Fringe Festival

Dark inner lives, unique cultural history and one very odd musical

In the two previous editions of KC Fringe, Kansas City’s annual arts festival, playwright Vicki Vodrey produced short plays that I liked quite a bit. The first was “Hanky Panky,” an acerbic comedy about a dysfunctional family gathered in the hospital room of a dying patriarch, and that was followed by “Thank You Notes,” a darkly comic meditation on the suicide of a young woman who haunts her brother as he attempts to give her the funeral she requested.

This year Vodrey returns with a musical,

“Lucky Streak,”

an attempt to build a behind-the-scenes music-business melodrama around the issue of domestic abuse set to songs made famous by Barry Manilow. The results are as bizarre as that simple description suggests.

The show runs 90 minutes and spins a tale about a small-town Arkansas country singer who decides to move to New York after his girlfriend dumps him. Joey (Jeff Smith) hooks up with an old high-school friend, Chris (Sean Hogge), a musician preparing for an audition that could lead to a sponsored tour. Chris invites Joey to crash in the apartment he shares with his companion Benedetta (Mandy Mook), who volunteers at a domestic abuse center.

We encounter credibility problems in Vodrey’s script almost immediately. Joey is so naive and unsophisticated that he seems to have stumbled into the play from another era, while Chris is so blithely sexist, verbally abusive and physically threatening that we have to wonder (a) why Benedetta didn’t pack up and move out long ago, and (b) how a guy this abrasive could keep a band together more than five minutes.

Implausibilities continue to mount. Joey becomes a star after stepping in to audition with Chris’s band after their singer fails to show. The sensitive Joey and the sensitive Benedetta fall in love but the chemistry between Smith and Mook adds up to a big zero.

The Manilow songs seem arbitrarily inserted and lend the show a weird alternative-reality feeling. And neither Smith nor Mook possess particularly strong voices. Smith’s singing is pleasant enough as long as he stays in key — which he sometimes fails to do — and Mook can doggedly carry a tune without much flair.

One bright spot: Ashley Otis contributes some OK choreography and performs dance moves with consistently impressive precision.

Australian actress/playwright Ansuya Nathan offers a unique tale that feels like fictionalized autobiography in

“Long Live the King.”

In this one-actress show, Nathan tells the story of her parents, who arrived from India as immigrants in Australia on the day Elvis Presley died. Leaping back and forth in time, Nathan creates a loving portrait of her mother, Meena, whose love of Presley’s music helped her through an exceedingly difficult pregnancy.

Nathan is a skilled performer, an eloquent writer and a charming presence. Her story is unusual, engrossing and poignant. This show was directed by Guy Masterson, an accomplished solo performer in his own right. Local theatergoers will remember him from his “British Invasion” performances each winter at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.

“Bedtime Solos”

is one of the strangest plays I’ve seen, but the Fringe production is so impeccably directed by Bob Paisley and so expertly performed by Amy Kelly and Jordan Fox that I couldn’t resist its mesmerizing power.

The play by Jakob Holder — an Edward Albee acolyte — depicts a man and woman after a night of love-making as they surrender to alternating internal monologues. The effect is to allow the audience uncomfortable access to their most intimate thoughts and feelings, which means we travel to some pretty dark places.

The point of Holder’s play is that the inner mind is unknowable. Even in the most intimate moments shared with another person, we’re trapped in our own unique perceptions, isolated by individual emotional histories. The play also implies that we basically do what we have to do to maintain a a relationship.

It’s heady and heavy stuff with occasional bursts of humor. Yet, in a way it’s curiously life-affirming. If my schedule allowed me to, I’d definitely see this show a second time. Paisley and his actors are scheduled to take this piece to the Edinburgh Fringe in August.