An acerbic farce by Kansas City playwright Jesse Ray Metcalf gets the best possible showcase at KC Fringe, principally because Metcalf and his co-director, J. Will Fritz, put together a superior cast.
The simple truth is that “(Virgin.)” features some of the best comic performances by young actresses you’re likely to see at the Fringe or anywhere else. Metcalf has a wild, audacious and unapologetically broad sense of humor and these performers get the most out of the material.
This is the story of Mary Sue (Kenna Hall) and her journey from childhood to adolescence, at which point her religious-yet-fashion-conscious Mother (Ellen Kirk) decides that the best way to curb her daughter’s budding sexuality is to fit her with a chastity belt.
In her teens, however, Mary Sue succumbs to peer pressure as “doing it” becomes a rite of passage. Desperate to escape the medieval contraption, Mary Sue is at at a loss until one day a welder (Matt Leonard) shows up at school to talk about the fine points of his profession. The resourceful Mary Sue seduces the dude, who helpfully frees her in a few deft moves with a hacksaw.
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When Mary Sue later discovers that she’s pregnant, she avoids her mother’s wrath by announcing that the father is God and becomes a local celebrity.
Hall anchors the production with an inventive performance that’s full of small surprises and allows us to see the character morph from innocent to opportunist. Hall is matched by Melissa Fennewald as Mary Sue’s best friend, Lou Lou. One of Fennewald’s unique gifts is her ability to employ elastic facial expressions, and her comic timing is impeccable.
Kirk, an actress I had not seen before, is spectacular as Mother. Her performance is smart, precise and carefully balanced. Yes, the character is a cartoon, but Kirk finds a way to invest her with a disturbing sense of realism.
Leonard does double duty as Joey the welder and as Father, turning in two distinct performances that are just a bit over the top but work well in this show. As Mags, the manipulative provocateur who goads her high school peers into giving up their virginity, Bonnie Griffin is appropriately shrill and aggressive in a nicely controlled performance.
Good supporting work is turned in by Alisa Lynn, Ai Vy Bui, Lindsey Ray and Emily O’Dell. Briana Marxen-McCollum provides Mary Sue’s first-person voice-over narration live from off stage and demonstrates impressive timing.
Fringe shows are thrown together in a hurry but very little about “(Virgin.)” seems under-rehearsed. It’s a bit too bare bones to be called “polished,” but it’s unusual to see this many strong, equally-balanced performances at the Fringe.
Three short plays
“Girl on Girl” offers audiences an opportunity to see the work of three female playwrights, all African-American and all based in KC.
Cynthia Hardeman’s “Dueling Doulas” is a mild comedy about a young wife about to give birth with the aid of a doula — a nonmedical professional who specializes in helping out soon-to-be moms. The main conflict is between Mrs. Harris, the invasive mother-in-law (Aishah Harvey), and Kingston (Davis DeRock), the doula who seeks to calm laboring Gillian (Briana Marxen-McCollum) with soothing visions of the Serengeti.
The expectant father, Matthew (Petey McGee), duels with his mother until eventually he dismisses Kingston and decides to deliver the baby himself.
“To Bed” by Teresa Leggard is a clever piece in which two personified articles of clothing comment on the romantic life of the young woman who wears them from time to time. Nikki the Negligee (Marxen-McCollum) is sexually frank while Gale the Nightgown (Harvey) is a bit more prim and proper. Their focus is Grace (Shawna Pena-Downing), whose six-month relationship with Ryan (DeRock) may or may not be leading to true love.
The longest and most satisfying play is Michelle T. Johnson’s “Riding Backwards,” in which five travelers cross paths in a bus station waiting room. Jonelle (Pena-Downing) is on her way to see her ex-fiance get married. Her conflicted feelings are gradually clarified as she meets other passengers headed to disparate locations: a flirtatious grad student named Danny (DeRock); the psychologically insightful Lana (Marxen-McCollum); a wise old lady named Clara (Harvey) and, ultimately, Frankie, her ex (McGee).
After these encounters Jonelle is able to make a major life decision and chart a new course for herself. Johnson fleshes out these characters with remarkable efficiency given the brevity of the piece. She works in quick, telling strokes.
Each play is directed by Andre Du Broc and the actors bring varying degrees of expertise to the stage. Harvey scores with the show’s best performance as Clara, while Marxen-Collum demonstrates sharp comic timing in all three of her roles. So does DeRock. McGee seems less experienced and a bit unsure of himself but brings an attractive personality to the stage. And Pena-Downing brings unfussy believability to the show.
KC Fringe continues through July 27 at various venues. “(Virgin.)” and “Girl on Girl” are running at Just Off Broadway, 3051 Central Ave. Note: Some performances described in the festival program as running 60 minutes are actually 90 minutes, which could create headaches for patrons planning to see more than one show in a day. Ask for the correct running times at the box office.