Well, it took about 20 years but “Gunplay,” a piece Kansas City playwright Frank Higgins wrote in the 1990s, has finally received a professional production in town. I’m happy to report that it was worth the wait.
The show at the Aquarium — the theater upstairs from the Fishtank Performance Studio — is performed with few technical amenities and the actors are non-Equity. The whole thing has the feel of a workshop, but the absence of bells and whistles is a good thing. Let’s face it. We’ve all seen technically polished shows that were unendurable. In this case, the unadorned directness of the performance means we have to take the play on its own merits.
Higgins’ notion was to create a succession of mini-plays that balanced the pros and cons of the gun debate. Some scenes argue for gun control, others examine the ease with which firearms make homicide possible. Most of them are inherently satirical but a few achieve real poignancy. Some take a skeptical look at American history, while others exist uncomfortably in the here and now.
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The show is divided into two acts and is co-directed by Margaret Shelby and Ethan Zogge. The talented cast includes Rasheedat “Ras” Badejo, Connor Branson, Karla Fennick, Joseph Fournier, Laura Jacobs, John Mulvey, Brad Shaw and Meredith Wolfe.
On the satirical side of the ledger, Fournier plays a drunken Bat Masterson preparing to deliver a dinner speech for his old pal Teddy Roosevelt and admits that shootouts in Dodge City and other Western towns were exceedingly rare.
In “Traditional Values,” Shaw plays a school official who is bringing classic European values into an urban high school by encouraging gang-bangers to fight formal duels.
In “Gun Nuts,” Badejo plays a Russian duke guided on a buffalo-hunting expedition by “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Branson) and George Armstrong Custer (Mulvey); a Native American woman (Jacobs) appears in camp and, to their dismay, begins prophesying about their fates.
We find poignancy in the form of children’s fables. In “He Lion,” Shaw reads a story about the animals in the forest who are ruled by the He Lion (Wolfe), who struts expansively until he encounters a man with a gun.
In “Moonglow,” Badejo plays a kid in a housing project who concocts her own story about a magical carousel horse that can take one rider (and one only) to the moon and eternal safety. In the end, the child volunteers her mother for the trip and stays behind.
In all there are 21 scenes, all brought to life by a gifted cast. Because the dynamics of the gun debate are forever shifting and morphing, Higgins contributed new pages and rewrites during rehearsals. He probably could continue doing so on a weekly basis.
If we’re lucky, we may not have to wait another 20 years for a local production of “Gunplay.”