Former Dallasite Robert Bartley returns from NYC to helm Pegasus Theatre’s latest monochrome play
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
FREQUENCY OF DEATH!
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. Through Jan. 22. MCL Grand Theater, 100 N. Charles St., Lewisville. Jan. 26–29. $20–$35. PegasusTheatre.org.
Films like The Artist and Hugo have spent the last month racking up awards and nominations as they tribute the golden era of black & white movies of yesteryear. But for Kurt Kleinmann, there’s a bit of “been there, still doing that.”
Kleinmann is the star, author and impresario of Pegasus Theatre, which for more than 25 years has produced the signature “Living Black & White” show: A murder-mystery send-up to the melodramas of moviedom’s past. Over 16 plays — all written by Kleinmann, with kitschy titles like Mind Over Murder!, Death Is No Small Change! and The Frequency of Death!, the last of which is now playing at the Eisemann Theatre in Richardson — the galumphing, clueless “world famous detective and aspiring actor” Harry Hunsacker (played by Kleinmann) and his sidekick Nigel Grouse have solved crimes while surrounded by a cast of overwrought hams … all the while wearing makeup and performing in a set that fools the eye into believing you are watching a black and white movie.
Frequency of Death! is a “thorough rewrite,” Kleinmann says, of a previous incarnation of the play, but the signature look remains the same. For director Robert Bartley, that posed some challenges.
“Kurt is always reminding me, ‘You can’t do that.’ For instance, you have to be very aware of the facial area,” Bartley explains. “You can’t have people kissing or touching their faces. Even the set is a problem: You can’t use reflective surfaces, like glass in the doors, or you will be able to see the red EXIT signs in the theater.”
That’s just part of the fun for Bartley though, who spent much of the holidays in Dallas mounting the show for its two-venue run, separated from his partner of 13 years. The sensibility fits with his own aesthetic. Pegasus shows have always contained a camp element, ideally suited for gay audiences accustomed to drag queens basing their characters on Tinseltown divas of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
It’s also a homecoming of sorts for Bartley. A boyish 49 who looks like he still gets carded for buying beer, Bartley cut his teeth on theater in the Metroplex while attending the University of North Texas. For more than two decades, though, he’s made New York his stage, acting and dancing in plays and movies, and launching Broadway Backwards, directing and conceiving of what has become a major fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, attracting talents including Betty Buckley, Neil Patrick Harris and Clay Aiken.
But Dallas feels like home.
“This is where I worked on The Cuban and the Redhead,” he explains over an Atkins-friendly lunch in the gayborhood. Bartley workshopped the musical, about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, in Arlington and Garland from 2004 to 2007, and he couldn’t have been more pleased — then and now.
“The theater community here is as good as ever,” he says. “We had great turnout for our play.” The same is true of Frequency of Death, he insists. Among the cast is Susan Mansur, a Broadway veteran (the original cast of Best Little Whorehouse, the revival of Damn Yankees!) familiar to local audiences as Helen Lawson in Uptown Players’ Valley of the Dolls. (“She drinks throughout our show,” Bartley quips — her character, that is.)
Bartley came of age in the era of AIDS, and says the community has also grown up a lot since then.
“When I was in college, I was the only person there who admitted being gay,” he says. “I think there is more acceptance of the gay and lesbian community — it’s more open.”
Not everything, after all, is black and white … except, of course, a Pegasus show.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.
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