The Kansas City Repertory Theatre wraps up its season with two world premieres about love.
“Fire in Dreamland” follows a directionless young woman who falls for a filmmaker, and the “Rashomon”-style “Lot’s Wife” explores a love triangle and a possible murder mystery within a theater company.
The works, which will play in repertory, are part of the Rep’s OriginKC: New Works Festival, showcasing playwrights and new plays throughout May.
Both are enjoyable conversations about storytelling, but each works on a different level.
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“Fire in Dreamland”
Bree Elrod plays Kate, whom we first see on the boardwalk at Coney Island, crying her eyes out. Enter Jaap, (rhymes with “chop,” played by Gabriel Marin), a poncho-wearing international student intent on making a film about the 1911 fire that destroyed the Dreamland amusement park and its exotic animals.
Jaap has vision, but no resources. Kate has meager resources, but no vision. So, of course, the relationship is destined to end badly.
Rinne Groff’s script does a fabulous job of overlaying the natural miscommunications between people from different countries with the inherent misunderstandings in romantic relationships and the inevitable conflicts that arise between an artist and a pragmatist.
Groff drives the point further by inserting the occasional double entendre that leaves theatergoers thinking, in one instance, that the characters are talking about sex when they’re really talking about filmmaking. It’s a nice touch that draws the audience closer.
Elrod is terrific as Kate. The play jumps around in time quite a bit, and she’s often required to jump from one extreme emotion to another — from, say, grief to giddiness — at the smack of a director’s clapperboard. And even though Kate talks to the audience several times, these monologues never distract because Elrod is a great storyteller.
Marin nicely balances Jaap’s single-mindedness with a conniving naivete. And Brian Huther, who plays fellow film student Lance, is a shadowy figure at the side of the stage for most of the play, but he enters the story with a devastating revelation.
At its core, “Fire in Dreamland” is simply a girl-meets-boy story, but it’s a complex piece of storytelling that challenges notions of communication, relationships and the truths revealed in our own narratives.
About midway through “Lot’s Wife,” a playwright presents his new work to a director, saying “It’s set in New York, and it’s about this theater company …”
The director responds: “Oh God, not another play about the theater.”
She’s kidding, she says. But you’d be forgiven for expressing the same sentiment.
Directed by Joanie Schultz and written by the Rep’s artistic director, Eric Rosen, “Lot’s Wife” is a play about a play within a play. While there’s a heavy dose of “inside baseball,” the production has an intriguing structure and strong performances.
The through line for “Lot’s Wife” is cribbed from the opening line of Cherra S. Ransom’s poem of the same name,: “The advice was good — not to look back.”
Like the story of Lot’s wife in Genesis, none of the play’s four characters take the advice, of course. Instead, each alternates describing the events that inspired a new play (also called “Lot’s Wife”).
Actor Tom (Adam Poss) delivers a monologue on how he became intimate with the playwright Adam (Rusty Sneary). Director Joan (Carla Noack) details how the play came to her. Thalia (Vanessa Severo) describes her relationship with Adam. And Adam narrates his final act the night of the play’s opening.
The point of these multiple narratives generally is to show how each character is perceived (or misperceived) by the others. Thalia, however, is the only character to emerge as three-dimensional. While Tom envies Thalia as competition for Adam’s affections, she sees herself in a doomed relationship.
In the other tellings the characters remain the same: Joan is twitchy in her middle-age ennui, Tom is eager and unctuous, and Adam is burdened by what he believes is his genius.
Sneary and Severo are incredibly fun to watch. Sneary plays Adam as a reticent foot-shuffler. He tamps down his character’s manner and speech until the work inside him boils over in an almost autistic rage and he pounds his fists against his body.
Severo manages to give four distinct performances: Thalia as she sees herself; Thalia as seen by Tom; Tabitha, who is based on Thalia; and Ashley, who is playing Tabitha.
Much like with movies about moviemaking and books about writers, how you respond to “Lot’s Wife” may depend on how you endure works about the theater. Though the work might not yet resonate beyond the proscenium, there’s much to like.
Regardless, all involved should heed the play’s own advice: focus on the future and persevere in the mission to present new works to local audiences.
Productions of “Fire in Dreamland” and “Lot’s Wife” play in repertory at Copaken Stage downtown through May 22. Each Kansas City Repertory play is about 90 minutes long without intermission. Tickets are $25-$59; for curtain times and show dates, go to kcrep.org.