Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on kansascity.com.

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star

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Drag queens, circa 1880

Note: This article appeared in the Nov. 26, 1880 edition of the Kansas City Evening Star.  There was no byline. This is a verbatim transcription.

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

STRANGE MEN

Female Impersonators — Their Manners, Customs, Life and Amusements

A Queer Set of Men Who Make From Thirty to One Hundred and Fifty Dollars a Week

By Aping the Frailer and Fairer Sex — Some Ridiculous Love Scenes

Among the many queer people on this terrestrial ball, the variety actors and actresses may be set down as the queerest. They constitute a little world in themselves to which all other people are merely visitors. They have their grades, their heroes, their scandals, their butts of ridicule, their philosophers, their aristocracy, middle class and lower ten thousand just like the busy world of which they form a very important yet exclusive factor, all of which is introductory to the subject of female impersonators in general and some in particular who are the queerest of all these.

VERY QUEER PEOPLE.

Two of this class are now performing at one of the variety theatres. Their stage names are Lansing and St. Leon, and an Evening Star reporter interviewed them in regard to their business with very satisfactory results. One fact that would interest anyone from a Methodist deacon to a sport is the number of “mashes” that these men in the guise of women have made in their travels. It is an actual fact, well substantiated, , that men of intelligence and wealth have fallen madly in love with them. Some of these cases, The Evening Star proposes to relate.

MASH NUMBER ONE

While playing on the island opposite Philadelphia, Lansing made the acquaintance of a rich resident of the Quaker City, who became very much infatuated with him. Lansing was playing Columbine in the Farette pantomime troupe, and formed the singular acquaintanceship in the green room of the theatre. The man was a prominent citizen , and the case became very interesting to the actors and actresses , who carried out the joke so well that the duped man did not discover the sex of his idol for several months. In the meantime he fairly revelled in his absorbing love passion, and every day presented Lansing with silk dresses, laces, jewelry, or some costly article to the great delight of the recipient and his friends. He pressed

HIS QUEER SWEETHEART

to let him see her outside of the green room, but Lansing invariably refused, and never met him unless fully equipped for the stage. Finally the enamored suitor became so pressing that the secret could no longer be kept, and so one night the object of his affections, just before going up on the stage, revealed his sex. The distinguished resident of the city of white window-blinds was paralyzed for a few minutes, and then solemnly declared that he did not believe it, and continued his attentions for several more months, until he was thoroughly convinced that he had been duped, when he desisted, much disgusted with the turn of events.

MASH NUMBER TWO

In Terre Haute, Ind., about five weeks ago, a prominent railroader beheld the fascinating can-can performed by St. Leon and Lansing and was very much struck with it. Without troubling himself to investigate the programme, he went into the green room and inaugurated a very violent flirtation. He ordered wine at a big price per bottle and the two female impersonators drank it. Then he ordered more which went to join the first bottles and he furthermore kept on ordering until $100 of the costly beverage had been consumed, by which time he was very much elevated, though strange to say the alleged females were reasonably sober. Then he proposed that they go out with him on

A BIG “TEAR”

and after much solicitation, they agreed, but first excusing themselves they retired and resumed their natural garb, after which they returned to the green room, “guyed” him a little without being recognized and quitting the theatre went up the street leaving their friend leaning against a telegraph pole waiting for his lady companions. It was three o’clock in the morning and very cold, but the railroad official waited with a persistence worthy of a better cause. Returning in fifteen minutes they watched  him until they became chilled, when they walked past him on their way home, leaving him still braced against the post

WAITING FOR HIS “MASHES.”

Here in Kansas City the dupes are numbered by the dozens, and over $100 in bets have changed hands upon the question of their sex. They receive visitors every night who become smitten with their bogus charms and furnish any amount of fun to the actors and actresses in the green room.

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Female impersonators form a very exclusive class among actors. As a rule they are, outside of their business, very effeminate, and are not in high favor with the members of the profession. Ricardos, Justin Robinson and Leon, who traveled with Kelly & Leon’s minstrels, are among the most noted. Leon was thought, by those who ought to know, to have been a woman, and there are many facts to bear out this belief. The writer was personally acquainted with

KELLY & LEON

at the Grand Opera House, Chicago, now the New Chicago Theater. At that time there existed between the men an intense affection, which was of the nature of a passion, which should or could exist between men. In addition to this, they loved each other far in excess of even the most intense masculine relationship. Many are familiar with the history of Leon’s humorous intrigue with Coal Oil Johnny, from whom Leon received presents of fabulous value — by some estimated as high as a million dollars; at any rate, whether he received these presents or not, he assisted in no small degree in despoiling that very famous young man of all his many dollars. Leon died in Australia several years ago.

GUS MILLS

Another very famous female impersonator is Gus Mills, now playing his second season in Leadville. He is the most singular of his tribe. He not only personates female character on but also off the stage. He dresses like a woman on all occasions, associates with the opposite sex, associates with the opposite sex, with whom he is a great favorite; cuts, fts and sews all his own dresses, underwear, etc., in fact performs all the duties of a woman and completes this strange anomaly by falling in love with men. As a female impersonator he draws a huge salary and is a most remarkable success, but as a man he is a gigantic failure and not worth the powder that would blow his effeminate soul to purgatory.

WOMANLY MEN

There is another singular circumstance connected with this subject and that is that off the stage there are many men who are so effeminate that they dress constantly as women, act like women and become as womanly as possible. In all large cities, and to a greater or less extent in Kansas City, these men are to be found. In Chicago they are so numerous as to form a class by themselves, and it is no uncommon thing for a score of them to be seen at a masquerade ball, acting their parts so well that they make any amount of conquests. To while away the hours they congregate in each other’s rooms and occupy themselves in cutting and fitting

ELEGANT COSTUMES

in which they dress when they give their private parties, known as “drags,” where they take the place of women and invite a select gang. The “drags” are kept very quiet or the police would not hesitate to raid them. So secret have they kept these dances that they have never been exposed by the lynx-eyed reporters of the Chicago papers; still they exist, as can easily be proven if search is made diligently.

There are worlds within worlds, circles within circles, and The Evening Star has opened one of the innermost to the gaze of the public. It is a strange subject, and the people are strange characters. What is their economy in this world is “one of those things no fellah can find out,” and must be relegated to the list of unanswerable conundrums, in which are included the questions “Of what use is the bedbug, the New Jersey gallnipper and a lawyer.”

Notes:

1. “Coal Oil Johnny” refers to John Washington Steele, a 19th century heir to an oil fortune who spent astounding sums according to his whims but died in near poverty. I haven’t dug very deeply but at the moment I’m unaware of any evidence corroborating the assertion that Steele lavished gifts on a female impersonator named St. Leon.

2. Gus Mills was a well-known female impersonator who did, indeed, appear often in Leadville, Colo. His most famous role, apparently, was Pocahontas.

3. Kelly & Leon refers to Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon, who led a blackface minstrel troupe and performed internationally. Leon was highly regarded as a female impersonator, prompting a New Zealand critic to write: “Were it not announced that this artist belonged to the male sex, people would be quite ignorant of the fact, as neither by word, look, nor gesture is it betrayed.” The performer named St. Leon, interviewed by the Evening Star, was likely not Francis Leon, but someone cashing in on his fame. Francis Leon often was billed as “The Only Leon.”

4. The abrupt change in tone in the final phrase of the paragraph on Gus Mills suggests the brutal hand of a disapproving editor — perhaps William Rockhill Nelson himself.

5. I have no explanation for the obscure quotes in the mystifying final paragraph of the article.

Another round of ‘Skillet Tag’ at the Living Room

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

“Skillet Tag,” a memorable R-rated farce that made its debut at the Kansas City Fringe Festival last summer, returns to the Living Room in somewhat different form.

The show, written by Pete Bakely and produced by Play On Productions,  depicts a corporate retreat at which a megalomaniacal boss insists that his employees engage in a game of “skillet tag.” Things get out of control, to put it mildly. The company, by the way, makes greeting cards somewhere in the Midwest.

Bryan Moses is directing the Living Room production, which features Matt Leonard and Aurelie Roque, both of whom appeared in the Fringe Festival version. Other cast members include Missy Fennewald, Briana Marxen-McCollum, Jeff Smith, Coleman Crenshaw, Tim Ahlenius and Devon Barnes. The show runs through Dec. 22 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St.

For more information, call 816-308-2131 or go to BrownPaperTickets.com.

Here’s my KC Star review of the Fringe Festival production:

Posted on Wed, Jul. 25, 2012 11:05 PM

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

I can’t say why, but there’s something highly amusing — and imminently satisfying — about seeing somebody get hit on the head with a frying pan. Let’s face it: A pie in the face isn’t half as funny.

OIvsO.St.81

Matt Leonard and Aurelie Roque in the Fringe Fest production of “Skillet Tag.”

That particular brand of comic violence is central to Pete Bakely’s “Skillet Tag,” a raucous farce that finds time to satirize the global economy between outrageous acts of onstage violence.

The set-up is a “team-building” exercise called by Jeff, an executive at a global greeting-card company that happens to be based in Kansas City. He brings together his office assistant, his staff attorney, his I.T. guy, a junior executive and a woman who shows up at the office each day to do nothing but drink.

This exercise is carried out in Jeff’s home and his idea is for the assembled employees to play an unusual game of tag in which the “tagging” is done with cast-iron skillets and steel frying pans. This can lead to nothing good, naturally, and when one of the characters is “tagged” with fatal results, a chain reaction is set in motion. Before the final curtain, the stage has been littered with bodies.

What makes the show fun is what Bakely does with his characters and plot. Revelations and reversals are cleverly woven into the story and the R-rated comedy is often so over the top that laughter is the only natural response.

The talented cast has varying levels of experience but director Sam Slosburg gives them a good run. Timing is key, and while some of the action was off a beat or two Wednesday night, much of it was on the money.

Of the men, the best performance comes from J. Will Fritz, the insecure computer technician, who finds himself reluctantly drawn into a hedonistic nightmare. Fritz plays the role like a little kid who just wants to go home and he scores some of the biggest laughs in the show.

Matt Leonard gives us a successful, aggressive performance as the megalomaniacal boss with a bizarre sex life that becomes clear as the play progresses. He’s the kind of employer who expresses frustration at the Human Resources Department for its insistence on things like firing with cause and its fussy rules about sexual harassment.

Phillip Shinn is amusing as a glib executive who looks for ways to turn the evening of murders to a business advantage and Kyle Wallen makes an impression in a brief but indelible appearance as a cop, whose incongruous beard and long hair would lead you to peg him as a heavy metal musician or resident of a hobo camp.

The women offer nice comic performances across the board, but none is more impressive than Kenna Marie Hall, whose transition from PMS-crazed office assistant to sexually aggressive serial killer is something to see.

Laura Jacobs gives us a smart, smoothly realized performance as the blithely inebriated corporate untouchable who settled a sexual harassment lawsuit by choosing to keep her job without having to do any work. Aurelie Roque seems a bit straitjacketed as the lawyer, although she knows how to deliver amusing one-liners. Chelsey Tigue, who shows up as a second cop in the closing minutes of the play, uses her obvious miscasting to her comic advantage.

Bakely exhibits a gift for absurdist humor and shows us that farce is far from dead. But with his penchant for the grotesque and wild sexual humor, Bakely is unlikely to see his work produced at the dinner theater anytime soon.

Slosburg puts together a clever curtain call, in which each actor comes on stage to be murdered by another, until at last the cast is piled in a heap at center stage. A fitting end to a show that delights in homicide.

Read more arts news at www.kansascity.com/entertainment.

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

KC Fringe: It’s all about the ripple effect

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about KC Fringe — even when it’s over, it’s not over.

The annual festival of music, dance, theater, film and visual art in venues scattered across the Crossroads and midtown officially wrapped up Sunday. But the ripple effects continue.

Katie Kalahurka, for example, will reprise her Fringe show, “Lessons From Marlene,” this Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank Performance Studio to coincide with First Friday.

Vicki Vodrey’s impressive play, “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” which received its world premiere at the Fringe, moved on to New York to be seen as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival this week.

Samn Wright and the creators of “Slaughterhouse Opera,” a rock musical about the zombie apocalypse, plan to mount a Kickstarter campaign to record the piece.

And David Gaines, who attracted sizable audiences with his “7 (x1) Samurai,” stayed over to conduct a clowning workshop Tuesday at Just Off Broadway Theatre.

Marcie Ramirez, left, Eric Tedder and Amy Hurrelbrink in “Sexing Hitler.” (Susan Pfannmuller/Kansas City Star)

The eighth edition of KC Fringe appeared to come off without a hitch, although some spectators were still confused by the requirement to buy a $5 festival button before buying a ticket to an individual show. But most people who attend the festival and learn how it works tend to take its general inefficiency for granted.

There were 160 artist entries this year, which translated into 459 performances at 20 galleries, theater spaces and other ad hoc performance venues. Events followed a complicated, staggered schedule. The festival’s website is well-organized and fairly simple to negotiate. But this all happens with a volunteer work force. The only people who get paid are the tech crews who run lights and sound for performances.

Throughout the year the organization is run by an operations committee of 23. During the festival itself, that number jumps to 140. The front-of-house volunteers — the people who sell and tear tickets — put in an estimated 3,000 hours this year, according to festival director Cheryl Kimmi.

Part of the time is consumed by the nightly task of tallying that day’s attendance by physically counting paper tickets.

“We have a team that does that every night, and we’re usually here until 2 or 2:30 in the evening,” Kimmi said.

David Gaines performs his one-man show “7 (x1) Samurai” at KC Fringe. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

Kimmi said the festival leaders have a wish-list that includes an automated ticket system, but there’s no money for one in the immediate future. The festival receives small grants from the ArtsKC Fund, the Missouri Arts Council and the city of Kansas City, but most of the festival’s revenue comes from the sale of the $5 festival buttons.

Kimmi said the festival has formed a development committee to explore more fundraising options. Kimmi is glad the tech crews can be paid, and she said the next step would be to pay the house managers at the venues.

“We’re planning to take it to the next level,” she said. “We have to grow it correctly.”

Last year the festival attracted an audience of about 14,500, and Kimmi said the festival was on track to match that figure once the final tally is in. Anecdotally, this reporter saw no sparsely attended shows this year, and two were standing-room-only.

Kimmi said attendance on most nights grew by double digits compared to last year, including a 27 percent jump on the first Saturday of the festival. But midweek performances, which usually attract fewer spectators than weekend shows, experienced a huge increase: 49 percent on Monday and 55 percent on Tuesday.

The final Friday of the festival saw a big drop-off, which Kimmi jokingly attributed to the opening night Olympic ceremonies on television.

From a critic’s perspective, the festival has played a significant role by allowing performing artists an opportunity to take risks and by exposing the public to experimental performances. It has also helped break down some of the barriers between art forms.

“There are different crowds for different things,” Kimmi said. “The fashion-show crowd is very much focused on the fashion show. But we have some crossover. That’s what our goal is, to cross over these audiences so we give the hard-core theater crowd an opportunity to experience dance and music, and we have the hard-core dance crowd who has the opportunity to experience theater.”

Fringe Festival highlights

The final week of the KC Fringe Festival, which ended Sunday, offered typically diverse performances. Here are some highlights:

“Sexing Hitler,” written by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney and directed by Varney. This peek into a weird corner of Nazi history — Heinrich Himmler’s decision to manufacture inflatable “comfort dolls” to prevent the spread of venereal disease among the troops — managed the neat trick of being raucously amusing, touching and ultimately haunting all in one package.

It was a loose-jointed performance, but central to the show’s success was dancer/choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, who played the doll prototype. In the eyes of her manufacturers and the soldiers who “test” her, she gradually acquires human characteristics, only to be destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

“Lessons From Marlene,” written and performed by Katie Kalahurka. Kalahurka is a gifted comedian, and her trippy, absurdist step into a kaleidoscopic dream-world populated by the ghost of Marlene Dietrich and a character named Katie, among others, becomes a showcase for a memorable performance. The show, directed by Vanessa Severo, has been extended through the weekend. Kalahurka will perform the piece at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank, 1715 Wyandotte St. Call 816-809-7110 or go to brownpapertickets.com/event/260143.

“Buck Hoss,” written by Scott Cox and directed by Trevor Belt. Cox’s attempt to transpose “The Bacchae” by Euripides to a backwoods Americana context didn’t quite work, but the Fringe production showcased some strong performances, particularly by Corbin Hernandez and Chris Roady as cousins, both preachers, each claiming divine ordination. The show admirably addressed heavy questions about human spirituality and our conceptions of God.

“Pilgrimage,” written by Ry Kincaid and directed by Bob Paisley. Kincaid’s rock musical based on Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” was an impressive achievement. Kincaid’s rhyming verse was consistently clever, and his songs were irresistible. He had a formidable cast to help him bring the show to life, including Cody Wyoming, Katie Gilchrist and Vi Tran.

“Skillet Tag,” written by Pete Bakely and directed by Sam Slosburg. This was the second memorable R-rated farce I saw at the festival — the first was Natalie and Talia Liccardello’s “Ice Cream Social…Issues” — and it again demonstrates that there’s an appetite out here among the great unwashed for rude, crude comedy. This show depicts a “team building” exercise at a megalomaniacal executive’s home that goes terribly wrong, resulting in a series of murders and some very strange sex. The festival cast was strong, with standout performances from J. Will Fritz and Kenna Hall.

“7 (x1) Samurai,” written and performed by David Gaines. This was the most polished show I caught during the festival. Gaines celebrates and spoofs Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” in this 60-minute performance.

Gaines has performed this piece a lot and it showed. He’s a highly skilled clown, and his mime-based performance, punctuated with guttural samurai “dialogue” and the occasional phrase in English, was very funny but also conveyed something of the film’s epic sweep.

KC Fringe: Where comedy and tragedy share time and space

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
How nice it would be to see every single KC Fringe performance. Alas, that would be impossible unless your humble theater critic could be cloned three times over.

But the best of five shows I caught during the first weekend of the annual festival was “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” a play by Vicki Vodrey, for whom raucous humor and profound tragedy are in no way incompatible.

Scott Cox and Vanessa Severo in “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

Steven Eubank directed the show, which is playing at the Unicorn Theatre during the festival, and had the benefit of a superior cast in the form of Vanessa Severo, Scott Cox and Mandy Mook. Severo plays Angela, a suicide victim who becomes an irreverent presence at her own funeral as her twin brother Ethan (Cox) reads a eulogy composed entirely of “thank-you notes” Angela wrote before she died.

The play is an eccentric comedy in the early going, but its seriousness is revealed as Angela’s notes become increasingly revelatory. The funeral becomes a transformative event for Ethan and his wife, Betsy (Mook).

Severo and Cox are equally matched, each handling difficult roles with spectacular results. This play is disturbing, but it’s also inspiring. Vodrey has a unique voice. There’s one more performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Other shows from the first weekend:

•  “Ice Cream Social … Issues” by Natalie and Talia Liccardello is a clever comedy about a family intervention that goes as wrong as possible. People have gathered for an ice cream social in a church basement in an effort to get help for a family member who is a heroin addict. Everything deteriorates rapidly. Manon Halliburton, as a Xanax-gobbling aunt with control issues, is excellent. She delivers a memorable comic performance and anchors an excellent cast. Directed by Warren Deckert, who demonstrates a keen eye for character details.

Performances are at 6:30 p.m. today and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Manon Halliburton, left, and Danelle Drury in “Ice Cream Social . . . Issues.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

•  “Tack Driver,” written and directed by Jerry Genochio. I caught this on the opening night of the festival, and I imagine it’s considerably different now. This is Genochio’s first play, in which Kyle Hatley and Matt Rapport are cast as brothers who swore an oath to kill their abusive stepfather. Apparently rewrites could continue right through the festival. At times on opening night, Hatley and Rapport performed holding pages with new dialogue. It’s intriguing and rich with possibilities — and it’s fun to watch Hatley and Rapport work together. It’s at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.

•  “Foreign Bodies” by Arika Larson. Larson’s three-character comedy imagines what might happen if a gay man and a lesbian fell in love. Directed by Scott Cordes, this smart comedy of manners about sex and love in an urban, digital world highlights Greg Brostrom, Kate O’Neill and Missy Fennewald. It continues at 6 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central St.

•  “4Play,” a quartet of one-acts by Jose Faus, Ken Buch, Michelle T. Johnson and Jack Phillips. This grouping of short comedies covers religious mania, sex, love and hypocrisy with varying degrees of success. Best of the bunch: “As the Guiding Light Turns,” a witty piece by Johnson about church politics and sexuality. See it at 11 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.

Read more theater news at http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/theater.

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

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.

‘Lucky Duck’ in New York: A fine cast struts its stuff in Broadway’s shadow

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

NEW YORK | First things first: This won’t be your typical theater review.

This will be an occasion to look back at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. And by “we” I mean professional theater in Kansas City.

Tim Scott as Wolf in "Lucky Duck" (Robert Trussell)

I saw the Coterie Theatre’s production of “Lucky Duck” in 2010 and was charmed as much by the material as by the fine comic performances that brought this musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” to life. Now the Coterie, with its cast and production team largely intact, has brought the show to New York for a limited run at the New Victory Theater.

The show is as good as it was in Kansas City and the actors are even better. Director Jeff Church and choreographer Ernie Nolan have restaged the piece for a conventional proscenium theater and scenic designer Ryan J. Zirngibl has created sets that are simple enough to travel but which also bring a light-hearted visual sense of humor to the production.

This musical is the creation of composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell, who co-wrote the book with Jeffrey Hatcher. It’s a very funny reinvention of the classic fairy tale about an ugly duckling who becomes a beautiful swan. They recast the story as a satire about a kingdom ruled by water fowl who have subjugated the canine carnivores, whom they regulate closely and attempt to pacify with “soy-based poultry substitutes.”

The central character is Serena (Jennie Greenberry), the dorky step-sibling to the smug Mallard sisters (Katie Karel and Emily Shackelford). Serena hopes to compete in the kingdom’s songbird contest on KLUC radio. Tired of the constant mockery she endures from the Mallard girls, she flees into the woods, where she’s befriended by the renegade Wolf (Tim Scott). Wolf claims to be a theatrical agent with the connections to make her a star.

As I watched the opening night performance of this show, with many of its creators present and moms with kids on booster seats experiencing “Lucky Duck” for the first time, what struck me was  how right it seemed for this show and these actors to be on a New York stage. From Georgianna Buchanan’s beautifully crafted costumes to the assured performances, this production was a declaration that Kansas City theater artists can hold their own anywhere – including New York.

Jennie Greenberry (Robert Trussell)

Greenberry is a thoroughly charming Serena, but the production is really anchored by Scott, whose honed timing, quickness and wit set the pace for his fellow actors. He gets every ounce of humor from the show’s amiably absurd jokes. But polished performances are also registered by Seth Golay, as Drake, the prince with an obsession for models; Kip Niven, who is first seen as the King and who later appears as Armand, a French fashion photographer; Julie Shaw, who triples as Mrs. Mallard, the star-maker Goosetella and the Queen; Greg Krumins and Tosin Morohunfola, who hilariously double as the Free Range Chickens and a pair of hustling Coyotes; and Francisco “Pancho Javier” Villegas as radio host Rudy Rooster and other characters.

Shackelford and Karel are a riot as the Mallard sisters, and Karel makes a huge impression with her brief appearance as Chicken Little.

What the future holds for this show and the artists involved is an open question. But there was a time, not so long ago, when a production originating in Kansas City and traveling to New York was such a rare event that it was regarded as an aberration. Not so much these days. Now it seems part of a natural progression – the logical consequence for a theater community that has worked long and hard to get where it is.

Read more arts news at kansascity.com.