The KC Fringe Festival is a place where artists can do the thing they dread the most: fail.
Nobody wants to fall face-first on a festival stage, of course, and many performers don’t. But the Fringe is a forum where actors, directors, playwrights and other artists can take big risks by trying out new material and producing plays you may never see at an established theater company. It’s also a relatively cheap way to get a play on its feet to see how it works in performance.
Take Jerry Genochio. Genochio is the producing director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre and oversees most of the technical aspects of Rep productions. But one day a friend challenged him to do something he’d never done: Write a play.
So he did.
“It just got me thinking that as a producer and someone who’s in the business of making theater and dealing with all the artists, I have no idea what it’s like to be a playwright,” said Genochio, who is also directing the piece. “And that’s an experience I want to have as a producer.”
The play, “Tack Driver,” depicts two brothers considering whether to honor a pact made in childhood to kill their stepfather.
His actors are Matt Rapport, who played Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, and Kyle Hatley, the Rep’s associate artistic director. Genochio said Hatley, who has written and directed his own projects for the festival, encouraged him to stage the piece at the Fringe.
“What I’m interested in is seeing what the process is like,” Genochio said. “It’s an experiment to see what it’s like. Other people will tell me if it’s a funny play or an interesting play or a serious play.”
Actress Katie Kalahurka, who has appeared in a number of Fringe shows, this year wrote her own one-woman piece, “Lessons From Marlene.”
“The idea for this show came as a result of a breakup that happened in my life, and it sort of flowed out of me,” Kalahurka said. “And Marlene Dietrich has always been somebody I’ve been fascinated by. I did an independent study on her in college. So it’s loosely based on her. Very loosely. She’s actually more Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn’s character in “Blazing Saddles”) than Marlene Dietrich.”
Kalahurka is employing her version of Dietrich to explore incidents from her own life. She performs six songs: one self-written, four old cabaret tunes and an Irish folk song.
“When I had something, I knew the Fringe Festival was the place to do it because it’s a safe place,” she said. “People come to the Fringe Festival who don’t see theater anywhere else. They just really like the Fringe Festival.
“My whole thought is now that I’ve got this piece … I can edit it and expand it and change it and go on the road with it. I’ll have this in my back pocket.”
Playwright Vicki Vodrey, whose work has been seen in the festival before, unveils a new play this year: “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” a comedy set at a funeral in which the lead character is the deceased.
“There’s no cheaper way to produce theater in Kansas City than the Fringe Festival,” Vodrey said.
Ry Kincaid will produce and perform in “Pilgrimage,” a musical he wrote based on Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” The text, he said with a laugh, is written in “modern iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets that Chaucer would approve of if he were alive 600 years later.”
Kincaid said the festival was the natural place to stage the show.
“The Fringe Festival is an opportunity for Kansas City artists to take a chance on works for which they may not be able to have a venue,” he said. “Maybe they’re not ready for the big-time yet, but it’s a great workshop experience.”
Scott Cordes, an actor in one of last year’s shows, this year is directing something new called “Foreign Bodies.” He said he likes the challenges posed by the festival experience.
“You have no time or money, and everybody’s busy,” Cordes said. “For me, I find it very exciting. It gives me a chance to work with people I’ve worked with before that I like and trust, and it gives me a chance to work with people I’ve never met.”
Playwright Natalie Liccardello summed it up best:
“I think it’s a softer place to fall.”
Some of this year’s most promising shows:
** “The Amish Project” by Jessica Dickey. Jessica Franz performs this one-actress show about fate and forgiveness following the 2006 murders of five Amish girls in a schoolhouse shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
At the Fishtank Performance Studio, 1715 Wyandotte St., at 6 p.m. Friday; 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 9 p.m. July 26; and 7:30 p.m. July 28. Learn more at fishtanktheater.com.
- “Film Classics Presents: Suspicion ,” from Whim Productions. The same creative gang that gave us the memorable “Heaven So Far,” a sendup of Hollywood 1950s melodramas last year, returns with a film noir live onstage. In this piece, a wealthy socialite (played by drag performer De De DeVille) is romantically torn between an investigator in the special prosecutor’s office and a professional smuggler. The cast includes Stefanie Stevens, Francisco “Pancho” Javier, Matthew McAndrews, Dana Joel Nicholson and Genewa Stanwyck.
At Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central St., at 5 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; 9 p.m. Wednesday; 9 p.m. July 26 and 10:30 p.m. July 28.
- “Foreign Bodies” by Arika Larson. Larson’s “White Sangria,” in which a couple self-destruct in front of their dinner guests, was one of the more interesting entries in last year’s festival. Her new comedy depicts an online romance between a guy who likes guys and a girl who likes girls. (It’s complicated.) Directed by Scott Cordes, the show features Kate O’Neill, Melissa Fennewald and Greg Brostrom.
At Just Off Broadway at 6 p.m. Friday; 9 p.m. Saturday; 3:30 p.m. Sunday; 9 p.m. Monday; 6 p.m. July 26; and 7:30 p.m. July 28.
- “The Four of Us,” a two-character comedy about writers and best friends, played by real-life best friends Doogin Brown and Dan Hillaker, two of the city’s best young actors.
At the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., at 9 p.m. Friday; 4:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Monday; 6 p.m. July 26 and 9 p.m. July 28.
- “4Play” by Michelle T. Johnson, Jose Faus, Ken Buch and Jack Phillips. Vicki Vodrey directs a quartet of new plays: “The Guiding Light Turns (Johnson); “A Matter of Faith” (Faus); “A Perfect 89” (Buch); and “Breeding Stock” (Phillips), each offering a distinct view of the human condition. The cast includes Sherry Mosley Brown, Jeff Smith, Phil Hooser, Ken Buch, Alan Tilson and Meredith Wolfe.
At the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.: 8 p.m. Friday; 9:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 6:30 p.m. Wednesday; 11 p.m. July 27 and 6:30 p.m. July 28.
- “Ice Cream Social … Issues” by Natalie and Talia Liccardello. Natalie is a formidable young actress (she was in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the American Heartland Theatre this year), but she’s also a playwright to watch. In 2011, her “Pies in the Porn Kitchen” was staged at the Fishtank, where audiences experienced a clever R-rated farce.
In this new play, the Liccardello sisters depict an ice cream social in a church basement that turns out to actually be an intervention for a family member. But when the “guest of honor” doesn’t show, dysfunctional relationships come to the surface.
Warren Deckert directs the piece. The cast includes Manon Haliburton, Meredith Wolfe, Hannah Cowger, Karla Fennick, Ari Bavel, Danelle Drury and Maxwell Frederickson. For more information go to phoenixkctheatre.com.
At the Unicorn Theatre: 6:30 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday; 6:30 p.m. July 26; and 9:30 p.m. July 28.
- “ Lessons From Marlene” by Katie Kalahurka. Inspired in part by the life and career of film and cabaret legend Marlene Dietrich, Kalahurka portrays multiple characters, combining monologues with music, dance and comedy, in this reflection on the meaning of life. Vanessa Severo directs.
At the Fishtank: 9 p.m. Saturday; 6 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; and 9 p.m. July 27.
- “Pilgrimage” by Ry Kincaid. Kincaid has fashioned a contemporary musical based on “The Canterbury Tales.” Directed by Bob Paisley, the show’s big cast includes Damron Armstrong, Coleman Crenshaw, Katie Gilchrist, Eryn Bates, Vi Tran, Nick Uthoff and Cody Wyoming. Learn more at rykincaid.com.
At the Kansas City Lyric Opera Center, 18th and Charlotte streets: 9 p.m. Saturday; 6 p.m. Monday; 9:30 p.m. Tuesday; 6 p.m. Wednesday; and 7:30 p.m. July 28.
** “Sexing Hitler” by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney. Colley and Varney can be counted on to produce something original, outlandish and unpredictable at the Fringe, and this show certainly seems to fit the pattern. Set in 1941, it purports to tell the “true story” of steps taken by the Third Reich to counter the spread of syphilis among the troops: providing surrogates in the form of inflatable dolls that soldiers can fold up and carry in their packs.
The show features music by Christian Hankel and Kyle Dahlquist. Varney directs, and the cast includes Andy Garrison, Parry Luellen, Marcie Ramirez, Eric Tedder and Amy Hurrelbrink. Learn more at jupiterkansas.com.
“Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With ‘Flat Jimmy Fallon’ ” by Vicki Vodrey. At last year’s festival, Vodrey impressed theatergoers with her dark comedy “Hanky Panky,” about a family gathered in a nursing home for the expected death of the patriarch. The new play depicts a funeral service, from which the character of Angela will enter the afterlife with her cardboard cutout of Jimmy Fallon.
Steven Eubank directs Vanessa Severo, Scott Cox and Mandy Mook. As “Hanky Panky” did last year, the production will pack up and immediately head to New York for the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Find out more at egadstheatre.com.
“The Slaughterhouse Opera” by Samn Wright and Erin Hartnett. This rock opera depicts the dreaded zombie apocalypse.