By Bob Evans
Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre fights the Coronavirus with a new production by Will Snider, “Death of a Driver,” featuring strong vibrato performances by Elise Poehling (in Kansas City) and Teddy Trice (in New York). No one would know the two actors performed the piece miles apart.
Ah, the magic of theatre lives, even though live audiences cannot actively participate. Through digital technology, a team effort, and a captivating script, Kansas City theatre audiences see the creativity of The Unicorn Theatre. The philosophy to present bold, new plays to Kansas City patrons lives on through virtual performance.
Snider’s piece, “Death of a Driver” focuses on two individuals from vastly different philosophies. Sarah, a new college graduate with dreams of building roads in undeveloped countries, and Kennedy, a driver in Kenya find that as their similarities and personalities converge, their hidden agendas emerge.
As always, expect The Unicorn’s Producing Artistic Director Cynthia Levin to select and secure controversial, intriguing plays for the KC audience. Count on The Unicorn to present fresh plays that open dialogues after the final bows.
For “Death of a Driver,” Teddy Trice and Elise Poehling created full-bodied characters that develop and change as the play progresses. Their performances display a range of emotions from light-hearted, to drop-dead anger. They hide their ambitions with only slight glimpses throughout the play to signal that a volcanic eruption awaits the audience. The audience exits with full knowledge that both power and money corrupt.
“I didn’t write this play with a political message in mind,” Will Snider, playwright, said. “These two characters have strong viewpoints, political and otherwise, and both believe in a progressive view of history, one in which we are moving ever closer to ‘the good.’ But over the course of the play, we watch their respective ambitions and beliefs come into conflict, both with the ambitions and beliefs of one another and with the vicissitudes of time.
“To watch the play as though there were an intentionally coded political message would be a mistake. My hope is that two people watching this play together would finish, close the laptop, and start a conversation – and each would say very different things.”
To capture the nuances of each character and slowly, methodically build toward the climax, both actors needed to work and react to the other’s lines, visual cues, and emotional delivery. Poehling and Trice were flawless; their performances, strong.
“As far as building my character without Elise in the room with me, I had to make sure that I understood all of my character Kennedy’s objectives and motivations so that I presented him with a full arch, Trice said. “Fortunately, I was able to rehearse with Elise over Zoom, so I was able to feed a lot off of the energy she gave through the process.”
Trying to bring a live-action play to a virtual production creates new challenges and requires changes in direction. The task fell to the hands of Ian Crawford. He navigated the unchartered water and steered the project to smooth sailing.
“I have never directed a film before, let alone one where the actors had to film themselves and couldn’t be in the same room together,” Crawford, said. “One huge challenge is the split-second lag time that happens over zoom calls. Those delays can kill the fast-paced rhythms of the conversations. We were lucky to have an incredible video editor who helped to hide those quirks and keep the natural rhythms of the actors.”
Crawford said that all rehearsals were done over Zoom so that the actors had a chance to work and see each other. He said that allowed them to really focus on their personal relationships and the changing dynamics that powers the play.
Technology, predominately cell phones, powered “Death of a Driver” from the written word to a virtual production. Thankfully, a younger cast and crew command their cell phones and know the capabilities.
“The play was shot with our phones. We had a storyboard that let us know how to set up the shot. We’d put our phones in the tripod and adjust based on the type of shot we were doing,” Trice said.
His character of Kennedy lives and works in Kenya, so Trice’s experience with the dialect gets plenty of practice because he has traveled and performed in “Book of Mormon” throughout Australia and the U.S. In “Book of Mormon,” Trice portrays an angry African with a strange belief to prevent AIDS. Partly, because of this, his accent flows and makes viewers think he is African.
“I tried to approach this like any other production that I do,” he said. “I made sure that I was prepared and engaged each time we’d meet. The difficult aspect was having to create this world in a matter of two weeks. We filmed the play in the last week, so we really had to be locked in to execute properly.”
Playwright Snider said that the play was written several years ago and that he had seen it performed on a few stages. He said he had never considered a virtual rendition, but, with the collaboration of The Unicorn’s team, the play works well.
“It’s a talented team, and they tell the story well, capturing the pace and humor of the script and dramatizing the enduring, though fraught, relationship between Kennedy and Sarah. The Unicorn has been a home for my work since their 2017 world premiere of my play “How to Use a Knife.” Reconnecting with this community of artists has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my pandemic months,” Snider said.
From the director’s standpoint, Crawford said that the project was, most certainly, extremely different from anything he had listed on his resume.
“While it was all different, I was relieved to realize that working with talented actors, even when they are across the country from each other. We were able to tell a story together, and their incredible skill and talent still shine through. Having such talented collaborators on screen and off made that possible,” he said.
With COVID, all venues that host crowds and cannot social distance fell victim. Limited seating in most of Kansas City’s smaller theatres would probably mean that audiences would be so small that ticket sales could not even cover the cost of personnel during a performance. The Unicorn attacked the problem to come to a solution.
“I think in terms of how the idea developed, was born out of a desire to tell stories and keep The Arts alive in this strange time,” Crawford said. “Due to restrictions and health concerns, actors are not allowed to come into our theatre right now so we had to get creative and think outside the box about how to achieve that.”
“Death of a Driver” was written in 2015, Snider said. The play fits well into this altered-state of live theatre because the play focuses on only two characters and is language-driven. That makes the play a good fit for a Zoom format.
“Ian, Cynthia, and the rest of the Unicorn team had a clear vision from the start. Zoom productions are new for us all; and, I admire the Unicorn for finding a way to continue telling stories to keep Kansas City theater audiences engaged, he said.’
The entire production marks a new adventure for The Unicorn Theatre. The success of this production forecasts its path forward. Loyal Unicorn fans will find entertainment in “Death of a Driver” as well as stimulation for further contemplation and discussions.
“I hope viewers get to connect with some incredible actors, hear a story that is fresh and exciting, and also make some significant connections to our world today. I hope it doesn’t just feel like a movie. I hope that ‘Death of a Driver’ helps people remember what they love about getting to see live theatre,” Crawford said.
“Death of a Driver” continues streaming performances through The Unicorn and is a pay-what-you-can format. The play runs about 75 minutes and presents something fresh, new, and not a canned TV show. Contact The Unicorn for more information.