Shtick and history: Renaissance Festival offers mud, sweat and cleavage

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL
rtrussell@kcstar.com

As I approached the main gate to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, I heard war drums pounding away just inside the compound, and my pulse quickened.

What lay in store? Acrobats? A stunt show? Dueling swordsmen?

To my right was an impossible-to-miss figure standing on the periphery of a grassy field where an archery competition apparently was to be held. Certainly there were archers in the Renaissance era — generally considered to span the 14th to 17th centuries as a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern Europe — but this fellow would have been an odd sight on the streets of Shakespeare’s London or Michelangelo’s Rome. I shall call him Thor, because he was costumed as a bearded Norse warrior holding a massive hammer in one paw.

Thus, even before I entered the grounds, was I introduced to the fungible definition of “renaissance” at the annual Renfest, which began decades ago as a fundraiser by the Kansas City Art Institute but is now a commercial enterprise operated by a Minnesota-based company.

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The King and Queen lead the daily parade through the festival grounds. Photo by Robert Trussell

Inside the gates, I saw a number of young women wearing plastic elves’ ears (Were there more elves in the Renaissance than other eras?), a man wearing what appeared to be a Plains Indian feathered headdress and, of course, a few court jesters.

So, too, were there “bawdy” wenches with expansive decolletage, costumed strollers greeting visitors with “Good day, sir,” and boys and men dressed as medieval knights. There were moments when the mashup of incongruities became so vivid that I felt like I had stumbled into the multispecies cantina in “Star Wars.” Sadly, I saw no White Walkers (the frozen zombies from the pseudo-medieval “Game of Thrones.”)

People strolled around munching fried chicken served in paper cartons and enormous turkey legs. You could buy a $6 domestic beer if the sun made you thirsty. As you moved through the fairgrounds, there were times when the air was filled with the smell of hot grease and others where the dominant aroma brought to mind a cow lot. And, thanks to the recent rains, you had to sidestep patches of mud.

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Mounted knights join the parade and will soon meet in the lists. Photo by Robert Trussell

But there wasn’t much to do with the real Renaissance. Nowhere did I find a single reference to William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg or Galileo — not that a visit to the festival is meant to be a scholarly pursuit.

No, the general era conveyed by the stage shows, attractions and gift shops spread across 16 acres in Wyandotte County invites a description no less vague than “olden.” As in Ye Olde (fill in the blank) Shoppe.

The war drums, it turned out, weren’t warlike at all. Just loud. They were part of an early-afternoon performance by Soul Fire, a “gypsy” troupe of young men and women who danced, tumbled (rolling in the dirt), twirled flaming batons and indulged in PG-rated banter with the audience.

Within minutes it was time for the parade — the daily procession in which most if not all of the resident performers fell in and toured the festival grounds with drums and trumpets. Knights on horseback, kings and queens, dancers and clowns shuffled, marched and pranced through a Sunday-afternoon throng of spectators. Bringing up the rear was the masked Executioner, an axe resting across one shoulder, who repeatedly called out: “Parade’s over! Bye-bye! You can all go home now!”

I followed the parade through the wooded festival site to the jousting arena, which is one of the festival’s big selling points.

The bleachers were packed by the time I got there and when the fellow dressed something like Henry VIII told the audience through his wireless microphone that they were to see merely a demonstration, the spectators were audibly disappointed.

“There will be no bloodshed today,” the King told them and a collective “aww …” rippled across the crowd.

I expected some bad theater and the alleged jousting didn’t disappoint. There was more talking than fighting as the King and Queen traded quips with the armored Sir Arthur, Sir Malcolm and Sir Duncan, who sat on costumed horses. The shaky accents, I could tell, were meant to sound British. First the mounted knights competed by spearing rings tossed in the air by a female squire. Finally, it came down to the real matchup — a joust between Arthur and Duncan.

On the third pass, Arthur unseated Duncan, who slowly fell to the dirt without injuring himself. Then they fought with swords. Let it be said the level of violence was less than shocking.

The festival has plenty of entertainment for family and kids. There’s a stand near the lists that sells foam swords. There’s a petting zoo. You can pay to ride horses, ponies, llamas, camels — even an elephant. There’s musical entertainment at stages throughout the park. But there’s also stuff for people in the market for something less than wholesome.

That’s why I ducked into the Dungeon Museum and paid $2 for a quick walk-through. The first window showed me the skull crusher, which worked something like a vise. The minimal written information in each display informed me that most of these interesting inventions were employed to extract confessions. No kidding. I’d confess to anything if the skull crusher were wrapped around my cranium.

It’s a short tour and the ineptly crafted mannequins representing torture victims won’t score points for realism. Yet the museum, whether by design or not, stood as a reminder that the Renaissance, for all its stunning achievements in art, philosophy and mathematics, had a grotesque side that reflected the worst in human nature.

With that happy thought, I called it a day and headed for the exit.

This article was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 23, 2015. Visit www.kansascity.com

 

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A class act: ‘Earnest’ at the Heartland

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Terrific comic performances, creative direction and a handsome physical production make “The Importance of Being Earnest” one of the best shows I’ve seen at the American Heartland Theatre in 20-plus years of reviewing theater.

The witty, silly 1895 comedy by Oscar Wilde is a delight in the right hands, and director Paul Hough has assembled an exceptional cast to make this show fly. Wilde’s comedy of manners may be a trifle but its humor is couched as a satire on Victorian high society, allowing him to make clever observations and amusing asides about class distinctions, marriage, money and the idle rich. Considering the current state of the economy and the cries of condemnation against the “1 percent,” this determinedly frothy play actual gives viewers plenty to think about once you stop laughing.

From left, Todd Carlton Lanker, Emily Peterson, Natalie Liccardello and Rusty Sneary (Shane Rowse/American Heartland Theatre)

The three-act play opens in the home of Algernon Moncrieff (Todd Carlton Lanker), a young man with a permanent sparkle in his eye, who at the outset is visited by his best friend, whom he knows as Ernest Worthing (Rusty Sneary). Ernest has come from the country, where he keeps a home, to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Natalie Liccardello).

But Algernon is able to deduce from an inscription in a cigarette case that “Ernest” left behind weeks earlier that his friend is leading a double life. Indeed, Algie’s friend confesses that he’s “Ernest” in the city and “Jack” in the country, where he supports his 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (Emily Peterson). Indeed, Cecily believes Jack has a brother (whom Jack has invented) named Ernest, a wastrel whose excesses are continually getting him in trouble in London.

Algernon takes note of Jack’s country address, and appears at the country estate posing as “Ernest” just as Jack had decided to announce the “death” of the unseen brother.

Jim Korinke and Emily Peterson (Shane Rowse/American Heartland Theatre)

Hovering over these activities is Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Jim Korinke), who is the final arbiter when it comes to marriage. Ultimately, Algernon (posing as Ernest) falls in love with Cecily and asks her to marry, but there can be no weddings until family secrets are unearthed in the third act.

Dominating the production is Lanker, whose Algernon is a marvelous creation. The performance is at all times crisp, specific, disciplined and unpredictable. Lanker’s handling of Wilde’s language is pitch-perfect and his sense of comic timing is flawless.

But then this show is full of good performances. Sneary is a memorable Jack and allows the performance to grow from reasonably restrained dimensions in the early going to absurd heights in Act 3. As Gwendolyn, Liccardello embraces the character’s ridiculous emotional expectations and creates a vivid, appealing performance. Peterson is sublime as Cecily, who lives in a fantasy world so rich that she writes letters to herself from a nonexistent fiancé. An extended scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily in Act 2 is a highlight of the production.

Cathy Wood is on the money as Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor with secrets in her past. And John Rensenhouse has fun with some choice supporting roles. He first appears as Lane, Algernon’s dryly observant manservant; next we see him as the celibate Rev. Chasuble, who finds himself in a growing romantic relationship with Miss Prism; and, in some remarkable quick costume changes, he also plays Merriman, the ancient, hard-of-hearing butler at Jack’s country home. It’s as Merriman that Rensenhouse gets the biggest laughs with his tottering gait and ear-horn gags.

And Korinke, the old pro, brings his refined sense of comic timing to his impressive incarnation of Lady Bracknell. Watching Korinke play a Victorian woman is inherently campy, but the actor is smart enough to let Wilde’s writing generate the laughs. All he has to do is play the role, which he does with integrity. Read the rest at kansascity.com.

The Brits are here: Good acting, sharp storytelling

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

After watching two exceptional performances by Rebecca Vaughan and Richard Fry on the second night of “British Invasion 2011,” one fact cannot be denied – these playwright/actors have taken solo performance to a level local audiences rarely see.

One-actor shows and spoken-word performances are always part of Kansas City’s annual fringe festival, and not so long ago Peggy Friesen, one of our best actresses, performed “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a challenging 90-minute solo piece, at the Living Room.

But the Brits, by continually touring and hitting an international circuit of fringe festivals, are able to refine their work to the point that the performances are unblemished and seamless. In effect you’re seeing shows that have been rehearsed for a year or longer.

Fry’s “Smiler,” the second of two pieces he performed on the first weekend of the invasion at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is a deeply moving work that is at once humor-filled and heartbreaking. Fry is a gifted storyteller and this piece depicts the narrator’s friendship with the title character, a man in his 20s forced to live with permanent neurological impairments after being run down by a drunk driver.

Richard Fry in "Smiler" (Kansas City Star)

Fry performs the piece in rhyming verse and he excels at painting pictures with words. He conjures cinematic images that stick with the viewer long after the house lights come up. His depiction of working the graveyard shift at a combination gas station and convenience store is filled with convincing details, and his description of taking Smiler to his high school reunion is as raucous and immediate as it would have been for the participants.

The piece ultimately poses the most difficult of questions: What would you do if someone loved asked you to help them in a way that goes against every fiber of your being?

This is strong stuff, impeccable performed on a virtually bare stage, save for a reclining lawn chair.

Vaughan’s “Austen’s Women’ is a different sort of play performed with consummate skill. Directed by Guy Masterson, the show allows Vaughan to slip in and out more than a dozen characters from Jane Austen’s novels. She’s easily versatile enough to pull it. One could argue that Vaughan imbues these characters with a few too many 21st-century mannerisms, but the performance is witty, smart and often very funny.

Rebecca Vaughan in "Austen's Women" (Bob Paisley/CST)

Vaughan stitches together the piece with introductions each character – all the words were written by Austen – and she sets it up as though she were addressing an audience in her private dressing chamber.

Vaughan, costumed in an authentic Georgian dress, is already seated at a writing desk as the audience enters the theater. She seems lost in thought as she dips a quill in ink and commits her thoughts to paper. Without explicitly saying so, this is an evening with Jane Austen.

Among the characters we meet are Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice;” the Dashwood sisters of “Sense and Sensibility;” Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of “Emma;” Mary Musgrove of “Persuasion” and Diana Parker from “Sandition.”

As the characters speak and reflect on the qualities of love and marriage and the social position women once occupied among the landed gentry of England, we find plenty to relate to from our 21st-century perspective. In some ways times have changed a lot. In others, not so much.

And what shines through at every moment is Austen’s formidable intelligence. True eloquence, this piece suggests, is a lost art.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

The British are coming: Invasion begins tonight with two one-actor plays at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Tonight a couple of visiting British actor/playwrights pitch their tents at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre for what is being billed as “British Invasion 2011.”

Kicking off the mini-festival of imported one- and two-actor shows will be Rebecca Vaughan performing her “I, Elizabeth,” based on the writings of Queen Elizabeth I, and Richard Fry’s “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts,” an original piece written in rhyming couplets.

Rebecca Vaughan in "Austen's Women" (Dyad Productions)

On Friday Vaughan and Fry return to perform two different shows — “Austen’s Women,” Vaughan’s piece based on the novels and letters of Jane Austen, and “Smiler,” Fry’s account of a brain-damaged friend who was struck by a drunken driver.

Vaughan performed in Kansas City last year as part of the first British invasion brought in by Bob Paisley’s Central Standard Theatre. But Fry is visiting for the first time. In fact, tonight’s performance marks his American debut.

In a telephone interview, Fry said he got to know Paisley first at last year’s fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, and again at the annual fringe earlier this year in Adelaide, Australia.

Fry, 39, said he writes his plays in verse in part because he is a frustrated songwriter, inspired by the singer/songwriters of the 1980s, including Elvis Costello.

“Their songs really meant something to me,” he said. “They could write these complete little stories in a three-minute song. I quickly discovered that I was rubbish on the guitar, but I had this massive folder of work.”

Richard Fry in "The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts" (Bob Paisley/CST)

Fry said the two shows he’ll perform in Kansas City share a certain commonality — they’re one-actor pieces in which he plays more than one role — but they deal with different subject matter.

“ ‘Smiler’ is my fourth show that I’ve written,” he said. “It’s about my friend who got hit by a drunk driver when he was 18, and it’s about how he feels about his life now and our friendship and how difficult it is and how he deals with it on a daily basis.

“I wanted to show how people who live with a disability are essentially like the rest of us. They’re as funny and as interesting and as boring as the rest of us.”

“The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts” deals with a subject that Americans are more aware of than Britons, he said.

“It’s about young gay suicide,” he said. “I don’t want it to sound maudlin because it’s actually a celebration of life, and rather than do a whole hour on suicidal teenagers, it’s actually more of an inspirational piece. It really just explores how we can all make more of our lives and how, if we stop worrying about the smaller things, we can go on and achieve something important.”

He was moved to write the piece, he said, because nobody in the U.K. seemed to really be talking about teen suicide.

Vaughan’s solo and small-show work so far has been taken from literary sources. She crafted each of the shows she’ll perform in Kansas City from the written words of Jane Austen and Queen Elizabeth I.

“Obviously, Jane Austen and Elizabeth I had a lot to do with it,” she said. “I’m a collager, if you will. I’m very interested in taking something that already exists and making something new out of it.”

Vaughan and Fry will dominate the first weekend of the Brit invasion, which continues through Dec. 18.

They will perform “I, Elizabeth” and “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts” in repertory at 7:30 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday; and “Austen’s Women” and “Smiler” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Performers slated to perform next week are Guy Masterson in three one-actor shows and, from the Blackout Theatre in Bedford, England, David Baxter and Elizabeth Thomas in “September in the Rain,” and Frank Spackman in Alan Bennett’s “A Chip in the Sugar.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Brits back in KC for another invasion of one-actor plays

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

In Shakespeare’s day, strolling players traveled from town to town, performing in barns, courtyards, taverns or wherever they might find a place to set up shop and entertain a willing audience.

They might earn a little money. They might lose a little. Or they might break even.

This week theatergoers will have a chance to see the modern equivalent of the strolling players.

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the nonprofit company that operates under the artistic leadership of Karen Paisley, and Central Standard Theatre, the for-profit company set up by her husband, Bob Paisley, are partnering to present British Invasion 2011, a mini-festival of solo performances and one two-actor play.

Guy Masterson in "Shylock" (Theatre Tours International)

This will be the second consecutive year that British actors, playwrights and producers have settled into the MET’s 99-seat midtown space. They will include three performers in multiple shows produced by or associated with Guy Masterson’s company, Theatre Tours International, as well as actors from Blackout Theatre, a community group in Bedford, England.

What makes this venture unusual is that it is strictly for-profit, with its commercial success to be determined by the take at the box office. That’s true of massive touring Broadway shows, of course, but these are small-scale pieces with minimal scenery and props. And most of them run about an hour.

“I live on the edge and I live on my wits and I don’t know any other way to do it,” Masterson said from his office north of London.

Masterson’s company produces and presents one-actor shows almost exclusively. His shows are regularly seen in major fringe festivals, including those in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Adelaide, Australia.

“I wouldn’t be doing solo shows if I had my druthers,” Masterson said. “I’d love to produce bigger pieces, but the finances don’t allow it. We’ve never had a penny in subsidies. It all works on the box office.

“Bob’s not offering any guarantees, and we’re not coming out with any guarantees. But we know there’s a theater audience out there, and there’s a lot of good talent coming out, so the audience won’t be disappointed with what they see. It gives Kansas (City) something new and it gives us a week of work in a lovely town, eating good food, sipping martinis and meeting interesting people.”

Varied performances

Masterson will perform three pieces: “Shylock,” written by Gareth Armstrong, which examines prejudices and perceptions of Jewish culture by the way the central figure of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” has been portrayed through the centuries; “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a remembrance by Dylan Thomas; and “American Poodle,” which is two short plays performed in repertory offering a comical view of Anglo-American relationships since the American Revolution.

Rebecca Vaughan will reprise “Austen’s Women,” which she composed from the writings of Jane Austen, including letters and an unfinished novel; and “I, Elizabeth,” which she assembled from the writings of Queen Elizabeth I.

Richard Fry in "Smiler" (Theatre Tours International)

Richard Fry, making his first trip to Kansas City, will perform two original pieces: “Smiler,” a play about a friend who was struck by a drunken driver when he was 18 and how the brain-injured survivor relates to the world; and “The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts,” a show Fry describes as a “celebration of life” as it examines the causes and consequences of gay teen suicides.

Blackout Theatre will be represented by “September in the Rain” by John Godber, in which David Baxter and Elizabeth Thomas play a married couple whose experiences are traced from youth to old age in their annual seaside vacations in Blackpool; and Alan Bennett’s “A Chip in the Sugar,” featuring Frank Spackman as a timid, middle-aged man thrown off balance when his elderly mother reunites with an old flame.

In the beginning

The first Brit invasion last December started something. Bob Paisley responded by mounting an “American Invasion” timed to the city of Bedford’s fringe festival in July. Paisley performed the one-man show, “The Event,” and appeared in Central Standard’s production of “Driving Miss Daisy” with Harvey Williams and Marilyn Lynch. But before that he accompanied Masterson to Adelaide in February and March.

“While (Guy) was here a year ago, one of his boots-on-the-ground producers in Adelaide pulled out, so he was down one person. And he said, ‘It pays really rotten but the job is yours if you want it.’ So I said ‘OK, sign me up.’ So I sort of acted as a producer, troubleshooter, house manager-slash-stage manager person for several of the shows he was doing there. I wasn’t performing but I was really getting to know what was going on there.”

So now he’s planning to take “Driving Miss Daisy” to Adelaide in 2012, and a group of Aussies are planning a trip to Kansas City.

“They’re working on the financing,” Paisley said. “If they get their funding done, the hope is that I’ll bring a couple of small (Australian) shows the week before the Fringe Festival in Kansas City, and then they’ll bring a third show that I’ll produce for them in the Fringe. They’ll come in the summer and the Brits will come in the winter.”

Traveling light

To be that mobile and that flexible, the shows by definition have to be small and unencumbered.

“That’s the business model they all work on, particularly for the fringe festivals,” he said. “In order to be portable they have to be small and depend on the poetry and the language. They have to just rely on themselves rather than turntables and light effects and smoke and mirrors.”

Rebecca Vaughan in "I, Elizabeth" (Dyad Productions)

But it’s a business model that runs a 50-50 chance of losing money. Baxter of the Blackout Theatre said the productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Event,” though enthusiastically received by Bedford audiences, lost a little. And Central Standard’s production earlier this year of “A Steady Rain” lost money, despite fine performances by Forrest Attaway and Scott Cordes.

“ ‘A Steady Rain’ was supposed to be the moneymaker for what we’re doing,” Paisley said. “It had affordable production values because it was just two guys, but the royalties were pretty spectacular for that show.”

The plan, Paisley said, calls for one or two box-office hits and the ability to recoup expenses on everything else.

“That’s the model I want to follow: Break even going overseas, and breaking even when they come here, and then do a couple of independent projects and hope they’re the moneymakers. We’re walking the tightrope. Last year, for example, in Australia the sales were not what anybody anticipated and the profits weren’t coming in.

“We’re solely dependent on the ticket sales. You have a list of priorities of what you pay. You have to make sure the airplane fares are taken care of. Then there’s the royalties. But you’ve got to be lucky. And good.”

Opportunities abound

Leaving the vagaries of show business aside, the British-American-Australian cultural exchanges create opportunities. Theatergoers in Kansas City, for example, get to see the work of bona fide international artists. And the artists get to experience Middle America. Richard Fry, for example, has never performed in the United States.

“I’ve really been meaning to come over to the States,” Fry said. “I’d love to do a proper American tour. It’s so big.”

Baxter and Spackman had never performed in this country before appearing in Kansas City last December. And when Blackout Theatre presented “The Event” and “Driving Miss Daisy” at the Place, a 136-seat theater in Bedford, it gave local audiences a chance to see something they’d never seen.

“We don’t often see professional American theater in a space like that,” Baxter said. “And I think people got a real buzz out of seeing them.”

Vaughan wasn’t sure what Kansas City would be like, but she loved it.

“I was really amazed by the amount of interest in the arts in Kansas City,” she said. “There’s so much theater going on and the arts in general. I think the audiences in Kansas City were particularly up for seeing theater. As Bob says, they don’t leave their brains at the door. They really are interested in ideas.”

Pay a visit to Dyad Productions’ website (www.dyadproductions.com) and click on the tour-date page and you’ll see that Vaughan is virtually a barnstormer, performing one-night stands for weeks at a time. She recently toured Ireland and gave 10 performances in nine days.

Vaughan suggested that the itinerant actor model makes sense in Britain, where virtually every town has a theater and many smaller theater companies have been clobbered by cuts in arts funding. She said she has contacts with 1,500 theaters in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“There are obviously a lot of companies in the UK that have big arts council funding, but recently with government cuts there’ve been massive changes in the ways theaters are subsidized in this country,” she said. “Because we’re not funded, we’re able to operate in this particular way. The reason we’re able to operate as a for-profit is that there are so many theaters in Britain.”

Vaughan has been in big shows and spent part of her career as a “jobbing actor,” but the solo work provides considerable rewards.

“I do have a real passion for the smaller- to medium-scale work,” she said. “Since I’ve been doing it I really love the intimacy of the audience. As an audience member I like being able to see the whites of the actors’ eyes. I just like the idea, this wonderful tradition we have of people sitting in dark rooms listening to someone tell a story.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

The time is right for New Theatre’s risk-taking ‘Game Show’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

When Richard Carrothers decided he wanted to stage “Game Show,” a process that began in earnest about two years ago, he knew he needed a cast that was nimble, adaptable and quick.

Because “Game Show” isn’t like other plays you’ve seen at the New Theatre — or anywhere, for that matter.

The piece by Jeffrey Finn and Bob Walton, which originally ran off-Broadway 11 years ago, is really two shows occupying the same slice of time and space.

There’s a “live” TV broadcast, in which actual theatergoers are invited onstage to participate in a quiz show, and actors operating real cameras are capturing images that are shown on big screens on either side of the proscenium.

And then there’s the play itself: a backstage satire depicting cutthroat network politics in which the debonair host, Troy Richards, gradually discovers that he has been set up in an elaborate plot to get him off the show.

Charles Shaughnessy quizzes audience members in "Game Show" (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

Carrothers built a unique supporting cast around his guest star, British-born Charles Shaughnessy, who exudes effortless, David Niven-style charm as he interacts with theatergoers as Troy.

Carrothers assembled a group of Kansas City veterans as well as a couple of Chicago actors with improv backgrounds, all of whom had one thing in common: They could go with the flow. “Game Show” is scripted up to a point, but much of the entertainment is found in the unscripted moments when actors relate to real people from the audience.

“It’s going to be a different show every night, depending on the mood of the audience and how much wine they’ve had,” Shaughnessy said one afternoon during a rehearsal break.

Shaughnessy said he has never done improv, and he has never appeared on a game show, but you’d never guess it by watching him work in this production. He and his fellow actors form an ensemble of equally crucial components and share the stage with ease.

“I’ve never done a show like this,” said Shaughnessy, a veteran of film and television, perhaps remembered best for a regular role on “The Nanny.” “It reminds me a bit of English pantomime. This is really quite fascinating.

“You’re doing a play about a game show while filming the game show and broadcasting it to the audience. But the whole thing is a play that takes you behind the scenes. It’s a fascinating Russian-doll show — a show within a show within a show. It’s like Pirandello — wheels within wheels.”

Odd as it may seem to invoke the name of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in discussing a show at a dinner theater, it actually is appropriate.

Pirandello, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1934, wrote “tragedies” that are considered forerunners of theater of the absurd. He is best known for a play hardly anyone has seen — “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” in which characters from an unfinished play wander into a rehearsal and implore the director to finish their story.Odd as it may seem to invoke the name of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello in discussing a show at a dinner theater, it actually is appropriate.

In short, Pirandello made it OK for playwrights to free themselves from the restrictions of conventional storytelling, to break the “fourth wall” by allowing characters to speak directly to the audience and candidly acknowledging the artifice of theater.

Carrothers said the jokey alternative title for the determinedly frothy show at the New Theatre is “Six Characters in Search of a Game Show.”

“That’s the whole Pirandello thing — blurring the line between acting and reality,” Carrothers said. “This show blurs that line.”

Carrothers had only two weeks to rehearse, which meant, among other things, coming up with questions for the actual games, because the script didn’t provide any.

“The games themselves were very sketchy,” Carrothers said. “The script would say ‘Round One: selected questions.’ ”

Joe Fox, the company’s vice president in charge of production, came up with as many as 400 questions, which they winnowed during rehearsals, Carrothers said.

Actors Craig Benton and Peter DeFaria, who play the camera operators, used the equipment from the beginning and, according to Carrothers, took to it like ducks to water. Actor Tim Cormack plays the television director in the show, which obliges him to direct the live video feed the audience sees on the big screens from an upstage console.

In the 30 minutes or so before the show starts, actors — including Jim Korinke and Todd Carlton Lanker — go into the audience in character and solicit volunteers to participate in the games. Carrothers said many spectators enjoy being made part of the action. But some don’t.

“Audiences by their very nature are voyeurs,” Carrothers said. “It’s like looking into somebody else’s dilemma and wondering what they’re going to do. When you ask voyeurs to be active, there’s a sort of group resistance. We get emails and phone calls from people saying, ‘I didn’t appreciate being part of it.’ ”

As a creative artist, though, Carrothers likes watching what happens when you change the formula.

“It’s interesting that by having an audience member up there it changes the dynamic of how we’re experiencing the show,” he said. “I just love how it shakes up the dynamics. There’s really something I’ve found that in long runs actors get very comfortable with the words. It’s almost hypnotic. They feel protected by the words, but in this show they have to be able to respond.”

Shaughnessy, for his part, seems to enjoy where is. He inherited a baronial title, and he studied law at Cambridge. But the acting bug, he said, can be traced to his discovery in childhood that he really enjoyed reading out loud in class.

“I really like showing off,” he said. “And of course no sensible person is an actor professionally.”

But he never could picture himself among lawyers.

“That’s not my tribe,” he said.

Shaughnessy has done stage and television (including an eight-year stint on the daytime soap “Days of Our Lives”), and in this show he gets to do both. But he has no preference.

“It’s like different parts of a meal,” he said. “They’re all delicious, but they’re all different. I love getting onstage, but at the same time, it’s much more financially rewarding on TV, and that increases your fame, which allows you to do more theater.”

“Game Show,” whether it’s your cup of tea or not, does represent something that’s been happening more of late at the New Theatre: Productions that reflect playful, bold, even risky choices. Last summer Carrothers directed the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a show the company had done before, but Carrothers and his designers came up with a wild new take on the material, and the results were very funny.

Then Dennis Hennessey staged the rather shopworn 1960s British farce “Move Over Mrs. Markham” and hit on the idea of setting the show at the turn of the 20th century, with corsets for the ladies, high collars for the men and antique telephones in the parlor.

And now we have “Game Show,” which has so many unscripted moments that the potential for derailment is always bubbling just below the surface.

Carrothers said the explanation is simple enough. He and Hennessy, who have been producing partners since the 1970s, said they have learned a thing or two through the years.

“What you’re seeing out here is that I get a little more creative the longer I do it,” Carrothers said. “We probably wouldn’t have done ‘Move Over Mrs. Markham,’ but because Dennis had the idea for this mashup, that’s the whole reason we did it.

“I am now more open to outcome than attached to outcome. In terms of this creative piece (‘Game Show’), 10 or 15 years ago I would have gone in with a very rigid approach. But I was so open to any artist in that room who had an opinion, they participated in the shaping and molding of this show. And that’s what you see.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

‘Betrayal’ is an affair to remember: Living Room presents Pinter’s powerful drama with a fine cast and unusual staging.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” arguably his most accessible play, can be read one of two ways: as a cleverly constructed dissection of a clandestine love affair and all the levels of betrayal that come with it, or as an indulgent autobiographical work by a self-obsessed writer.

There’s no rule that says it can’t be both, of course. This play spans nine years and allows us to see the exuberant beginning and sad end of a seven-year love affair between a literary agent and his best friend’s wife. Based in part on Pinter’s own affair with television presenter Joan Bakewell while he was married to actress Vivien Merchant, he lays out the major events in “Betrayal” in reverse chronology.

Katie Gilchrist and Forrest Attaway in "Betrayal" (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star)

Thus, in the opening scene we see the final, bittersweet meeting between Jerry and Emma two years after their affair ended. In the final scene we see its passionate beginning.

There’s no denying that Pinter’s tight, economical dialogue draws us in. And his knack for conveying information about his characters as much by what they don’t say as what they do is compelling. In a strange way, “Betrayal” is put together like a thriller — although it doesn’t deliver much in the way of thrills.

The production at the Living Room, directed by Bryan Moses and featuring a talented cast, finds clever ways to distract us from the play’s fundamental emptiness. The love triangle presented in this play is remarkably cold and joyless, and how we feel about it all when it’s over seems curiously beside the point.

Moses has chosen to take advantage of the Living Room’s flexible and cavernous performance space to present the play in “promenade style,” meaning the audience follows the actors from room to room as they perform the show. The earliest scenes — set in a pub and a living room — are set downstairs, but most of the play is performed in the big second-floor loft where we see another living room scene as well as episodes in a Venice hotel room, a London restaurant and the flat where Emma and Jerry carry on their affair.

At the Monday night opening, the audience was literally left in the dark at times during the scene transitions and was unsure just where the next scene would be played, but in each case guides were on hand to direct viewers to the proper location.

Forrest Attaway dominates the production with a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Jerry. There are moments of potent humor in his deadpan reactions to an increasingly tense and soul-battering situation. Few actors can do as much as Attaway while saying nothing, and when he speaks, every word counts. Indeed, Attaway gives the piece some actual emotional resonance. In the final scene, when we see a drunken Jerry professing his passion for the surprised Emma, the poignancy is palpable because we’ve already seen the train wreck.

Katie Gilchrist brings her customary charisma to the stage as Emma, ably negotiating transitions between love, passion and, ultimately, an emotional void. And Rick Williamson, an actor I’d never seen before, delivers an impressive less-is-more performance as Robert, Emma’s husband. His work is subtle and controlled.

Williamson is particularly good when enunciating the script’s understated but withering commentary on the London writing and publishing scene, circa the 1970s.

The play has valid things to say about the different manifestations of betrayal — how each character emotionally betrays the others and how both Robert, who is a book publisher, and Jerry betray their own literary ideals.

But ultimately this play seems straitjacketed by the era it evokes. It invites us into the prop wash of London’s “swinging ’60s,” which in retrospect isn’t terribly interesting.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved