Making its North American debut, “The Shawshank Redemption” stuns the audience with graphic dialogue, intense fight scenes, the stark look into prison life, and the brutality suffered by those incarcerated in the penitentiary system.
“The Shawshank Redemption” by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns, stems from the original novella of the same name by Stephen King. According to the playwright, only material contained in the original text could be used and nothing from the award-winning movie. This production, directed by the MET’s Bob Paisley, has played successfully in Dublin and other cities in Great Britain and some European cities as well, but this is the first time it crossed the pond for a debut in Kansas City.
Prior to Sunday’s performance, playwright O’Neill and Paisley conducted an informal discussion where O’Neill explained how the play came to fruition and how Paisley learned of it. The stories connected the audience to the play before the curtain speech, and with lots of anticipation the seating area filled to near capacity.
“The Shawshank Redemption” ranks as one of the top five shows I have seen in Kansas City in the past year, and yes, that year includes “The Lion King,” and many others. See this play if you love live theatre and outstanding performances. The actors achieve solid, gritty characters that are seldom seen here. Several perform an acting level never attained before. It seems like each character produces a vivid, exciting persona on stage that I have never seen from them before. Audiences will be amazed at the level of acting.
Bob Paisley said that as word got out that he was producing “Ths Shawshank Redemption,” he had actors from throughout the country contacting, sending videos, requesting auditions in hopes of securing a place in the cast. Paisley, knowing the depth of KC talent, decided to cast predominately local actors in the debut production. And, he did with the exception of S. E. Perry from the L.A. area, brought here to play Warden Stammos.
What a perfect choice, he made. Perry plays the crooked, larcenistic, cruel, embezzling Warden Stammos with a cold-hearted delivery that brings chills. His non-expression coupled with his icy yet firm delivery reminds of Nurse Rachet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. Perry chews up the role and every scene that includes him.
The Shawshank Prison operated in Maine from the early 1950s into the late 1960s where conditions were said to be far less than appropriate. The story centers on a man, Andy Dufresme, portrayed by Chris Roady. Dufresme was convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover. Once inside the prison, he befriends Red, played by Keenan Ramos. Fortunately, that friendship plays a major role in the story its movement, and the dramatic ending.
Lead actors in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Keenan Ramos and Chris Roady come tailor-made for this production. Ramos, a recent add to the Kansas City theatre scene has notched up four consecutive standout performances. Red gives him the chance to show more of his depth and character development than before. Ramos plays both low-key and intense as the “guy who can get things” inside the system. He’s the candyman of Shawshank. Ask and he can provide. His relationship with Andy drives the show.
.As for Chris Roady, his perfect characterization captures the heart and swagger of Andy Dufresme. At times Roady is proud. Other times he’s subdued. One moment he may appear ready to explode, while the next scene finds him bartering to get a bucket of beers for the inmates who are working outside the walls. Roady changes his character’s attitude and demeanor to reflect the changes each situation or scene necessitates.
As the warden’s right-hand man, Tim Ahlenius brings the strongest character he’s been given in my seven years of reviewing. Ahlenius shows a cold, ruthlessness that could turn boiling water to ice in seconds. His character is heartless and rigid. He keeps that demeanor and in some scenes, his character allows him the opportunity to seem normal, but only briefly. His body movement, his stiffness, his steely exterior as perfectly matched with the character.
Another piece of ultimate acting comes from Kevin Fewell as Brooksie, the prison librarian. No one would guess his crime until he reveals it to the other inmates. Fewell creates a memorable character which lingers. He has two very outstanding scenes that grab the heart and emotions. His easy-going character hides the depth of his pain and when freedom comes, his reaction shocks the audience and his energy fills the auditorium with shock and fear.
Chad Burris plays an inmate with swagger and attitude. He bring power and arrogance in the scenes when steps up for his next dastardly exhibition. And, Christopher Preyer lets loose with a gritty, nasty character named Rooster. Preyer’s Rooster is vile through and through. Preyer approaches this role with a sharp precision and flawless delivery that makes you believe in his character’s rough, slimy existence in the penal system. Preyer is so convincingly mean, that he may have typecast himself into villainous roles.
A huge shock comes in Act II when Evan Lovelace appears as a new convict still with arrogance and a feeling that he can win and be free again. Those who know Lovelace for his dancing ability will be amazed and shocked at his dramatic range in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Others in the cast equal the performances of those singled out above. They are good in their supporting roles, but their characters did not have the lines or situations to show the full scope of the character they play. Not one actor takes this part lightly and it shows in the quality of the performances they give.
To depict the angry and volatile prison life, be prepared for strong language, violence, and non-consensual sex among men. And be ready for some of the fight scenes, staged by Alex Paxton that appear so realistic and intense. His choreographed fights just adds more intensity to an already engaging, intense story.
Director Bob Paisley knew what he was doing when he garnered “The Shawshank Redemption” for the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. The show should sell out each remaining performance and is so good it should be extended. Paisley toned the actors’ characters into a fine blend. The scene changes flow; the characters have grit and heart; the intensity remains from first to last scenes. The casting and approach create a colossal story in a small, intimate space. Paisley’s work with playwright O’Neill demonstrates how well the playwright and director collaborated to make adjustments that keep the play sharply, focused and intense.
The collaboration of playwright, director, cast, and technical crew makes “The Shawshank Redemption” one of the top plays of the theatre season. No one should miss this show. This is a show that will be remembered and will stand out. As a reviewer, I loved it. I may return to see it again to see how it grows and develops, and for that viewing, I can enjoy the absorb the show and not see it with a critic’s eye.
The cast is: Keenan Ramos as Red, Chris Roady as Andy Dufresme, S. E. Perry as Warden Stammos, Tim Ahlenius as Hadley, Chad Burris as Bugs Diamond, Dan Daly as Pinky, Kevin Fewell as Brooksie, Larry Goodman as Dawkins, Nick Hazel as Entwhistle, Evan Lovelace as Tommy, Andrew Paredes as Rico, Christopher Preyer as Rooster, Alex Paxton as Inmate/Guard.
The production team is led by Bob Paisley, director; James Paisley, stage manager; John Story, sound and music composition; Patty Whitlock, assistant stage manager; Karen Paisley, lighting design; Marc Manley, props master; Onetta Johnson, wardrobe mistress; James Paisley, master electrician; Karen Paisley, Todd Lanker, costume design; Alex Paxton, fight choreographer; Christine Grossman, viola.
The crew is Ryan Fortney, Todd Lanker, James Paisley, Karen Paisley, Alex Paxton, Barnie Smith, Tim Soulis, Luke Tranchino, Doug Connett.
“The Shawshank Redemption” continues through April 21 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre at The Warwick on Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri. For times, dates, prices, and tickets, go to the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre website.
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