I guess we could call the plays by John Clancy “pure theater,” but that doesn't begin to communicate what really goes on during performance.
Clancy, the Obie-winning co-founder of the New York International Fringe Festival, writes plays that challenge virtually every concept inherent in conventional theater.
So when Clancy and his wife and artistic partner Nancy Walsh agreed to perform a group of his early plays at KC Fringe, it meant that audiences would get a taste of what he's been doing for decades. And they might get a new appreciation for what “fringe” theater really is.
Here’s how Clancy puts it: He’s always been “fascinated by the essence of theater: humans speaking in front of other humans.” Kansas City theatergoers who have seen Bob Paisley perform Clancy’s “The Event” already have an inkling of what he’s about. He pushes alternative theater to its limits, stripping away story and character, leaving only the shared experience of performer and audience.
“The Piano Store Plays,” which I caught Saturday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, were first performed in the early 1990s, but they feel as fresh and challenging as if they were written last week. You could label the work “absurdist,” for lack of a more precise term. All I can say is that the three short plays Clancy and Walsh brought to KC Fringe are as funny as they are mind-stretching.
The first piece, “Anyone,” begins with characters identified as Her and Him positioning themselves on stage and speculating on who and what they could be. The idea, apparently, is for the actors to be a sort of blank slate onto which audiences can project their own ideas of who these people are. The performers’ anonymity allows them to be, literally, anyone.
“She could be a teacher, a lawyer, a young mother, a college student, a T.V. reporter, a religious fanatic, a drunk,” says Her.
“He could be a waiter, a father, a serial killer, a whore,” Him responds.
After a certain point, each character drops the first-person perspective and a third character identified as Other (played by Kansas City actor Kevin Fewell) appears to narrate the piece through to its conclusion as it coheres into a sort of love story. Maybe.
In “Falling Out,” characters named Actor and Actress sit side by side engaged in a dialogue without looking at each other. Early in the piece Actor says; “And we’ll always love each other.” To which she responds: “Forever and ever?” What emerges is a portrait of a couple whose illusions can’t be sustained.
The longest piece, “Solo For Spoon and Birdcage,” questions the nature of reality as well as the conventional theatrical version of reality. The central figure is Actor, who lives in a room without chairs, who doesn’t seem to know how he got there and stretches his imagination to its limits trying to figure out why. A character named Visitor pays repeated visits, announcing her presence with a knock at the door positioned upstage. What emerges is a very funny meditation on the nature of theater and the relationship between actor and audience.
I’m afraid these paltry synopses are inadequate to convey the comic power of this trio of plays. Suffice to say that Walsh and Clancy are such skilled and confident performers that they can keep you on the edge of your seat, or in stitches, even when you’re utterly mystified.
My hope is that Clancy and Walsh return for future festivals. We need more of this stuff.
The 2014 edition of KC Fringe wrapped up Sunday.