Performing Arts

Smarts and heart: The great divide in contemporary plays

Logan Black and Diego in “Bond: A Soldier and His Dog” at the KC Fringe Festival.
Logan Black and Diego in “Bond: A Soldier and His Dog” at the KC Fringe Festival. KC Fringe Festival

Some plays make you think. Others make you feel. If you’re lucky, you’ll devote an hour or two — or three or four — to a piece of theater that does both.

For 11 days in July, local audiences got to sample the work of a range of playwrights, some of whom wanted viewers to respond on a purely emotional level, others who prompted them to reflect on questions without particularly easy answers.

The Kansas City Fringe Festival, which wrapped up last Sunday, offered more theater productions than a sane person could possibly get to.

Many of them were the work of artists who might not be local household names but who nonetheless make a significant contribution to Kansas City’s arts scene with shows that are daring, innovative and sometimes impossible to classify. They might not all be winners, but nobody can deny the bubbling creative energy that makes the Fringe special.

Meanwhile, Bob Paisley’s annual theater festival he calls the Invasion ran parallel to the Fringe and generally offered refined performances by actors who had been working on their solo and two-character shows for weeks, months or years. Fringe shows generally are slapped together at warp speed. Invasion performances tend to be polished at a measured pace and designed to travel the international festival circuit.

The 11 days of theater spread across downtown, midtown and Crossroads Arts District venues presented a clear picture of a divide in contemporary playwriting. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s call it emotion vs. intellect.

British writers generally tend to exercise their gray matter more than their American counterparts. (For the purposes of this article we will overlook the slamming-door farces of Ray Cooney.) Think of Tom Stoppard (Kansas City Actors Theatre staged his “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” last summer), a writer who prizes intellectual wit and routinely challenges theatrical conventions.

Or Peter Shaffer, whose “Equus” the Living Room produced in March, a writer who uses the theater to reflect on humanity’s capacity to create religious ritual. Their plays are admirable, provocative and chilly.

Then there was an iconic American dramatist, Arthur Miller, who wrote from fierce moral and political convictions but whose narratives were held together by deeply emotional relationships.

“Death of a Salesman” is ultimately about Willy Loman’s lost self-esteem. Miller wanted the play to be more — a Big Statement about the fate of the Little Guy — but basically it’s a pain-riddled family drama. And Miller knew how to get to viewers. More than once I’ve seen performances of “Salesman” and heard audience members sobbing.

Is one approach to play-making superior to the other? Not necessarily. A cerebral approach can lead to political diatribes or rants against consumerism. A drama that works primarily on an emotional level can quickly devolve into soap opera.

Some playwrights want to make superficial intellectual points while holding the viewer’s attention by dictating onstage violence or nudity, and then dreaming up a pseudo-intellectual justification for it after the fact.

Yes, playwrights come in all shapes, sizes and psychological profiles.

Here, then, is a quick survey of some of the notable plays I caught during the Fringe and the Invasion and my assessment on where they fell on the thinking/feeling scale.

▪ “The Penis Monologues,” conceived by Heidi Van and Peregrine Honig. On paper this show looked like a gimmicky way to guarantee strong attendance from Fringers with a taste for R-rated entertainment about sex.

But Van and Honig carefully chose the material performed by an ensemble of actresses. Monologues by Kansas City writers Jose Faus, Charles Ferruzza, Brian Huther and Jeff Smith, among others, offered a range of perspectives that were sometimes funny and occasionally poignant.

The show ultimately did what theater is supposed to do: It forced us to reflect on our own humanity. It scored high as conceptual theater. And it turned out to be the best-attended show at the Unicorn Theatre’s Levin Stage during the Fringe.

▪ “Bond: A Soldier and His Dog,” written and performed by Logan Black. This show worked almost entirely on an emotional, visceral level, but it couldn’t have been done any other way. Black, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, tells the story of his relationship with Diego, a smart yellow Labrador, who worked with him detecting mines, bombs and munitions.

It was part war story, part love story. Black also described the extraordinary effort he went to to be reunited with Diego after returning home. And viewers sensed that the pair have helped each other heal.

The fact that Diego made a personal appearance at the end of each Fringe performance was enough to melt any animal-lover’s heart. Black, by the way, is a good actor.

▪ “The Six-Sided Man,” by Gavin Robertson, performed by Robertson and Nicholas Collett. There are two sides to Robertson. When he’s feeling flippant he might put together a parody of James Bond movies. When he’s in a philosophical mode, he can just as easily produce material like “The Six-Sided Man” or “Crusoe,” both of which he performed at this year’s Invasion.

“The Six-Sided Man” requires two actors, one of whom plays a psychiatrist, the other a man in need of counseling. Collett played the shrink, who has adopted a simple philosophy: He makes life decisions based on the roll of a single die. Collett and Robertson are fine actors, and Robertson is a particularly gifted mime. They made this intellectually challenging piece a pleasure to watch, even during opaque moments.

▪ “Never Ever After,” written and directed by Phil Kinen. What if through some metaphysical transformation Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn took a wrong turn on a raft down a tributary of the Mississippi and ended up at Neverland and became best pals with Peter Pan? Throwing together these two fictional boys — the ageless Peter Pan and the frozen-in-early-adolescence Huck — in a new story is an intriguing idea.

Keegan Cole as Peter handled the more complicated of the two roles in this Fringe show with skill. Jake Leet as Huck brought plenty of youthful energy to the stage, although his cartoonish backwoods accent could have been toned down. Kinen created a bittersweet tale about sexual awakening and nostalgia for those lost moments from childhood that in retrospect went by all too quickly.

The idea is conceptual in the way that much of fantasy literature is, but in performance the show works on the viewers’ emotions with a vengeance.

▪ “The Hairy Ape,” by Eugene O’Neill, adapted and directed by Trevor Belt. Scott Cox’s riveting performance as the coal-shoveling Yank was the glue that held this extraordinary show together. Belt stripped O’Neill’s original down to its essence and found a way to tell the story with simplified props (including a hand puppet), a small chorus of actors and a couple of onstage musicians.

This was easily the most visceral of the Fringe shows I saw. It raced at the audience like a locomotive. But it was also the brainiest. Belt carefully considered the material and made smart choices.

▪ “Best Light” by Michelle T. Johnson. She tries to have it both ways in this play about a troubled relationship between a bipolar painter and his girlfriend, a sculptor. These are smart characters and talk about things that smart people talk about at cocktail parties — gallery openings, art sales, etc.

The problem is that the painter becomes impossible to deal with when he stops taking his meds, which he does anytime he’s under pressure to produce new paintings. That eliminates the possibility of domestic bliss. The play never quite succeeds on a purely intellectual level, but its emotional effect is measured and ultimately blunted.

Even so, the Fringe production featured good performances, and there were moments when the central relationship became utterly absorbing — and, indeed, made us think about the choices artists have to make.

▪ “Nelson: A Sailor’s Story,” written and performed by Nicholas Collett. This could be considered an intellectual exercise, at least to the extent that Collett’s literary research for this show was clearly no simple task. The result is a history lesson, but one that happens to be highly entertaining.

Collett tells the story of Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most famous naval hero, in the admiral’s own words and those of the men who served under him. The Invasion show was put together in such a creative way that viewers left the theater with vivid images of what naval warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries was really like. It wasn’t a picnic.

▪ “Sue Aside …,” by Vicki Vodrey, directed by Warren Deckert. Vodrey’s play wants to be a drama, and Deckert enlisted two good actors to give it a good shot. Vodrey has a gift for dialogue, and individual lines occasionally pop out in a way that catches viewers by surprise.

The story of a psychologist, played by the elegant Laura Jacobs, who is visited in her office by her troubled ex-boyfriend (Scott Cox again) was effective in establishing a plausible backstory for the characters. But even at the economic running time of 60 minutes, this Fringe show felt like a talky play. And I’m not sure the tragic conclusion was earned.

▪ “ThisThatThen,” written and directed by Bryan Moses. This is another talky play. Indeed, talking is about all that happens in a play that energetically insists on unabashed romanticism as a viable life choice. Moses wrote a three-chapter story about a couple whose relationship spans decades.

Nice performances from Jake Walker, Nicole Marie Green, Jennifer Mays and Scott Cordes found the juice in Moses’ script, which offered a view of love as destiny with a light, often amusing touch. This Fringe show tried my patience, but I found myself thinking about it a lot. I think that means it worked on an emotional level.

▪ “The Grave,” by Forrest Attaway. He’s a smart guy and a smart writer but doesn’t necessarily want you to know it when he sits down to write a play. That’s because his scripts tend to be character-driven and well plotted. This dark comedy worked as a study of a trio of disparate personalities drawn together for an unusual burial ceremony. The Fringe cast — Peggy Friesen, Amy Attaway and Seth Macchi — found all the play’s strengths.

▪ “An Audience With Henry VIII,” written by Ross Gurney-Randall and Pete Howells and performed by Gurney-Randall. This is a smart play, based on impressive research, but Gurney-Randall’s performance at the Invasion was also an entertaining ride.

The actor is solid and athletic and a perpetual gleam in his eyes suggests that a good joke is never far away. Indeed, this is an intellectual work, at least in one way: If you weren’t up to snuff on your Henry VIII history, you might have found yourself lost at certain moments. But Gurney-Randall was so engaging that he made it a fairly painless history lesson.

▪ “Mata Hari: Female Spy,” by Gavin Robertson. This show offered a specific interpretation of the rather ambiguous history of the erotic dancer-turned-spy, who was executed by the French in World War I. Katharine Hurst delivered a classy performance in the Invasion premiere, but the script was so brimming with facts and figures — a reflection of Mata Hari’s own complex life — that the show never quite engaged the intellect or the gut.

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