Theatergoers by now should know what to expect when Kyle Hatley directs one of own plays: Feverish intensity, a rhythmic pulse, bursts of spectacle, expletive-laden dialogue, vivid onstage violence, a penetrating sense of humor, good performances and an approach to dramatic writing that is by turns fascinating and mystifying.
That basically sums up “Master of the Universe,” which Hatley is staging at the Living Room in its world premiere. Once again, Hatley has brought together a superior cast to perform his “science fiction retelling” of Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” a surrealistic tragedy that, because it survives in pieces, is wide open to interpretation.
Background: Buchner, a German playwright, left “Woyzeck” unfinished at the time of his death in 1837. Decades passed before its publication and it remained unproduced until the early 20th century. But it wields a certain power over creative imaginations and has been adapted repeatedly, in various languages, as movies, operas, ballets and countless stage plays.
In Hatley’s version, we follow the nightmarish journey of Victor Christian Woyzeck (Rusty Sneary), a suicidal soldier whose life is a grab-bag of professional and romantic frustrations. He has sustained a lifelong love for Marie (Grey Williamson as an adult, Leigh Slemmons as a child). He tries repeatedly to join the ranks of Special Forces, but he has never met the rigorous physical standards.
During the course of his dreamlike journey, he encounters a sadistic blowhard captain (Charles Fugate), Marie’s dominating, materialistic mother (Laura Jacobs), a scientist who interrogates him with the aid of electrical shocks (Matthew James McAndrews) and a chiseled war hero (Jeff Smith). He is repeatedly visited by Ani, apparently a sexual personification of his id, played by Vanessa Severo. Severo slithers sensuously about the stage in a succession of form-fitting dresses but also appears as the Fortune Teller, cloaked in a tattered dress and a black fright wig that obscures her face.
Also onstage: a small band with musical director Sean Hogge on guitar, Ben Byard on drums and keyboards and Linnaia McKenzie at the microphone, periodically vocalizing a range of music that includes the recordings of Nina Simone.
This is all played out in the upstairs Living Room venue on a bare stage, save for minimal props, a few furniture pieces and the loft’s permanent support beams.
The actors make an enormous contribution. Sneary plays Woyzeck as a tormented innocent, which is one of his specialties. Fugate is particularly impressive as the Captain, bringing to mind Sterling Hayden as Gen. Jack D. Ripper in "Dr. Strangelove"; he also shows up in robes as the Astronomer; Jacobs plays multiple roles but is outstanding as Marie’s mother; her performance is explosive, yet controlled, and filled with nuance. Williamson projects appealing innocence as Marie. Smith, always an imposing presence, finds opportunities to fill in his performance with little details. And Severo, impressive as ever, puts on a comic-timing showcase as Ani.
The kids, Slemmons as the young Marie and Andrew Stout as Victor as a boy, are remarkably poised amid all the explosive theatricality.
The show clocks in at about three hours with an intermission, and you can reasonably argue that it needs to be shorter. But this show was a result of a storm of creative energy, which seems to be Hatley’s standard way of bringing his own plays to the stage. That implies a certain degree of chaos, and in his pre-performance remarks Friday night, Hatley told the viewers they were about to see the 11th draft of his play. His actors, apparently, were required to memorize new lines and fresh cuts right through opening night.
Taking that into account, this is a remarkably polished performance. Sections of this show are mesmerizing and others verge on incoherence. Yet there’s definitely something of value in the material. Hatley too often settles for adolescent humor but he also struggles to find something meaningful to say about human psychology. The play is drenched with philosophical allusions.
So Hatley successfully sustains his profile as the leading mad genius of Kansas City theater. His plays might be frustrating, but his talents and skills won’t be denied.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
“Master of the Universe” runs through June 29 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Call 816-533-5857 or go to www.thelivingroomkc.com.