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-size 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.”
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.
The new production, directed by John Rensenhouse, is the second collaboration among the National World War I Museum, the 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.”
“He was part of the whole project,” Rensenhouse said. “Would we have done the play without Grant entering his third year of the program? I don’t know. I’m sure we could have found somebody ”
But then Rensenhouse had to find a pianist who could also sing. After auditioning a number of people, he settled on Cary Mock, a singing pianist who also happens to be an actor. Mock has been seen in productions at Quality Hill Playhouse, Musical Theater Heritage and other local companies.
“I am somewhat famous for my tin ear, I think they call it — I like to call it ‘stone ear’ — but I wouldn’t know a bad pitch if I heard it,” Rensenhouse said. “So I was looking for someone who was very musically gifted and who could transpose on sight and who could play something if I said, ‘Give me something that sounds like a World War I march.’ And he’s very good at the little acting parts.”
Mock, for his part, didn’t feel compelled to do extensive research — in part because one way he makes a living is performing vintage music for senior citizens at assisted living centers. Mock said there about 16 songs in the show, mostly duets.
“It was a nice surprise when I opened the score and found all the goodies enclosed,” Mock said. “They sound very much like that era — a lot of jump-bass kind of accompaniment. In this show sometimes I’m an accompanist, of course, and sometimes I’m singing with Grant doing harmonies. Sometimes I’m the narrator. Sometimes I’m the alter ego. It’s fun to be part of the action but away from the action.”
The play is sometimes thought to have an anti-war message, but that may be too simplistic. The script attempts to capture the universal aspects of war, in which people are sometimes at their best, sometimes at their worst. In the early part of the show, Billy expresses the bravado of youth and the exhilaration of aerial combat. But later he describes the horror of watching an enemy pilot falling from his burning plane.
“There are about three entire songs that are a commentary on the futility of war, so to a certain extent it is a commentary, but I think it goes a lot further than that,” Prewitt said. “This one puts a face to it and puts a personality to the war in general, and how we perceive it.”
Prewitt said the play also makes clear the stark difference between the war in the air and the one on the ground. Foot soldiers found themselves in a mud-caked war of attrition, a virtual stalemate as enemies from opposing trenches stared at each other across No Man’s Land. But for the pilots, it was a war of gentlemanly duels, a gallant competition of derring-do.
But the planes themselves could be death traps.
“They were paper, basically, and they’d just go up in flames,” Prewitt said. “They’d fall apart if you went too fast. It was like a kite being powered by some machine.”
One thing everyone involved in the production agreed on was this: They knew almost nothing about World War I when they started. Rensenhouse and Prewitt had appeared in “Oh, What a Lovely War,” but even that experience just scratched the surface.
“I was shamefully ignorant on World War I history when I began work on the play last year,” Rensenhouse said. “I knew nothing. Now, after two passes of immersing myself in the war, it’s so amazing to see how fundamental to the world as we know it today World War I was, how it changed so many things we tend to take for granted, and how World War II wouldn’t have happened without the first war. You could argue that World War II was just an extension of World War I. In some ways we’re still fighting World War I. But I guess in some ways we’re still fighting the Trojan War.”
Rensenhouse said Actors Theatre is committed to a continuing relationship with the museum. At one point the group organized a reading there of British playwright R.C. Sheriff’s “Journey’s End,” a three-act drama about British officers in the trenches. He said his group may or may not produce a play at the museum next year but will certainly return the year after.
“We are looking at other things because coming up is the 100th anniversary (of the war’s inception) in 2014,” he said. “If we don’t do anything in 2013, we’ll definitely be back in 2014.”