A busy Fringe unspools, and Kansas Repertory Theatre stakes a claim in Lawrence

The beginning of Fringe feels like the start of a race. The flag has dropped, and we’re off, speeding through limited opportunities to see certain shows, dictated by performance days and times, which often overlap, and hindered by the occasional sellout. The festival runs through Sunday, July 31. Here’s what we’ve seen so far.

Strong direction and unexpected humor make Crazy Horse: a Dream of Thunder worth meeting at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (3614 Main). Writer and actor Sam Wright grounds the larger-than-life warrior with small gestures and complex connections to his Oglala Lakota tribesmen. Over the course of the 60-minute show, Wright shifts convincingly among portrayals of Crazy Horse, his brothers, his rivals and his lovers. UK import Nicholas Collett directs, keeping Wright’s movements dynamic and employing smart costume pieces and hand props to differentiate character. Wright’s script is laced with surprising character quirks and warm-hearted ribbing, but both actor and script seem to lose focus in the more didactic, plot-heavy second half. Characters lose their rough edges, flattened in an (understandable) impulse to give history its due.

Objects aren’t so inanimate in Mannequins, a show conceived and designed by composer Jon Robertson. Manon Halliburton and David Fritts star as an unhappy couple living with a life-sized, talking mannequin. As the Man, Fritts is a convincing drunk, deflating his wife’s hopes with each stray word or stumble. As the Woman, Halliburton is a pleasure to watch, reacting to each new stimulus or loss with a childlike intensity. Jason Ludlow’s script treads somewhat predictable paths — the Man becomes a bitter philosopher, the Woman a fantasy-desperate ingénue. Her connection to the mannequin (as well as its origin) remains a mystery. Still, Robertson’s sound design lends an anxious, otherworldly undercurrent, splicing scenes between the Woman and the Man (and the mannequin) with romantic banter between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in Charade. In one chilling final sequence, the mannequin’s stiff, computer-blanched voice morphs into one we wish we didn’t recognize. It plays on the Unicorn Theatre’s Jerome Stage (3828 Main).

Memory Lane has never looked quite as enchanting as in Freak Up the Street, Billy Blob’s imaginative, unabashedly sentimental play about coming to terms with two kinds of loss. Andy Garrison stars as William, a man trapped by the patterns of adulthood and his inability to cope with his mother’s death. Most of the play unfolds in flashbacks: William “time travels” back to scenes with his mom (Sallie A. Downing); his childhood friend, Johnny (Davis Lee DeRock Jr.); and the freak up the street (William Grey Warren), an eccentric neighbor with a pet possum and a taste for David Bowie records. Blob’s cast is unimpeachable — the ensemble effortlessly captures both childhood’s playful energy and adulthood’s scab-picking nostalgia. But the production and prop design are worth the ticket price alone. Blob treats audiences to a parade of intricate paper set pieces, playful dioramas and hand props enlarged to the size of cartoon daydreams. Make room in your schedule (and your cynical adult heart) for this show, playing on the Unicorn Theatre’s Levin Stage.

The one-woman Shadows: the Life of Anne Boleyn (at MET) stars Megan Greenlee, who also wrote the play. It’s an impressive script, built around her last days in the Tower of London as she writes a letter to her young daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. “I fight against the darkness in which I find myself,” the imprisoned queen says. And as she relates Boleyn’s story — royalty will “embrace you one moment, deny you the next” — we learn about the “choices and circumstance” that shaped her life, the power players who steered its course, her courtship by Henry VIII that lasted seven years. “How do you say no to power, wealth, to Henry VIII?” she asks. Historians haven’t always been kind to this queen, but in this staged monologue, Greenlee (despite a slightly stiff performance early in its run) reveals a reflective Boleyn and gives her a voice.

Desperate Acts (at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive) is a trilogy of three short plays by different playwrights. They run in a condensed repertory format, with the same actors (Trevor Belt, Jessica Franz, Casey Jane and Andy Penn), whose strong work is enough reason to see this show. But another is Written Off, a comedy by Victor Wishna in which the star of a long-running TV show learns that his character is going to die. The familiar plot might’ve been cliche in a lesser playwright’s hands, but Wishna builds story and personality with fast-moving dialogue that’s well-timed, funny and true. Even the five stages of grief roll through with comedic effect (aided by Penn’s outsized performance). Ably directed by Inbar Kahn, Desperate Acts begins with a play she wrote, After the Rain, that has a promising premise but hints at melodrama and needs more focus. The second piece, Acapulco, by Sarah Aptilon, holds tension and suspense but ultimately lacks clarity and takes a confusing turn.

Those who know of Forrest Attaway and his work may guess the joke in the title of his new play, Selfless, as anything but. Comedic actor Seth Macchi is Attaway, working the crowd and mixing in improv — more club act, really, with Curtis Smith as sideman. The beginning is hilarious, as Smith enters in priestly garb, accompanied by sacred music and burdened by a hefty tone. A portrait of Attaway rests on an easel. What we hear are stories from Attaway’s life — “embellished bullshit,” Macchi warns. Some are funny, some are touching, and some meander to no real point — except to share his particular worldview. But it’s entertaining and it’s memorable because it’s Macchi — and Attaway. The stories will vary from show to show, so no performance is the same (at the Living Room, 1818 McGee).

Story of the Century takes place in 1902 Pittsburg, Texas, at the dawn of escalators, gramophones and horseless carriages. The new musical by first-time playwright David O. Hill, who also wrote the music and lyrics in collaboration with musician Sarah Hill, tells the story of Burrell Cannon (Matthew Henrickson), an engineer and sawmill operator who invented a flying machine — the Ezekiel Airship — based on a description in the Bible. As Pittsburg Gazette reporter Elmer Baker (Blair Wooten) covers that story, we meet all the townspeople involved. The 15-member cast and three-man band (including music director Brant Challacombe) come together in an engaging and professional show that also weaves in themes of race, the temperance movement and women’s fight to vote. Though the story gets off-track — and ends on a somewhat corny note — it’s an impressive debut. (It’s on the Unicorn’s Levin Stage.)

Billed as a play about Kansas City’s racial dividing line, Bingo on the Boulevard (on the Unicorn’s Jerome Stage) is more about the community along the Troost corridor than a statement on race relations. The story, built around a regular bingo game — it gives away “useful prizes,” like toilet paper — weaves in dialogue based on actual interviews with area residents: a female impersonator, an illegal immigrant, an alcoholic, a former black Muslim separatist, and a drug dealer, among others. The play’s strength is in their stories of struggle, mental illness, discrimination, poverty and survival, and the camaraderie that forms among them. The 10 nonprofessional actors, of varying skill, do earnest work, and their characters make a connection with the audience. But the many parts of Donna W. Ziegenhorn’s play, directed by Elizabeth Herron, need stronger connective tissue.

It’s been a busy month for theater, and it isn’t slowing down. While CST’s Invasion and the Fringe Festival have been staging a range of shows in KC, Kansas Repertory Theatre, in nearby Lawrence, is producing two shows through the end of the month. Part of KU’s department of theatre, KRT “operates as a professional company,” says assistant professor and director Peter Zazzali, with Equity and visiting actors, guest directors, and faculty and students working together in rotating productions.

First staged in London under the name Gas Light and made into the Hollywood film Gaslight, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 Angel Street is a parlor-room drama — part whodunit, part thriller, part comedy — that has retained its power to grip.

Set in 1880 Victorian England, in a house on London’s Angel Street, the story opens on Mr. and Mrs. Manningham, a seemingly content couple sharing an afternoon. But the dynamic between them starts to shift, and we see that Mr. Manningham (Michael Samuel Kaplan) vacillates between charmer and tormenter. He dangles a night of theater before his wife, but he’s just toying. And he’s only getting started.

I felt a tinge of guilt watching Mrs. Manningham (Abby Sharp) pine for a night out as I enjoyed my own diversion. But that’s the effect of Sharp’s supple performance as she swings among emotional states. We empathize, we care about this wife, in love with a husband who is humiliating and manipulating her into thinking she’s going mad.

He has motive. As her husband, the excellent Kaplan shifts from mildly threatening to sinister, flying into rages with the smoothness of a purring engine. Treating his wife with “kindness, cunning, harshness,” his Manningham, we see, is an abuser. But he’s more than that. And as the play progresses, just his arrival in a scene creates unease.

Enter Detective Sgt. Rough, who in this production is portrayed by a woman (Jeanne Averill), an “anachronistic choice,” Zazzali admits, given that London didn’t have female detectives at the time. But his wish is to veer from the play’s sexist view that renders women helpless. It works. Mischievous but hard-driven, with a big personality and a Scottish brogue, Averill’s Rough nearly dominates in a delightful performance that adds both humor and just the right melodramatic tone.

As two household servants, Gail Trottier and Bri Woods do good work as the loyal Elizabeth and the saucy Nancy, respectively. Leah Mazur’s lighting design adds to the suspense and shifting moods (she also designed the period costumes).

“You sit on the edge of your chair most of the time,” Eleanor Roosevelt said of the play back in the day. Over at KRT, under Zazzali’s direction, that’s still the case. — D.H.

Whenever theaters stage audience favorites — fluffy drawing-room comedies, musical revues, A Christmas Carol — there’s some low-decibel grumbling among the indie set. The unspoken implication: Light hearts are revenue-boosters. The capital-S serious artists are all off doing message plays about fluoride in breast milk.

I’m happy to see those, too. But as the lights dimmed on the Kansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Harvey, Mary Chase’s 1944 comedy about an affable bachelor with an imaginary six-and-a-half-foot-tall rabbit companion, I couldn’t help but think this might be exactly the kind of “message play” we need right now. As directed by Kansas City’s own John Rensenhouse, this handsome production serves classic comforts. It feels downright subversive in its tenderness.

Michael Samuel Kaplan stars as Elwood P. Dowd, the hallucinator. He’s also an affable embarrassment to his sister, Veta (Jeanne Averill), and his niece, Myrtle Mae (Bri Woods), the kind of nerve-fluttered, befloraled social climbers straight out of an episode of Keeping Up Appearances.

The chemistry between Kaplan and Averill anchors the show. For all her hand-wringing and hysterics, Averill never loses sight of sisterly love. Woods drives much of the animosity instead, pouncing and parrying with each banter-building quip. Doug Weaver is especially sure-footed as William Chumley, the head psychiatrist tasked with curing Dowd. His pompous gravitas shatters memorably in the face of Dowd’s (and Harvey’s) growing influence.

Scenic designer Kelly Vogel transitions between the play’s two interiors with smart, spinning set pieces and a series of stuffy portraits (all framed in Pamela Rodriquez-Montero’s winking lights). Rensenhouse amps up the playfulness by scoring scene changes with recordings of actor Phil Fiorini crooning period hits in a hilariously off-kilter falsetto.

Not every scene charms. A subplot romance between two of the institution workers is poorly motivated and abruptly resolved. And while the actors establish a natural pace, they at times seem to be working against the rhythm of the lines. Still, Harvey feels prescient in its vision of imagination as a virtue and rigidity a vice. That theme becomes a thesis late in the play, when Dowd recalls instructions from his mother. To get through life, she said, one must be either exceptionally smart or exceptionally pleasant.

“For years, I was smart,” Dowd says. “I recommend pleasant.”

And a convincing recommendation it is. — L.C.

Harvey (through July 31)
Angel Street (through July 30)
Kansas Repertory Theatre, Murphy Hall, 1530 Naismith Drive, Lawrence, kutheatre.com

Categories: Stage, Theater