FOR KATHLEEN WARFEL, A STARRING ROLE IS BORN 'DESERT HOLIDAY' PROVIDES THE KIND OF ROLE THE GIFTED ACTRESS DESERVES.
August 9, 1998 By ROBERT TRUSSELL Publication: The Kansas City Star
For many years now your humble theater critic has considered Kathleen Warfel one of the best professional actresses in Kansas City. But a regrettable fact of life is that only rarely has Warfel been offered roles that allowed her to show what she could really do. She has one now. Warfel is part of a first-rate cast performing a showcase production of Ron Simonian's quirky ``Desert Holiday'' at the Westport Coffee House Theatre, 4010 Pennsylvania. This, arguably, is Simonian's best play in terms of sentiment and structure. It's logically organized, offers cleverly drawn characters and unexpected twists and frequently rings with crisp, rhythmic dialogue. Director Sidonie Garrett magnifies the play's virtues and minimizes its faults. At times the piece threatens to veer into sitcom territory, and the play would be improved significantly if one entire scene involving a toilet salesman and a nudist in a cowboy hat was cut. This digressive episode is nothing more than a setup for a scatological joke. Indeed, Simonian has a penchant for crude humor that he apparently can't resist, but ``Desert Holiday'' achieves a palpable poignancy in its sense of isolation and the desperation of its collision-prone principal characters. The play relates a strange spiritual journey undertaken by Zack (David Fritts), a commode salesman who slowly comes to understand that he really doesn't know who he is. He wanders into a small town somewhere in Nevada and in a diner encounters Leona (Warfel), a middle-aged former prom queen haunted by the unfortunate events of a prom night long, long ago. These two connect but what Zack believes will be a one-night stand turns into a nightmare as Leona invites him upstairs to a room festooned with crepe and balloons and a peculiar ``chaperone'' named Cedric (Richard Alan Nichols). Leona, it seems, is trying to re-create prom night, only with a happier ending, and Zack is to be her ``date,'' even if she has to slap handcuffs on him. Warfel's performance is extraordinary as Leona swings wildly from mania to melancholia and back again. As reality and illusion repeatedly intersect in her mind's eye, she is by turns aggressive, haunted, heart-broken, joyous and absurdly optimistic. All these actors are clearly committed to the material. Fritts is memorably manic as Zack, Nichols is impressive in a series of sharply delineated supporting roles, and Matt Rapport scores as an existential drifter named Bucka. One test of a good play is how long it lingers in the viewer's mind after the house lights come up. I found myself thinking about this show for days. The show concludes a short run with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, 10 p.m. Friday and 8 and 11 p.m. Saturday. (A $10 donation is requested; call 756-3222.) David Rees Snell will replace Nichols in the final week. It's a hit The Martin City Melodrama & Vaudeville Co. production of ``The Martin City Follies,'' a revue evoking the spirit of the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld, has been extended. Originally the show was to have closed Sept. 6. Now it will run through Sept. 13. The show features obscure Irving Berlin tunes, including ``The Chicken Walk,'' ``Oh, That Beautiful Rag'' and ``Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree. '' The cast includes Martin City founder Jeanne Beechwood, associate directors Dan Walsh and Jon Copeland and Martin City veterans AnnaLee Will, Jennifer Lesky, Steven Jones, Clint Griffey, Laura Pressley and Jim DeGood. Call 942-7576 for more information. Big Bang The ever-provocative Lisa Cordes - playwright, actress, director, educator, conceptual artist, mother and all-around human being - revives ``The Automatic Monica Lewinsky Search Engine,'' a one-woman performance in a (metaphorically) semen-stained cocktail dress for the next Big Bang Buffet extravaganza. The Cordes piece, as you might expect, deals satirically with what is generally referred to as the Monica Lewinsky Affair. Cordes prefers to call the piece ``commentary'' and ``nonpartisan'' and cautions that rewrites will be dictated by breaking news in Washington. ``Who knows by Aug. 22 which way it will go? '' Cordes said of President Clinton's legal woes. The performance is part of ``Upstage Downtown,'' an evening of audacious self-expression, including poetry and music, at 8 p.m. Aug. 22 at the Midland Theatre, 1228 Main St. Spectators will be seated onstage to allow an intimate view of the performances. Big Bang Buffet is a loosely organized performance group that was founded in 1990 and specializes in new work by artists in various media. Other spoken-word performances will be offered by Jon ``Piggy'' Cupit, Janice Woolery, Mark Manning, Sharon Eiker, William Howell, Rhonda James, Julie Zakarian-Brosky, Sandra K. Davies, Danyea Phillips, Liza Sheehan and b.j. McBride-Flaherty. Also performing will be musicians and several young poets whose work can be found in the recently published Urban Transcendencies.For more information on the show call 471-9703 or 561-6445. Benefit bash Radio host Walt Bodine and Charles Ferruza, entertainment editor at Sun Publications, will be hosts for a one-night benefit for jazz singer Queen Bey on Aug. 22. The fund-raiser will be in the VIP Suite of the American Heartland Theatre during a performance of ``Ain't Misbehavin','' in which Queen Bey appears. Bodine and Ferruza will greet guests beginning at 7 p.m. Dessert and coffee will be provided, and a cash bar will be available.Tickets cost $30; proceeds will help defray the cost of the singer's hip surgery last year. For more information call 842-0202. The Kansas City Star Date: August 9, 1998 Page: K5