When house lights dim and a play begins, every theatergoer prays to witness something that entertains, transports and, in the best cases, transforms. Every so often a play delivers all three, embracing and transcending theatrical form. Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth-Century Way, receiving its regional premiere at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, does just that.
The Twentieth-Century Way is an 85-minute uninterrupted tour de force by actors Michael McKeogh and Jens Rasmussen. They play all the parts in the obscure yet true story of two out-of-work actors who go undercover to root out vice in Long Beach, Calif., in 1914. Their sting operation leads to the arrest of many prominent men in the community engaged in “social vagrancy” — gay behavior then against the law. Rasmussen, who has appeared in two previous Know productions (Skin Tight, Gruesome Playground Injuries), plays Warren, the confident “confidence man” who instigates the plot. Chicago-based McKeogh makes his Know debut as Brown. They meet at a casting call, and to kill time they begin a conversation that leads to an improvisation comprising this play within a play.
New York-based Kimberly Faith Hickman, who has worked on Broadway and off-Broadway productions (she served as assistant director for The Assembled Parties, The Scottsboro Boys and Clybourne Park) directs an impeccable production that has been meticulously designed to allow the powerful performances and fantastic writing to lead you easily through the theatrical and metaphysical complexities of the play. The first moments are a tad dense and slow, but they set up all the conventions needed for this highly layered experience. A reflection on identity, sexuality and the “acting” we need to do to survive, the play unfolds itself as the actors reveal themselves all the way down to the bare flesh of truthful intimacy.
Eric Vosmeier, Know’s outgoing artistic director, passed the torch to his incoming counterpart Andrew Hungerford (who also contributed the gorgeous scenic and lighting design for this play) during the curtain speech and indicated this was more Hungerford’s play than his. This bodes well for the future of Know, a theater that has earned its keep over and over against the odds. The Twentieth-Century Way is precisely the reason why Know Theatre is worth supporting long into the future.
THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WAY, presented by Know Theatre, continues through May 3.