Cute cooperative game has surprising depth

As Black Friday approaches, we switch from reviewing plays to reviewing playtime — one of the games we picked up at last summer’s GenCon Game Fair.

By Wendy Carson

When John and I attended GenCon in 2016, we noticed a few of the new games debuting were cooperative games, where everyone has to work together in order to win, rather than traditional game systems where everyone plays against each other and only one player becomes the victor. This year, that number seems to have exploded.

The game company Peaceable Kingdom specializes mainly in cooperative games with a learning slant, aimed at younger players. However, we quickly discovered that these game dynamics are challenging enough for adults as well.

In fact, one of our most favorite new games is “Mole Rats in Space,” designed to be played by two to four players, ages 7 and up.

The game takes place aboard a spaceship manned by four valiant mole rats (not “naked,” as the hairless burrowing mammals are in the wild, as they have space suits) whose ship has been invaded by hungry snakes. Players control the rats in their quest to get to the escape capsule, stopping to gather a few provisions along the way. However, the snakes are also on the move and could prevent the rats’ escape. Adding to the drama are various tubes and ladders around the ship that must be used and/or avoided in this race for survival.

For the players to win, they must move all the rats and four provision cards into the escape capsule without being bitten by a snake or having a snake enter the capsule. And remember, everyone wins or nobody wins!

Movement is by cards that show movement of the rats, snakes or both. There is also the possibility of new snakes spawning as well. However, it is in the resolution of the cards’ effects where a lot of the complex strategy comes in.

You can choose to reveal each card one at a time in player order, reveal all of the players’ cards at once, then resolving them in player order, or reveal all cards and resolve them in whatever order you choose. No matter which option is chosen, in cards depicting movement for both snakes and rats, the player chooses which creature’s movement to resolve first.

One additional note, in order to help our brave mole rats out in their quest, each one begins the game with a medical kit that will allow it to survive ONE snakebite. However, a second bite will end the game not only for the player, but for everyone.

The last time we played this game, the four players were “assisted” with three other observers adding their advice. We opted to reveal all cards at once and resolve the movement in the order we chose. Though it felt like the cards were stacked against us, we barely managed to survive and get our mole rats to safety. Also, note that all seven of the people involved were adults.

While we did win that game, at least half of the times John and I have played, the snakes have been victorious.

This game is sure to be a family favorite. It provides long-term playability and re-playability for a variety of ages. It teaches strategy, long-term planning, cooperation, and complex visualization.

It can also give curious minds inspiration to find out about the critters that inspired the game.

Peaceable Kingdom games are sold at game shops and stores including Target. Find them online at their Facebook page.

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KidsPlay has a story to tell

By John Lyle Belden

One of the nice things about working at the Daily Reporter in Greenfield (until 2015) was getting to know Christine Schaefer and her work with KidsPlay Inc., her children’s theatre company for youth in grades 3-8, in and around Hancock County. It casts as many young auditioners as possible and gives them a good start as they progress toward high school plays, or to taking whatever stage life brings.

The players put on two shows a year, comedies, because they are a fun challenge and always entertaining. They learn skills such as thinking on your feet – once you’re off-book, you’re off-book – and deliver their lines without microphones. The parents get involved as well, as KidsPlay is 100 percent volunteer run, with family members helping backstage with props, costumes, sets, etc.

I tell you that to tell you this: KidPlay presents its latest show, “Sahara Nights,” this weekend.

The play, a twist on the “Arabian Nights” legend, is silly fun. A spoiled Sultan (Luke McCartney) isn’t entertained enough by putting people in his dungeon for petty offenses and demands a better diversion. Sahara (Brynn Elliott), hoping to free her friend Aladdin (Wesley Olin) from being jailed for late library books, becomes the royal storyteller. But when the Sultan whines “I’ve heard that one before!” she modifies the story – Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves becomes “Ali Baba and the 49ers.” As the stories come alive on the stage before them, traditional tales mix with appearances by the Star Trek crew, Elvis (Corbin Elliott) and the Beatles.

McCartney and Brynn Elliott, the company’s eighth-graders, are great leads, and other young thespians get to show a lot of their potential, especially Heaven Keesling as the smart and dutiful royal advisor, Olivia Greer as puppeteer of impulsive and irascible Mr. Moo-Cow, and Ashley Pipkin as a magically charming Genie.

Football, sci-fi, flying carpets, “Nowhere Man” jokes, mimes, and even appearances by the fabulous Tom Jones (Corbin, again) – this show has it all.

Curtain is 7:30 Friday and Saturday, 2:30 Sunday, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, the beautifully renovated theater in downtown Greenfield (on US 40/Main St., just west of Ind. 9/State St.). Tickets are just $5 at the door — that’s right, for less than a movie ticket, you can see some of the next generation of local actors (several KidsPlay alums have been active on stages all around Indy).

For info, and to show your support, follow “KidsPlay Inc children’s theatre” on Facebook.

Epilogue presents inspiring ‘Tribute’

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes a man can be a friend or even hero to the people he meets and works with in a career, but still be distant to his own family. This theme is at the heart of “Tribute,” the 1970s comic drama by Bernard Slade (writer of the hit “Same Time Next Year,” who also helped bring “The Flying Nun” and “Partridge Family” to TV), presented through Nov. 19 at Epilogue Players.

Scottie Templeton (played by Greg Howard) has had a varied career – writing plays, producing in Hollywood – while taking none of it seriously. This attitude has made him a friend to everyone, giving him connections that he can link as a consummate man behind the scenes. But he is also long estranged from his ex-wife and a stranger to the grown son who had worshiped him as a child – before the divorce.

Circumstances bring his ex, Maggie (Laura Baltz), and son, Jud (Joshua Brunsting), to his New York apartment. Scottie tries desperately to reconnect – especially with the young man who is as humorlessly serious as he is carefree – because he has discovered he has leukemia and might have only months to live. His close friend and business partner Lou (Dennis Forkel) and doctor, Gladys (Wendy Brown), try to do what’s best for him. Meanwhile, Scottie sets up his young friend, Sally (Lauren McDaniel), with Jud in an attempt to loosen him up. Melissa Cleaver completes the cast as Hillary, a woman who received much-needed aid from unjudgemental Scottie, and returns to town to repay a little of his kindness.

We get the full measure of the man both from these scenes and in testimonials at the “Tribute” thrown in his honor, the dramatic device that enrobes the play. And we get a good measure of the style and charisma of Howard, who never lets up on the charm, yet often allows Scottie to betray the seriousness of the situation.

The women are each charming in their own way – Baltz as a caring realist who has come to terms with the quirks of the men in his life; McDaniel as a pillar of confidence who will not be taken lightly; Brown as a caring soul, both the healer wanting to help and the friend not wanting so see someone she cares for die; and Cleaver as one wacky nurse.

Brunsting’s Jud is such a stick in the mud, but he’s not unlikable. As we, and Scottie, come to understand the lifetime of pain and estrangement, we see through the layers to the boy inside who once enjoyed cracking corny jokes with his dad.

Directed by Catherine Mobley, “Tribute” fits excellently into Epilogue’s mission of finding great roles for young-at-heart actors, including strong woman characters.

In seeing this play, we can’t help but think of the people we need to better connect with, as well as consider how much what we do to help others’ success is really appreciated. The laughs far outnumber the tears here, but there is a heart to this show, worthy of being honored by a full applauding theatre.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 17-19, at 1849 N. Alabama Street (corner of 19th and Alabama) in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.

KCT in interesting Shape

By John Lyle Belden

A hallmark of plays by Neil LaBute is the aspect of seemingly ordinary people doing terrible things.

On the other hand, Khaos Company Theatre strives to give ordinary people a place to do great things in the pursuit of art and performance, becoming a positive resource on Indy’s East Side.

So – cue the irony – a LaBute play, “The Shape of Things,” was KCT’s last production in its former home on Sherman Drive. While it was sad to have had only one weekend of performances in late September, the company did end on a very strong note.

In the 2001 play (and 2003 film), a young man, Adam (played here by Kyle Dorsch), who works at a museum, meets a beautiful woman, Evelyn (Gorgi Parks-Fulper) who takes an interest in him, helping him to improve his looks, wardrobe and physique. At first, this is well received by his best friend, Phillip (Aaron Henze). But then, the plot takes a turn.

Phillip is engaged to Jenny (Kayla Lee), who had secretly been in love with Adam – who had been too shy to make the first move – but settled for his friend, feeling it was as close as she could get. But she can’t help but notice her crush’s improvements, and his improved confidence. They kiss.

With his relationship with Phillip fraying, Adam is persuaded by Evelyn to cut off all contact with both him and Jenny. He is only devoted to her.

But then, the semester ends, and Evelyn reveals her Masters of Fine Arts project: Adam. It wasn’t love, just her “sculpting” him to put on display. He manages to regain a little dignity in an epilogue scene, but we are still left with the central questions of trust and honesty, and even though he was used for another’s gain, isn’t Adam better off in the end?

Director James Banta gets excellent performances from these four actors, especially Parks-Fulper as our smooth manipulator. Dorsch nicely portrays the transition from dweeb-with-potential to a man who appears complete, able to stand on his own – until that rug is ripped out from under his feet. Henze and Lee present a couple who appear to have a perfect relationship, but can stay willfully blind to its cracks for only so long. Kudos also to Case Jacobus for tech and props, including the climactic slide show.

The production of “Shape of Things” is not scheduled to resume, but KCT itself will continue in one form or another. Production director Anthony Logan Nathan says the organization has achieved 501c3 not-for-profit status through Emerging Artist Theatre Inc., and is searching for a new regular home.

Next, KCT, with Emerging Artist, present their scheduled production of the classic tragedy, “The Duchess of Malfi” – with a cast that includes Lee – Friday through Sunday (Nov. 10-12) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

NoExit ‘1984’ – experience the love of Big Brother

By John Lyle Belden

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks had struck nineteen 30 minutes ago. The back door to a facility commandeered by the Party and Ministry of Truth opened, and we were allowed to enter.

After Agents determined our country of origin and loyalty to the Party, we were detained with other participants until 20:00, when the Ministry provided a goodthink show of a man discovering his love for Big Brother. This is all it is and ever was.

I would never be unfaithful to the Party and tell you that this was a clever and insightful production of “1984” – adapted from the George Orwell novel by Matthew Dunster, produced by NoExit Performance (with co-conspirators including AnC Movies, Cat Head Press and iMOCA) and directed by Ryan Mullins – as that would be “fake news.”

But if I were to say such a thing, I would point out that Ryan Ruckman gives an excellent performance as Winston Smith, the conflicted everyman who tires of his duties for the Ministry, constantly “correcting” history and sending obsolete information down the Memory Hole so that it never happened. He wears his depression and ennui like an extra layer of clothing, feeling the weight of the Telescreen eyes upon him. NoExit mainstay Georgeanna Smith Wade wins his heart and ours as secret rebel Julia, who inspires Winston to defy the Party – simultaneously the smartest and stupidest thing he would ever do.

The Party orders that I denounce Dave Ruark for his commanding portrayal of the mysterious O’Brien, Adam Crowe for his deceptively warm turn as Charrington, and Tristan Ross for his appropriately milquetoast presentation of Smith’s co-worker Parsons (extra rations go to Zac Schneider and Elsie McNulty as the Party-faithful children, though Shannon Samson as Mrs. Parsons is still under suspicion). If Syme had not become an unperson, I’d praise Phil Criswell’s double-plus-good performance. I also hallucinated sharp work from Taylor Cox and Ann Marie Elliott in supporting roles.

Where NoExit – I mean the Ministry – most excels is in the way this drama is presented. It is totally immersive: You stand in or right outside the room where each scene occurs; and the actors frequently move from one area to the next, forcing all to turn and/or follow. Ministry agents help guide the audience. There is no climbing stairs, and limited seating is provided at every scene. Compare the amount of movement necessary to an easy tour of a museum gallery with about a half-dozen display areas in three large rooms. Appropriate set design (by Andrew Darr), with occasional video images (by AnC) and haunting sound (by Rob Funkhouser) enveloping the rooms, provide a perfectly tense atmosphere throughout. Big Brother’s red glowing eye is everywhere, watching us all.

I advise all to take time out from news of whatever war we have always been fighting, and observe this double-plus-good entertainment appropriate for whatever year this happens to be. Performances through Nov. 18 at Ministry Headquarters, 1336 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit www.noexitperformance.org.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The war for Scotland’s crown has two distinct factions; this is their story — BONG BONG! (Bardfest review)

By John Lyle Belden

The action is already under way, with gunfire, sirens, heavily-armed soldiers. When the hurly-burly is done, the winning officer meets three strange women who greet him with titles he doesn’t have and aren’t likely to get. But when he meets the leader, one of those unlikely titles is granted to him – could he be fated for more? It doesn’t help that the boss named someone else his chief lieutenant. That puts two people between our man and the top of the power structure; but his persuasive and sexy wife has ideas on how to fix the situation – though there will be blood. Lots of blood.

This action movie playing out live at Bard Fest is Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” It’s tightly scripted (about 90 minutes in one act) by First Folio Productions director Carey Shea, and set in an urban battle zone, more Syria than Scotland, with characters from your favorite cop shows (“Law and Order: Inverness” perhaps?).

The story is familiar – death, more witches, death, “out damned spot,” death – and the Bard’s tragedies get the use-guns-for-swords treatment from time to time, but this production also has what Indy’s theatre scene truly needs: more Nan Macy.

Macy, along with Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson play the Wyrd Sisters, who seem to pop up everywhere. Or are we just looking through the eyes of MacBeth (Adam Tran), seeing reassurance that his dark deeds to gain the crown are inevitable and right? Or maybe it’s just a clever, efficient use of talented actors.

Devan Mathias is a hot, nasty Lady MacBeth, Ryan Ruckman a noble doomed king Duncan, and Chelsea Anderson and Nathan Thomas are both worthy of their badges as good-cops Macduff and Malcolm. Craig Kemp as Columbo-esque detective Ross strives to put the clues together. Justin Klein as tragic Banquo is our most sympathetic character – next to Jilayne Kistner as his hard-luck daughter Fleance.

The end result is engaging and entertaining. One can just take it at face value – wild action as an ambitious couple slay their way to the top, then face the consequences – or as a high-caliber examination of the lust for power and the dangers of unaddressed and untreated mental illness, never mind when it’s suffered by people in positions of authority.

Don’t be concerned by the legendary curse (that’s for the cast and crew to contend with), the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe theater, 719 E. St. Clair, still stands. Remaining performances are tonight and Sunday (Oct. 28-29).

For information, see www.indyfringe.org.