Performing Arts

Robert Trussell: KC theaters show truth onstage comes in many forms

In “The Whale,” Phil Fiorini immerses himself in a character of extreme dimensions and delivers a performance that is utterly convincing. Cinnamon Schultz co-stars.
In “The Whale,” Phil Fiorini immerses himself in a character of extreme dimensions and delivers a performance that is utterly convincing. Cinnamon Schultz co-stars. Special to The Star

At times I reflect on the people I knew in drama school back in the day and marvel that any of us made it out alive.

Most did, of course, although admittedly my memories would be incomplete without images of half-gallon jugs of wine being passed around and the pungent aroma of untaxed cigarettes wrapped in Zig-Zag rolling papers.

But here’s the thing: If you had asked most of us what we were doing there, the answer would have been simple, clear and grandiose. We were, we believed, in pursuit of Truth and Beauty.

Leaving aside the inherent irony of pursuing truth through the art of make-believe, we were looking for that perfect, delicate balance between an honest writer’s passion, acting skill to make the playwright’s words live and a director’s ability to enunciate the play’s themes. We quickly realized that such a happy alignment was rare. And we learned that truth isn’t necessarily beautiful.

Take a look at what Kansas City theater companies are up to and it’s easy to see that plenty of talented theater artists are still on a quest for truth.

That’s what got to me about Phil Fiorini’s singular performance in “The Whale” at the Unicorn Theatre. James D. Hunter’s play has its flaws — it’s not nearly as audacious as it seems to be at first glance — but as Charlie, a 600-pound recluse desperate to make a meaningful connection with his estranged daughter, Fiorini immerses himself in a character of extreme dimensions and delivers a performance that is utterly convincing. He makes us believe. By so doing he achieves a kind of magnificent heroism that transcends not only the character’s corporeal imprisonment and personal failures but the play itself.

The more I thought about Fiorini’s work, the more impressive it seemed. The final moments of the play are incendiary, indelibly impressed on our memories like radioactive shadows captured in a nuclear explosion. Moments like those give theater its legitimacy. Moments like those, rare as they are, keep us coming back.

But that’s just one version of the truth — truth in acting. It reflects a performer’s ability to convince us to forget the blatant artificiality of a stage show and buy into a character’s emotional life. But the quest for truth takes different forms.

It could be a playwright exorcising personal demons (Eugene O’Neill in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”). Other playwrights, like the late Sarah Kane, used the stage to write the kind of plays she wanted to see but nobody else was writing. (“I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind.”)

But while playwrights often seek the truth by exploring their own lives, psyches and family histories, others choose another route. They attempt to capture the truth in a way that has more in common with journalism. They explore history or current events.

It’s a tradition that can be traced at least to 1902 and Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” which helped pioneer social realism in Russian theater with its unsentimental depiction of characters discarded by society.

In February, audiences saw an unusual effort to blend theater and journalism in “Justice in the Embers.” Michelle T. Johnson’s play, based on decades of work by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike McGraw, examined questions that continue to shadow the convictions of five people for a 1988 explosion at construction site that claimed the lives of six firefighters.

The play, like McGraw’s reporting, questions the way the case was prosecuted and leaves you reasonably wondering if those convicted were railroaded as convenient scapegoats. Ironically, this supposedly fact-based play employed three fictional characters — two prison guards to debate the pros and cons of the convictions, and an unnamed firefighter who comments not on the case itself but the on the stresses and challenges firefighters face. The firefighter, in fact, became Johnson’s only outlet for poetry in the piece — which, I am led to believe, had quite a few cooks in the kitchen.

Over at the Aquarium, the performance space upstairs from the Fishtank Performance Studio in the Crossroads, audiences are finally getting to see “Gunplay,” a sort of anthology of playlets by Frank Higgins. This is definitely a work with a social conscience, and Higgins tries to walk a fine line between the views of gun-control activists and believers in the Second Amendment. Some scenes were based on interviews Higgins conducted.

But it’s not intended to be “factual.” Some sections are satirical, some are somber and others are poignant. Overall, Higgins has admirably created a show that honestly reflects our society’s relationship to guns going back to the founding of the country.

In 2006, I saw the New York production of “Stuff Happens” by British playwright David Hare. Leave it to the Brits create a drama about the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion. There was a stage filled with characters whose names were already indelibly etched in our memories — President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the others.

Hare wrote fast because the first British production was in 2004. It showed just how responsive and relevant theater can be. But you simply don’t see this kind of work from many American writers. Nor would there be much interest among nonprofit theaters, where politics is usually viewed from a safe distance.

Anyone who thought the invasion was justified, or who admired Bush and Cheney, or who simply couldn’t tolerate Republican-bashing by a lefty Brit, wouldn’t find much to like in this play. Hare, no doubt, honestly believed he was telling the truth.

But you know the next line: Truth, like beauty, rests entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Onstage

“The Whale” runs through March 27 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or visit www.unicorntheatre.org. “Gunplay” runs through March 20 at the Aquarium, 1717 Wyandotte St. Call 816-809-7110 or go to www.fishtanktheater.com.

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