In our ever-shifting pandemic arts landscape, we are now at a juncture where some of Kansas City’s best actors can be heard but not seen.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Kansas City Actors Theatre, like all other theater companies, finds itself unable to perform before live audiences — especially now when most of the Midwest is experiencing rising COVID-19 infection rates. Chances are, when local theater companies resume live performances on the other side of the crisis (assuming a vaccine becomes available), social distancing requirements will still be in place. That translates to smaller audiences.
So the folks at KCAT diverted their creative energy into something very old but new for Kansas City: radio drama.
In addition to performing classic radio scripts during its regular noon Friday slot at 90.1 FM KKFI, our community radio station, Kansas City Actors Radio today (Oct. 30) unveils the first episode of “Kansas City: 1924,” an original serialized drama by playwright Forrest Attaway.
The first episode, “The Ties That Bind,” is rooted firmly in the rowdy Prohibition era, when local saloon-owning politicians and the mob paid no mind to the national ban on alcohol and made sure that beer and liquor continued to flow.
Attaway has set up several potentially compelling narrative threads involving a local mob boss giving protection to a young member of a Chicago crime family, the politics of the stockyards and a brother-sister musical team. Based on excerpts from two upcoming episodes, the show promises to depict the rocky relationships between the city’s ethnic communities — African-American, Italian and Irish.
Vincent Raider-Wexler, who directed the initial episode, provides throaty narration that helps hold the disparate elements together. Indeed, it’s Raider-Wexler, reading Attaway’s words, who sets the tone in the opening minute of the show: “A city with a future. A city with a past. A city divided by race, religion and class. A city brought together by music, sports and possibility. This is Kansas City, 1924.”
Attaway’s script is, more or less, rooted in reality. But he allows himself fanciful fictional inventions. At one point a Shakespeare-reading member of a Chicago gang, Vincent Esposito (Matt Schwader), and a Shakespeare-loving club singer named Rose (Bri Woods), indulge in a flirtation that could lead to a complex relationship in later episodes. And Irish police captain named Sullivan (Mike Ott) functions as a sort of aide-de-camp to local crime boss Johnny Giovanni (Mark Robbins). Giovanni, meanwhile, tries to put the financial squeeze on Ma Pritchett (Jan Rogge), the tough matriarch who runs the stockyards. Other characters who seem likely to become more central to the story as the story continues include Justin McCoy as George, a musician; Scott Cordes as Big Mike, a bartender; Kyle Dyck as Tom and Ellen Kirk as the no-nonsense Alice, who runs the bar and “hotel” for Giovanni.
The episode concludes with a cattle stampede down 12th Street, which, as far as I know, never happened. But it’s a wonderful image.
All of this is depicted in a clear, uncluttered way. And much of that clarity is the work of sound designer Jon Robertson, who manages the sound effects and musical cues. The impressive result is polished and whets the appetite for more.
The initial episode is hosted by KCAT company member Cinnamon Schultz, who in introductory and closing bits proves to be a slick guide and pitch-woman.
After each initial broadcast, episodes will become available on the KCAT podcast, which can be heard on Spotify via anchor.fm.
More local theater companies are turning to “virtual” performances, meaning shows shot on video that can be streamed from the comfort of your home. But “Kansas City: 1924” is unique. The nice thing about radio drama is that the dialogue and sound create a sort of mental cinematic universe — allowing you to imagine a better film than a real movie.
For more information, visit www.kcactors.org.