Hit and Myth

 

This town may have 18th and Vine and Chuck Haddix, but Kansas City celebrates its musical history with all the zest Tule Lake, California, brings to showing off its old Japanese internment camp.

Years back, a friend was setting off for a semester abroad and wanted to bring a piece of Kansas City to her host family. “Maybe some jazz,” she said to me. “Now, where would I find something like that?”

And once, playing a drunken game of “Coin a KC Slogan More Honest than ‘City of Fountains,'” my personal favorite — “Kansas City: You’ll Make Allowances” — was trumped by a then-girlfriend’s “Keeping Jazz in the Past, Where It Belongs.”

It’s fortunate, then, that outsiders take time to school us in appreciation. The latest pilgrim is playwright and director Eric Simonson, whose drama Carter’s Way, an ambitious “jazz tragedy” midway through a world-premiere run at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, aims for the grit and groove of our town’s wild days.

Simonson’s challenges include spinning a love story, finding something fresh to say about the racism of an age long past, and integrating prerecorded music into a show about the primacy of improvisation. He aims for classical gravitas by basing the whole shebang on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Recycling epic myths can, at best, inspire a timeless, lofty feel; at worst, it makes melodrama pretentious. By intermission, it’s clear that Carter’s Way veers too often toward the latter.

Orpheus here is Oriole Carter, a prickly black saxman played with charismatic obstinacy by Damon Gupton. He falls for honky moll Eunice Fey (Kelly Sullivan, who is too often declamatory). That both characters are unlikable isn’t a problem. What sinks things is that, together, they aren’t compelling. Especially when they’re talking. For most of the first act, our lovers seem to be waiting for cues rather than responding to each other. Gupton speaks low and can be hard to hear at times; as his pursuer, Sullivan speaks from the diaphragm even in seduction. Their dialogue doesn’t help. When a screaming match erupts, both shout their motivations. When Carter tells her, “Both of us is damaged in some respect,” you don’t flinch at the stinging truth; you wonder how the Oprah talk wound up in 1936. The romance just doesn’t work.

Except when they shut up. In a gorgeous moment that Simonson stages early on, the two idle awkwardly outside a juke joint. The stage darkens. The delicate spotlight that finds them feels, for a breath, as if it’s glowing from between them instead of from above. Similar thrills come when a dance they share blooms from perfunctory to torrid and, after intermission, when we’re treated to the start of a silent, shadowed coupling.

Better still is when Sullivan sings. Her bell-clear and soulful voice — as well as that of the grand Nikki Walker, who plays Carter’s bandleader — routinely rewards our patience. Walter Coppage’s jive talk spurs the show along, and Danny Mastrogiorgio finds surprising grace notes as a striving but hapless gangster. The ending is preordained, but deep in the second act Simonson finds startling, real-world analogues to the oddities of the original myth.

Carter’s Way will mostly be remembered for its music, composed by Darrell Leonard and performed by local heavyweights Bobby Watson and Joe Cartwright, among others. Not that these greats are onstage. The actors mime along to recordings and are good at it. The first number was greeted with real applause when I saw it, which resulted in much confused chatter come intermission: Are they really playing? I think one’s singing for real and the other’s faking it. I know it’s fake, but I’m still clapping. The band’s great!

The music is great, steeped in tradition but straining — as we’re told Carter is — against it. It points to jazz’s genuine tragedy: The striving of musicians like Carter for the true and the new produced some of the last century’s greatest art, but it also accelerated jazz’s marginalization. Carter seems to think that recording kills music, and he will not compromise for popular success. When Mastrogiorgio’s gangster announces that radio is perfect for jazz because white listeners aren’t able to tell that the performers are black, we laugh, proud that our age is, in some ways, less cynical.

But then, during one of the too frequent moments when the show stops so that a character can negotiate a staircase, I glanced down at my program. The cover — like all the promo material for this play dominated by strong black performances — has just two faces on it, both white. What the hell does that mean? Do our art patrons need to be hoodwinked into watching black folks? The Rep is staging A Raisin in the Sun next winter; will it be promoted as the uplifting story of Mr. Linder and his Improvement Association?

While the Rep is closing out its 41st handsomely mounted season, a couple of miles north, in the basement of Union Station, the Kansas City Actors Theatre is tearing into its scrappy first, making good on its promise to showcase local talent in important work. The collective’s inaugural production, Martin McDonagh’s vicious but endearing The Cripple of Inishmaan, may not have jazz to class it up, but from word one this show swings.

And stings. The folks clinging to McDonagh’s Inishmaan — a stony sliver of an island off Ireland’s western coast — treat one another with what seems a hysterical cruelty. A mother is encouraged to drink herself to death. Our birth-mangled hero is known only as “Cripple Billy.” With near-kindness, Helen, the fiercest lass in Christendom, tells him, “I shouldn’t laugh at you, Billy … but I will.”

We feel the same. We laugh at, and we laugh with. We laugh in isolation instead of the comfortable unanimity of Starlight or the multiplex; what angers others might slay you, and what brings down the house might leave you shaken.

The story concerns the townies’ reactions to a film crew working on the famous (and famously staged) 1934 documentary Man of Aran just an island or so over. Billy joins a pair of noisy teens — Amy Lewis and Giorgio Litt, who sometimes overplay but never so much that they become more obnoxious than real 16-year-olds — planning to boat over and become Hollywood stars. Complicating things are diseases, lies and a couple of fascinating questions, chief among them: Is it possible to leave a brutal life for a loveless one?

The actors feast on jabber, savoring each colloquial wonder or inventive vulgarity. As Billy’s aunties, Elizabeth Robbins and Peggy Friesen open the show with a knockout scene of lived-in squabble that’s just music away from being a duet. A seaside discussion between Billy (a movingly tangled David Jones) and Mark Robbins’ salty Babbybobby had me laughing steadily for no less than five minutes. McDonagh’s feel for repetition — for how the oddball thing someone says finds its way into the mouths of everyone around — gives even the most offhand remarks real bite by play’s end. We realize, ultimately, that these people aren’t the cruel bastards we at first believe them to be. They’re simply more honest than we’re used to. They’ve been blunted by sea, rock and talk.

McDonagh is now turning New York City stomachs with The Pillowman. KC still talks of the sucker punch the Unicorn scored with the playwright’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in ’99. This show is lighter than either of those, but we’re lucky to have it — and this new company. Director Joe Price knows how to stage a gag and then top it, and the shifts into deeper feeling hit as hard as the funny stuff and arrive without warning. In his hands, you can feel anything at any time, which is remarkable in an age when so little entertainment can make you feel anything at all.

Categories: A&E, Stage