August 1, 2008

‘Equity Showcase’ quite a showcase
by David Ollington

“Six Short Plays” opened July 31 at the UMKC Performing Arts Center. Some of the most accomplished actors in Kansas City came together for this Actors Equity Association Members Project Code production. The actors’ union usually forbids members from working outside of union contracts. Under this code, the union allows actors to volunteer time so local producers and directors might see them. Most in the field call this an “Equity Showcase.”

(l to r) Rachel Redler, Martin English and Andy Perkins in Thunderman and Knockout Girl by Sean Grennan (photo by Jinny Pike)

This 5-year accomplishment should establish itself as an early-August tradition. The material offered this year features astonishing variety, risk-taking and (the point of the occasion) quality acting talent.

The event serves as a showcase for playwrights, also. Throughout history, the stage offers writers a sounding board for timely ideas, hot issues and trendy themes. With six contemporary playwrights represented, one views all these works and can’t help but ask, what ideas connect these disparate works? How does our collective zeitgeist speak in this patchwork?

Fantasy lives in this production. In two of these works, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore (An American Fantasy) and Thunderman and Knockout Girl, completely fantasized characters come to life before our eyes with onstage references to how they might not “really” exist. Another piece The Cove stops short of theatricalizing fantasy, but focuses on the difficulty of reigning in the human imagination. Only one of the six plays, The Heat of the Moment, presents somber, gritty reality.

Each piece occupies a succinct, digestible length of time. The efficiently executed transitions between each short play move the evening along; the number six allows for a balanced experience with a central intermission.

David Kiehl’s sound design glues together these six disparate works. He accompanies the brief transitions between one-acts with haunting musical choices, employing variety, reflecting the broad range of topics and styles in the verbiage: Wagner, Middle-Eastern music, and perhaps the most bizarre, a finger-snapping, lounge-singer version of the Led Zepplin classic “Stairway to Heaven.”

In the first play, Frank Higgins’ I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore (An American Fantasy), set in Iraq, Cynthia Hyer plays American television journalist Jane Jackson. Hands bound behind her back and blindfolded, we discover her kneeling and singing “God Bless America.” Bearded and barking insults and orders with a Middle Eastern accent, Nathanael Card, as her captor Ahmed, enters threatening, frightening and terrorizing her.

Once Ahmed feels safely alone with Jane, he expresses his deep admiration for American media. He quotes American cinema, immediately changing dialects, with lines such as “What we have here is a failure to communicate” from the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke. Higgins sharply turns the sketch into a dementedly dark comedy.

Ahmed wants asylum, to return to the United States with Jane; he wants fame as a hero, and he wants a book deal with the subsequent movie rights. “Actresses and female news anchors do not work much after 35,” he says, cajoling her into joining in his efforts, in essence saying, ally with me, you’re over the hill.

Enter a fantasy character, Lance Long (Martin English), a film actor Ahmed creates to help convince Jane to help him achieve mainstream American fame. Lance seduces Jane with statements like, “Your heroic journey is right out of Joseph Campbell” and “I’ve never made love to a Jungian archetype.” They enter into a brief tango, comical because Jane’s hands are still bound behind her back — a dance with unexplored potential.

Higgins may have titled the piece I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore (An American Fantasy) because Ahmed speaks often in American film quotes. he line from the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz is a tired cliché, especially in our corner of the universe.

Fantasy characters appear also in Sean Grennan’s one-act Thunderman and Knockout Girl. A middle management employee, Todd (John-Michael Zuerlein), who is treated badly by boss Mr. Harker (Martin English), escapes via comic books. Mr. Harker intimidates Todd and harasses Todd’s love interest, Stephanie (Lauren Lubow). When Zuerlein as Todd opens his “Thunderman” comic book, Actor Andy Perkins in gaudy spandex materializes as the super hero, battling Dr. Evil. Martin English plays the boss. He then dons a sinister mask and becomes Dr. Evil in the comic-book-world segments, his second appearance as a fantasy character during “Six Short Plays.”

Costume Designer Frank Krainz put lurid creativity into the shimmering and angled superhero costumes for both the Thunderman character and his female compatriot Knockout Girl (Rachael Redler). William J. Christie directed this piece with an appropriate camp.

Ron Simonian’s The Sting of Love brought forth the most raucous laughter of the evening. This play, nasty and testosterone-ridden, portrays a group of men together in a police bus, all recently arrested for solicitation. Tom Moriarty plays Ray, on step 4 of his 12-step program (we never learn which one), and repeatedly battling his anger management problem by going to his happy place. Scott Cordes as Carl plays the man most comfortable in his skin; he admits he likes hookers and hates the bar scene. Josh (Pete Weber) got caught picking up a hooker the night before his wedding. Lou (Dean Vivian) is an attorney who vehemently explains the intricate legalities of their predicament.

Simonian served also as director of this piece, and the action moves like a thrill ride. The actors find bawdy and satirical humor with impeccable timing and an array of moods.

Peggy Friesen plays an oceanographer defending her work under peer review in The Cove. Rosemarie Woods’ play Heat of the Moment presents a sobering look at the impact of American World War II racism on a fifth generation, Japanese-American family. The Docent by Cynthia Hyer offers a view of the afterlife as a museum tour.

A troop of theatrical artists, actors, designers, directors and crew put excellence into “Six Short Plays.” Each play offers its own journey, each challenges both the actors and the audience in variant ways. In the small, intimate black box theatre in the Performing Arts Center at UMKC, artisans sharpen their histrionic skills. Check it out.

“Six Short Plays” runs on the following dates (curtain time 7:30 pm):
Fri. Sat. & Sun. on Aug. 1-3, 8-10; Mon., Aug. 11. Thu., Fri. & Sat., Aug. 14-16 and Sun. 2 pm, Aug. 17.

There is a suggested donation of $12 per person. There is limited seating, and reserved seating is not available. Performances will take place in Studio 116, in the Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus, 4949 Cherry.

David Ollington can be contacted at


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