An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

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Catalyst’s ‘ArcadeFire’ strikes Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

Readers might recall that I reviewed the Catalyst Repertory musical “ArcadeFire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell” when it was part of the IndyFringe festival last August. Now a full two-act show has returned to the stage, produced in collaboration with Carmel Theatre Company, playing at the Irvington Lodge in Indy’s Eastside.

For those new to this, the title is not a reference to a band, but to actual “arcades” that used to take our lives one quarter at a time back in the 1980s. Playwright and Catalyst founder Casey Ross recently became interested in the story of Mitchell, who was a master of various video games, most notably Donkey Kong (the original low-res game with “Jumpman” [later named Mario] making his way up ramps and ladders while a giant ape throws barrels down at him, in a quest to rescue the damsel that Kong kidnapped). Mitchell had the official all-time high score and was known as “King of Kong” until a documentary by that name came out not long ago, accusing him of cheating. The internet pounced, as it likes to do, and records were officially stripped.

Ross wrote a musical play, with songs by Christopher McNeely and D. Bane, portraying Mitchell as an egotistical, yet basically decent guy who seeks to restore his reputation by challenging his competitors – especially DK-obsessed middle-school teacher Steve Wiebe – to a “Kong Off” to determine the true King. But one has to be careful when writing about actual people, so Ross made contact with Mitchell (this is even referenced briefly in the play) to beg him not to sue or block her from producing the show. On the contrary, Mitchell jumped in as a producer, making personal appearances and providing his signature hot sauce (which is delicious, by the way) with show labels at the Fringe performances.

Life has imitated the art imitating life. Mitchell and Ross work together to aid his “redemption” through this musical, as well as events at video game establishments featuring past star arcade players. Thus, when Billy steps up to a console in Indianapolis that he had never seen before and racks up a literal million points, it’s harder to believe the haters who say he cheated. While performances of “ArcadeFire!” are playing in the upper chambers of the Irvington Lodge, recently opened video venue Level Up Lounge hosts gaming on the first floor. Other sponsors include One Up Arcade Bar in Broad Ripple, Video Game Palooza in Westfield, Comics Cubed of Kokomo, and Team Scorechasers.

In all, this is an awesome spectacle, especially for Gen-X geeks like myself who spent a fair amount of time on arcade joysticks back in the day. But when we get to the show itself, the concept is much better than the execution. Even accounting for only seeing a very rough dress rehearsal, it appears the added material magnifies the musical’s flaws as well as its assets.

Fortunately, the main cast do make this somewhat work. Luke McConnell returns as a dead ringer for Mitchell (though Billy admits Luke is the better singer), calmly portraying all the unflagging confidence of a man who wears an American flag tie like a superhero’s shield. Anthony Nathan is at his perfectly-campy best reprising Mitchell’s “nemesis” Wiebe – his scenes are by far the most fun to watch. Kayla Lee also returns as longsuffering wife Nicole Wiebe (she also plays “Dave,” the podcaster that airs Mitchell’s “Kong Off” challenge); she convincingly gives the “I don’t know why, but I love him” look, several times. New to the cast are Andy Sturm ably taking the role of Brian “Killscreen” Kuh, Mitchell’s coach and “professional number two;” and Craig Kemp solidly embodies arcade manager and competition judge Walter Day.

A more functional backstage screen is up this time – and yes, all the video game consoles you see are genuine. Hopefully the show’s flow will be tightened up with each performance, as well as the dance steps.

Script-wise, Ross has written much better. For instance, we get little insight into why all the red, white and blue, aside from a reference to a Canadian player dissing Mitchell – also, I theorize using USA as your three-letter high-score ID (initials were all those machines’ memory could handle back then) looks a lot better than BM. But with an opportunity for more detailed background in a full-length play, we get precious little more than we had in the 45-minute Fringe edition. Fortunately, Ross’s skills at crafting conversation make what is revealed sound natural.

This is a fun show, especially if you keep your expectations low and go with the cheesiness of it, as well as its stranger-than-fiction real-world aspects. And pick up some sauce!

One weekend of performances remain, Feb. 15-17, at the Irvington Lodge, 5515 East Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and ticket link on Catalyst’s Facebook page (fb.com/CatalystRepertory).

Fonseca presents a new song of old pain

By John Lyle Belden

Director Bryan Fonseca plays “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette” — a musical by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook — with Dwuan Watson and Lekesha Lorene as his very talented instruments, accompanied by music director Tim Brickley on bass and the chiming electric piano of Jon Strombaugh.

Even when they’re not singing, the words flow like poetry, like Langston Hughes or Gil Scott-Heron as soul diva. This verse is proclaimed by Klook (Watson), who has in a life long-lived by street standards played beyond the third strike and fears “I am unlikely to live another day,” and much younger old-soul Vinette (Lorene) who sees “a man dragging disaster around by the tail” and loves him anyway.

She has a past herself — “Taking a mask off can burn if you do it too fast,” she warns — and a desire to write stories. But “we don’t tell stories; stories, they tell us,” Klook sings. Past mistakes and injustices confound the desire to change for the better, then collide with the taint of white privilege and male entitlement, making this a tragic ballad. But there are notes of hope here.

There is mature language and mature sentiments. Just as they make love by blending the senses, this is a song to see, a dance to hear. Experience it with Fonseca Theatre Company at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan Ave., through Feb. 17. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

 

BCP musical a story of love and letters

By Wendy Carson

Buck Creek Players’ latest offering, “After the Fair,” brings us a feminine twist of the traditional Cyrano tale.

In a country town in Victorian England, Edith Harnham is a well-to-do woman of a certain age who finds herself stuck in a rut. Her love for her husband, Arthur, is fading, and she feels trapped by her station and circumstances. However, her young maid, Anna, provides her with an escape of sorts. The girl falls in love with a gentleman she meets at the fair, and the two set upon a romantic correspondence. Since Anna can barely read or write, Edith serves as her go-between, penning her letters, and a web of love and deceit is cast.

Lori Ecker shows Edith to be a very passionate woman who has just lost touch with that side of herself, and blossoms once it is recaptured. Scott S. Semester as Arthur blusters his way through most of the show ignoring all but his own business until something reminds him of why he fell in love with his wife in the first place.

Tara Sorg is a delight to behold as Anna, the simple country girl who falls hard for a man she knows nothing about. Her wide-eyed optimism is refreshing even though her naïveté could ultimately be her downfall.

Rounding out the cast is Zachary Hoover as the dashing yet churlish Charles. While he knows his time with Anna was just some wild oats being youthfully sown, her letters touch his heart and sway him to consider her to be more than a mere dalliance.

How will this play out, and will there be a happily ever after? This Off-Broadway musical based on a Thomas Hardy short story doesn’t give our characters an easy out as tension and complications mount. Though enmeshed in the strict class structure of the time, we can still relate to the characters’ yearnings – falling in love, with its joys and pains, happens in every era.

Performances of “After the Fair” run through Feb. 10 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

 

ATI: Ruth sure is missing out on a great show

By Wendy Carson

Ambition. It’s all that drives some people. Even though they have talent and skills, they strive to be recognized and adored for it. How far will a person go to get what they want?

This question is the main premise of the show, “Ruthless: The Musical,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana. It is a musical parody of classic noir “The Bad Seed” and “All About Eve,” with a whole lot of campy fun thrown in.

Judy Fitzgerald nimbly portrays Judy Denmark, a doting mother who, while abundantly proud of her daughter Tina, possesses a fierce drive of her own. John Vessels delivers with all of his vamping glory as Sylvia St. Croix, who will do anything to be part of show biz – again.

Suzanne Stark’s portrayal of viciously bitter reviewer Lita Encore channels Madeline Kahn and Megan Mullally in evoking the requisite Evil Wielder of the Poisonous Pen (we’ll try not to take it personally).

Laura Sportiello brilliantly pulls off the gawkiness and questionable talent of Tina’s rival, Louise Lehrman, while also proving she is not one to be underestimated. Meanwhile, Cynthia Collins is fun as the put-upon Miss Thorn, a third-grade teacher whose own showbiz aspirations were crushed by stark reality. Her self-written musical about Pippi Longstocking and questionable casting choices provide the fodder to set this chaos in motion.

Finally, we turn to Nya Skye Beck’s performance as Tina Denmark, the talented and seemingly perfect child whom we all wish we had. Only a fourth-grader, Beck’s level of talent at acting, singing and dance is amazing. During the show, my partner John said, “She is the real deal,” and I heartily agree. I hope to see her in many more productions in the coming years, before the call of Broadway whisks her away.

The first act more reflects “Seed,” with Act Two taking aspects of “Eve” with Sportiello in an alternate role. Satire abounds – there’s a big musical number called “I Hate Musicals” – secrets are exposed, and it all comes down to an ending to die for. On the whole, this show is hilarious and highly entertaining.

“Ruthless” runs through Feb. 17 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. ATI notes the content is relative to a PG-13 rating. For info and tickets, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IRT reminds us of the very human cost of the Holocaust

By John Lyle Belden

A recent survey reported that an alarming percentage of people don’t believe the Holocaust happened, or that as many were killed as history attests (six million Jews, perhaps 17 million overall).

This makes productions such as the drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” — which opened the weekend before Holocaust Remembrance Day at Indiana Repertory Theatre — so vital to public conversation.

After the Nazis came to power in their native Germany (initially via elections, don’t forget), the Frank family moved to The Netherlands, where Otto Frank ran a small factory in Amsterdam. But then Germany started invading its neighbors, with the Dutch quickly succumbing to the blitzkrieg. Letting friends and neighbors assume they had made a run for Switzerland, Otto secreted his family, along with that of his best friends and fellow Jews, the Van Daan’s, in an upstairs “secret annex” to his plant. Non-Jewish allies, Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, ran the factory and kept their secret, bringing them supplies at night. Along with his wife, Edith, Otto had his daughters — quiet, studious Margot, and energetic Anne, who stilled herself by obsessively writing in her diary. Hermann and Auguste Van Daan were accompanied by their teenage son, Peter. Miep later brought them an eighth refugee, dentist Albert Dussel, who kept to himself and kept sane thinking of his Gentile fiance waiting elsewhere in the city. Thus a group of people lived as best they could for two years, until their nightmares came true.

Those are the facts, the rest we know from the words of a girl growing up while her world crumbles outside. These words — from romantic optimism to despairing angst — come to life on the IRT’s stage, which is skillfully crafted by Bill Clarke to portray its cramped quarters (though more horizontally-arranged than the actual annex for dramatic reasons) with impeccable detail. Inhabiting it are an excellent cast of local and Seattle-area actors (this production will move — sets, actors and all — to Seattle Children’s Theatre later in the year).

Miranda Troutt wins and breaks our hearts as Anne, star and narrator of her story. Her frequent bouts of optimism both uplift and annoy her housemates, but she doesn’t hold back in her writings of her teenage frustrations. Hannah Ruwe portrays Margot, who is stronger in spirit than in body and striving to be more mentor than rival to her sister. Benjamin N.M. Ludiker plays Peter as an introvert gradually coming to terms with the force of nature who is slowly falling in love with him. Ryan Artzberger turns in another powerful IRT performance as Otto, whose bravery is contrasted with Betsy Schwartz’s worrisome Edith. Robert Neal and Constance Macy give layered performances as the Van Daans, his character pragmatic to a fault, hers desperately clinging to artifacts of their past life. Sydney Andrews is a ray of much-needed sunshine as Miep. Mark Goetzinger is solid as Kraler. Rob Johansen is oddly endearing as our feeling-out-of-place dentist.

This play does an excellent job, as director Janet Allen put it, “to put a human face on genocide.” Anne’s face smiles to us through old photographs, but we get a real person’s full spectrum of genuine human emotions and yearnings in her writings, and works like this that they inspired. For a deeper look beyond the dry pages of history texts and by-the-numbers online articles, get to know these very real people whom a regime declared less than human, condemned to extermination. Note that only one of the eight in the annex survives the war (spoiler alert — it’s not Anne).

IRT’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” will be presented to thousands of local students during its run. There are also public performances through Feb. 24 on the mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Fat Turtle drama a matter of maturity

By John Lyle Belden

In “Adults,” the new play by Jeremy Grimmer in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company, the characters are all adults.

They are consenting adults, okay with having sex whenever they want. They are adults who are free to gather and play video games at any time. They can feel comfortable enough with any situation to not let it bother them. They can say “I love you.”

“Life isn’t easier, just because it looks freer,” says E.J. (Colin Landberg). This is his house, which he inherited and now lives in alone. One night he brought home Sarah (Afton Shepard), who decided to be “not married” for one day. She awakens shocked to find him fixing her breakfast — is this the way adults do this? Charmed and conflicted, she engages in one more romp before going home to her husband — then returns about once a week. Her marriage is crumbling, having lost its intimacy, but she has kids so she doesn’t divorce; it seems like the adult thing to do.

Old high school friends Meg (Kim Egan), Seth (Josh Turner) and Fred (Brad Root) come over to E.J.’s to play a shared online wargame. While each has a life (and Seth a wife) outside this gathering, all that matters here is leveling up and what snacks are being offered. They even eventually meet Sarah (introduced as E.J.’s neighbor) and are totally cool with her. Why wouldn’t they be? We’re all adults here.

Thus we go through five years of an affair and unusual friendships, the events that lead up to today, when our couple has to make hard — adult — choices.

Directed by Fat Turtle co-founder Aaron Cleveland, this script feels almost too polished to be new, and the cast give solid performances, especially Landberg as easy-going heart-on-sleeve E.J. and Shepard as sweet but girl’s-got-issues Sarah. While even the characters note the improbability of their situation lasting so long, this only goes to the overall atmosphere of arrested development throughout the cast. We find that it’s not enough just to be an adult; at some point you also have to grow up.

Be warned that another theme element is food — starting with the awesome smell of bacon for the first scene in the air before the play even starts. It might be best to have dinner before the show.

This sharp drama nicely leavened with comic elements is worth the effort to find, with one remaining weekend of performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 17-20, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. on the grounds of old Fort Benjamin Harrison off of North Post Road in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at fatturtletheatre.com.