Sometimes you see things at the KC Fringe Festival that you won’t see anywhere else.
Saturday night, moments before the beginning of “The Penis Monologues” at the Unicorn Theatre, I happened to look to my left and saw Heidi Van, who directed the show, and artist Peregrine Honig, who conceived it with Van, gussied up in their nice opening-night dresses and heels, climbing a ladder to the sound-and-light booth. Incongruous? Yes. Impressive? You bet. It’s a good example of what makes the Fringe Fest what it is: Everything is hands-on.
Their show, which I admit I approached skeptically, turned out to be a winner: Witty, thoughtful, provocative, sexy, poignant and funny — and sharply executed by a talented cast. This isn’t the first play to use the title “The Penis Monologues,” which immediately suggests a response to Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” but what Van and Honig have created is unique. Some of the material they solicited from area writers, but they also borrowed from other sources
Katie Hall, for example, performs Edmund’s “bastard speech” from “King Lear,” and soprano Victoria Sofia Botero opens the performance with a stunning version of Giacomelli’s castrato aria “Sposa non mi conosci.”
But the original material makes the most lasting impression. Diane Yvette delivers remarkable precise performances, first with “One of Our Biggest Social Problems” by Gibran X. Rivera and later with Charles Ferruzza’s “Size Queen.” Ferruzza’s piece was arguably the best written of the show and certainly the funniest.
Vanessa Severo immerses herself in “I Am a Penis” by Jose Faus, which offers the first-person testimony of the organ in question, projected through a Latino lens and colored by Catholic guilt. The writing is eloquent and Botero offers occasional translations and commentary in Spanish to Severo’s soliloquy.
Cat Mahari, a lithe and expressive dancer, performs a solo piece to a suite credited to Honig. Marianne McKenzie performs two interesting selections — “Transcript” by Heidi Van and “My Penis Fell in Love” by Jeff Smith. And Hall returns with an affecting monologue to close the show, a poetic apology by Brian Huther for following the biological dictates of his gender.
There’s nothing sensational about the presentation. The actresses are costumed in plain jumpsuits, but Honig’s scenic design is remarkable. It’s a modular set of what appears to be large sandstone boulders that can be rearranged between scenes and at one point takes the form of a reclining man — suggesting, intentionally or not, the plaster molds of the victims of the Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii.
Of the Fringe shows I caught on the opening weekend, this was easily the most technically polished. It also happened to be the most thought-provoking.
Director/playwright Jesse Ray Metcalf says he told his actors to think of “Lovesick” as “campy with thought,” which turns out to be an apt description of this caustic farce about repression, brokenhearted love and revenge. Melissa Fennewald, who appeared in Metcalf’s memorable “Virgin” at the 2014 Fringe, plays Chloe, a disaffected teen who lives with an oppressive, no-fun-allowed grandmother (Bonnie Griffin) and rebels after she meets the new guy named Abe (P.T. Mahoney), who just moved in across the street.
It’s lust at first sight, but after Abe dumps Chloe, she sells her soul to a sort of satanic sisterhood led by Lilith (Ellen Kirk, another veteran of “Virgin”). They teach her the sadistic pleasures of revenge. As a writer, Metcalf comes up with inventive variations on teen-angst dramas and at times produces memorably acerbic dialogue. Fennewald is charismatic, as always, and projects a sort of befuddled innocence before Chloe turns the corner to become a dark avenger. Kirk, a gifted comic actress, is fun to watch as Lilith and her back-up girls — Bonnie Griffin, Alisa Lynn and Ai Vy Bui — are an amusing black-clad trio of vixens.
There’s a corresponding trio of a superficial middle-class “good girls,” played vividly by Stefanie Stevens, Erika Lynnette Baker and Lindsey Ray. Mahoney is a weak link, mainly because his limited vocal projection renders some of his dialogue unintelligible. The sets are minimal but Katie Vaughters’ costumes are smart and amusing. Metcalf’s a talented writer; as a director, he knows how to put together a good cast. You may encounter a whiff of substance in this show, but never enough to interfere with what is really an inspired, tongue-in-cheek joyride.
An artist’s ego
“Best Light,” a one-hour drama by Michelle T. Johnson, holds our interest as a character study, even if the execution isn’t quite what it should be. The show is essentially a relationship story about Luke (Davis DeRock), a painter, and his girlfriend Maya (Meredith Wolfe), a sculptor. Artists have egos, of course, but Luke also happens to be bipolar. And when he chooses to not take his meds, which he apparently has a pattern of doing, problems ensue.
Luke believes he has a legitimate reason to reject his mood-equalizing medication — it dulls his artistic senses and makes it difficult to create. The downside is that he’s impossible to live with — paranoid, accusatory, hostile, self-pitying. Quite the emotional package.
Also in the mix are Miss Howard (Sherri Roulette-Mosley), the maternal landlady from across the hall, and Xavier (Ted Collins), Luke’s exasperated agent. Director Teresa Leggard gets solid performances from her cast. Wolfe is particularly impressive as a woman who has artistic ambitions of her own but finds herself at a loss to cope with the erratic behavior of a man she loves. DeRock gives us a clear, thoughtful performance but never achieves the all-consuming intensity some of us have encountered in creative artists with emotional disorders.
Johnson writes clear characters but sometimes becomes a bit too occupied with plot and the mechanics of getting characters on and off stage. Even so, the central relationship is absorbing and could be explored in even more depth.
The Kansas City Fringe Festival runs through July 26 at venues in midtown, downtown and the Crossroads district. “Best Light” will be performed at 6:30 p.m. Monday, 9:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. Remaining “Lovesick” performances are at 8 p.m. Monday, 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. “The Penis Monologues” can be seen at 9:30 p.m. Monday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 11 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn. For a complete schedule, go to KCFringe.org.