King Henry VIII will hold court at 36th and Main streets next week.
So will legendary spy Mata Hari. Admiral Lord Nelson will make several appearances. Bill Clinton will come and go. A few brooding fictional characters will weave among the historical personages. And Victor & Penny, Kansas City’s neo-swing cabaret stars, will perform music and tell tales about the origins of Penny’s vintage ukulele.
It’s all part of the Invasion, which presenter Bob Paisley has been bringing to the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre annually since 2010, when the inaugural event was called the “British Invasion,” a reflection of a lineup that exclusively featured U.K. artists.
This year Paisley is subtitling the program of solo and two-actor shows the “Kansas City International Theatre Festival.” The two-week series begins Wednesday, July 15. As in the past, he is producing the event under the auspices of his own production company, Central Standard Theatre.
Most of performers are again British, but Paisley will reprise his solo show, “Bill Clinton Hercules,” a sort of TED talk with the former president, and Victor & Penny will perform under the Invasion banner for the first time. It will also mark the American premieres for three plays and a KC premiere for another.
In 2013 and ’14, Paisley incorporated the Invasion into the annual KC Fringe Festival, but this year he chose to stage his shows independently. The reason, he said, is that he couldn’t charge enough for tickets under the Fringe pricing structure to cover costs and hope to turn even a minimal profit.
This year he’s marketing the Invasion more aggressively, mainly by becoming an underwriter on KCUR-FM, where he can expect the two-week theater festival to be mentioned several times a day. He handed out cards on the street at First Friday, and the MET’s billboard in the parking lot will be devoted to the Invasion.
“Things are starting to pick up,” Paisley said. “We are selling tickets. They are moving. If we can do as well as we did last year as a member of the Fringe, we’re gonna do all right.”
Through the years, audiences have seen remarkable performances at the Invasion. From Guy Masterson’s indelible one-man adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and his thought-provoking “Shylock,” to Rebecca Vaughan’s portrait of Elizabeth I in “I, Elizabeth” and her performance of “The Diaries of Adam and Eve” with her husband, Elton Townend Jones, theatergoers have exposed themselves to literate, brainy and passionate theater.
They’ve seen equally high-quality work in Gavin Robertson’s cerebral “Crusoe” and his delightful send-up of 007 in “Bond.” One of the finest works in recent years was Australian Tamara Lee’s riveting performance of Shelia Duncan’s “A Solitary Choice,” about a woman facing an unexpected pregnancy.
There’s a reason most of these shows have been honed to a fine edge by the time Kansas City audiences see them: They’ve been performed repeatedly at international fringe festivals and elsewhere. Not all succeed artistically, but those that do tend to be in a class by themselves.
Sometimes shows have traveled across the Atlantic from Kansas City. In 2013, Paisley directed Jakob Holder’s “Bedtime Solos,” an exercise in cerebral erotica, with KC-based actors Jordan Fox and Amy Attaway, as part of the Invasion and later took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was well received.
Here are the 2015 shows:
▪ “An Audience With Henry VIII,” performed by Ross Gurney-Randall. The actor wrote the piece with Pete Howells. In it, one of Britain’s most colorful monarchs explains that contrary to rumors, he does not have syphilis and makes a case for why his wives simply had to go. This is the show’s American premiere.
Gurney-Randall is drawn to autocrats. His repertoire includes two other solo shows: “Goering’s Defence,” about Hitler’s right-hand man in the Nazi regime (which Invasion audiences saw him perform in 2012), and “Mussolini: A One-Man Political Farce.”
“If there’s just one character on stage, they need to be vivid and have an interesting story to tell,” Gurney-Randall wrote via email. “I like playing colorful characters and I like making people laugh — autocrats tend to have rampant egos and there’s always comedy in that.”
Gurney-Randall said he hatched the idea for the show with co-writer Howells over drinks.
“We carried on talking and it was clear we were thinking along the same lines — a dark comedy that should be raucous but also moving,” he said. “The history had to be accurate and the show had to be entertaining.”
Gurney-Randall’s take on Henry, who reigned from 1509 until his death in 1547?
“I think he was extremely intelligent but deeply insecure,” he said. “He grew up in the shadow of an elder brother who was groomed to be king but died, leaving Henry to be rushed into the job at the age of 17. ”
Gurney-Randall said Henry is often portrayed as “a wildly promiscuous man who slept with a new woman every night. In fact he was a hopeless romantic obsessed with medieval stories like King Arthur and Guinevere. It was a sickly, hopeless sort of romancing though — all the women Henry had relationships with suffered in comparison with an idealized image of his mother, who died when Henry was young.”
Gurney-Randall’s conception of Henry is almost literally larger than life: “Even when he was young and fit, Henry was a big man but full of energy. The Venetian ambassador once wrote home to say he had met Henry and that (Henry) had been friendly but it had been an alarming experience. The king was so big and strident that the earth shook underneath his feet as he hurtled towards him.
“Henry knew that the ambassador had met the new king of France and demanded to know which of the two of them cut the most imposing figure. The ambassador insisted that Henry did and thus made a friend for life.
“In the show we meet Henry as an old man but the energy, the ego and the temper are still there. So is the sharp but mercurial brain and his need for a clever, good-looking woman. It’s called ‘An Audience With Henry VIII’ and the audience are very much part of the show. Henry talks to them and with them on occasion — even about some of them. They needn’t worry — I don’t behead anyone.”
Robertson said by email that this is the second play he wrote and that parts of it were developed with his longtime writing partner Andrew Dawson. He wrote the show after reading “The Dice Man,” a 1971 cult novel by George Cockcroft (under the pseudonym Luke Rhinehart). Robertson was “inspired by its central theme — that of abandoning free will to the whim of a dice role.”
The play depicts the relationship between a patient (Robertson) and a psychiatrist (Collett). It was written in 1986 and has been performed around the world, but never before in Kansas City.
“I’m curious what folks will make of it,” Robertson said. “It’s quirky, darkly comic, and with movement interludes that kind of encapsulate moments of the relationship between the two characters in the play. It’s the only piece Nick and I perform together.”
▪ “Nelson — the Sailor’s Story,” written and performed by Collett, directed by Robertson. Last year, KC audiences saw Collett perform his vividly realized “Spitfire Solo” about a veteran of the Battle of Britain. Now he directs his energies to a portrait of Horatio Nelson, who died commanding a victory over the French in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Robertson directed the show, which received its world premiere in 2013 in Adelaide, Australia. This will be its first performance in the U.S.
“It’s not just about Nelson — though he’s the focus,” Collett said in a statement. “He’s an amazing man, a real character. He’s an inspirational leader, but flawed, too, especially in his personal life, which makes it really interesting for people who might not know much about him. … I liked the idea of showing naval life from the viewpoint of the men who were recording their thoughts. (The play is) probably the first time we have those opinions expressed from below deck.”
▪ “Mata Hari: Female Spy,” performed by Katharine Hurst, written and directed by Robertson. This is the show’s U.S. premiere.
Hurst said by email that she and Robertson have known each other 11 years and that she considers him her “unofficial mentor.” Her company, Scene Productions, which she co-founded with Kelly Taylor-Smith, staged a successful adaptation of Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” set in the trenches of World War I.
That led to a discussion with Robertson of “the flood of strong theater productions that were emerging based on WWI. However, there was little out there which focused on the experience of a woman — or more so a famous woman.”
That led Hurst to Mata Hari, the stage name of an exotic dancer who achieved fame for her unabashed sexuality. She was executed by France as a German spy.
“Mata Hari was an obvious option as hers is a story full of excitement, erotica, mystery and intrigue,” Hurst said. “As her story and the exact truth behind her case was never truly discovered, this gave us an interesting opportunity to create a piece from her perspective, looking at her death as an elaborate ‘set up.’”
Hurst said audiences will see simple sets that suggest a “variety of locations, themes and moods,” from theater to prison.
Robertson added that “Mata Hari” is the first play he has written about a real person.
“I’ve used her words wherever possible, and her life story is quite involved,” he said.
▪ “Project X,” performed by Victor & Penny and directed by Paisley. Victor & Penny are the stage personas of Erin McGrane (vocals/ukulele) and Jeff Freling (vocals/guitar soloist), who have found receptive audiences in KC and on the road by putting a new spin on jazz and pop tunes from earlier eras. Paisley’s idea is to develop a performance with enough theater and storytelling elements that he can eventually introduce them to the international fringe-festival circuit.
“Bob and I have been talking for a while about developing something to take to Edinburgh and for us to work a little bit more in the performing arts community,” said McGrane, who is also a stage and screen actress. “For me, it’s kind of keeping the theater side of myself happy and engaged as well. It’s totally still in development … but Bob has given us an opportunity to put it on its feet.”
Part of the inspiration was McGrane’s desire to someday put together a one-woman show based on her experience and her family. Some of the anecdotes, she said, have already worked their way into Victor & Penny’s stage act.
“So we sat down with Bob, and I kind of laid out these stories,” she said. “‘Project X’ is going to be a combination of monologues and music, tied together with a story arc and projected photos and visual elements as well. It will take the audience on a little musical experience … but tied around my 1952 ukulele, which my father bought in Germany when he was in the Navy.”
▪ “Crusoe: No Man Is an Island,” written and performed by Robertson and directed by Collett. Robertson is, among other things, a gifted mime artist, and in this piece he uses his physical skills to compose a complex, philosophical tale in which he steps in and out of multiple roles.
He first performed the piece in Kansas City at the 2012 edition of the Invasion. At the time, your humble theater critic wrote: “Gavin Robertson proves, among other things, that mime doesn’t have to be annoying. In his ‘Robertson’s Crusoe,’ he weaves together a series of characters and narrative threads which eventually coalesce into a thought-provoking whole. He’s an eloquent writer, but much of the performance relies on his physical theater skills, which are exceptional.”
▪ “Bill Clinton Hercules,” performed by Paisley, written Rachel Mariner and directed by Masterson. Paisley first performed this show for Kansas City audiences in May. Mariner’s play offers a sympathetic, speculative and frank depiction of the former president, who lectures, confesses and philosophizes during a wide-ranging monologue. It is an impressive piece of work.
The Invasion runs July 15-26 at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Most shows run about an hour. As many as four shows are scheduled on certain days. For a complete schedule, go to CSTKC.com. Tickets range from $20 for an individual show to $150 for an all-access pass. Call 816-569-3226.