Review: Know's 'Twentieth-Century Way' full of twists

Cincinnati Enquirer - By David Lyman

"The Twentieth-Century Way" starts awkwardly. It's 1914 and two actors – Mr. Brown and Mr. Warren – have shown up to audition for the same film role.

Maybe the situation is supposed to feel awkward. But it also feels forced. You want actors to act, of course. But you don't want it to look like they're acting. You want it to seem "real," whatever that means when you have two people in period costumes standing in front of a paying audience. How real can it be?

Playwright Tom Jacobson's "The Twentieth-Century Way," which opened Friday at the Know Theatre, is a history play. But it's not one that leads you through the plot from point A to point B to point C. In fact, it is told in such an eccentric manner – "convoluted" is too negative a word – that you're never quite sure what story you're watching.

Is it about the two actors in 1914? Or the two actors in 2014? Or is it about the dozens of other characters whose lives intersect with the story? Or is it something else altogether?

Historically speaking, we know that Brown and Warren, played by Michael McKeogh and Jens Rasmussen, respectively – hired themselves out to the Long Beach, Calif., police department to capture "social vagrants." That was a favored description for gay men, particularly those seeking assignations in public places.

They wooed their marks, flirting, leading them on until they had enough evidence – or not – to have them arrested. Never mind that Brown and Warren were the initiators of the crime.

The story itself is only a small part of this play. There is a curious and increasingly mesmerizing symbiosis between the two men. Are they themselves gay? Or are they just desperate for work? Or are they driven by some twisted desire for power? Or something else?

Sometimes Jacobson's script zips around so quickly that it's hard to quite know when one of the main characters morphs into someone else. At one point, they even drift into the script of "Othello."

Fortunately, director Kimberly Faith Hickman devises all manner of guides to shepherd us through the tale: a change of lights, a flower in a lapel, a pair of glasses. And then, of course, there are her actors. Rasmussen and McKeogh largely disappear into the sea of characters. Just when you're certain that one of them is dominant, the dramatic tide turns. And then turns again. They strut and prance and glower and hustle. They're touching and insensitive and abusive and ... well, they go through more emotional shifts than there is room to describe here. It's dizzying, right up to the final moments, when Jacobson offers us the most surprising dramatic twist of all.

"The Twentieth-Century Way" is not a play for lazy theatergoers. You can't sit back and just let bits of entertainment wash over you. That's a legitimate theatergoing experience, too. But this is a play where you need to focus and keep up with everything that unfolds in front of you. If you do, you'll be richly rewarded.

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