KC theater companies big and small prove there’s room onstage for all

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about alternative theater — there comes a time when the word “alternative” begins to lose its meaning.

You might have read about the 2012-13 season announced recently by Kansas City Repertory Theatre. But if you failed to pick up on the historic, precedent-setting nature of what the Rep has planned, allow me to put it in perspective.

On paper the Rep season looks solid. But it’s noteworthy for artistic director Eric Rosen’s continued willingness to roll the dice and push boundaries. Consider:

• Ron Megee — actor, director, playwright, producer, prop designer, parodist — will make his Kansas City Rep debut alongside Rep veteran Mark Robbins in the crazed, cross-dressing comedy “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

For years Megee was the guy who made things happen on the fringes of the local theater scene. The co-founder of Late Night Theatre staged elaborate send-ups of vintage films — “Valley of the Dolls,” “The Birds” — and became known as a comic actor who was willing to try virtually anything onstage.

Through the years he has gained increasing respectability — performing tour-de-force multiple roles in Coterie Theatre productions, for example — and he was memorable in a Unicorn Theatre production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

But for Megee to appear at the Rep means that nothing less than a seismic shift has taken place in local theater. A man whose career was the very embodiment of “alternative,” Megee is now mainstream.

Ron Megee as fat Elvis in "The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge" at the Unicorn. (Cynthia Levin)

• The Rep season also includes “American Buffalo,” an early David Mamet play about three small-time criminals planning a heist in Chicago.

In the 2004-05 season the Rep presented a production of “The Voysey Inheritance,” an Edwardian play about financial corruption that Mamet adapted, and several years earlier it staged his blistering two-character essay on sexual politics, “Oleanna.”

But “American Buffalo” is what we might call “pure” Mamet — a staccato drama about characters on the margins. For the first time Rep audiences will be peppered by a barrage of Mamet f-bombs in all their poetic glory.

The last time local audiences saw “American Buffalo” was in 2007, when the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre staged it in its previous downtown space on Walnut Street. It was a good choice for the MET, a fringy theater that has slowly but surely made itself an estimable cultural force in town.

But “American Buffalo” at the Rep? Until now, that possibility seemed as remote as, say, frogs raining from the sky, or Ron Megee appearing on its stage.

Kyle Hatley (Kansas City Star)

• The Rep will also present Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” but not in its venerable, familiar form. This will be a re-staging by Rep associate artistic director Kyle Hatley of a stripped-down, raw-essentials production he first put up at the Living Room, a truly alternative theater company (and bar) near 18th and McGee streets that came into existence only two years ago.

For the Rep to lend its imprimatur to a local theater company — especially one that doesn’t always play by conventional rules — is more than a big deal. It says volumes about the quality of talent in this town and the creative firmament that produces memorable work.

I’ve written often about the growth of professional theater in Kansas City in both quality and quantity. I try to restrain myself from using words like “phenomenal,” but the fact remains that theater arts in Kansas City are functioning at an all-time high.

People sometimes ask why this is — Why Kansas City? Why now? — and there’s no simple explanation. But the basic reasons are these: The population of theater professionals — actors, designers, directors among them — in Kansas City has grown steadily in the last 10 to 15 years. Sometimes young theater graduates from area colleges decide to settle in Kansas City, at least for a while, while other artists have actually moved here from such far-flung locations as New York, California and the upper Midwest.

But the real key to the growth I’ve witnessed is artistic cross-pollination. When Hatley was new to town, one of the first things he did was to start writing and directing original material that he staged for the Kansas City Fringe Festival. These weren’t officially Rep productions, but his status with the organization indirectly lent the festival a virtual stamp of approval.

The same is true for the Living Room — first, because Hatley was involved in “Carousel” there, and now because the Rep is inviting the Living Room production into the hallowed Spencer Theatre.

Other alternative groups, such as the Fishtank Performance Studio, are producing new material and Kansas City premieres. But as alternative theater companies go, the Living Room is in a class by itself.

The poster for "Bucket of Blood" (The Living Room)

Just recently I was there to see “A Bucket of Blood,” an amusing stage adaptation of an old Roger Corman movie, and the combination of theater, arch comedy and live jazz was like nothing you’d encounter anywhere else. The Living Room, in the virtual blink of an eye, has established itself as an incubator for talent, where artists can reinvent themselves repeatedly.

Musicians, visual artists and stage designers might appear as actors. Actors may collaborate with photographers to create visual arts exhibits. Musicians might try their hand at directing. It’s a place where playwrights can act and actors can direct. You might see an actress or actor you know from a memorable Living Room production tending bar.

But the Living Room isn’t just an isolated iconoclastic pocket. Actor Rusty Sneary, a co-founder, appears often at other companies, including the Rep, the Unicorn and the American Heartland Theatre. And other respected local actors — Scott Cordes, David Fritts and Vanessa Severo, among them — have performed at the Living Room.

Nobody sees as much theater as a theater critic, so the occasional theatergoer may not realize what’s cooking in Kansas City. But take a look: The city’s theatrical life is a constantly surging, swirling stew of audacious ideas and creative dialogue.

In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s Kansas City become known internationally as a jazz town because musicians came here from across the country and fed on one another’s creativity. I think we’re seeing something like that again — only this time the surging art form isn’t jazz. It’s theater.

Read more theater coverage at kansascity.com.