Forgive me for stating the obvious, but 2015 was a really good year for theater in Kansas City.
And that represents an upward trend. Because 2014 was a really good year, too. And the year before that. And the year before that.
Theatergoers this year saw world premieres, American premieres and regional premieres. We saw original work by playwrights who live here. We saw fine performances by veteran actors, young actors and some making their professional stage debuts. We saw memorable appearances by out-of-town actors as well as people who have chosen to make a life in Kansas City.
Recently I wrote about Shanna Jones, an actress and musician who decided to pack her trunk and say adios to New York in favor of the artist-friendly environment she discovered in this town, whose remarkable theatrical history can be traced to the mid-19th century.
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Here’s my quick overview of some of the important events during the year. Rest assured, there’s plenty of quibble material here for detractors to chew on:
▪ Kansas City Repertory Theatre offered a couple of world premieres — “Sticky Traps” by Nathan Louis Jackson and “Blueprint to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” by Michael Benjamin Washington, in keeping with artistic director Eric Rosen’s commitment to new work.
But the standout productions were derived from existing plays and musicals. Kyle Hatley, the Rep’s former associate artistic director, lasered in a bravura performance as the Poet in “An Iliad” by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. The show is a one-man version of Homer’s classic verse narrative of the Trojan War and was performed with unpredictable flashes of creativity and extraordinary intensity by Hatley. He shared the stage with percussion musician Raymond Castrey. Jerry Genochio directed.
Rosen staged an innovative revival of the tribal love rock musical “Hair,” but with a twist: He brought in veteran actors who appeared in the original Broadway production and other early tours and revivals, and matched them with younger, mainly local performers. The result was a fascinating example of documentary theater in which cast members told personal stories and described how they related to the material and how it has affected them. Called “Hair: Retrospection,” this unique production included all the great music from the Broadway score.
Rosen came back in the fall with another singular production of another musical, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” He and his exemplary design team met the challenge of staging the show in Atkins Auditorium at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.” Their task was to take a lecture hall and transform it into a functioning theater. The result was a triumph of design. And it didn’t hurt that he assembled an impressive cast led by Claybourne Elder as Seurat.
The Rep also staged an admirable production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” earlier in the year. And in the bricks-and-mortar department, the company raised $5.5 million to upgrade the Spencer Theatre and remodel the lobby of the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center.
▪ My favorites of the year at the Unicorn Theatre included the spring production of British playwright Mike Bartlett’s “Cock,” a pressure-cooker play about love and sex in contemporary England. Director Jeff Church put together a good cast: Molly Denninghoff, Jacob Aaron Cullum, Matthew Rapport and Zachary Andrews. The show was staged without props and a decree from Church that the actors could not touch each other.
The Unicorn’s early-summer staging of “Tribes” by Nina Raine (also British) was a unique bit of theater about communication, hearing loss and isolation. Director Ted Swetz assembled fine local actors — David Fritts, Jan Rogge, Jake Walker and Nicole Marie Green — but he also showcased the professional debuts of two untested performers — Paul Ososki, who is deaf, and Lisa Lehnen, a professional American Sign Language interpreter. It turned out they were excellent. All in all it was vital theater.
Late in the year the midtown company offered a memorable production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size,” a three-character drama set in Louisiana but rooted in Yoruba mythology. Mykel Hill directed Damron Russel Armstrong, Donovan Woods and Teddy Trice. And respected actor Seth Golay delivers a bravura performance in the one-man show “Buyer & Cellar,” which ends tonight.
▪ Kansas City Actors Theatre’s current season kicked off in the fall and showcased two exceptional productions — D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” about a fractious relationship between two residents of a senior citizens home, and Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo,” about paths that cross unpredictably in contemporary New York.
Victor Raider-Wexler and Marilyn Lynch were outstanding in “The Gin Game,” which Dennis D. Hennessy directed. “At Home at the Zoo,” staged by Doug Weaver, featured fine work by Brian Paulette, Jessalyn Kincaid and Forrest Attaway. Attaway was riveting as the emotionally disturbed Jerry.
(Attaway, by the way, enjoyed another career highlight this year when the Living Room produced the world premiere of “Chainsaw: The Musical,” which he wrote with composer Eric Wesley Redding. It was a wild romp directed by Missy Koonce.)
▪ The best Starlight Theatre summer offering was a clever touring production of a revised “Cinderella,” which your humble theater critic watched in a steady rain. Early in the year Starlight scored a first by offering its first indoor show: “50 Shades: The Musical Parody.” The show was a hit, and now Starlight has four indoor shows planned in January.
▪ Spinning Tree Theatre, a nomadic company that performs at various venues, tackled small plays and big musicals during the year. Its production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Just Off Broadway showcased Gary Neal Johnson as Tevye and a terrific supporting cast. Later in the year it came back with “West Side Story,” which is staged in rather cramped quarters at Arts Asylum. It was a strong cast, but Vanessa Severo stole it with her star turn as Anita.
(Severo also anchored a strong cast in the Coterie’s stripped-down, meta-theatrical adaptation of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.” Severo played Annie Sullivan opposite Josephine Pellow as Helen Keller.)
▪ Highlights of the year for Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre included a lively production of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” directed by Karen Paisley and featuring memorable work from some of the city’s underutlized African-American actors. Paisley also directed and performed in a memorable, sprawling production of “Mary Stuart,” in which she played the title role opposite Cheryl Weaver as Queen Elizabeth. Paisley, who evidently doesn’t sleep, also directed a nice version of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Alfred Uhry’s evocation of a Jewish family in Atlanta just before World War II. A strong cast was dominated by Scott Cox as the family patriarch.
▪ Bob Paisley’s Central Standard Theatre, which is affiliated with the MET, allowed the actor to finally bring “Bill Clinton Hercules,” a one-actor show about the former president written by Rachel Mariner, to local audiences. He had previously performed it in Northern Ireland and Scotland. It proved to be an absorbing — though not strictly factual — solo performance.
Bob Paisley reprised the show as part of the annual Invasion, in which he invites performers from Britain and elsewhere to perform solo and two-character works. Highlights this year included several American premieres. Gavin Robertson’s cerebral, comic and fascinating “The Six-Sided Man,” performed by Robertson and Nicholas Collett, allowed Robertson to demonstrate his remarkable pantomime skills. Collett also performed a visceral one-man show about Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson in “Nelson — The Sailors’ Story,” which the actor researched, wrote and performed with admirable economy. And Ross Gurney-Randall delivered his richly comic and sometimes poignant “An Audience With Henry VIII.”
▪ Heidi Van, curator of the Fishtank Performance Studio, directed a lively musical called “MotherFreakingHood!” which took me by surprise. I expected a derivative show in the vein of “Menopause the Musical,” but it proved to be inventive, amusing and insightful. It didn’t hurt that Van pulled together a gifted cast that included Severo, Jennifer Mays, Nancy Nail and Sara Carolynn Kennedy. The piece was written by Julie Dunlap and Sara Stotts.
For the KC Fringe Festival, Van collaborated with artist Peregrine Honig to create “The Penis Monologues,” a unique show for which Van and Honig solicited original material from a range of writers. Van directed the show, and Honig designed the sets. It was by far the most interesting piece I saw at the festival.
Another festival highlight was Logan Black’s autobiographical “Bond: A Soldier and His Dog,” an account of his service in Iraq and a bomb-sniffing yellow Lab named Diego. The show was inspiring and moving. And Diego made a welcome appearance at the end.
▪ Respected actor John Rensenhouse took on one of the most challenging tasks in theater when he played the title role in “King Lear” for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. He was supported by an exceptional cast that included Kyle Hatley, Emily Peterson, Jacques Roy, Kim Martin-Cotten, Phil Fiorini, Brian Paulette and Cinnamon Schultz.
▪ The Living Room began its year auspiciously with a nice production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” directed by Natalie Liccardello and featuring an interesting cast of mainly young actors.
▪ A highlight of the summer at the New Theatre was its clever production of “The Addams Family,” which featured nice performances by Phil Fiorini, Hillary Marren and Jerry Jay Cranford, among others. The real star was scenic designer Charles Moore, whose pen-and-ink set designs were exceptional.