Katie Gilchrist and Mykel Hill come to terms with family history in Mappa Mundi.The saddest thing about theater in Kansas City is that so many actors who have trained to capture truths of the human condition hardly ever have the opportunity to do so, thanks mostly to those same truths. Actors gotta eat, and steady checks come from the theaters where the audiences are eating, too. I don't blame serious actors for turning up in dinner-theater fare, but I can't help but mourn the fact that making a living means reducing art to a craft — or an appetizer.
So I thank the small theaters for a week when the feasts outnumber the appetizers: Ron Megee and Missy Koonce in Pride & Joy (reviewed here last week), Doogin Brown and Matt Weiss in Valhalla, and the marvelous Allan Boardman and company in Mappa Mundi.
First, Egads Theatre Company's Valhalla. Paul Rudnick's ambitious comedy — local audiences might feel that it's a companion piece to his breezier and more satisfying Pride & Joy — meditates on the lives of gay men in wildly different times and places: early-'40s small-town Texas, where two young boys grow to love and fear each other, and the royal court of 19th-century Bavaria, where young Prince Ludwig gads about grandly, besotted by opera and beauty.
Rudnick is content with a rude and uproarious point-counterpoint until about 20 minutes after intermission. After that, the show is a wreck, but it's fun. High points include a Lone Star circle jerk, a visit from "the loneliest humpback in Europe" and the priceless spectacle of Doogin Brown (an electric noodle of a man) in kingly garb astraddle a stick horse as his Ludwig tries — and fails — to muster the enthusiasm to review his own troops.
Most of Rudnick's jokes hit, and many shake the theater. That's no surprise given the skills of director Steven Eubank and a cast adept at timing. As a Texan teen unashamed of gayness, Matt Weiss attacks his lines a beat more quickly than is conventional, which catches the audience off guard — we're laughing at his next line before we've laughed through the last. That's also true for Evan White, who stumbled in Eubank's Say You Love Satan back in February; here, in a variety of roles, he's not only credible but also compelling.
For all the jokes, both Weiss and Brown give full, revealing performances, the kind that theatergoers hope for — but are too rarely rewarded with — each time out. Weiss mixes a cowboy's bravado with a teen rebel's inner simmer and a poet's aesthetic, and the volatile solution explodes only when it needs to. As Ludwig, one of history's fanciest fancy boys, Brown is as generous as his comic gifts, willing up silly yelps and walks and mad flourishes with such deep conviction that he never seems to have any idea at all that he's being funny.
By the end, misunderstood Ludwig becomes king and goes on a spree, blowing the treasury on lavish castles, grottoes and architectural curios. A century later, the Texans — serving in World War II Europe — find themselves liberated in Ludwig's marvels. That should be connection enough, but Rudnick labors for grander significance still, jumbling time and space and resorting to desperate bits of symbolic stagecraft. Because Eubank's design team fails to suggest even a glimmer of Ludwig's creations, this works less than it might. The problem isn't that the production is spare or low-budget. Rather, it's defiantly drab in a show about striving for grandeur.
By contrast, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre's excellent Mappa Mundi isn't drab enough. Set on a British patio — decorated with a couple of potted plants, a hammock, and tiling painted with scenes of exotic adventure — it's lighted, for some reason, with the hot yellow of the desert. This bothered me mostly at the openings of scenes, before director Bob Paisley's ensemble lured me into Shelagh Stephenson's quiet, patient story, a mostly plotless consideration of how we map our own lives against the past.
Allan Boardman stars as an ailing British father whose two grown children have chosen not to tell him that doctors expect little time left. Son Michael (Hughston Walkinshaw) is an actor, which seems to disappoint his father greatly. Daughter Anna (Katie Gilchrist) is a lawyer set to marry Sholto (Mykel Hill), a Barbados native who also became a lawyer but only after abandoning his dreams of dancing.
Both Anna and her father have been researching the family history, he to confirm a link to a great mapmaker, and she for evidence of a black ancestor to help assuage her guilt over slave-owning ancestors. Not coincidentally, Anna's fiancé is a black descendant of slaves, although he seems less concerned about this than she does. As these characters carp at and discover one another, Paisley and his cast sharply delineate each relationship and conflict.
Boardman's turn as the difficult father is a grand one, carved from life and wise to the ways in which age forces us to adjust to times that aren't ours. Never sentimental, Boardman is nonetheless moving, especially in surprising scenes late in the show with Sholto's mother, Portia, played with a weary tenderness by Donette Coleman. Issues of race and class prick the space between them, and Portia's handling of each stirs deeply.
Dancers shakily open and close the show. Other than that, the tone is contemplative, too much so for a couple of sleepy patrons in front of me. This is heady, thoughtful theater, mounted and performed with intelligence and sensitivity.