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.

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.

 

 

‘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.

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.

Review | ‘The Wrestling Season’ at the Coterie

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The Coterie Theatre and the UMKC Theatre Department have joined forces to produce a remarkably well-acted revival of “The Wrestling Season,” a taut one-act play by Laurie Brooks about intense social pressures and sexual identity among a group of teens.

The Coterie commissioned this piece, which it first staged in 2000. It was a unique approach to storytelling then and it still is.

From left, Rufus Burns, Sam Cordes, Tosin Morohunfola and Francisco Villegas (Coterie Theatre)

This production, directed by Leigh Miller, unfolds with palpable tension. In one sense the show plays like a mystery in which layers of misconceptions are peeled away only to come to an elliptical conclusion that asks theatergoers to decide what may or may not be true. But it also recalls plays from another era that focused on social injustice and asked the audience to do something about it.

This is a fine cast and includes five third-year students in UMKC’s graduate actor training program. Miller’s direction is crisp and specific. The central relationships become fairly complex, but the actors maintain clarity throughout.

Central to the action is the friendship between Matt (Tosin Morohunfola) and Luke (Sam Cordes), two members of the high-school wrestling team and friends since childhood.

A couple of rumor-mongering teammates, Willy and Jolt (Francisco Villegas and Rufus Burns), begin implying that Matt and Luke are gay – although their own friendship suggests that perhaps Willy and Jolt protest too much – and by so doing amp up the homophobic panic and trigger bad choices all around. Read the rest at kansascity.com.

KC Rep’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ is clever, creative — and skin-deep

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, in collaboration with three other regional theaters, gives us an inventive, high-spirited and somewhat endearing stage version of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Good actors, effective music, creative movement choreography and evocative lighting all work together to make what essentially is high-end children’s theater a pleasant viewing experience.

Tim McKiernan as Tom Sawyer (Don Ipock/KC Rep)

Yet, despite its many obvious virtues, the piece is a bit of snooze. The problem may be all mine, because when I see a film or stage adaptation of “Tom Sawyer,” I inevitably think about its companion novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is superior in every way. “Huck Finn” is richer dramatically, morally and philosophically, and it moves with an epic sweep that makes it much more than a book for children.

In short, Huck and Jim go on a life-changing journey. But at the conclusion of “Tom Sawyer,” the kids at the center of the story are pretty much unchanged, despite having survived several scrapes with death.

But I wasn’t watching “Huck Finn” on Wednesday night. The show was “Tom Sawyer,” for better or worse.

What power this show generates can be traced directly to the actors, who deserve credit for handling the rustic dialogue — full of words like “some’eres” and “warn’t” —naturally enough that I never wanted to bolt for the exit.

Tim McKiernan plays Tom with wide-eyed sincerity and boundless energy. He finds a way to charm the audience, and he sells us on the character’s fears and enthusiasms. Robbie Tann gives us a dark-haired Huck in a performance that is tinged with an element of danger. Hayley Treider nicely executes a seemingly guileless turn as Becky Thatcher. Most impressive of all is Michael Nichols, who is ominous and hulking as Injun Joe, hilarious in his turn as a supercilious schoolmaster and equally amusing as a preacher in love with his own oratory.

The other actors are just fine as they leapfrog through multiple roles. That’s one of the clever solutions playwright Laura Eason and director Jeremy Cohen came up with to help them stage multi-character period piece with only eight actors. The scenic design by Dan Ostling is spare, deceptively simple and flexible. The show’s creative lighting design by Robert Wierzel is responsible for the shifting atmosphere as the story moves from one episode to the next. Lorraine Venberg’s costumes are to the point without being overly fussy. The music by Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht) is, for the most part, a mix of acoustic and electric guitars and complements the action without becoming distracting.

The show, like the book, is an episodic yarn and moves well — although I had to question whether this two-act show couldn’t have been compressed into 90 minutes with no intermission. But this isn’t a bad “Tom Sawyer.” Not bad at all. Viewers, however, might enhance their pleasure if they banish thoughts of all those other books Mark Twain wrote.

Read the interview with director Jeremy Cohen at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Sawyer: KC Rep’s version of the classic gets a sleek, fun, physical treatment.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Ready for some more Mark Twain?

Just as the Kansas City Ballet’s premiere of “Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts” in October has begun to recede from memory, here comes Kansas City Repertory Theatre with its own take on the classic novel about boyhood adventures on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.

Always room for one more 'Tom Sawyer'

But that’s where the similarities should end. The ballet, buoyed by a lush, Coplandesque symphonic score by Maury Yeston, employed all members of the dance company and included busy crowd scenes. The Rep’s production, which began previews this weekend, involves only eight actors, most of them playing multiple roles. And the music, credited to Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht, is a bit more spare and eclectic, according to director Jeremy Cohen.

The Rep’s production of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is not a musical, but the music is as important an element as the scenic design, the lighting or the costumes, Cohen said.

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which premiered in 2010 at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Conn., was written by Laura Eason, artistic director of the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, and developed by Cohen.

Anyone who recalls the Rep’s fine production of “Around the World in 80 Days” in the 2009-10 season should have an inkling of what to expect. That show, written and directed by Eason, employed music creatively and found a way to portray an epic tale with a relatively small cast and a fluid, impressionistic scenic design. Read the rest at kansascity.com.