"Kite's Book" at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“Kite’s Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman”
by Robert Caisley

Presented at 6th Street Playhouse
GK Hardt Theater, Santa Rosa CA

Photo by Eric Chazankin:
(from left) Rahman Dalrymple, Adam Burkholder

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Have Sword - Will Travel

It’s an ominous sight: three huge gallows looming over the stage, smoke hanging in the air and a young man about to be torn apart by wild horses, but it offers only a clue to what’s in store. The West Coast premiere of “Kite’s Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman” at 6th Street Playhouse is a delight-filled black comedy supreme. And yes, there is gallows humor and glorification of the macabre, just in time for Halloween.

Charming assassin-for-hire Harry Kite chooses his clients carefully, based upon his own strict personal code. He is also a vigilante of sorts, a hero of the lower classes who takes matters into his own hands when he sees those in power, like corrupt judges and politicians, getting off scot-free with their crimes. In Harry Kite’s book, murder is the rational, even moral, thing to do. Thus he has become a celebrity - and a wanted man.

The play was conceived in the heat of the sensational early 1990s courtroom dramas featuring the scandals of O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers and Michael Jackson. Playwright Robert Caisley was a young teacher at Illinois Wesleyan University at the time. He was struck by the fact that the mob reaction to the trials he saw on TV reminded him of the teeming crowds gathered to observe the very public executions in 18th century London. His response was to craft a play that, despite its 1750s setting, has a bright, fresh message and is brimming with fascinating conflicts: liberal versus conservative, class warfare, illicit love and social Darwinism.

The system of crime and punishment in a society is a barometer of its social justice. Throughout human history the “haves” have imposed their rule upon the “have-nots” in a seemingly endless vicious circle. “Kite’s Book” vividly reminds us of our own times, with the distance of time providing a disconnect: a new way to see what’s happening right in front of us, on the stage and in the world. This Brechtian approach (named after the hugely influential German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht) also uses characters to represent ideas, rather than people, and in unexpected ways. It allows the audience to focus on the larger issues presented, rather than the individual characters. The audience carries this experience out of the theater and into their lives, with a lasting effect.

Director Craig Miller’s connection to “Kite’s Book” dates back to his college days at Illinois State University, where he and playwright Caisley met in the early 1990s. When Caisley returned to ISU in 1996 to present his new play “Kite’s Book”, Miller recalls being “absolutely enthralled” by the story. In the years since, he has waited for the opportunity to direct it, and is pleased to present it now at 6th Street. Miller came on board as Artistic Director earlier this year, and in that short time has proven again and again that he has considerable talents to bring to the party. Miller imbues this work with sensitivity, energy and dark humor.

At the beginning and end of the play, the actors assemble onstage as a “canting crew”, a period term used to describe a group of gypsies and thieves who speak in unison with the rhyming slang of the day set to verse, vaguely reminiscent of today’s hip-hop. The effect is spellbinding, rather like a subversive Greek chorus. The music of “Danse Macabre” by French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saens provides the perfect theme. The raked stage showcases duels with pistols and swords, heavy romance, intrigue, and one silent, powerful scene that is simply too intense to describe in words.

The cast of characters is worthy of the tale, and each performer is brilliant in their own right. We have a wicked judge, Lord Hardwick (Barry Martin), and his beautiful, abused wife Mary Summers (Courtney Walsh). Two public officials, associates of the judge, couldn’t be more different: the fair-minded populist Romilly (Guy Slater) and the scheming, pompous Welles (Larry Williams).

Then there’s the crazed pimp Jack Wyld (Tice Allison) and his lovely, desperate floozy Nelly Sweet (April Krautner). A young vagabond actor Will Carew (Clint Campbell) falls hard for Nelly and tries to defend what honor she has left. In the title role is Rahman Dalrymple as the charismatic killer, who takes young Carew under his wing, and teaches him the fine art of mayhem. There’s a hilarious French executioner Emile (Ray Morgan), and an appearance by Welles’ children (Kate Kitchens, Preston Sigrist), two ghoulish moppets who will make you think of the Addams Family.

The artistic staff that makes this a truly quality production include Scenic Designer Jesse Dreikosen, Lighting Designer Theo Bridant, Costume Designer Tracy Sigrist and Craig Miller who, in addition to directing, also serves as Sound Designer. Special mention should be made of the Fight Choreographer, Marty Pistone, who makes the fight scenes look like natural extensions of the storytelling.

There’s good, there’s evil…and then there’s Harry Kite. Crime and punishment have never been so much fun to watch. “Kite’s Book” makes for truly satisfying and entertaining theatre.

When: Now through October 23, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
8 p.m. Thursdays October 6 and October 20
2 p.m. Saturday October 22
Tickets: $15 to $35
Location: 6th Street Playhouse GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th St, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com