REVIEW: “The Frequency of Death!”

Pegasus Theatre’s Living Black & White production has become as much a holiday season tradition as A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker, and like those, it relies heavily on the familiar: The characters you’ve grown fond of, the emotional reaction you’ve come to expect. Unlike those, however, Pegasus can mix up the show every season, with new settings, new casts, new plots. (Who would want to see Xmas Carol without Tiny Tim, or set on Mars in 2121?)

That’s its blessing and its curse: It allows Pegasus’ artistic director, playwright and leading actor,Kurt Kleinmann — who always plays clueless gumshoe Harry Hunsacker — flexibility, but it also makes each show a crap-shoot: Will it be as good as last year?

This year’s production, The Frequency of Death!, is better … at least in Act 1, which has a high percentage of laughs, some hilarious performances and a setting — the studio a 1930s-era radio drama — that permits a variety of action.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Black & White in color

Former Dallasite Robert Bartley returns from NYC to helm Pegasus Theatre’s latest monochrome play

TAMING PEGASUS  |  New York-based writer/director/actor Robert Bartley, above, returned to Dallas to direct his first Living Black & White production, ‘The Frequency of Death!,’ below, which recreates the look of ’30s-era movie melodramas with complex and challenging makeup and design processes. (Production  photo courtesy of Phil Allen)

TAMING PEGASUS | New York-based writer/director/actor Robert Bartley, above, returned to Dallas to direct his first Living Black & White production, ‘The Frequency of Death!,’ below, which recreates the look of ’30s-era movie melodramas with complex and challenging makeup and design processes. (Production photo courtesy of Phil Allen)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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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.

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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.

—  Michael Stephens

Best Bets • 12.30.11

KG-02Saturday 12.31

Black and white all over
Harry Hunsacker is back to crack the case for  New Year’s Eve in The Frequency of Death!  But it could be trouble for Hunsacker as the villainous Dr. Big has revenge in sight for the bumbling detective. Done in brilliant black and white, Pegasus Theatre rings in the new year with an old-fashioned homage to detective films.

DEETS:
Eisemann Center,
2351 Performance Drive, Richardson.
8 p.m. $50.

PegasusTheatre.org.

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Tuesday 01.03

Church on time
Funny man and Emmy-winner Leslie Jordan is back for his Church Revival show. The evening benefits Legacy Counseling Center and features guest hostess Sister Helen Holy. And audiences benefit from Jordan’s sassy and sweet Southern musings revival style. Praise Brother Leslie!

DEETS:
Sara Ellen & Samuel Weisfeld Center,
1508 Cadiz St. 6 p.m.
$25–$100.
LegacyCounseling.org.

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Friday 01.06

Anything for a laugh
We wonder if famous D-lister Kathy Griffin will comment on those boys and gal from The A-List Dallas. We know she’ll snark on lots of other things when she returns to town. And yes, she’ll give appropriate shout outs to the Big D gays.

DEETS:
Verizon Theatre,
1001 Performance Place, Grand Prairie. 8 p.m.
$35–$60.
Ticketmaster.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

The magic of a Black & White show

Pegasus Theatre’s Black & White shows use a patented process to make the entire show look like an old movie. The effect is pretty cool, but the real “moment” in the show, for me, is always the end, after the curtain call, when producer Barbara Weinberger comes out on stage in a red dress … and you realize exactly HOW cool the effect has been for the past two hours. I stole this from author Kurt Kleinmann’s Facebook page for their new show Death Express, which is at the Eisemann through January. Nifty, huh?

DX

—  Arnold Wayne Jones