September 23, 2011

KC Stage

Class warfare
by Greg Boyle

Coterie Theatre begins its 33rd season with an adaptation of The Outsiders, a book by S.E. Hinton, which was made into a movie in 1983 by Francis Ford Coppola. This Kansas City staging mimics the movie version in that it features a cast full of young hunks oozing with charisma. The movie created a lot of stars, including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. Our local boys, some of whom are making their Kansas City debuts, should get plenty of attention for their efforts in this production.


The Greaser Gang: Johnny (Brian Gehrlein), Ponyboy (Skyy Moore), Darry (Jeff Smith), Two Bit (Matthew Leonard), Sodapop (Doogin Brown), and Dallas(Tosin Morohunfola) in The Outsiders. (photo by Marianne Kilroy)

The Coterie Theatre has a tiny performance space. What they accomplish time after time in those cramped environs is nothing short of miraculous. Director Jeff Church uses every inch of stage, and even the aisles of the seating area, in staging the show. As a result, the play becomes a 3-D experience. It is not just in front of the audience like a proscenium house or even a theatre in the round. Rather, one is immersed in the action, like Phil Spector’s wall of sound. At the same time, there isn’t the feeling of being intruded upon like some interactive or experimental theatre through some confrontation with the performers. It simply feels like it is happening all around you. Children and young adults seem to love the effect especially.

The plot revolves around the conflict between two social classes within an Oklahoma high school in the 1960s. As in Grease, this tale is told from the perspective of the crew with the slicked back hair. However, much more realistically than Grease, it shows these kids to be the economically deprived outcasts, not the cool kids. These boys and girls acknowledge themselves as thieves and troublemakers, but the play is all about recognizing the goodness, humanity and the universality of need and longing within all social castes.

The central character is Ponyboy, the youngest of the gang, the only one who has a chance academically. He’s a dreamer and reader of poetry. Nonetheless, at fourteen, he’s also a seasoned member of the bunch, participating in all the fights. Through his chance interaction with a girl member of the archrival group, the stage is set for heightened conflict, which turns tragic for both sides.

It is nearly impossible to find professionally competent stage actors who are actual teenagers. Coterie does its best, but Ponyboy, played by Skyy Moore, is one of only two actors on stage who looks anywhere near age appropriate for his role. The good news is that it only takes a few minutes to suspend your disbelief. Once you get past that visual distraction, the play flows very smoothly.

Moore’s awkward postures and vocal delivery convey a youthfulness that has not yet been corrupted by the hard times he’s experienced. Brian Gehrlein, the other young-looking performer, plays the character Johnnycake with an almost foreordained sense of doom. 

Other members of the gang, Matthew Leonard, Jeff Smith, and Doogin Brown are brimming with good looks and testosterone, at the same time grounding themselves in the reality of the situation their characters.

It is a testimonial as to how far the nation’s consciousness has evolved, that Tosin Morohunfula has a role as the toughest of the tough guys (but still with a heart of gold, we discover). Oklahoma in the 1960s was not a place where black boys hung out with a gang of white boys. As in other performances we’ve seen from this fine young actor, Morohunfula’s physical presence generates a crackle of electricity that implies the possibility of violence even when he’s smiling.

Brodie Rush, playing various guitars and creating all kinds of sounds and effects from the instruments, provides the background music. Rush’s work is exceptionally fine in producing a wide variety of moods throughout the show. There was a problem in the fire scene, however, where the music was so loud that the necessary exposition lines were lost. Luckily, they were easily picked up from later context.

Because Coterie is specifically a theatre for young audiences, the play runs only eighty minutes, maintaining the attention of people of all ages. This show plays well for adults down to kids that are in middle school.

The Outsiders is playing at The Coterie Theatre in Crown Center through Oct. 14. For tickets, call the box office at 816-474-6552, or go online to www.coterietheatre.org.

Greg Boyle may be reached at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.