Entertainment

Kansas City theaters open season with a dazzling range of works

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

Rosencrantz (Vanessa Severo, left) and Guildenstern (Rusty Sneary, right) encounter the Player (Brian Paulette) in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
Rosencrantz (Vanessa Severo, left) and Guildenstern (Rusty Sneary, right) encounter the Player (Brian Paulette) in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Kansas City Actors Theatre

So far, so good.

If the first round of stage shows is any indication, the 2014-15 theater season in Kansas City is shaping up to be exceptional.

Since August we’ve seen a succession of terrific performances and a variety of material. The common denominator? Fine performances. We can only hope what follows will measure up.

Things got off to an auspicious start with the Kansas City Actors Theatre production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” featuring a strong ensemble anchored by stage veteran Melinda McCrary’s turn as an abusive mom inflicting psychological torment on her daughters. There’s nothing unusual about dysfunctional families on stage, of course. But McCrary brought an extra edge and engendered a surprising degree of sympathy for a maternal harridan. The show closed Aug. 31.

KCAT immediately came back with dual productions of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” KCAT is presenting the shows in repertory through Sept. 28 at Union Station — the first time a local theater company has mounted the two plays together since they were done by the Missouri Repertory Theatre in 1979.

An excellent ensemble supports both shows. Jake Walker carries the Shakespeare piece with his unorthodox performance in the title role. He brings a contemporary sense of humor to a character who is too often all doom and gloom. And “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” with its brainy comedy, is brought to life by three fine performances from Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo, as the hapless courtiers of the title, and Brian Paulette, as a player leading a befuddled group of actors.

We won’t hear from KCAT again until February, when it closes out its season with Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart.” Learn more at KCActors.org.

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, meanwhile, launched its 50th anniversary season with David Cromer’s innovative staging of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” The production showcases some fine, workmanlike performances and successfully captures the spirit of Wilder’s 1938 play, which marked a radical departure from the conventions of American theater. An effort to create a small-theater environment in the Spencer Theatre proved to be a bit unwieldy, with some viewers virtually onstage with the actors while others watched from a considerable distance. For the most part, this was an impressive production. It runs through Sept. 28.

The Rep continues its fall season with “The Who & the What” by Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar, a fast-rising American playwright. Eric Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, will stage the show at Copaken Stage at 13th and Walnut. Performances begin Oct. 17. Check it out at KCRep.org.

The Unicorn Theatre kicked off its season in a big way with the spirited musical “Hands on a Hardbody,” directed by Missy Koonce and featuring a big ensemble cast. You can see some first-rate musical theater talent in this show — none better than Tim Scott, as a hardshell Texan competing to win a truck — and Koonce shows us she can get actors to dig deep. This is an unconventional musical that tries to say something substantive about human experience. The show runs through Sept. 28.

The Unicorn season continues with Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” which begins performances Oct. 22. See the full season at UnicornTheatre.org.

Spinning Tree Theatre, one of the town’s brightest small companies, got its season off to a good start with the play “Ghost-Writer,” a sort of mystery and love story combined, which ran in August and early September at Quality Hill Playhouse. Strong work was turned in by Robert Gibby Brand as a turn-of-the-century novelist, Katie Kalahurka as his typist and Jeannie Blau as his widow. Next from the company is the musical “Violet,” featuring Lauren Braton, scheduled to run Nov. 6-23 at Just Off Broadway Theatre. Find out more at SpinningTreeTheatre.com.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre this weekend opened “Lost in Yonkers,” too late for a critical assessment to be included in this article. Director Karen Paisley has put together a strong cast. You can see the entire season at METKC.org.

As I said, so far, so good.

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

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