KC Fringe: ‘Woodbine Willie’ and ‘Dirtlegs’ offer sharp performances

07/25/2014 7:00 AM

07/27/2014 7:44 PM

My, the Brits certainly love their history.

This year United Kingdom visitors brought two very different shows to KC Fringe — Nicholas Collett’s beautifully understated “Spitfire Solo” and Frank Spackman’s “Woodbine Willie,” which I caught Thursday night.

Collett’s piece recounts the life and times of a fighter pilot who served in the Battle of Britain during World War II. “Woodbine Willie” evokes the experiences of the common foot soldier in World War I .

Spackman’s impeccable performance is quietly astonishing. The show is directed and adapted by Albert Welling, who assembles a number of rhyming dialect poems by the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, an Anglican priest who served in the trenches as a chaplain and later became an outspoken pacifist.

Kennedy earned the nickname of Woodbine Willie for his habit of handing out Woodbine cigarettes to troops in distress. He was awarded the Military Cross for risking his life to tend to the wounded on the battlefield.

Collectively the poems selected for this show convey the bleak fatalism and senseless violence of the Great War, often conveyed with a harsh sense of humor. Like much of the literature that emerged from World War I, this play is anti-war to its core. Kennedy’s verse includes stark images of violence, cynical observations of military command and decidedly unromantic encounters with prostitutes, but ultimately becomes a life-affirming celebration of the human spirit.

Spackman’s achievement is impressive on more than one level. For starters, it’s a singular feat of memorization. For another, he manages to perform the material in a way that suggests narrative drive, even though the point is less to tell a story than to convey an experience. He handles the verse in a conversational, realistic style.

The simple set suggests a World War I dugout as the nameless narrator recounts the foolishness, folly and fatality experienced by foot soldiers. Some viewers may have to tune their ears to the Cockney dialect in the early going, but Spackman’s delivery and emotional demeanor are crisp and clear throughout.

Spackman, a member of the Blackout Theatre Company in Bedford, England, has performed in Kansas City before and his work has always been thoughtful and imbued with a dry sense of humor. This show, however, demands a singular level of discipline and the veteran actor shows that he is easily up to the task.

Texas gals sittin’ around talkin’

Forrest Attaway seems to be a playwright for all seasons. His work ranges from heart-attack serious to sublimely ridiculous, think “Outta Beer, Outta Space” at last year’s KC Fringe.

Indeed, his entry for this year’s festival was to have been a musical based on “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but he pulled it because of money issues. In its place we have “Dirtlegs,” an older play he pulled out of a file drawer, cut in half and handed to director Trevor Belt.

Attaway has described the show as something like “Sex and the City” set in East Texas, and he seems to aim for serious commentary beneath a witty veneer of young women with twangy accents discussing sex and love.

This show features some fine comic performances by an eclectic cast, which are all the more impressive when you consider that the talented young actresses had to learn the script in four days. Much of it consists of lengthy monologues.

Structured in part as autobiographical confessionals delivered by each character for a dating service, the play allows these hard-edged ladies to emerge vividly as distinct personalities. They include Rhonda (Shannon King), whose ideal companion would be unmarried and not living in his mother’s basement; Lacey (Alice Pollack), who is part Japanese but seems totally rooted in East Texas; Trish (Kami Rogers), a born-again former morning drinker; Gretchen (Maggie Parker), a committed barfly whose man-hungry impulses lead only to trouble; and Dusty (Vanessa Davis), a been-around-the-block divorcee who cuts to the chase in every conversation.

What makes this piece work is the integrity of the actors. Yes, the characters often are ridiculous and find themselves in absurd situations, but the performances are rooted in reality.

This one-hour version of Attaway’s play feels like a complete work, so we can only speculate on what a longer version might be like. Regardless, this makes for a memorable 60 minutes of theater.  

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

The details

The final performance of “Woodbine Willie" will be at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.

The final performance of “Dirtlegs” will be at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at the Heartland Forum (formerly the American Heartland Theatre) at Crown Center.

Find the complete schedule at www.kcfringe.org.

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