Performing Arts

When Kansas City theater was good in 2014, it was really good

Carla Noack starred in “Grounded,” a one-actress play about a pilot who confronts the ethics of remote warfare when she’s ordered to use drones.
Carla Noack starred in “Grounded,” a one-actress play about a pilot who confronts the ethics of remote warfare when she’s ordered to use drones.

In the year about to end, it seemed that Kansas City theater companies saved the best for last.

There were strong productions all year, of course, but beginning in August theatergoers were offered a succession of plays and musicals that stood out for their artistic ambitions, their overall quality and individual performances.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre filled the first and second quarters of the year with a visually striking production of “Romeo and Juliet,” an adequate staging of the overrated Broadway comedy “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” and an interesting new musical called “A Little More Alive.”

But the artistic highlight was the Rep’s February through March production of “When I Come to Die,” Nathan Louis Jackson’s thoughtful prison drama about a convict on death row who miraculously survives a lethal injection. Kyle Hatley directed a fine cast. Jackson, the Rep’s resident playwright, continues to impress.

The Rep opened up its 2014-2015 season with David Cromer’s innovative production of “Our Town,” which had earlier been staged in Chicago and New York, where it became an off-Broadway hit. Cromer’s vision was an awkward fit in the Spencer Theatre, even with a scenic design that radically altered the viewing areas, but it was a worthy attempt.

And many of the performances were impressive. Jeff Still as the Stage Manager was unfussy and conversational, and the Kansas City-based actors comported themselves honorably. Peggy Friesen threatened to steal the third act with her marvelous performance as Mrs. Soames.

The Rep hit its fall high-water mark with Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What,” staged by artistic director Eric Rosen. The play is a contemporary comedy-drama about a religious rift in a Pakistani-American family in Atlanta.

Akhtar is an important new voice in theater, and Rosen did a fine job of maximizing the thoughtful drama in a script that occasionally veered close to sitcom territory. But the acting was superb. Rusty Sneary joined a cast of out-of-towners who delivered clean ensemble work. None was better than Tony Mirrcandani as a conflicted widower whose grown daughters are showing independent streaks.

The highlight of the winter-spring lineup at the Unicorn Theatre was, hands down, George Brants’ “Grounded,” a one-actress play about a fighter pilot who confronts the ethics of remote warfare when she’s ordered to become a drone pilot, hitting targets in Afghanistan with a joystick and a video screen in Las Vegas. Actress Carla Noack delivered some of her best work in this demanding piece.

The Unicorn opened its current season in September with a bang-up production of “Hands on a Hardbody,” an unorthodox musical directed by Missy Koonce with a strong cast. These artists delivered fine performances as contestants trying to win a new truck at a Texas dealership. Tim Scott, demonstrating unexpected emotional depth, was a standout.

The Unicorn followed with Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” a pressure-cooker comedy-drama that focused on secular versus religious attitudes among young members of a Jewish family. The cast was solid, but Dina Thomas, a Masters of Fine Arts program graduate from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was brilliant.

And the midtown company closed out the year with Donna Thomason impressively handling a challenging one-woman show in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” and a vivid production of Rajiv Joseph’s dreamlike “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo.” Joseph’s play is uneven, but this show was memorable for fine performances from Theodore Swetz and Matthew J. Lindblom.

The nomadic Kansas City Actors Theatre began its current season in August with a nice production of Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” Dominating a strong cast was Melinda McCrary as a controlling, embittered woman manipulating and verbally abusing her young daughters. Nice supporting performances were delivered by Zoe London, Daria LeGrand, Hannah Freeman and Joicie Appell.

KCAT followed immediately with an ambitious pairing of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The result was outstanding ensemble work led by Jake Walker as Hamlet, Vanessa Severo as Rosencrantz and Rusty Sneary as Guildenstern. The cast was a kind of who’s who of veteran Kansas City-based actors: Scott Cordes as Claudius, Cinnamon Schultz as Gertrude and Walter Coppage as Polonius. Brian Paulette, who has established himself as one of Kansas City’s best actors, comic or otherwise, was dazzling as the Player.

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre began the year auspiciously with a worthy production of David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” a stylized drama about espionage, love and sexual identity starring Vi Tran and Robert Gibby Brand.

The production got an unexpected boost when director Karen Paisley was contacted by Jamie Guan, an expert on Peking Opera who choreographed the original Broadway production with B.D. Wong. Guan flew in and rehearsed the ensemble for a week, resulting in a stage filled with rippling banners and exciting fight sequences.

The MET offered a nice spring production of Robert Harling’s venerable comic melodrama “Steel Magnolias.” But the company’s strongest production of the year came in November, when Brand and Seth Macchi appeared in “Not About Heroes,” Stephen MacDonald’s two-actor play about World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

The Living Room offered two original productions by actor/playwrights as memorable as they were different. Severo wrote and starred in “Frida … A Self Portrait,” an intoxicating blend of music and visual imagery, graced by Severo’s memorable performance. In fall, the downtown company staged Forrest Attaway’s uncompromising “Columbus Day,” a boldly structured piece about violence, unwed motherhood and a variety of social ills.

Lauren Braton, a superb singer, has evidently found her artistic home at Spinning Tree Theatre, where she was handed two opportunities to demonstrate her acting ability. She was hilarious as the Countess in “A Little Night Music,” which featured strong performances throughout. (Melinda MacDonald’s performance of “Send in the Clowns” was stunning.)

Then Braton played a very different role in Spinning Tree’s fall production of “Violet,” the delicate musical about a disfigured young woman’s odyssey across the South to be healed by a televangelist. Braton dug deep and delivered a memorable dramatic performance.

Spinning Tree also offered a fall production of “Ghost Writer,” a literary mystery with Robert Gibby Brand, Jeanne Blau and Katie Kalahurka, all of whom delivered fine performances.

The Coterie continued its reputation as a young-audiences theater committed to new work and revisited classics, while Theatre for Young America celebrated its 40th anniversary. Rich Baker, the new marshal in town at Starlight Theatre, produced a homegrown production of “The Sound of Music,” staged by Phil McKinley, a Broadway veteran and old Starlight hand.

The show was nostalgic in more ways than one. And it was a hit. Theater League and Broadway Across America, to their credit, tried something besides a hit musical with the national tour of “War Horse,” the British show that featured world-class puppetry in a World War I tale about a teenager’s search for his beloved horse.

The New Theatre, the venerable dinner theater in Overland Park, provided another year of slick productions with talented local actors and guest stars. The year had a rocky beginning after star Judge Reinhold unexpectedly withdrew from the production of “Harvey.” The company asked KC actor Craig Benton to play Elwood P. Dowd for two weeks until the new star, Charles Shaughnessy, could take over. The resulting production was charming.

Other notable work on the fringy small-theater scene included:

▪ The opening of a new theatrical venue, the Buffalo Room, a performance space attached to the rear of the Westport Flea Market. Curator Vi Tran used the room for the premiere of his original autobiographical play, “The Butcher’s Son,” a mix of narrative drama and musical theater.

▪ The annual Invasion, presented by Bob Paisley through his Central Standard Theatre. Artists this year hailed from Northern Ireland, Canada and Los Angeles. The work, as usual, was impressive across the board.

▪ KC Fringe, which offered a range of performances, including new work from local playwrights as well as actors from the U.K. “Woodbine Willie,” a show about a World War I soldier’s experience in the trenches and performed by Frank Spackman of Bedford, England, was a standout. Also impressive was Forest Attaway’s comic ensemble piece, “Dirtlegs.”

▪ MeltingPot KC, one of the resident companies at Just Off Broadway, presented a lineup of work by women playwrights either based in Kansas City or associated with the local theater scene, including Vicki Vodrey, Arika Larson and Michelle T. Johnson. MeltingPot has become a showcase for new plays addressing diversity.

▪ The Fishtank Performance Studio continued its role as an incubator of new plays and workshops, and in November staged a nice production of Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary.”

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

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