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Sex, love, revenge and audacity on Fringe Fest’s opening night

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

KC Fringe is all about audacity, and the Friday night audience assembled at the Off Center Theatre to see a new play called “Tack Driver” witnessed a remarkable example.

Moments after the audience believed the play had begun, playwright/director Jerry Genochio took the stage to explain that his script is far from set in stone. That very day he and his actors, Kyle Hatley and Matt Rapport, had rehearsed for two hours, using brand new revisions. That’s why Hatley and Rapport held their scripts for part of Friday’s performance. They hadn’t had time to memorize the new dialogue.

Genochio said he intended to keep working on the play all through the fringe festival. So if anyone in the audience Friday decided to see the show a second time later in the week, the play might be significantly different.

That’s the kind of chutzpah you can’t help but admire. You’re watching creation in what playwright Peter Shaffer once called “the furnace of art,” in which the correct path isn’t always discernible.

The play depicts two brothers who recall scenes from their shared childhoods as the contemplate doing what they swore to do as kids: Kill their abusive stepfather. That sounds heavy, and it is.

The brothers experienced traumatic events in a violent household and they carry the expected scar tissue. We have to take into account that the play is exactly what Genochio said it is -- a work in progress -- but there are times when the writing gets a little chaotic and the playwright might consider whittling down the number of F-bombs.

The play really comes to life during a comic sequence in which Brother One (Hatley) and Brother Two (Rapport) engage in an extended, convoluted debate about seemingly irrelevant questions regarding the cinematic and recording legacies of Rex Harrison, Noel Harrison, Robert Preston and Richard Harris -- four actors from another era the boys can’t quite keep straight. Could the guy in “The Music Man” and “The Last Starfighter" have recorded “MacArthur Park?” Or was it the guy from “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E?”

It has the quality of a drunken, after-hours, dorm-room discussion, although the brothers are shown drinking only coffee. Hatley and Rapport’s timing is at its best during this passage. And although the episode might seem extraneous, it actually reflects the play’s central theme.

Genochio wrestles with the disparity between memory and reality. We may think we remember things accurately, but memories are malleable and can be reshaped -- which might be particularly true of anyone who survived a dysfunctional family.

The play is set in what appears to be a barn or a neglected outbuilding. Ropes and tack are hung on the wall and there’s a hay bale or two. The brothers meet to consider whether they have it in them to really carry out the pact to which they swore. Brother Two has brought a high-powered rifle with him. Their ultimate choice could have gone the other way, but the symbolic power of their mutual oath drives them to what feels like an inevitable decision.

Hatley and Rapport work well together, although in the early going they seem stylistically mismatched. Rapport thunders with his big stage voice and Hatley speaks just above a whisper. As the show progresses, Hatley’s performance acquires intensity and power and Rapport’s character has moved from angry blowhard to a guy with sincere doubts about their course of action.

Misty Pelas’s scenic design is minimal but effective, and Margaret Spare’s lighting design adds a lot of environmental texture to the drama.

Street construction has made the Just Off Broadway Theatre near 31st and Broadway almost inaccessible, but about 50 viewers found their way to the little playhouse Friday for the debut performance of “Foreign Bodies” by Arika Larson.

The play is a comedy that examines what might happen if a gay man and a lesbian, each pretending to be a member of the opposite gender, meet through an online dating service and fall in love. What ensues is a weird little relationship triangle involving Shannon (Greg Brostrom), his new roommate Ryan (Kate O’Neill) and the recently married Darci (Missy Fennewald). The play deals with issues of love and sexuality in clever ways, suggesting that real love may have a hard time surviving the collision of perception and reality.

Darci, who has her own gal-pal history with Shannon, is initially jealous of Ryan, but her hostility gives way to attraction. Shannon, meanwhile, has to admit that he’s actually in love with Ryan. Both Ryan and Shannon insist there’s nothing ambiguous about their respective sexualities, although events in the play suggest otherwise.

Timing wasn’t quite what it needed to be Friday evening, although a couple of muffed light cues didn’t do the actors any favors. But the play’s final scene, depicting in flashback the initial meeting of Ryan and Shannon, is effectively poignant.

Director Scott Cordes has spiced things up by tapping a couple of easy-on-the-eyes stage assistants -- the chiseled Jeff Smith and the voluptuous Kelsey Bowers -- who appear during transitions holding big cards that tell us how much time has elapsed between scenes. It’s an amusing vaudevillian touch designed to appeal to lascivious instincts.

Vocal projection is minimal, which sacrifices some of the dialogue. The Just Off Broadway stage is bigger than it looks at first glance, and some of the action is set too far upstage. This is a play that needs intimacy.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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