‘Thank You Notes’ is notable among Fringe Fest plays

07/23/2012 2:54 PM

05/16/2014 7:11 PM

Playwright Vicki Vodrey combines element of farce, satire and classical tragedy in “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,”

an entry in the KC Fringe Festival that stands out for the quality of the performances.

Vodrey’s play undergoes a remarkable change of tone in 60 minutes. In the early going it all seems like a lark, a kooky idea that gets laughs with its absurdist sense of humor. By the end, we are confronted with profound questions about forbidden love. Ultimately this play is sobering, disturbing and exciting for its audacity.

The setting is a funeral for a young woman named Angela (Vanessa Severo). The eulogy read by her twin brother, Ethan (Scott Cox), is one of Angela’s choosing. He is to read a stack of her “thank-you notes,” each addressed to an important person in her life. First, we hear Angela’s voice from her open casket challenging Ethan’s introductory platitudes. Then she rises from the coffin and becomes a full-fledged character on stage.

Also on hand is Ethan’s wife Betsy (Mandy Mook), who initially seems almost a nonentity but, like the other characters, undergoes a major transformation before the final curtain.

The humor ranges from lowbrow to unpredictable, but it all packs a punch thanks to Severo’s gifts as a comic actress. Indeed, much of the play’s tension comes from the sharp contrast between the exuberance of Severo’s performance and Cox’s portrait of a man fulfilling a painful obligation while barely able to contain his deep feelings. Both actors are excellent.

The play’s tone shifts along with the nature of the thank-you notes, which become increasingly revelatory. Ultimately we come to understand that Ethan and Angela were in a close in a way that few people can comprehend.

Director Seven Eubank, as precise as ever, keeps a sharp eye on the emotional metamorphosis each character experiences. The program doesn’t list a lighting designer, but the carefully calibrated, subtle lighting is a major element in the show’s delicate atmosphere.

This is a play that sneaks up on the viewer. It talks about love, sex, family and pop culture. And if you’re like me, you will be haunted this show’s surprising emotional impact.

‘4Play’

The 10-minute play is an honorable form of dramatic writing that challenges writers to be precise and agile.

The show

“4Play”

offers four examples of the genre, although in truth most of these pieces run a bit longer than 10 minutes. Audiences will encounter flashes of wit and audacious humor but the four shorts works do remind us that skits and plays are two different animals. These offerings are closer to skits.

Jose Faus pursues an interesting idea in

“A Matter of Faith,”

an irreverent piece about man named Jesus (who uses the Spanish pronunciation) on whose right thumb the Virgin Mary has appeared. He keeps the hand concealed by a glove and resists the efforts of a young reporter to remove it. Philip “Blue Owl” Hooser plays Jesus in a laid back, amusing style. Chelsea Almeida is hyper-energetic as the reporter. Meredith Wolfe brings her customary charisma to a character whose purpose isn’t entirely clear. And Alan Tilson, the old pro, doesn’t break a sweat as the pontificating Father Allen.

The male character in Ken Buch’s

“A Perfect 89”

is either a mathematics savant who is obsessed with sex or a sex addict who obsesses with numbers. Sean Hogge, speaking so softly that we lose some of the dialogue, plays Sam, who has been encouraging his girlfriend Justine (Bree Henderson) to be sexually adventurous. Initially she seems agreeable but is appalled when she realizes the full scope of his fantasies. The joke is that Sam finds her body mathematically perfect, which he describes in explicit detail.

The most successful of the quartet is

“As the Guiding Light Turns”

by Michelle T. Johnson, who finds a way to pack some interesting twists and turns into her short play about a preacher (Jeff Smith) and his relationship to a family of congregants. He has just “fired” Grace (Sherri Roulette-Mosley) from her traditional role on a fundraising committee because she has “sinned” by watching daytime soaps. It’s a rash move that the Rev. Jefferson hopes will conceal the true nature of his relationship with her son Jerome (Evan Lovelace). Grace’s husband, Frank (Jahi Boseda), is a sardonic presence skeptical of the preacher’s motives. Johnson embeds reversals and surprises at strategic intervals and her actors have fun with the material.

Playwright Jack Phillips, who leads an alternate life as a satirical songwriter, gives us

“Breeding Stock,”

a rude farce set in a TV studio where the host of a financial news show (Allan Hazlett) interviews his guest Wanda Green (Mary Ruth Gunter) about her new business plan to sell unadulterated sperm to women across the country (as opposed to what she calls “street sludge.”) She introduces her donor, a “perfect specimen” named Bruno Johnson (Jeff Smith again), who is costumed to show off his Adonis-like physique. Things take a turn when the studio is invaded by terrorists (Rozanne Devine, Bree Henderson and Chelsea Almeida), who represent a group that believes in natural reproduction. Phillips scores some laughs in a piece which, despite its brevity, feels too long.

As in most Fringe shows, the production values in “4Play” are spartan.

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