Review: The price of defying godlike power

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of Eclectic Pond Theatre Company, one of Western civilization’s oldest surviving plays truly becomes timeless.

“Prometheus Bound,” attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, was based on the myth of the Titan who defied the ruling god Zeus and brought fire – and with it, civilizing knowledge – to humankind. For his “crime,” Prometheus was chained to a rock and subjected to daily torture. In the play, he is visited by characters who ask him why he committed the act and to beg for forgiveness.

In the ETC production, playing Friday through Sunday at Wheeler Arts Community Center, Prometheus is the online name of a hacker (played by Bradford Reilly) who worked for the NSA and its director – nicknamed “Zeus,” of course – to develop the all-knowing Firenet. Acting similarly to real-world fugitive Edward Snowden, the online titan makes the secret program public – giving “Fire” to mankind.

He is shackled by Hephaestus (Tristan Ross) and Kratos (Taylor Cox), now represented by the prison warden and guard. The Chorus who questions Prometheus and listens to his soliloquies is a TV reporter played by Ann Marie Elliott. Oceanus, the fellow Titan who begs the prisoner to reconcile with Zeus, is in 2016 his attorney, played by Ross. Cox also takes a second role as Hermes, Zeus’ messenger.

Prometheus also encounters Io (Elysia Rohm), a woman whom Zeus lusted after. In mythology, she was turned into a cow, today she is only called one as an epithet, and is disappeared to a neighboring prison cell.

The classic translation of the Greek drama is kept intact, so to be understandable we must take myth as metaphor, but Reilly manages to communicate well his disdain for a tyrant of any era. Ross, Cox and Elliott, all experienced with Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, have no trouble with this material either. I first thought that Elliott in her role smiled a bit much for such serious subject matter, but it works as a portrayal of the cynical nature of today’s media – addressing world-changing news with an incredulous grin. Rohm is effective in making us feel Io’s plight – whether as the maiden pursued by an amorous god, or an inconvenient affair that a man in power can’t let walk free.

To better understand the story and put it in a relatable context, there are several well-produced broadcast news breaks shown on a screen to the side of the simple set of Prometheus’s cell. These were helpful and fit right in with the whole concept of the play.

Director Carey Shea and company have produced an excellent fresh take on an old story, a commentary on the “gods” we may all find ourselves answering to. Find Wheeler Arts at 1035 Sanders St., Indianapolis, near Fountain Square. For information and tickets, see eclecticpond.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

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Reiew: Duo puts on killer show

By John Lyle Belden

To use the language of its era, “White City Murder,” by and starring Ben Asaykwee and Claire Wilcher, is a marvel and a spectacle, well worthy of your dime – well, many of them; it is 2016, after all.

But in a room of the Irvington Lodge, it’s 1893 in Chicago at the Worlds Fair, the setting for much of this musical drama by Q Artistry in which Asaykwee and Wilcher are more than 30 characters and, thanks to a keyboard and vocal loopers, the musical instruments as well.

The plot is familiar to readers of the bestselling book, “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson (not cited as a source, but likely an influence on Asaykwee’s writing of the show). An impressive complex of buildings, known as the White City for its monochrome style, hosts the Fair while just a couple of miles away, a man known at the time as H.H. Holmes was running his hotel – popularly known as his “murder castle” for its various rooms designed for killing people and processing and disposing of their bodies. Aside from his psychopathy, Holmes killed for profit, selling skeletons to colleges and cashing in on insurance policies. This show delves into his past, and continues after the Fair closes to portray Holmes’ actions to stay ahead of Pinkerton detectives (investigating insurance fraud, not murder), ending not long after his brief stay in Irvington (just blocks away from where the musical is staged).

The story of the person regarded as America’s first serial killer (and one of the most prolific) is told in a fascinating, eccentric manner with old-time pizzazz, drawing a gasp one moment, nervous laughter the next. In the hands of these two master comic actors, it is a performance not to be missed.

And, if I must stop gushing and be a critic for a moment, that’s the show’s main flaw: It feels like a show only these two pros can do. As a musical that can be picked up, re-staged and performed by others – say, in Chicago or even off-Broadway – “White City Murder” has a lot of rough edges. Fortunately, Asaykwee is such a great showman and Wilcher an improv goddess that any goofs, flubs, lulls or moments of this-isn’t-quite-working are easily smoothed over – likely easily forgotten by most of the audience by the end. The musical interludes could use some work, and reliance on electronics does invite technical glitches. There is clever use of what look like large cardboard cutouts that stops for no reason and could be useful in more parts of the plot. I could nitpick further, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Asaykwee and Wilcher are already making tweaks for the show’s second weekend.

Still, as a sort of “beta test” of a show that’s good enough to perform but not quite perfected, this is an excellent first edition.

Remaining performances are Saturday (March 26), and Thursday through Saturday, March 31 to April 2, at 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. See qartistry.org for tickets.

(Review also posted at The Word)

Review: ‘Passion’ on TOTS stage

By John Lyle Belden

“Beauty is power,” we are told. But what if one is not beautiful; how does she get what she desires?

This question is at the heart of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” playing through March 26 at Theatre on the Square.

In a past era, Italian army officer Giorgio (Scott Russell) has found love with Clara (Jessica Hawkins), who is inconveniently married. He is assigned to a new post, where, while meeting the other officers, he learns that a woman, Fosca (Lori Ecker), lives in the quarters of the commanding Colonel (Norman Brandenstein), her cousin.

Fosca suffers from unspecified mental and physical ailments, leaving her weak and enhancing her unattractiveness. Giorgio takes pity on her, and being the only man to show her true kindness, she falls in love with him. His heart is with Clara, but Fosca’s persistence starts to affect him.

Is Fosca manipulative and cruel, or misunderstood and seeking affection the only way she knows how? Do Giorgio’s acts and reactions show weakness, or tested inner strength? The answers audiences must decide for themselves, and Ecker and Russell don’t make it easy with their nuanced performances.

Fosca is more plain than ugly, in a long, black, shapeless dress with minimal makeup and hair severely pulled back; but in her era as in ours, to look so ordinary is enough, coupled with her odd demeanor and an attitude that hints at a lack of inner beauty as well. Still, Ecker can’t help but shine and makes us feel for her, even when other characters can’t or won’t.

Clara, on the other hand, has bright dresses, colorful makeup and an angelic demeanor (she even knows Giorgio is friends with Fosca) that lets you forget she’s an adulteress; and Hawkins gives her a clear, charming voice and easy smile.

Russell plays Giorgio as the eager, loyal hound who rests easy at Clara’s feet and is devoted to the troops he serves with and over. Such qualities are easily misunderstood and abused by Fosca, who drives him to physical illness that seems to mirror her own.

This musical is not known for its catchy showtunes, but for possibly being Sondheim’s most complex romantic story, a show he counted among his favorites in interviews for “Sondheim on Sondheim.” To judge for yourself, see “Passion” at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

(Review also posted on The Word.)

 

Review: Not an easy ‘Road’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and neither does popular playwright Steven Dietz, whose newest work, “Clover Road,” occupies the Phoenix’s Basile downstairs stage through April 10.

Kate Hunter (played by Jen Johansen), a mother whose child has been missing for four years, receives word that her teenage daughter is on the compound of a cult run by the charismatic Harris McClain (Bill Simmons). We meet Kate as she arrives at a room in an abandoned motel with a man (Rob Johansen) who has been hired to abduct the girl and bring her back to the room for deprogramming. He tests her resolve and thickness of her psychic armor before leaving, then arrives later with a girl Kate doesn’t recognize (Mara Lefler). The mind games begin – for everyone involved in this story – building to an inevitably tragic conclusion.

The opening night performance made a profound impression on mental health professionals in the audience.

“I kept thinking, ‘this is very realistic,’” said Katie Sahm, a licensed clinical social worker with Counseling Associates in the Community Health network, during a post-play discussion. Lefler’s portrayal of a youth convinced of the cult leader’s apocalyptic message felt accurate, she said.

The play reveals “the vulnerability of all of us,” said Jim Bush, Director of Operations for Eskenazi Health Midtown Community Mental Health Center. The desperation to believe what they hope is true and right is shown in all the characters, aside from svengali McClain, who Simmons imbues with easy charisma.

Sahm, Bush and family therapist Dr. Barbara Riggs, with play director Courtney Sale, frequently cited a person’s need for validation as a factor in why teens like the girl in “Clover Road” find themselves in cults, gangs or with strangers they meet online. Audience discussion turned to the role of social media. At one point in the play, it’s revealed the missing girl had been in contact with a person online who told her what she wanted, or needed, to hear.

“That’s the truly frightening part,” Sahm said of the issue of defending against predators who would wield personal validation as a weapon.

The play’s themes and the expert portrayals – the Johansens and Simmons are excellent as always, and Lefler makes a brilliant Phoenix debut – deliver riveting drama, and are bound to start interesting conversations on the way home.

The Phoenix Theatre is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Review also posted at The Word.)

Avenue Q: A great place to visit again

By John Lyle Belden

It’s always amazing, while attending a performance of “Avenue Q,” to see the reactions of those who haven’t seen it before when a Muppet-style puppet drops the F-bomb in one of the first songs (“It Sucks to Be Me”). When I see the, “Did I just hear that?” I’m thinking, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

After all, this is the musical that brought us, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.”

Yes, when Fabric-Americans and other diverse people have outgrown Sesame Street, they move uptown, all the way up the alphabet to Avenue Q. This show captures the style of Childrens Television Workshop shows, but is definitely NOT for children. Still, it’s worth it to plug the ears of your Inner Child and go. The show is full of laughs and heart, even with the mature edges, as you get to know and love people just trying to make something of their lives, like all of us.

But what if you have been to this street before? For those who enjoy singing along with “Porn! Porn! Porn!” and look forward to the sight-gag in the hospital scene, you will have a lot of fun with the Footlite Musicals production, running through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy.

It’s hard to pick a stand-out performance in this cast, as all are at the top of their game, including Phil Criswell as puppet-seeking-purpose Princeton, Emily Schaab as beautiful Kate Monster, Graham Brinklow and Damon Clevenger as odd couple Nicky and Rod, Chris Meek as struggling comic Brian, Nathalie Cruz as tell-it-like-it-is therapist Christmas Eve, and Ryan England as pervy Trekkie Monster. The biggest pleasant surprise is building super Gary Coleman played by Ervin Gainer, who actually looks like the late child actor. In addition, throw in excellent support from Leigh Alexovich and Dejuan Jackson as boxes, Bears and left hands, as well as Zarah Miller as the legendary Lucy T. Slut.

Another note to newcomers: There is a song about giving to charity, during which the “hat” is passed around the audience – though actors could usually use the money (and cast and crew at Footlite are volunteers), all funds will go towards a genuine charity announced at that point in the show.

Go to www.footlite.org or call 317-926-6630 for ticket reservations.

(This review also posted on The Word.)

After TOTS triumph, Asaykwee continues dark path

By John Lyle Belden

If you missed the recent run of the Tracy Letts drama “Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square, it’s understandable. Sellouts were common, even with an additional performance added.

Still, you would have missed one heck of a show. The raw impact of the story of a redneck Texas family hiring a hitman to kill one of its members, with the titular character agreeing to take the young woman of the family as a “security deposit,” was enforced by a top-shelf cast – including local stage veterans Dan Scharbrough, Nate Walden, Lisa Marie Smith and Jaddy Ciucci.

But the most triumphant performance was by Ben Asaykwee as Joe. For those who only know his work with darkly comic characters – like the many he developed as founder of Q Artistry and shows like “Cabaret Poe” – his chilling transformation into the no-nonsense Texas hitman bordered on shocking. With surprisingly little effort, he projected menace and put us all on notice that his true range and depth is much greater than many ever suspected.

This weekend, TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis, opened the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, “Passion,” playing weekends through March 26. (See www.tots.org.)

Meanwhile, Asaykwee has left downtown and set his sights on entertaining us with the story of an actual killer.

Apparently unafraid of ghosts – working as he has for the past several years in former Masonic Lodge 666 in the haunted neighborhood of Irvington – Asaykwee, with megatalent Claire Wilcher, present “White City Murder,” a new musical based on the exploits of America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, performed just blocks away from where Holmes briefly lived and is believed to have killed at least one child, who is said to still haunt the home.

The musical runs March 18-20, March 26 and March 31-April 2 at the lodge, 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. It’s plot concerns the “murder hotel” where dozens of young women disappeared during the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. The events are recounted in the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, which tells of Holmes’ many murders to collect on victims’ insurance and the building he had constructed to make the process of killing and disposal more efficient.

If anyone can set such a macabre topic to music in an entertaining fashion, it’s Asaykwee – who has already succeeded with the works of Edgar Alan Poe and writing an opera about the tragic Donner Party. And if anyone can help make such an odd show work, it’s Wilcher, who just helped co-write “Babes in Toyland,” is a comic legend with 3-Dollar Bill and ComedySportz, and gave brilliant performances in musicals including “Cabaret” and “Man of LaMancha.”

Find ticket information at www.qartistry.org, or follow “Qartistry” on Facebook.

(This story also posted on The Word.)