Unicorn Producing Artistic Director Cynthia Levin Retires After 45 Years

Cynthia Levin (photo by Manon Halliburton)

Under her leadership, the small but determined company helped shape Kansas City’s national reputation as a scrappy theater town

Unicorn Theatre (photo by Cynthia Levin)

Cover the arts long enough and you’ll find yourself writing about final chapters more and more often.

Cynthia Levin, an artistic director, producer and all-around theater artist who has been a key player in the local theater scene for decades, will after the 2023-24 season sail into retirement after 45 years of producing, directing, designing and sometimes acting at the Unicorn Theatre. As the company’s producing artistic director, Levin made a mark here and across the country. Under her leadership, the small but determined company helped shape Kansas City’s national reputation as a scrappy theater town.

I began reviewing plays and musicals regularly for the Kansas City Star during the 1989-90 season, and by then the Unicorn already enjoyed a reputation as a place where people could see challenging work. Lanford Wilson’s “The Fifth of July,” David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” Marsha Norman’s “’Night Mother,” Emily Mann’s “Still Life” and Sam Shepard’s “True West” had all received productions at the Unicorn before I began my run as a critic with a skeptical point of view.

My earliest reviews of Unicorn productions were written in the ’80s, when the company was based at the old Norman School in the Valentine neighborhood before I became the official theater critic for the Kansas City Star. In the handful of shows I saw there, I discovered performers I would follow closely in the years to come: Kathleen Warfel, Peggy Friesen and Scott Cordes, among others.

Don Richard (left) and Terry O’Reagan in “Falsettoland,” 1992 (photo by Cynthia Levin)

The first Unicorn review I wrote in my new job, as the Star’s official theater critic, did not bode well. The show was “Beirut,” Alan Bowne’s dystopian AIDS-inspired two-character drama about a sexually transmitted plague ravaging the human race.

I didn’t think much of the play and wrote a review that said so. Levin, based on reports that filtered back to me, was royally pissed. And so it was off to the races.

Over time Levin and I worked out a professional relationship based on mutual — if grudging — respect. At least that’s how it looked to me. And I saw some great shows at the Unicorn. David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” received a stunning production, as did “The Swan,” by Elizabeth Egloff, “Thanatos,” by Ron Simonian and “Betrayal of the Black Jesus,” by David Barr III. Others loom large in memory: “Falsettoland,” by William Finn, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” by Martin McDonagh, “Suburbia,” by Eric Bogosian, “Jar the Floor,” by Cheryl West, and “Flying West,” by Pearl Cleague.

Tess Brubeck (above) and Lance Harshbarger in “Angels in America,” 1996 (photo by Cynthia Levin)

In terms of audacity and sheer power, nothing the Unicorn did in those days rivaled its 1996 productions of Tony Kushner’s two-part AIDS epic “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” I had seen the Broadway productions of Kushner’s two full-length plays (“Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”), which glistened with high-dollar stagecraft and fine performances. But the humble little Unicorn put together a stunning pair of productions with local actors — including a brilliant David Fritts as the notorious New York gutter lawyer Roy Cohn.

“Angels in America” cemented the Unicorn’s reputation as the place in town to see serious theater. In those days Missouri Repertory Theatre (later Kansas City Repertory Theatre) was a little gun shy under executive director Jim Costin and artistic director George Keathley. They feared, apparently, that the Rep’s conservative audience would not have welcomed Kushner’s frank sexuality, R-rated dialogue, arch humor and pointed political critique of the Reagan-Bush years.

That was a different time. The Rep became a company that nurtured new work and embraced a clear commitment to diversity. And it built a second performing space in the H&R Block building downtown. The Unicorn, under Levin’s continued leadership, moved to its current home near 39th and Main in 1986 and later raised enough money to buy the building and add a second performance space.

Levin also enhanced the Unicorn’s reputation by joining the National New Play Network, a coalition of small theater companies across the country collectively dedicated to finding new plays. Often they present “rolling world premieres,” in which a single new play receives individual productions with different directors and actors at theater companies across the country. From my perspective, the NNPN shows were usually hit-and-miss, but it was virtually the only forum for audiences to see work by young or obscure playwrights.

The Unicorn Theatre’s Levin stage, occupied here by pooch Zia Levin, offers an intimate viewing experience. (photo by Cynthia Levin)

All of this success came from humble beginnings, like all theater companies. The Unicorn began life in 1974 as Theatre Workshop in a rented warehouse in the River Market. Later, the company found a home in a basement space below a strip of businesses on Main Street just off the Country Club Plaza. It was there in the late 1970s that my wife and I saw a production of Mark Medoff’s “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” We were new to town and I had never dreamed of being a theater critic.

Levin joined the staff in 1979 and in 1981 the company changed its name to the Unicorn. Two years later she was named producing artistic director. In 1986, the company moved to what would become its permanent home at 3828 Main St.

Levin declined an interview request for this story. But regardless of what critics think of individual shows at any theater company, on this we can agree: The Unicorn (as Theatre Workshop) was founded at a time when KC Rep (as Missouri Rep) was still an actual repertory theatre under founder Patricia Mcllrath’s leadership. And the still-new Tiffany’s Attic and Waldo Astoria dinner theaters, founded by Richard Carrothers and Dennis D. Hennessy (former McIlrath students), were building a successful for-profit theater enterprise that led to the founding of the New Theatre in Overland Park. These three companies played important roles in Kansas City becoming the theater town it is today.

And the Unicorn, specifically, introduced local audiences to contemporary theater in a way that no other company did. Its history of productions, detailed on the Unicorn’s website, speaks for itself.


“Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarias, Sept. 6-24. Zacarias, a native of Mexico, is perhaps best known for her play “Mariela in the Desert,” which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. This comedy depicts a culture clash when Pablo, a lawyer, and his pregnant wife, Tania, buy a house next door to longtime residents Virginia and Frank. A conflict over a fence line turns into a war of “taste, class, privilege, and entitlements.”

“macbitches” by Sophie McIntosh, Oct. 18-Nov. 5. The New York-based McIntosh’s writing “gives voice to women and queer folks, offers emphatic insight into living with mental illness and lovingly riffs on the cynical sincerity of young adults,” according to her website. In “Macbitches,” theater-school politics erupt when a freshman is unexpectedly cast as Lady Macbeth, prompting older actresses to reassert themselves within the theater department’s pecking order.

“Journey to the Poles of Inaccessibility” by Craig Pospisil, Nov. 29-Dec. 17. Pospisil, also based in New York, is a prolific writer and former director of nonprofessional licensing for Dramatists Play Service. Dylan, who works at an insurance company and lives with his wheelchair-bound aunt, sees his life upended when he meets Chris, a young woman on a quest to gather what magic might still exist at the world’s most inaccessible places. This is a world premiere.

“Poor Clare” by Chiara Atik, Jan. 24-Feb. 11, 2024. Atik is a blogger, writer and playwright whose subject in this play is Clare of Assisi, an early follower of Francis of Assisi, who gives away all his worldly goods to protest inequality. Charles McNulty, theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “The year is 1211 in the Italian village of Assisi, but the manner of speaking is closer to Brentwood 2021. Close your eyes, and you might think you’re eavesdropping on credit-card wielding high schoolers at a luxury outdoor mall.”

“Backwards Forwards Back” by Jaqueline Goldfinger, March 20-April 7, 2024. A soldier returns from Afghanistan haunted by his experiences and seeks help for his PTSD. The one-actor, one-act play “explores the transformative power of virtual reality (on a) journey toward healing and finding strength in in vulnerability,” according to the Unicorn’s website. Goldfinger is a multi-faceted theater artist — comedy writer, poet, playwright, librettist and dramaturg. “Her equal love for Mel Brooks and Franz Kafka make her an awkward guest at dinner parties,” her official bio notes.

“H.O.T. the Musical” by Shelly Verden and Sarah Crawford, May 8-June 2. This contemporary take on Helen of Troy “feels strikingly like the world we live in right now,” reimagining Helen as an ambitious girl with big dreams.

For more information, visit unicorntheatre.org.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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