Assassins Bringing hell to the chiefs in this challenging Stephen Sondheim show is a who's who of the American damned, among them Booth, Oswald, Hinckley and Leon Czolgosz, the Republican-turned-anarchist whose last words, uttered just before his execution for gunning down William McKinley, still chill: "I killed the president because he was the enemy of ... the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime." What Sondheim is after here is what fuels this violence; that he explores his subjects' lives and beliefs makes Assassins a work of true artistic courage. Through Nov. 19 at the Olathe Community Theatre, 500 East Loula in Olathe, 913-782-2990.
Big River Huck and Jim again roll on down that old Mississippi and through our collectively imagined past, arriving as always at that curious vanishing point where pain becomes nostalgia. Our disgust at this country's early inhumanity blends with our gut belief that, somehow, things back then were simpler and maybe even better. Evocative songs and heaps of Mark Twain's barbed aphorisms always make the trip pleasant, despite some occasional thematic roughness; let's hope the Olathe cast has firm hands on the tiller. Through Nov. 20 at the Chestnut Fine Arts Center, 234 N. Chestnut in Olathe, 913-764-2121.
Darker Face of the Earth Ricardo Khan and UMKC's theater department offer up former poet laureate Rita Dove's re-imagination of Sophocles' Oedipus you know, the Greek with the hard parenting luck whose oddball story has been called upon to explain everything from Hitler to bed-wetting to Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill. This time, the trouble comes to a plantation in the antebellum Carolinas. What feels distant and abstract in the original here becomes human and devastating. Through Nov. 13 at UMKC's Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry, 816-235-6222.
The Retreat From Moscow Author William Nicholson, director Sidonie Garrett and a superb cast offer minor devastation with this drama about the divorce of a pair of British academics. It's expertly staged, cutting in its truths and sparing with its sympathies, capturing what a marital crack-up actually feels like. The title comes from one of Nicholson's many metaphorical conceits. The husband is fascinated with the brutality and death that followed Napoleon's 1812 Russian defeat and justifies his own actions by explaining, "When it's a matter of survival, people will do anything." Watching, thinking about this, we know it's true and wish that it weren't. Through Nov. 13 at The Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main, 816-531-7529. (Reviewed in our Oct. 27 issue.)
Ruthless! An early example of the sarcastic anti-musical, this Bad Seed parody is packed like most of its genre with rote drag, gay jokes and punny gags that would make Leslie Nielsen holler for rewrites. Fortunately, two sharp comic performances make up for the script's flipness. Playing our bad seed, Daria LeGrand (who is hardly a sprout herself) is an animatronic Precious Moments figurine with a smile that stretches across several time-zones. She taps, hits the splits, does the Charleston and bellows "I Was Born to Entertain," and her first entrance is perhaps the most exciting on the KC stage in years. Carrie Lenahan, as her mother, is also a treat, her every movement a lightly absurd pose even as she treats the campy material with real emotional weight. She saves the show from its writers: We like to believe and to feel, even in a comedy. Through Nov. 13 at Barn Players, 6219 Martway in Mission, 913-432-9100. (Reviewed in our Nov. 3 issue.)
The Toughest Kid in the World Theatre for Young America brings back its big-boys-don't-have-to-hit musical, this time both to the Union Station City Stage and to local elementary schools, where, one hopes, it might straighten some of those young punks out. Through songs and humor, a troubled teenager learns to handle anger and conflict without resorting to violence. Sounds perfectly sensible to us, but we all know some Bush-doctrine-heeding parents will be bitching. Theatre for Young America tells us the best seats are available Saturdays. Bring a Bugs Meany type and make a day of it. Through Nov. 19 at Union Station's City Stage, 30 W. Pershing Rd., 816-460-2020.
Who's in First? This third production from the Mystery Train finds its audience once again caught up in an interactive dinner-time murder mystery set in the dining car of a KC train. This time, it's 1914, our town's on the upswing, Union Station has just opened with brass bands and mayoral proclamations, and the word boondoggle hasn't even been coined yet. A train departs, a murder is committed, and you, who ponied up for this, are called upon to solve the crime, discuss matters with performers between acts, and maybe even grab a script and join in. The last show was great fun both as a mystery and a history lesson; the food wasn't bad, either. Reservations are required. Through Nov. 19 at Union Station Café, 2200 Main. 816-813-9654.