There's something to be said for seeing the world in shades of gray. For 26 years that's been the philosophy of Dallas' Pegasus Theatre, which performs its annual murder mystery comedy in trademarked "Living Black and White" style.
This year's show, opening at the Eisemann Center in Richardson on December 29, is The Frequency of Death!, another adventure in Pegasus founder, playwright and star Kurt Kleinmann's series of 16 plays about hapless detective Harry Hunsacker. Every Kleinmann production is designed to look like a black-and-white 1930s movie, with costumes, makeup, hair and scenery rendered color-free.
The special techniques used by Pegasus are so unique, Kleinmann has cast and crew sign non-disclosure agreements. He also refuses to share the methods with other theaters that might want to do one of his plays.
"And I've had requests from all over the world," says Kleinmann over lunch this week at Lucky's in Oak Lawn. "I'm not interested in teaching anyone else to do it. That would dilute what we do."
Half the cast in this year's show are newbies to a black-and-white show. They undergo Kleinmann's performance bootcamp, which includes lessons on applying makeup and how to speak onstage without revealing too much pink tongue. And no touching the face or, horrors!, laying a hand on other actors. That might rub off some of the gray greasepaint that covers actors' skin from forehead to ankle (including the inside of the ears).
"There's a learning curve for everyone, but they get it," Kleinmann says.
Frequency is a revival of a play Pegasus has done before, but with heavy rewrites, says Kleinmann. He's also brought in New York director Robert Bartley, who's directed shows off-Broadway and appeared as an actor in lots of Broadway productions, including Miss Saigon, Cats and West Side Story. Bartley, a North Texas native and UNT grad, is an avid devotee of the classic black and white movies that inspire Pegasus shows. And he's writing a musical about Lucy and Desi called The Cuban and the Redhead.
The Frequency of Death! follows Hunsacker and his loyal assistant Nigel (Ben Bryant) as they solve a murder case set in a radio studio. Veteran Broadway actress Susan Mansur (Best Little Whorehouse, Damn Yankees) stars in what Bartley describes as "the Tallulah Bankhead role," alongside Chad Cline, Christopher Curtis, Gordon Fox, Charissa Lee, Leslie Patrick, Caroline Perryman, Greg Phillips and Ben Schroth. Samantha Rodriguez is designing the period costumes.
After a three-weekend run at the Eisemann, the show will move to the new MCL Grand Theatre in Lewisville for three performances. "It's a baby step to a Texas tour," Kleinmann says. "We need to know what it will take to take a show like ours on the road."
For 17 years, Pegasus occupied its own home theater in Deep Ellum. Since then they've done just one show annually, opening at the Eisemann around New Year's. "To me, cold weather means mysteries," Kurt Kleinmann says. "We're huddled inside by the fire. What better way to pass the time than solving a good whodunit?"
The Frequency of Death! opens with bargain-priced previews December 29-30, then runs at regular prices ($20-$35) at the Eisemann through January 22, 2012. Pegasus will do a special New Year's Eve performance at the Eisemann that includes cake, Champagne and an after-show party with the cast. The show runs one weekend at the MCL Grand Theatre in Lewisville, January 26-29. For tickets, call 972-744-4650.