Read a list of Carson Kreitzer’s plays, and you’ll quickly reach a conclusion: She likes to break rules and finds subjects that few other playwrights would tackle.
In “Freakshow” she examines the relationships in a traveling show circa 1900 between the Ringmaster, the Dog Faced Woman and the Woman With No Arms and No Legs and how they picture their places in the world.
“The Glory of God” tells a three-level love story of a present-day data researcher, a medieval monk and characters from Greek mythology.
In “Dead Wait,” two deceased waiters and iconic sex bomb Jayne Mansfield share space in Limbo. “Self Defense, or death of some salesmen” focuses on a female serial killer. “The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer” takes a look at the man who drove the creation of the atomic bomb and his struggle with his conscience. “1:23” is about women who kill children.
“Part of the reason I write plays is because I feel there are so many incredible stories that we don’t know about,” Kreitzer said recently. “So it’s wonderful finding these little corners of history and the American experience. It’s what I’ve been doing for awhile and … one play will lead to another play. That’s one of the joys of working in the theater. We get to examine these little corners of the universe.”
Now, for the first time, Kansas City theatergoers can get a taste of what Kreitzer is up to. Her “Lasso of Truth” opened last week at the Unicorn Theatre as part of a “rolling world premiere” via the National New Play Network, a national consortium of smaller theater companies.
Kreitzer’s play has already been staged in Mill Valley, Calif., and Atlanta as part of the NNPN rollout, and each time she has subjected the play to rewrites. That’s true of the Unicorn production as well. She was in this area in December to meet with the cast and director Johnny Wolfe, and has made changes to the script. As a result, Unicorn audiences will see a version of the play nobody else has seen.
“Lasso of Truth” is based on a real story strange enough to be science fiction. William Moulton Marston is credited as the inventor of the polygraph, but he also created Wonder Woman — the iconic super-heroine whose strength he based on the two women he lived with, his wife and his research assistant.
As Kreitzer was working on “1:23” and researching lie detectors, she first came across Marston, who created the comic-book heroine she loved as a child and watched on television in the form of actress Lynda Carter.
“And I said, ‘What?!’ And he was also into bondage. And was involved with two women,” she said. “My childhood was passing before my eyes.”
Kreitzer said she has a photograph of herself in childhood wearing a Wonder Woman outfit her mother made for her. If you take a look at the early comic-book adventures of Wonder Woman, Kreitzer said, one thing that leaps out is the frequency with which characters seem to get tied up. That raised an interesting question from a feminist perspective.
“Can Wonder Woman be this strong heroine if she comes from this sexualized background?” she said. “I have to say I’m really delighted by what I found in doing the research. I think Marston was really ahead of his time. He was a feminist man. And if he thinks strong women are attractive, then more power to him.”
The play interweaves two stories. One is a fictionalized version of Marston and the women in his life. The three are identified as the Inventor (played by Martin Buchanan), the Wife (Carla Noack) and the Amazon (Vanessa Severo).
“They are inspired by certain people, but they are really their own thing,” Kreitzer said.
A second, more contemporary story depicts the Girl (Laura Jacobs) looking for early copies of Wonder Woman comics at a comic-book store, where she meets the Guy (Jamie Dufault).
“So we’re dealing with all open archetypes that I hope the audience will be able to slip into and be able to see things through all their eyes,” she said.
The real Marston was a psychologist, and the women in life — his wife, accomplished intellectual Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and former student Olive Byrne — lived in an arrangement that was radically different from the norm in the 1940s. He was the father of children by both women, and after his death Elizabeth and Olive continued living together to raise their kids. All in a small town in upstate New York.
“The three of them are so ahead of their time it’s kind of mind-blowing,” Kreitzer said.
Coinciding with the rolling world premiere was the publication of Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” which reports that Marston was influenced by the suffragette movement and that Olive was the niece of Margaret Sanger, a feminist and proponent of birth control.
Wolfe said the new version of the script would reflect some of that.
“I fell in love with this play for the philosophy it’s exploring,” Wolfe said. “He was a brilliant man with some very eccentric interests, you might say.”
Wolfe said the scenic design incorporates 120 to 130 graphic images that have been used in each of the previous productions. Sometimes they mirror what’s happening on stage, sometimes not.
Kreitzer was born in Woodland, Calif., the daughter of English professors. She paid dues in New York as an actress and director but is now based in Minneapolis, where she focuses entirely on writing. She said getting practical experience in the theater — including the crafts like costume design — are crucial for young playwrights.
“I’m a bit of an evangelist for that, because it’s so hard to get productions,” she said. “There’s a lot of work for young playwrights that happens on the page and in readings, but you’ve just got to get out there and see your work in front of an audience and start learning about that alchemy.”
The “rolling world premiere” has been educational, Kreitzer said, because she has seen the play staged by very different theater companies in different venues and with different actors. The process tells you what works and what doesn’t. And she’s high on the Kansas City production.
“I am so thrilled by the cast,” she said. “I was really knocked out by meeting them all.”