Supporting Local Theatre

With all the distractions around, there are too many excuses to not see live theatre. We give you the reasons you should.

(End of 2021 edit) Signs of optimism continue around central Indiana, with local companies, and on local stages. This included the return of IndyFringe and Bard Fest, as well as announcements of upcoming seasons. There are still health concerns (we encourage getting vaccinated if you can) and as situations change, we’ll strive to keep up. In the meantime, see the schedule page or scroll down here on the main page for the latest reviews. 

We’ve got our masks, are washing our hands, and will carefully continue to cover the central Indiana stage scene as we have on this site for over five years.

Thanks for reading and following!

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On THIS PAGE is the linked list of reviews from the 2021 IndyFringe Festival. (No Fringe fest in 2020) See THIS PAGE for reviews from the 2019 IndyFringe. (We didn’t see everything, but did get in most of the shows.) On THIS PAGE is the shows we saw at the 2018 IndyFringe.

Looking back, we don’t have an index page for IndyFringe 2016 or 2017, but HERE is one we did for 2015.

See below (scroll down on main page) for the most recent stage reviews.

Belfry sets a place for you

By John Lyle Belden

What’s the most important room in the house?

You might answer the kitchen, as that’s where the food is; or the living room, as that’s where the TV is; or, of course, the bathroom for obvious reasons. But the play “The Dining Room,” a comedy by A. R. Gurney, makes a case for this often-overlooked (if you even have it) space that was a stoic witness to change for middle-class America through the 20th century.

In the Belfry Theatre production, occupying the Switch Theatre in Fishers through Jan. 30, seven actors show us 18 scenes through 40 years (1939-79) with one nice but not quite antique table and set of chairs. Though it finally goes on the market in the era of Disco, this house is mostly home to members of a single family. They wouldn’t consider themselves wealthy but are well-off enough to have at least a cook and maid, at least in the early decades.

The fourth wall (French doors, we are told) becomes our window into their lives, as even in the stuffy past, there are youngsters looking towards the new while elders cling to the best of what has been. As the scenes bounce back and forth through the years, parents become grandparents, children become parents, and there’s always something we really shouldn’t talk about at the table.

The ensemble of Mia Gordon, Jennifer J. Kaufmann, Tim Long, Jeff Maess, Tom Riddle, Addie Taylor, and Debbie Underwood splendidly take on what must be a fun acting exercise, inhabiting the various ages and characters – only one is an actual youth, so “child” roles take on extra charm as the older hands truly commit. Under the direction of Diane W. Wilson, the scenes flow easily into each other, sometimes having a person or two from one era sharing the space with oncoming folks from another, making the room, in a way, timeless.

Though real tensions and drama sometimes pop up, this play is mainly a gentle comedy, the kind of feel-good family portrait that we can use about now. Even if we aren’t mid-century WASPs, we can feel a sting of familiarity in dealing with relatives in changing times. And it’s good to find something to laugh about, or at least knowingly smile, in it all.

Find the venue at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D (note there is street construction in the area). Find info and tickets at www.thebelfrytheatre.com.

Footlite put a ‘Spell’ on us

By John Lyle Belden

The Broadway hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is one of those musicals we find simply F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C, and Footlite Musicals is treating us to the latest production to hit an Indy stage.

Created by Rebecca Feldman and her theatre collective The Farm (book by Rachel Sheinkin, songs by William Finn, additional material by Jay Reiss), and inspired by America’s fascination with the Scripps National Spelling Bee (launching smart kids to instant momentary fame), this Tony-winner presents a local contest that qualifies the winner for the big Bee in Washington, D.C., with two past Nationals attendees in the mix.

Anyone who reads the dictionary for fun (yes, there’s a song about it) can come across as a little odd – or a lot – so director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan (who often works with actual youth) gives some young adult actors a chance to creatively engage their inner child. There’s:

  • Leaf Coneybear (Josh Vander Missen), raised by hippies and generally clueless, but a spelling savant who gets possessed by the words.  
  • Logainne SwartzandGrubenierre (Jonna Kaufmann), pride of her two dads and likely the world’s youngest firebrand liberal, who writes out the word invisibly on her arm.
  • Marcy Park (Adrian Daeger), epitome of the Asian overachiever stereotype – six languages! — and it’s starting to get to her.
  • Returning champ Chip Tolentino (Jim Melton), the Boy Scout who gets surprised by the one thing he wasn’t prepared for.
  • Olive Ostrovsky (Kelsey McDaniel), who really hopes one of her super-successful parents shows up to see her make her mark; her secret weapons are the hand she recites the word into, and her beloved bestie Websters.
  • William Morris Barfee, pronounced ending in -AY, with one functioning nostril, catty attitude, and the “magic foot” that makes him a potential favorite to win it all. Brendon McCray wore those fancy shoes during opening weekend; upcoming shows have Adam Gardner as Barfee.

And last, but not least, there are three to four lucky spellers plucked from the audience! Don’t worry, you have to apply to get drawn for the gig. If selected, you’ll get at least a moment on the stage and a juice box, provided by Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Antony Winfrey), a parolee escorting eliminated contestants off the stage as his community service.

We also meet host, and past champion, Rona Lisa Peretti (Sarah Marone-Sowers); vice-principal Panch (Bryan D. Padgett), returning as word pronouncer, promising there won’t be an incident this time; and a brief cameo by Jesus Christ himself (Ed Trout). Trout and Andrew Exner also appear as paternal characters, while Hannah Janowicz plays Moms, and Leaf’s hot sister, Marigold.

This production is full of the energy and fun that has made this musical a hit nationwide, with trophy-worthy performances all around. Like Rona, you’ll be hard-pressed to select your “favorite part of the Bee.”

You also have a shot at seeing what was a nearly sold-out run. This was to be Footlite’s traditional January show that places the audience on-stage for a more intimate cabaret feel. However, with present health concerns, the stage will only hold cast (and audience spellers), which works fine for this particular musical, and ticket-holders take the regular seats – still general admission — allowing for bigger audiences than initially planned. Performances run through Sunday, Jan. 23. Get information and tickets at footlite.org.

ALT: ‘Admission’ of difficult truths

By John Lyle Belden

You can tell the play is going to be problematic when you have five white actors talking about race. And if this bugs your liberal sensibilities, buckle in for the ride that is “Admissions,” the drama by Joshua Harmon presented by American Lives Theatre.

Sherri (Bridget Haight) is the head of Admissions at a posh New England prep school. Her mission, over the years since she took the job, has been to increase the diversity of the student body, which was overwhelmingly white even by New Hampshire standards. And she is SO close to her goal of 20 percent People of Color! Her near-retirement assistant, Roberta (Suzanne Fleenor) isn’t making it easy, though, as the photos in the new recruiting catalog are nearly all populated by White people.

But what of the basketball picture, Roberta pleads, frustrated at the countless hours already put in on the book. Next to Sherri’s son Charlie, there’s his half-Black best friend. But Perry doesn’t present as Black in photographs, Sherri replies.

Roberta pleads for clarity on her literally black and white mission, growing tense as Sherri – ever woke – continues to give instructions in euphemisms. Finally, our license-to-be-blunt-because-she’s-old says “more dark-skinned people, got it” and goes on her way.

But this play is about more than an obscure publication being sent to scholarship families in the Bronx. We find later from Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Valerie Nowosielski), that the young man has been accepted to Yale University. Charlie (Matthew Conwell), who also applied to Yale – his dream school, and as his parents insist only an Ivy League school will give him success – did not gain acceptance.

When Charlie finally gathers his wits enough to come home that evening, he is still very, very, very, very, very not good with this. Having already entered his senior year passed over for editor of the school paper for a less-capable girl, this situation has brought him to a breaking point. So, he vents in a paint-peeling rant to his mother and father, Bill (Larry Sommers), the prep school’s headmaster. After the boy storms off to his room, Bill – the kind of middle-aged man who believes he’s scrubbed every bit of racism and privilege from his soul – utters, “that’s it; we’ve raised a Republican.”

But the bitter joke is on Bill and Sherri when Charlie finally sorts through all the contradictions of his life and takes action on his own. Suddenly, a few photos in a magazine are the least of their problems.

Director Chris Saunders and the cast pull no (metaphorical) punches, as Harmon’s drama reveals that “admission” has more than one definition – and both are difficult. This hard look at liberal hypocrisy could raise concerns that conservatives may view it with, “See, I told you so!” However, I don’t see a lot of folks on that side of the spectrum wanting to attend – and what of when their critiques have a valid point? We can’t work our way out of complex situations with the same simple thinking that got us into them.

The strong performances make this worth the challenge to view; and as you wonder if the characters learned anything by the end of the play, consider: did you?

Remaining dates are Jan. 20-30 at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis. Get info at americanlivestheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.

Holiday favorite ‘Elf’ returns to Civic

By John Lyle Belden

Just two years ago (what seems a lifetime now), the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre had one of their biggest-ever hits with the musical “Elf,” based on the 2003 Wil Farrell film that is already a beloved Christmas classic.

And as live theatre has returned around central Indiana, so, too, has Buddy and his friends. And – a holiday miracle? – this production is just as wonderful as it was before.

This presents the reviewer with a problem. How do I say practically the same thing I wrote in 2019?

Like this — To save you the click and page-load of a link to the previous review, the following is the same text that still applies, with updated cast and info as needed:

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sack, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) lets him be raised by the elves, allowing Buddy to think he was one of them. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to find his biological father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (Jack Tanselle), is a workaholic executive at a publishing house of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Nina Stilabower) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) as well as son Michael (Dylan Aquaviva). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Bohannon). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family, and the whole world — when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it (PETA nixed his reindeer a while ago). Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, Dick Davis and Kelsey VanVoorst as hapless children’s book writers, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, the curmudgeonly owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley and Anne Beck with choreography by Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. Seeing it on a matinee with an audience of mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 24 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.

IRT’s ‘Carol’ an all-new old tradition

By John Lyle Belden

It’s that time of year again, but what the figgy pudding is going on at the Indiana Repertory Theatre?

IRT, under the eye of Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director Janet Allen, presents Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Tom Haas and directed by IRT Playwright in Residence James Still – a return to the company’s annual holiday tradition. But some things are different.

In a quest to keep the old ghost story fresh, the narrative emphasizes some different moments in the original text. Adapting to potential pandemic restrictions, the cast of actors was cut in half. Also, a past Scrooge and Bob Cratchit have switched places. The endlessly versatile and entertaining Rob Johansen now plays the old miser, while Ryan Artzberger, in roles that include the poor clerk, leads the ensemble of Will Mobley, Nina Jayashankar, David Alan Anderson, Maria Argentina Souza, Jennifer Johansen, and Quinton Gildon, who not only plays Tiny Tim, but every young boy the script calls for. The multi-ethnic casting works (London has long had many colours of citizenry) and reminds us this is a story for and appreciated by the whole world.

This production keeps the practice of the cast reciting the narrative as they act it, like we’re all being read a Christmas story, with props and hints of scenery flowing in and out of an endless snowbank – with new stylistic tweaks. Kudos to costume designer Linda Pisano for the look of the Ghosts, especially the Jack Frost-inspired outfit on Souza as Christmas Past.

The story is comfortingly familiar, from spooky moments to happy ending, and whether you have seen an IRT “Carol” before or are new (I did meet a couple of first-timers!), you are in for a holiday treat. Performances run through December 26 (Boxing Day in the land of Dickens) at 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.

Quiet play has a lot to say

By John Lyle Belden

The stage is so serene, as the actors silently enter one by one, you don’t want to make a noise in the audience, either.

To the delight of American Lives Theatre director Chris Saunders, the rule of silence in this retreat setting of “Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl, seems to permeate the room, as he presents, in his words, “What if you met a stranger and didn’t have the words to immediately assume everything about them?”

Jan (Kevin Caraher), a nicely dressed older man, calmly takes his seat. Ned (Zacharia Stonerock), wide eyes under his stocking cap, comes in looking unsure of himself. When Rodney (Lukas Felix Schooler), whose manner can’t help but project the fact he is a Yoga master, comes in and takes off his sandals, Ned immediately sheds his shoes and from then on, we have an assumed rule in this meeting space. The no-talking rule is also taken for granted, so it is jarring to hear married(?) couple Joan (Nathalie Cruz) and Judy (Jenni White) enter, bickering. But they get the hint, and soon the voice of the Teacher (Ben Rose) fills the space, exotically sounding like an English-speaking African man.

Teacher opens with a cryptic story of talking frogs; warns that the participants will not necessarily encounter him, or even Enlightenment, but “yourselves;” and gives the rules, which include that aside from a structured Q&A with him once a day, no one is to speak. During this, our last camper, Alicia (Morgan Morton) enters; the fact that she missed an important rule will come back on them later in the play.

Through our mind’s eye and the laying out of mats, the stage also becomes their cabin floor, as we get further impressions of these men and women, and the first lack-of-language barrier issue as Jan and Alicia were, it seems, assigned the same space.

Early on in this journey, the campers are instructed to each write their “intention” on a slip of paper, a source of friction when one accidentally reads another’s. As the drama builds, so does the humor, both drawing interesting and startling exchanges and moments from their self-enforced mime-hood.

Note that this play does include brief nudity, forbidden incense, and illicit use of Fritos. We also get Ned’s “life story,” as he accidentally asks the character’s most profound question. We also get a sense of deep loss – past, present, and future – each participant is working through. Even Rodney, acting blithely like a sort of yogic tourist, comes into some hard lessons.

At some point, practically every rule of the retreat is broken, which even brings Teacher – dealing with off-campus issues and finding Enlightenment via cold medicine – to his own self-reckoning.

Performances are sublime. Schooler uses his real-world yoga knowledge to good effect. Stonerock ably gives us a man struggling with his own identity, in more than the philosophical sense. Morton gives us someone about whom we learn so little yet feel for so much. We read volumes between the lines with White and Cruz – the former as a cancer survivor, and the latter recovering in her own way. And I don’t want to say too much about Caraher, but the revelation of his character sticks with you pleasantly.

Now that I’m outside that space, I feel free to speak up: See “Small Mouth Sounds,” in remaining performances Friday through Sunday, Dec. 10-12, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org.

Uneasy relationships in Southbank production

By John Lyle Belden

Ever have those people in your life who are just awful, yet they’re somehow your best friends? Thanks to shows like TV’s “Seinfeld,” we can see what it’s like when such people are besties with each other. Now imagine if these persons that you love, yet wouldn’t trust to watch your houseplants, had real problems and real feelings.

This, with a healthy dose of father-daughter issues, is the world of Nina Raine’s play, “Rabbit.” Her first produced work, debuting to acclaim in 2006 on London’s West End prior to a hit Off-Broadway run, gets local treatment with director Marcia Eppich-Harris for her Southbank Theatre Company at the Storefront Theatre in Broad Ripple.

Bella (Emily Ann Scott) is trying to help her testy father (Craig Kemp) with his neurological issues. It becomes plain through this play that they have a complex history, arguably abusive but tinged with love and the universal desire for a child to please her parent. She’s trying to help him recover from a stroke – but it’s not a stroke, and he’s not recovering.

From this scene we go to the main setting, a London bar where Bella starts celebrating her 29th birthday with friend Emily (Trick Blanchfield), who launches into a tone-deaf gripe about a hearing-impaired coworker. Changing the subject, they discuss who will join them at the party. An impromptu choice is Tom (Brant Hughes), an ex-lover of Bella’s who doesn’t seem to mind abandoning the women he had been with to join them.

They will also be joined by lawyer (a Barrister, complete with wig in his satchel) and struggling fiction author Richard (Ryan Powell), a long-time friend whom Bella had also slept with. Rounding out the party is American ex-pat, writer, and scratch-offs enthusiast Sandy (Joy Shurn). Prior to her arrival, Richard refers to Sandy as a “sexual kleptomaniac” – which sounds odd, but you come to understand he has a point.

When not appearing in flashbacks as the father, Kemp stays in the background as the quietly smiling bartender, a device which aids in the flow of the play. Raine’s storytelling skills, as well as those of Kemp and Eppich-Harris, come through in his vignettes and dreamlike moments that give context to Bella’s inner struggle, as well as the visible personality flaws that equally not-nice-but-they-try friends just take in stride. Were this a Brit-com like “Coupling” or the UK’s “Men Behaving Badly” (or America’s “Seinfeld”), she’d be seen as a bitch for bitch’s sake, controlling and harsh to others while easily wounded.

Not that the others are angels – Richard goes into a rant that could be described as playfully misogynistic, which seems both earnest and just getting a rise out of the ladies for fun. But this also gives Bella an opportunity to comment harshly on the roles and expectations of women in 21st century feminism, while living in the shadows of past leaders. Emily, a practicing physician, is hard-pressed to agree or refute.

Tom is a cypher with a Scottish accent (he “work(s) in the city”), but that gives Hughes room to work with to make the character interesting. In another setting, perhaps Sandy would be the “ugly American;” here she can be the voice of reason.  

The pace of our better angels quietly spinning out of control is given by a clever visual metaphor, front and center. Even as we might struggle to like, or at least understand, the characters, this whole becomes much better and more poignant than the sum of its parts.

And what of the title? It will eventually become clear. In a personal observation, it occurred to me that while in nature animals are said to respond to danger with “fight or flight,” for a wild rabbit, it’s typically “flight or freeze.” I’ll just leave you with that.

“Rabbit” has remaining performances Thursday through Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9-12, at the Storefront, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Entry is by a long stairwell, contact the theater or Southbank if this is an issue. Info and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

Phoenix: Story of treasure in unexpected place

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time there was a woman, a trailer-park resident, who purchased an interesting abstract painting from a junk shop. Somebody told her it could actually be a long-lost work by a famous artist.

She reportedly replied, “Who the f#@& is Jackson Pollock?”

This true story is the touchstone for the comic drama “Bakersfield Mist,” by Stephen Sachs, on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through Dec. 19.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt is Maude Gutman (not the actual woman’s name, so there is room for dramatic license), hard drinking and filthy mouthed, but refreshingly honest and likable. Her cozy home appears to have been invaded by an antique mall thrift store, but she treasures every trashy trinket and questionable bit of wall art. Given the set decoration and California climate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the decorated Christmas tree indicates whether it’s the holidays or not.

She nervously awaits the arrival of fussy art expert Lionel Percy (Joshua Coomer), who can’t help but have a sour first impression of this situation, even before he gets to see the potential Pollock. 

But gaze upon it he does, and using only the expertise in his brain and the “blink” of his eyes, he confidently declares the painting a clever forgery.

Maude refuses to accept this. “What if you’re wrong?” she demands.

Thus the battle of wits is engaged, though for Maude it began before Lionel even entered her home. And the New York expert who literally wrote the book on this kind of art (more than once!) finds that while she hasn’t been to college, Maude has come to know a lot about Jackson Pollock.

Like all great theatre – or seemingly random color swirls on a white canvas – this play resonates beyond what we first encounter, as with the help of some purloined whiskey these two delve deeply into what art is, what evidence is necessary to confirm its value, and what it truly means. As art reflects life, what is genuine and what is false about the work that is us? Director and Phoenix regular Constance Macy gets a wonderful, gritty, and frequently hilarious performance from this duo, climaxing in a moment that – even if you know how this event actually resolved – has you on the edge of your seat. 

Not your typical December show, but, as I noted, there is a tree, and a bowling pin painted as a snowman, and plenty of spirit. It would be a shame to miss “Bakersfield Mist” at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Civic brings Peanuts special to life

By John Lyle Belden

For some, “Good grief” is as much a part of the season as “Happy Holidays!”

For them, and children of all ages, there is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” playing on select dates at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. Directed by John Michael Goodson, this adaptation of the popular television special brings Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” characters to life.

Following all the beats of the animated TV show, Charlie Brown (Max Andrew McCreary) feels depressed, this time regarding the oncoming holidays. Lucy (Mikayla Koharchik), in 5-cent psychiatrist mode, prescribes him directing the gang’s Christmas Program (which will star her as the Queen of Christmas, of course). With the help of Linus (John Kern), our hero eventually gets the meaning of the holiday, which he expresses by adopting the loneliest little Christmas tree.

The cast also includes Frankie Bolda as Sally, Emily Chrzanowski as Violet, Leah Hodson as Patty, Ethan Mathias as Schroeder, Alex Smith as Shermy, Alexandria Warfield as Frieda, and Gideon Roark as a surprisingly dignified Pig Pen. Also on the scene is Evan Wallace as the clever, hip, and ever-charming dog Snoopy.

This ensemble does an excellent job of enacting the characters’ motion from the mid-‘60s animation without mocking them — from Charlie’s footsteps, to bowled-over wild takes reminiscent of the comic strip, to Shermy’s incredible dance moves.  And backed by an actual jazz trio (CJ Warfield, Alex Nativi, Greg Wolff), the atmosphere is so cool you’d swear it was actually snowing.

The show doesn’t run very long, which is good for the attention spans of little theatre-goers, and concludes with a Christmas carol sing-along.

Performances are 10 a.m. and noon, Dec. 4, 11 and 18, and 7 p.m. on Dec. 5, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the ongoing Christkindlmarkt. For information and tickets, visit CivicTheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Bard Fest play catches the conscience of the Queen

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting thing I find in TV talk shows is the stories of celebrities who meet other celebrities, not as coworkers or equals, but as mutual fans, starstruck at each other. Imagine if the most powerful woman in the world were to meet an actor whose performance she found to be exceptional. It happened, and William Shakespeare was there to see it.

“Elizabeth Rex” is perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare could not have made, as the title character could easily have had his head removed to decorate the Tower of London. So it was left to acclaimed playwright Timothy Findley in 2000 to speculate and dramatize what happened on a fateful night in 1601 following a command performance – by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I – of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

You don’t have to know anything about that comedy to enjoy the Bard Fest adaptation of “Elizabeth Rex,” just know that in Shakespeare’s day, all women’s roles were played by male actors, and the rest of this drama’s set-up you can get from context. The setting is a barn at the estate where the play’s after-party (for aristocrats, not lowly actors) is being held, with everyone being stuck indoors as a curfew was declared by the Queen to maintain the peace before the Ash Wednesday execution at dawn of Robert, Earl of Essex – believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, but convicted of treason. 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men grumble about their surroundings as they remove their makeup and tap a keg of warm ale, but the mood totally changes when their Royal visitor arrives. She is regal, the others reverent, but eventually all relax. “I shall require distraction,” Elizabeth declares.

The Queen (Holly Hathaway Thmpson) is quite impressed with the men who played female leads, especially Ned Lowenscroft (Jay C. Hemphill), the play’s Beatrice, and Harry Pearle (Scott Fleshood), who played Hero. She even remembers when Percy Gower (Alan Cloe) would show some leg in his skirts in years past (the old actor loves to reminisce, a recurring comic point). To Jack Edmond (Matthew Walls) who played Benedick (who verbally sparred with/wooed Beatrice in “Much Ado”), Elizabeth shows disdain, perhaps conflating the actor with the role, resenting his being Irish, or both. She also isn’t thrilled with big-mouthed Luddy (Matthew Socey) who she sees as little more than a living version of Falstaff (a great Bard Fest in-joke for those who have seen Socey in that role). Also on hand is Matt Welles (Anthony Logan), who is handy with a guitar; nearly blind seamstress Tardy (Susan Yeaw), always losing her glasses to comic effect; and a bear, which Lowenscroft had rescued.

Quite literally above it all, at his desk in the loft, is Shakespeare (Eric Bryant), working on his next play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” He feels at a loss for what words to put in legendary rulers’ mouths, so makes notes of things the Queen says. This proves problematic when she insists on seeing the script.

Attending Her Majesty are Lady Mary Stanley (Nikki Lynch) and Lord Robert Cecil (Abdul Hakim Shabazz). An attentive soldier enforcing the curfew (Andy Burnett) also appears, as well as, briefly, Countess Henslow (Afton Shepard) to plead in vain for the condemned’s life.

Much of this drama comes down to the interplay between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft, who, because he is dying, exercises a bit of license with the Queen. For her part, resolved to spend the night on the level of her subjects in the barn, she accepts being chided and contradicted – even touched – as the gay actor teaches the monarch, ever required to show a manly demeanor, to get in touch with her woman within. Thus, even in a very talented cast, Hemphill and Thompson stand out with extraordinary performances. 

Glenn L. Dobbs, a Bard Fest producer, directs from a script he adapted with Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles. 

As has been noted, this at times intense drama is peppered with some great laugh-out-loud moments. It also gives a sense of what an important time this was in Elizabeth’s reign. The hour chimes periodically, bringing our players closer to the dawn, when our fantasia ends and true history resumes.

Remaining dates are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org