse had both appeared in “Oh, What a Lovely War.” Read the full article at kansascity.com.

A Case of Black and White: The Night They Beat Up Cab Calloway and Gave Kansas City a Black Eye

Note: This story appeared in slightly different form in the Kansas City Star Magazine on Feb. 28, 1988.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

It was three nights before Christmas and His Highness of Hi-De-Ho was on his way to the worst headache of his life.

This was 1945, the first holiday season since the end of World War II. It was time for people to put their lives back together, to get back to normal, to dance and sing their blues away.

Glowing caucasian Santas decorated Kansas City newspaper ads aimed at Christmas shoppers. Movie fans looked forward to the holiday releases: “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” a sentimental drama with Bing Crosby, would open on Christmas Day. A Technicolor Fred Astaire would dance and sing his way through “Yolanda and the Thief,” scheduled to open on Christmas Eve.

Dale Jones and his Hollywood Orchestra were appearing at Tootie’s Mayfair. June March and her Nifty Cuties inspired male fantasies at the Folly Burlesk, which promised “red hot” midnight shows and the “special attraction” of a “Royal Beauty Form Contest.”

But one of the biggest attractions of the holidays fell on Dec. 22 — a Saturday — when bandleader Lionel Hampton would perform at the Pla-Mor Ballroom.

Lionel Hampton

Hampton, the vibraphonist with the big smile and the big band, was among the best-known black entertainers in the country. “Tonite only,” an ad proclaimed in the Kansas City Star. Table reservations for the 9 p.m.-to-1 a.m. dance were required. Advance tickets cost $1.25, tax included. Hampton, baton in hand, smiled up from the newspaper page.

But although Hampton had plenty of black fans, there was no ad in the black  weekly, the Kansas City Call. The reason was simple: You had to be white to see the show.

~ ~ ~

There was nothing quite like the Pla-Mor. The ballroom’s official address was 3142 Main St., but it was just one part of the vast Pla-Mor Amusements complex.

Dancing. Bowling. Roller skating. Billiards. Ice skating in the winter, swimming in the summer. The Pla-Mor sold fun — clean fun — and plenty of it. And it was all in three massive buildings between Main and Wyandotte.

Founder Paul M. Fogel named the place for his kids, Pauline and Morris. But if some people saw the name as an invitation to “play more,” well, that was OK, too.

The Pla-Mor Ballroom (UMKC Special Collections)

The ballroom was a good place to fall in love if you were young and white in the ’30s and ’40s. It was easy to do in the age of big-band romance, when well-dressed young people moved across the 108-by-125-foot maple floor supported by 7,800 coiled springs. The red, blue and amber lights reflected by twin globes gave the place an atmosphere as intoxicating as a Technicolor musical.

But, like most places in Kansas City, the Pla-Mor conformed to a rigid color code. Paul Fogel would later testify that blacks were sometimes admitted and allowed to sit in a segregated area. But the black teenage pin-setters in the bowling alley couldn’t get their own food from the alley soda fountain. Whites had to bring it to them.

In Kansas City, however, racism was not unique to the Pla-Mor. Seating at Municipal Auditorium was segregated. The Swope Park swimming pool was, too. So was Fairyland Park. And Wynwood Beach, north of the river. So were theaters and schools. And there were two General Hospitals — one for whites and one for blacks.

~ ~ ~

“Come on out tonight,” Hampton told Cab Calloway. “We’re really got the place jumpin’ . . . I’ll make arrangements with the management.”

Hampton was invoking the power of celebrity. There were few exceptions to the normally inflexible rules of racial separation, but this was one. The rules said blacks couldn’t just walk in and claim a table at the Pla-Mor. But it was OK for one world-famous black entertainer to visit another. So neither Hampton nor Calloway had any reason to expect trouble.

Cab Calloway

Calloway, after all, was something of a local institution. Audiences here had seen him on his way up when he played Kansas City clubs and ballrooms in the late ’20s. His scat-singing, zoot suits and hair-whipping stage antics were documented in a string of hit 78s, Hollywood movies and even a series of Betty Boop cartoons. And his trademark scat refrain, hi-de-hi-de-hi and its infinite variations, provided irresistible fodder for newspaper writers. In entertainment columns and straight news stories alike, the Kansas City press routinely referred to Calloway as “The King of Hi-de-ho,” “Mister Hi-de-ho” or even “his hi-de highness of ho-de-ho.”

Calloway brought his Cotton Club Orchestra to Municipal Auditorium in mid-December for two shows — one for whites, one for blacks. Then he took a few days off to catch up with old friends.

One of Calloway’s Kansas City friends was Felix H. Payne Jr., a handsome man in his early 30s who had arrived back in town the day before Hampton’s show. Payne, the son of a Democratic ward heeler, had served in the American Red Cross during the war. On the overcast afternoon of Hampton’s performance, Payne and Calloway visited with Hampton at the Street Hotel near 18th and Vine. The Street was the place to stay for black bands. It even had a rehearsal room.

This was Payne’s first trip home in years. He had moved to Washington in 1938 to work for the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, his first in a series of government jobs. During the war he’d run service clubs in China and Burma.

Street+Hotel+circa+1930-1945His father, Felix H. Payne, ran clubs of a different sort in Kansas City — saloons and gambling halls. The elder Payne was a friend to black musicians, many of whom worked for him in the clubs and dance halls he ran, and he invited Calloway to stay in his two-story home on East 24th Street, just three blocks north of 27th, which marked the boundary between segregated white and black neighborhoods.

~ ~ ~

Light from the Pla-Mor’s vertical neon sign and pulsating marquee touched mounds of dirty snow that had been on the ground since Calloway hit town. A taxi, it’s exhaust pipe pumping vapor clouds into the 14-degree night air, pulled up in front of the ballroom between 10:30 and 10:45 and let Calloway and Payne out. Hampton was nearing the end of his first set

Calloway bought two tickets for $1.50 each at the box-office and he and Payne entered the lobby. As they started up the carpeted stairs to the ballroom, Will H. Wittig, the ballroom manager, stopped them. Now, Wittig was as familiar with the privileges of celebrity as anyone, and Hampton had already told him that Calloway and Payne were expected. But at that moment, Wittig wasn’t thinking about celebrities. He saw only nameless black men making a beeline for the ballroom.

For even though Calloway had played for thousands at Municipal Auditorium a week earlier and had been in movies and cartoons and had his face plastered on record jackets for 14 years, Wittig didn’t recognize him.

Entrance to the Pla-Mor Ballroom (UMKC Special Collections)

He took the tickets from Calloway and refunded the $3. The men would have to leave, he told them. The show was for whites only.

That’s when a suit full of bad attitude named William E. Todd walked out of the coat-check room and saw Wittig arguing with two black men. Todd was a husky little guy with heavy eyelids who moonlighted at the Pla-Mor as a security guard to supplement the $165 a month he made as a Kansas City police officer. His understanding of his responsibilities was uncomplicated: Protect the Pla-Mor’s property.

“Why, I was invited,” Calloway told Wittig. “I’m Cab Calloway. I came to see Lionel Hampton.”

Payne and Calloway, two sober and respectful citizens who had spent the day Christmas shopping and visiting with old friends, had bought the tickets as a professional courtesy to Hampton and expected to be treated as honored guests. The last thing Calloway anticipated was an excitable cop playing a drum solo on his head.

Calloway reached for his wallet to show his identification, but before he and Payne could explain who they were, Todd took charge. He grabbed their arms and shoved them toward the door.

“You heard what the man said,” Todd said. “Get the hell out of here.”

Payne resisted and then two men grabbed him and locked their arms around his head so he couldn’t see what was happening. Todd shoved Calloway off the steps to the floor. As Calloway tried to get up, Todd hit him with his fist. When Calloway got up again, Todd pulled a .45 semi-automatic and beat him on the head with the gun butt.

Calloway went down, blood streaming from his split scalp. The little finger on his left hand was broken, smashed by the gun as he tried to protect his head.

This was Calloway’s version of events, the one he and Payne swore to in court. But it wasn’t the only version.

Wittig and Todd said Calloway refused to identify himself. He and Payne smelled of alcohol and they were disrespectful, even sarcastic, Todd and Wittig said.

Calloway had told Wittig he was going up to the ballroom, no matter what kind of dance it was. Todd walked up to Calloway and told him again the dance was for whites. At the same time he pulled out his badge.

Calloway looked at it and then pulled out his own wallet. “I have one of those badges, too,” he said.

Todd told him he was under arrest. That’s when Payne drew his arm back to hit the cop. But before Todd had a chance to defend himself against Payne, Calloway jumped on his back, grabbed his throat and threw him to the floor.

When Calloway came at him again, Todd used his gun.

End of second version.

Soon on-duty patrol officers arrived and took Payne and Calloway into custody. They drove Calloway to General Hospital No. 2 — the one for blacks — and a doctor put eight stitches in his scalp and wrapped a white bandage around his head. Then he and Payne were booked for public intoxication and resisting arrest.

Back at the ballroom, Wittig was faced with a crowd of angry people. Hampton had refused to play a second set.

“The place was jam-packed and all at once someone came in and said they beat up Cab Calloway at the front door,” Hampton recalled. “So I went out front and got into an argument with the doorman. So I told the band, ‘That’s all, man. Let’s go.'”

The musicians packed up and left and the Pla-Mor paid out $2,000 in refunds. Hampton never played there again.

Calloway left for Chicago the next morning. On Christmas Day he celebrated his 38th birthday.

~ ~ ~

On the afternoon of Dec. 28, the King of Hi-De-Ho looked as if he’d felt better. The wrap-around bandage was gone, but small patches covered his head wounds and his finger was in a plaster cast.

When he arrived at Municipal Court on the top floor of Police Headquarters he was, as usual, fastidious. Every hair was in place and his handsome gray suit with shoulder pads struck just the like balance between flamboyance and respect for the court. Payne wore his Red Cross uniform and looked intense, even a little intimidating. His father was there, too.

In Municipal Court: from left, Cab Calloway, Felix H. Payne Jr. (in uniform), attorneys John G. Killiger and Maurice J. O’Sullivan, Kanss City police officer William E. Todd and Lucille Bluford, who covered the hearing for The Kansas City Call. (Black Archives of Mid-America)

Before the court proceeding began, Calloway was charged with a third misdemeanor  — creating a disturbance in a public place.

On a normal day, Judge Earl Frost never saw more than 50 people in court. Today he saw more than 700. Many of them were black. Reporters and photographers were on hand.

Calloway and Payne told Frost they had been sober that night. They hadn’t even had a drink that day. Payne said he hadn’t had a drink since Bombay.

Frost asked Payne if he had known the dance was for whites only.

“I knew what the score was,” Payne said. “I was born in Kansas City.”

Wittig told Assistant City Counselor Willis Z. Schad that, yes, he recognized the right of one creative artist to visit another.

“But he did not make himself known,” Wittig insisted. “I didn’t know who he was. Had he presented himself at the door and said, ‘I am Cab Calloway, I wish to see Lionel Hampton,’ he would have been escorted up on the stage and been allowed to sit on the band stage.”

When Todd said he didn’t recognize Calloway until after the beating, a wave of derisive laughter swept the courtroom. Frost called for order.

After two hours of testimony, Frost dismissed the charges. But he didn’t let Calloway and Payne go before lecturing them.

“If, when you went to the box-office to purchase tickets, you had asked for the manager and identified yourself, not only would you have avoided this incident, but also I am certain the manager would have given you an escort, as he states, and presented you as an honored guest,” Frost told them.

An editorialist for the Kansas City Star agreed with Frost’s sentiments.

“Race problems require unusually intelligent handling at all times . . . ” the opinion piece read. “The incident at the Pla-Mor is the opposite of what is required. Fortunately, Earl Frost handled the case judiciously.”

The Kansas City Call’s editorial was angry: “The beating of Cab Calloway by a policeman at at a Kansas City amusement spot is the type of incident that should set the people of this community to thinking. They should take notice of what happened .  . . because it is the customs and habits of the community which led to the fray.

“Such a thing could not have happened in New York, Chicago or Columbus, Ohio, or 300 miles away in Des Moines or Omaha . . . But in Kansas City and other cities with a ‘southern exposure’ there is a double standard for Negroes. In some phases of public life, like the payment of taxes, going to war and getting killed, Negroes operate on the same standard as other citizens. But when it comes to obtaining food, shelter and entertainment in public places, Negroes are ‘out of bounds’ if they seek the same rights and privileges of others — even Japs and Germans in our midst fare better than we.”

In a second editorial, the Call attacked Todd: “A man who assaults men with guns . . . does not belong on the police force, which sets such high standards for its officers that it says the score or more of Negro applicants who have sought appointment ‘do not meet the qualifications.’ If Todd is an example of the type of men that the Kansas City police department wants, thank God we have no Negro men who do qualify.”

Actually, there were black officers on the police force. But, true to the city’s rules of racial separation, they were relegated to patrolling black districts.

In February of 1946, six civil rights groups, including the Kansas City Urban League and the NAACP, demanded that Todd be fired — only to find out that he no longer was on the force. The Board of Police Commissioners had cut Todd’s salary from $165 to $120 a month and assigned me to jail duty. On Feb. 6, he had resigned.

But for Calloway, who claimed he now blacked out when he tried to sing high notes, vindication in Municipal Court wasn’t enough. He sued the Pla-Mor for $200,000.

~ ~ ~

In May of 1947, after the Pla-Mor counter-sued for $100,000 and many verbose legal documents were filed on each side, Calloway’s suit came to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Judge James W. Broaddus, who looked and talked a little like Will Rogers, was presiding. Broaddus was a Civil War buff. One of his heroes was Robert E. Lee.

“I never realized until I got into that trial what a good Southern Democrat he was,” said John G. Killiger, who with Maurice J. O’Sullivan represented Calloway. “He wasn’t in favor of uppity blacks.”

Neither was the all-white jury. Paul Sprinkle, the Pla-Mor’s attorney, played his audience like a fiddle. Racial feeling permeated the trial, even though Killiger and O’Sullivan weren’t fighting a civil rights battle.

“That didn’t enter our thinking,” Killiger said. “Calloway wasn’t trying to open up the Pla-Mor. These people — particularly Calloway’s New York lawyer, and Calloway, too, I think — felt we were entitled to damages . . . Now these other things, of course, were in the background and that’s what beat us.”

After three days of conflicting testimony, the jury convened for 90 minutes. O’Sullivan’s impassioned invocation of the Constitution and his belief that “the citizens of Jackson County are above race prejudice” failed to move them. They returned to the jury box and called it a draw, awarding damages to neither side.

But Sprinkle’s fire-stoking courtroom rhetoric — delivered calmly but forcefully  — left an opening for an appeal. At one point Sprinkle said he had heard a lot of talk about Calloway as a great artist. And that reminded him of the divine right of kings and the excesses of movie stars.

“We have the divine right of artists or musicians,” Sprinkle said. “Therefore, they can do no wrong. Therefore, they are entitled to come into court and say, ‘We are musicians, we are artists, we have done many things, therefore we are entitled to recover.’

“Then I think back about some artists. I can remember Fatty Arbuckle. He was an artist and he dearly paid for the penalty of his crime . . . I can think about Charlie Chaplin. He is an artist.”

Sprinkle, his rhetoric rising to a dramatic peak, rolled on despite O’Sullivan’s exasperated objections.

“I can think about many artists,” Sprinkle said. “I can think about a little artist over in Germany who started the World War. He was an artist. He had a little mustache. He thought he could do no wrong . . .”

Later in the trial, Sprinkle got this jab into the record over O’Sullivan’s objections: “You know, as I listen to these witnesses testify, here is Cab Calloway, now 39, and Felix Payne, 34. And I wondered: Why wasn’t Calloway out doing his share when the war was being fought? . . . Why did he spend his time in this country and other countries playing for the public? Why is that all he has ever done?”

Finally, Sprinkle appealed to the jury by painting Calloway as an outsider.

“You know, in trying this lawsuit, I represent a lot more than the Pla-Mor . . .,” Sprinkle said. “I represent Kansas City. I represent this community. I represent the Kansas City way of life. I represent the way we live and the way we expect others to live. And members of the jury, when you go home tonight and look your families in the eye, I want you to be able to say, ‘Well, I represented Kansas City also, and we didn’t let New York come out and take a chunk out.”

Reflecting on the trial more than 40 years later, Killiger doubted Sprinkle actually held the prejudiced views his courtroom statements suggested. There were times when Sprinkle even represented black clients.

“He was just trying a lawsuit and doing a good job,” Killiger said.

~ ~ ~

The Pla-Mor never paid a dime to Cab Calloway. But the Missouri Supreme Court decided Sprinkle had been a bit overzealous. In 1948 it ruled that Calloway was entitled to a new trial.

There was no basis to compare Calloway to Adolf Hitler, the court ruled. Or to Fatty Arbuckle, a silent movie star who fell from grace after a lurid sex scandal. Or to Charlie Chaplin, another star, whose habit of marrying teenagers inspired the national press to cover every unseemly detail of a paternity suit brought against him in the early ’40s.

Neither was Sprinkle’s suggestion that Calloway was a slacker during the war relevant to the lawsuit, the court said.

And regarding Sprinkle’s claim that he represented the “Kansas City way of life,” the court wrote: “While [ Sprinkle ] disclaimed, elsewhere in argument, any intention to invoke ‘the racial angle,’ the implication in the argument is, we think, unmistakable. Even the wayfaring man would have got that.”

The court’s ruling, as it turned out, was the final episode. A second trial was never held.

“The thing was, it cost Calloway . . . a pile of money to come out here, because he had a whole band sitting idle,” Killiger said. “So it was just kind of dropped by mutual agreement.”

After the first trial, he said, they decided there was little chance that a Jackson County jury would find in favor of Calloway. Looking back, Killiger saw that he and O’Sullivan got an education in Kansas City racial attitudes.

“That was a damned abortion of an outcome,” Killiger said. “O’Sullivan, particularly, was a very liberal-minded guy and I think we were both shocked at the prejudice in the court. Maybe we were naive. We just didn’t anticipate the depth of racial feeling.”

Sample the music that made Kansas City famous.

To learn more about Kansas City’s jazz age and African-American history, visit the Marr Sound Archives, Black Archives of Mid-America, Kansas City Public Library Missouri Valley Room and the American Jazz Museum.

Keep up with arts news at kansascity.com.

© 1988 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ is a fight to the finish

Posted on Fri, Feb. 03, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Somewhere along the line, boxing became an old man’s sport, a fastidious style of combat designed to follow rules about where and when you could hit the other guy and reduce the level of carnage.

It was supplanted by cage fighting, where looser rules allow a much higher level of mayhem inside the octagon.

And in cage fighting we happen to find the perfect metaphor for David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” a two-character duel in a book-lined office that remains within the emotional-psychological realm until the last moments, when it gets physical with a vengeance.

Lauren Friedlander and David Fritts (Paul Andrews Photography/The Living Room)

Recently I dug out my review of the 1992 off-Broadway production with William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon to revisit my first impression of the piece. I, like many others, was struck by the intensity of the conflict, the desperate battle for dominance that played itself out against the still-churning wake of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, in which Anita Hill accused a nominee to the Supreme Court of sexual harassment.

“Mamet’s artistic home turf is the gray zone of moral ambiguity,” I wrote at the time, “and in this two-character examination of sexual enmity he offers complicated conflicts for which there are no easy answers or painless resolutions. Buttons will be pushed, and some people, by virtue of their gender, may instinctively take sides in the white-hot struggle for dominance unfolding onstage.”

The Living Room, after reshuffling its spring lineup of shows, is now about to open a new production of the piece, featuring the estimable David Fritts as John, a college professor who runs afoul of his own arrogant assumptions and sense of entitlement, and relative newcomer Lauren Friedlander as Carol, a student who discovers that it’s within her power to engineer his downfall. Read the full review at kansascity.com.

Gregory Harrison plays a different tune in ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

Posted on Wed, Feb. 01, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Gregory Harrison never gets tired of trying something new.

So here he is, in Kansas City — well, Overland Park if you want to get technical about it — making his first appearance at the New Theatre and performing a show he’s never done before: “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

The off-Broadway musical that became a Broadway hit in 1982 and has enjoyed a long life in regional theaters ever since had a special allure for Harrison. For one thing, he’s playing guitar for the first time in 25 years.

“The theater here introduced the idea,” Harrison said during a lunch break one recent afternoon. “It’s not the kind of thing I would generally be offered or cast in, so it appealed to me on that level. I normally play CEOs and doctors and presidents, so the idea of playing a gas station attendant immediately appealed to me.”

Marya Grandy, left, with Gregory Harrison and Jennifer Mays (Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star)

The show revolves around four guys who work in a gas station and two waitresses in the Double Cupp Diner somewhere in North Carolina. The show was written by the people who first performed it, and most of the music comes out of pop music and county rock traditions.

Harrison has enjoyed a long career on stage and screen. He’s remembered for his performance as Dr. George Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates on television’s “Trapper John, M.D.,” which ran from 1979 to 1986, but he’s also produced his own films, run his own theater in Los Angeles and appeared on Broadway in Kander and Ebb’s “Steel Pier” and the long-running revival of “Chicago,” as well as Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”

Harrison has gray hair, but he’s a fit-looking baby boomer, emanating the bronze aura of a California native who grew up swimming and surfing.

He was born in Avalon, on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. He was a third-generation islander. It was a small community — there were 31 kids in his high school graduating class and he had gone to kindergarten with 28 of them — but it was a popular movie location.

And he does carry some vivid memories of his father’s boat being used for a romantic comedy called “The Glass Bottom Boat” with Rod Taylor and Doris Day.

Harrison never went to college but served in the Army as a conscientious objector for three years. Two of those years he was a helicopter medic in Germany and, because of his C.O. classification, never was assigned to serve in Vietnam, although some conscientious objectors were. After the Army he decided to study acting in Los Angeles on the GI Bill.

Most show business careers have humble origins, and Harrison’s was no exception. In 1974 he was cast in a film called “Jim, the World’s Greatest.” According to Harrison, it was made by two 18-year-olds for $100,000 their parents had given them, and they needed a non-union actor.

“We shot it on weekends for a year,” Harrison said. “We’d rent the equipment on Friday night and take it back Monday morning. We wouldn’t sleep. We’d shoot from Friday night to Monday morning straight through.”

Harrison wasn’t getting paid, but eventually the movie was picked up by Universal Pictures, where executives thought the quality was so poor that parts of the film had to be reshot. Harrison said he earned a little money from Universal because of the reshoots.

“It got released, opened and closed in about 10 days,” he said. “But it got me in the union; it got me a rave review by Charles Champlin in the L.A. Times. An agent saw (the review) and called me. So here I was: I was a movie star and still had about $100 in the bank.”

Gregory Harrison and Pernell Roberts

But it wasn’t long until Harrison landed a regular role on the sci-fi series “Logan’s Run.” He’s kept working ever since. He started his own production company and produced about 20 movies, and he bought a theater where, “I taught myself to act on stage.”

“Trapper John,” was technically a “M*A*S*H” spinoff. Pernell Roberts played the middle-aged version of the character played by Wayne Rogers in the first three seasons of the TV series and Elliott Gould in the Robert Altman film. Beyond that, there was virtually no relationship between the two shows.

“ ‘M*A*S*H’ was still on, still a big hit, and they found a way to sell a show idea by taking a character from ‘M*A*S*H,’ updating him to the present, turning it from a half-hour comedy to an hour light drama, and the only real connection to ‘M*A*S*H’ was that one character. So it was probably a way to sell it to the affiliates. I often thought if it wasn’t named ‘Trapper John, M.D.’ it might have had more credibility as its own entity, its own personality and its own rewards.”

Roberts had become famous as one of the Cartwright brothers — sons of the ranching patriarch played by Lorne Greene — on the Western series “Bonanza,” but after several seasons decided to leave the show. Harrison once asked him why he left, and Roberts told him: “There’s an actor nine years older than me and I’m calling him Pa.”

“Pernell was a wonderfully talented man,” Harrison said. “He had a lot of demons, but when he wasn’t fighting them, he was one of the most charming men I had even known. Incredibly bright. Things didn’t work out the way he had hoped they would, and he had to deal with that on some days. … He was sure he would have a good film career and stage career. But he wasn’t cut out for compromise, and network television then required lots of compromise.

“I think what he wanted was to flaunt his independent streak. He wanted everyone to know he was nobody’s fool and nobody’s pawn and he would make up his own mind about how to present himself and how to play a scene. I loved him and embraced him, good and bad, hard and soft.”

Harrison just finished a film for the eccentric director Henry Jaglom with Michael Imperioli and Tanna Frederick. Called “The M Word,” it was largely improvised at Jaglom’s insistence. It’s all part of the actor’s life, according to Harrison. One thing he doesn’t want to do is repeat himself.

“I’m here for a couple of months doing something really different in a city I’m not familiar with,” he said. “I think the reason I became an actor in the first place, aside from the fact that it’s magical, is that it appeared to be something that would never be boring. Different faces, different places, different voices, different characters to play. All that appeals to me. Because I’m never bored.

“I think I fear boredom the way most people fear death.”

Read the review at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All rights reserved.