History is less a seamless narrative than a series of impressions that may or may not conform to established facts, which creates wonderful opportunities for writers and performers.
That was the take-away from the opening night Wednesday of the Invasion, Kansas City’s annual festival of solo and two-actor shows, in which three gifted British actors performed one-person plays about disparate but memorable figures.
In “Nelson — The Sailor’s Story,” actor/writer Nicholas Collett offers a fascinating portrait of Horatio Nelson, the celebrated admiral who defeated the French and Spanish navies in a series of encounters during the Napoleonic Wars before losing his life to a French sharpshooter at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Collett’s piece imagines the statue of the great naval commander atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square coming life to recount a bit of his personal history and toss off amusing observations about the pigeons who perch on his effigy, ridicule-worthy French tourists and other subjects. Collett is an unfussy actor who values economy over flamboyance, and he remains focused on the task at hand: telling a compelling story.
The depth of research is impressive as Collett shifts the point of view among multiple characters, including a ship’s gunner, his young powder monkey, a ship’s surgeon and a homeless veteran seeking shelter against the snow on New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square.
A political theme emerges: The military rank-and-file who do the lion’s share of fighting and dying are rarely rewarded for their service and sacrifice. By carefully integrating material from letters, diaries and other sources, Collett paints a vivid picture of the horrors of naval combat faced by men and boys in the 18th century. Nelson, a man who led bravely and never asked his men to do anything he wouldn’t, is an inspirational figure.
Collett’s performance is by turns highly amusing, sobering and poignant. Nelson emerges as a man who achieved greatness by following unconventional instincts. It made him a singular commander and unique figure.
This is the show’s American debut.
Was Mata Hari guilty?
Katharine Hurst is an actress who exudes intelligence and poise, qualities that at times make “Mata Hari: Female Spy” an impressive show. Written and directed by Gavin Robertson, “Mata Hari,” making its American debut, speculates that the woman who performed as an exotic dancer was executed as a spy by the French in World War I on trumped-up charges.
Clarity is sometimes sacrificed as we watch the title character’s complicated biography unfold: She was born in the Netherlands, lived in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as the wife of a Scottish officer and later embarked on a dancing career, once besting Isadora Duncan and Maud Allan in a so-called “War of the Tights” in Vienna.
Mata Hari’s cultural significance as one of a group of performers who signaled a new sexual freedom in the early 20th century is compelling, but her personality never seems much more complicated than an ego-driven stage star. Hurst’s charisma holds our interest, even at those times when the narrative thread is lost within of stream of dates, names and facts that could be better organized.
Meet Henry VIII
Also appearing on these shores for the first time is “An Audience With Henry VIII,” an often delightful piece co-written and performed by Ross Gurney-Randall. The Henry we meet in this show earns our sympathy as we realize that he is doomed to wander for eternity, presenting his story to audiences of strangers in “shabby little rooms.”
In the course of an hour, more or less, Henry ruminates on his wives, his friends and enemies, the people he ordered killed and his once robust health ravaged by physical infirmities.
Gurney-Randall is an expansive actor who performs with an infectious sense of humor as he involves the audience in the show. He addresses a woman who reminds him of one of his wives, asks another viewer to bring him a chair from the wings and banters with other audience members without ever going too far off-script.
Henry, of course, is one of the most famous kings in history, about whom reams of histories and biographies have been written, but Gurney-Randall’s show slyly suggests that no matter how much we think we know, understanding the inner workings of a person’s mind is something altogether different.
This show, in short, is anything but dry history. It’s a comic romp that at times achieves palpable poignancy.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
The Invasion: Kansas City International Theatre Festival continues through July 26 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. For a full schedule of shows and performers, call 816-569-3226 or go cstkc.com.