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New play, 'Master of the Universe' explores PTSD ravages

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"Master of the Universe" at The Living Room

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“Master of the Universe” and just finished a very successful run at Kansas City’s The Living Room Theatre, allowing some of the most talented young actors to show the depth of their acting abilities in Kyle Hatley’s newest play that focuses on the after-effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the main character, Victor, struggles to find sanity from the fragmented pieces of his mind.

Rusty Sneary, gave a brilliant performance of the man who returns from war and attempts to build a life with the woman he loves, Marie. Sadly, only Marie seems to understand the struggles he deals with on a minute by minute status. Sneary found a way to make the broken man both vulnerable yet hopeful as he struggles through depression, drug addiction, and mental illness, all caused from his war injuries. Sneary he allows himself to be weak when under the influence of drugs and strong when dealing with his desire to find normalcy in a twisted world where only he can fight this battles.

Sneary is matched against another of Kansas City’s finest actors, Charles Fugate, who plays a double role of the captain and also an ancient astronomer. While Fugate’s character elicits many laughs from the audience, he is definitely one of the many villains in this piece. Fugate is both funny and evil, with a malicious grin that can bring chills.

For the women, a dual role as Ani/Fortune Teller allowed Vanessa Severo to create deeply disturbing characters that torment Sneary’s Vincent. Severo’s funny but evil vamp, equally contrasts her sinister, trollish, fortune teller personification. For Severo, it’s just another character to add to her repertoire of spectacular performances.

As a drunk, Laura Jacobs delivers one of the most raw, honest speeches of the play in a scene of desperation with Marie, Gray Williamson. Jacobs’ previous scenes as the angry mother wanting her daughter to marry well show how alcohol frees her tongue to verbalize the unfiltered thoughts of a mother watching her daughter try to save a broken man. Jacobs chews up the set in the scene where she tells her daughter how ugly life can be if Marie makes bad choices. Jacobs’ character tries to force Marie to marry someone she does not love.

With a chance to show the darker side, Jeff Smith, the dashing war hero of the piece starts off in a stereotyped role of well built, tall, dark, and handsome, but the character development allows him to shed layer after layer. Smith delved deeply to develop a menacing bully that only further separated Sneary’s Victor from mental mending.

“Master of the Universe” developed from a reading a year ago at The Fishtank Performance Studio last summer when Hatley said the ink was barely dry on Act I. The play, still in progress, displays lots of promise and continues to develop nicely.

Now, it’s at the place where Hatley needs to step back and cut it to make it tighter and shorter. Each of his characters is full and well developed with a back story. The foreshadowing is there, and telegraphs the ending too quickly.

The show deals with a very difficult subject matter of PTSD, and specifically the way it affects the mind of service personnel. The subject matter dictates educating the audience as it evolves in front of them, but possibly some characters or scenes need to be lost to make the show less cerebral and more appealing to a general audience.

Take nothing away from Hatley’s handling of this tragic disease. The disease is very complicated and effects individual in a different way. The way Hatley used the fragmented pieces and imaginary voices and Victor’s head helps the audience understand the torment victims face minute by minute.

Victor’s character remains very complex and it is difficult to tell when the real character is present and when the disease steals him into the deep recesses of his mind and his imagination. Hatley tells the story that needs to be told. The effects of PTSD remain a serious threat to those who return from the war. Until more is known, more research is done, and new initiatives undertaken, this disease will continue to ravage soldiers.

Hats off to Hatley as the writer and the director of this piece. He knew the story that he needed to tell, and he selected a very worthy cast to tell his story and present it to the public. Even though certain members of this play received mention, the rest of the ensemble added necessary depth and perception to bring “Master of the Universe” forward.

The Living Room encourages such works to be developed, presented, and hone them to be ready for bigger and larger venues.

Kansas City is indeed fortunate to have such venues as The Fishtank Performance Studio and The Living Room Theatre to encourage new voices to emerge and new works to develop. Kansas City also boasts some of the best talent, again fostered by the smaller venues and the diversity of new and experimental works they produce.

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