‘Billy Bishop’ delivers a complex view of World War I heroism

Funny how memories fade.

I saw the Missouri Repertory Theatre production of “Billy Bishop Goes To War” in 1991 and can recall virtually nothing about it. So seeing a new production – a collaborative effort from Kansas City Actors Theatre, the National World War I Museum and the UMKC Theater Department – is essentially like seeing the show for the first time.

And, I’m happy to report, the results are impressive.

This piece by Eric Peterson and John Gray is ostensibly a biographical sketch of Billy Bishop, the highly decorated Canadian pilot who shot down 72 German planes in World War I. But it’s something more than that. It’s a contemplation of the different facets of war – the nobility, bravery and sacrifice it inspires and demands, the inherent absurdities of military bureaucracy, the exhilaration and horror of combat and the almost mystical search for meaning by survivors.

This is something like a one-actor play plus one. The central figure is, of course, Billy Bishop, but the script also calls for an accompanist – identified in this production as the Piano Player – who performs songs that feel like tunes of the WWI era, but whose lyrics are pointed commentaries that support the play’s central themes.

In this production the title character is played by Grant Fletcher Prewitt, a talented young actor with a gift for comedy. He brings considerable nuance to the performance as he shifts in and out of multiple roles, balancing broad caricatures with the darker aspects of Billy’s inner journey.

The script traces Billy’s unimpressive academic achievements, his initial service in the cavalry, his tortuous journey to England in a cattle boat (in which the toll of sea-sickness is graphically depicted), his transition to the flying corps (initially as an “observer” and later as a fighter pilot) – and finally his status as a decorated war hero who finds himself a sort of pawn in the politics of England and its colonies. A living colonial war hero, he is told, is much more valuable than a dead one.

Billy also describes the nature of aerial combat and the suddenness with which a dogfight can be won or lost. He candidly describes his love of fighting, his hatred of “the Hun” because of all the fellow pilots who have been killed and, ultimately, his sobering realization that taking lives comes at a spiritual cost.

Prewitt, as good as he is, never really seems like somebody who might have stepped out 1914. Much of the humor in his performance reflects an unmitigated contemporary sensibility. But his performance is so intelligently conceived and so smartly executed that somehow the anachronisms don’t seem to matter very much.

Serving as his foil and occasionally as a Greek chorus is Cary Mock as the accompanist. Mock is a fine singer and a smooth pianist and he and Prewitt create some nice harmonies together. Mock is placed upstage and at times generates the aura of a timeless entity, a sort of sagely observer who may know Billy much better than Billy knows himself.

Director John Rensenhouse paces the action well and has assembled a design team that creates a physically handsome production. The center piece of Kerith Parashak’s set is an imposing biplane, seemingly caught in a freeze frame as it hits the ground nose-first. She and lighting designer Douglas Macur have created three oversized wooden grates in the stage floor that allow dramatic up-lighting for certain sequences, and the crisp military costumes by Genevieve V. Beller are nicely integrated into the overall look of the show.

The props designer, Erin Walley, either found or built the model fighter planes Billy uses at one point to explain the advances in aerial combat technology. Either way, they are an unexpected pleasure in a show that delivers lots of visual surprises from beginning to end.