Fringe Fest | ‘Sexing Hitler’ unconventional; ‘Buck Hoss’ a classic update

07/29/2012 10:12 PM

05/16/2014 7:12 PM

Oh, those crafty Nazis.

In 1940, designers and fabricators at a factory in Dresden set to work making inflatable sex dolls for the troops because fine young specimens of German manhood were falling prey to the ravages of syphilis via Parisian prostitutes.

Sounds preposterous, I know, but this strange story was documented in Graeme Donald’s 2010 book, “Mussolini’s Barber.” The program was carried out under the supervision of Heinrich Himmler, who later suspended it. Regrettably, none of the “gynoids” survived the Dresden fire bombing.

This curious bit of history is the point of departure for

“Sexing Hitler,”

a new play by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney. The playwrights choose to avoid a conventional narrative in favor of a sort of meta-theatrical, vaudevillian style, which serves the material well.

The show, directed by Varney, is preceded by a rhyming prologue performed by Himmler (Andy Garrison) and the story is told through a series of vignettes punctuated by a live band -- Kyle Dalquist, Sergio Moreno and Richard Walker, who composed the music with Christian Hankel. The 60-minute performance concludes with an epilogue.

There are times when this approach works brilliantly, thanks in large part to actor/choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, who plays the Doll. She also plays Himmler’s mistress, but her performance as the Doll is what everyone will remember. The lithe, limber Hurrelbrink is apparently light as a feather, judging by how effortlessly actors carry her across the stage.

The Doll is initially seen with a white mask in place of a face, but it gradually becomes more unnervingly human as the play explores questions about standards of beauties, the nature of love and our shared humanity – or lack thereof. Hurrelbrink delivers an exceptional, mime-based performance.

The play depicts the doll’s development and creation by sculptor Arthur Rink (Parry Luellen) and Senta Schneider (Marcie Ramirez), an expert in textiles. A low-key, poignant love affair develops between these two, but, the play implies, they do not survive the Dresden bombing.

Playing multiple German soldiers is Eric Tedder, a dancer/actor who is quietly charismatic and exhibits flashes of a wicked sense of humor. Garrison chooses pomposity as Himmler’s defining characteristic and Hankel plays a succession of eugenicists in broad, comic style.

Varney and Colley have demonstrated an interest in weird corners of Nazi history before. This time most of the essential elements come together in a memorable piece of theater. If it’s less polished than we might prefer, it reflects the nature of KC Fringe shows, which have to be done fast and cheap.

Updating Greek classics is tricky business.

In the case of

“Buck Hoss,”

receiving its world premiere at the fringe festival, playwright/actor Scott Cox transposes the “The Bacchae” to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The ancient tale by Euripides tells of a young demigod who is angry because his mortal family has not recognized his divine parentage. He travels the world as an outcast, gathering around him a following of female cultists. He plots grisly revenge on his cousin, a king who does not recognize him as a god.

In Cox’s play the basic plot morphs into the story of two cousins, both preachers, each claiming a divine ordination. At times “Buck Hoss,” performed in a heightened, stylized way, is utterly absorbing. And then there moments when it’s just a tough sell.

Cox, who plays a maddened character named Farmer Les with manic energy, approaches the material with a sense of humor, recognizing that the less-than-seamless adaptation from Thebes to the American backwoods offers plenty of inherent humor.

Ultimately, though, as the play winds its way to a conclusion of orgiastic violence, the events become increasingly absurd. It’s best to accept that this version of American mountain folk is just as imaginary as the gods of ancient Greece.

Director Trevor Belt has a huge cast to choreograph, which he does well. Corbin Hernandez, who plays Denison, the outcast preacher returned home for revenge, is an appealing presence on stage and his counterpart, Chris Roady as the hardest of hard-shell preachers, delivers a ferocious performance.

Nice work is registered by Alan Tilson as patriarch Caldwell Musser, as well as Patrick Simpson as Scary Terry, a blind soothsayer full of sardonic observations.

Lynsey Becher as Skilly ad Cindy Siefers as Agatha make strong impressions and young Allison Banks, a charming performer, plays Sissy, who opens and closes the show with her fiddle and a little song with the refrain, “God works in mysterious ways.”

He certainly does in this show.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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