Two men, sporting nautical stripes, suspenders, black-rimmed glasses and ridiculous smiles, wander on stage. They look around at the audience. They look at each other. Back to the audience. Back to each other.
They’re not doing much — they’re not really doing anything — but Slater Penney and Jaron Hollander already have the audience in the palms of their hands for “The Submarine Show.”
“It’s something about how funny we look standing next to each other,” Penney said by phone from California. “It’s great that it’s just that simple.”
During their hourlong show, there’s a great deal of audience participation as the two actors improvise several characters and adventure after adventure.
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The performance, which they call a live-action cartoon, has emerged as one of the most popular shows at the annual Central Standard Theatre’s Invasion. Their show will return for a third year at the festival, which runs July 13-23. Two other acts are returning as well; three more will make their debut for this sixth year of Invasion, also known as the Kansas City International Theatre Festival. The shows range from solo acts to physical theater to dance works.
Producer Bob Paisley chooses the shows by visiting international festivals. While he’s practical in the scale of acts he can bring in, he also promotes variety.
“I look for innovative storytelling,” he said. “I want interesting shows that challenge the intellect and touch emotions.”
“The Submarine Show” definitely touches emotions; specifically it tickles the funny bone. Hollander and Penney have performed “The Submarine Show” more than 200 times for almost seven years in San Francisco; New York; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Germany.
“We’re really alone in our genre,” Penney said. “When something just clicks. You want to see how far it can go. It’s very easy to work together, and that’s what made it so simple to create this.”
People make return visits to their shows, Hollander and Penney said, but each show is different, thanks to the element of audience participation.
“There’s a whole skill in how it is that you interact with an audience member,” Hollander said. “You approach people cautiously and find out if they want to be a part of it. Some people back out and some people don’t. Some have imaginations that take the show in another direction, and being able to say yes to what it is that they put forward — the part that I don’t know (what it) is going to be when I step on stage is my favorite.”
Hollander and Penney are dabbling in other potential shows — including superheroes, mad scientist and criminal characters — but at the moment, they’re happy to keep presenting “The Submarine Show” across the globe.
“We want to quietly take over the world and transform what live theater can be,” Hollander said.
While Paisley is happy to welcome back such a popular act, he said he’s most excited about “The Warriors: A Love Story,” a show by newcomers to the festival, Arcos Dance — an Austin, Texas, company. The show is about a writer who discovers a trunk full of memories about his grandparents — a young dancer in Germany during World War II and an American war veteran. The show won the Spirit of the Fringe award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014.
With a cast of five dancers and one actor, the show covers a lot of ground through multimedia and an hour’s worth of performance storytelling, Paisley said.
“They are focused, precise and emotional performers,” Paisley said. “It’s not easy to do. This is really the one I really wanted to show off.”
The Invasion usually draws between 1,500 to 2,000 people over its 10 days. The 2014 festival drew some of the smallest crowds, but not due to lack of talent — the festival ran during the Royals’ World Series games that October. Accordingly, Paisley moved the festival to July.
Two of the shows from that year, “In the Window” and “Hamlet (The Notes)” will get another shot in front of Kansas City audiences.
▪ “The Submarine Show,” 8 p.m. July 13 and 19, 6 p.m. July 14, 20, 22 at the Theatre at MCC-Penn Valley.
▪ “The Warriors: A Love Story,” 8 p.m. July 14-15, 21-22; 1 p.m. July 16 and 23 at the Theatre at MCC-Penn Valley.
▪ “Escape From the Planet of the Day That Time Forgot!” is a satirical British comedy, inspired by the style of British B-movies, presented by the Company Gavin Robertson in the United Kingdom. 6 p.m. July 13, 15, 19, 21; 8 p.m. July 20 at the Theatre at MCC-Penn Valley.
▪ “Hamlet (The Notes)” presents a satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of Shakespeare’s tragedy through the eyes of a director and his artistic team. Created by 404 Strand (an international collective of theater artists). 8 p.m. July 14, 20 and 21 and 6 p.m. July 15 and 17 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.
▪ “In the Window,” a comedy by Nuala McKeever of Northern Ireland, tells the tale of a suicidal woman whose plan for death is rudely interrupted by three people, including a handsome policeman. 6 p.m. July 14, 19; 8 p.m. July 16, 21; 4 p.m. July 17 at MET.
▪ In “Your Bard: An Audience with William Shakespeare,” Nicholas Collett from the United Kingdom steps into the shoes of the great playwright — telling his life story with a beer in hand. 6 p.m. July 16 and 20; 8 p.m. July 15 and 19; 2 p.m. July 17 at the MET.
And for a little something different, the Central Standard Theatre hosts a whiskey-tasting event at 6 p.m. July 18 at the MET, led by Mark Baldwin of Gomer’s Liquors. Tickets are $30.
The Invasion serves as a companion festival and a lead-in to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, which runs July 21-31 at various venues.
Central Standard Theatre’s Invasion runs July 13-23 at the Theatre at MCC-Penn Valley, 605 W. 31st St., and at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. An opening-night party is at 9 p.m. July 13 at the MET with the Made in France Band. All-access passes to the six shows cost $150, and tickets for individual shows cost $15-30. See CSTKC.com.