Review: Folk tales not so foreign as they seem

By John Lyle Belden

The Spanish word leyenda can be translated to mean legend; in the new play “Leyenda,” on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through May 1, the meaning is closer to folk or fairy tale.

This world premiere work was written by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan with producing director Bryan Fonseca, using traditional Latino tales, each with its own moral.

Bridgette Richards plays a sort of Latina Scheherezade, telling a cruel ruler story after story to keep him from growing dissatisfied and killing her. To extend the drama (and her life) she doesn’t give the endings right away, leading to a layered narrative that is still easy to follow.

Richards and fellow cast members Jean Arnold, Paeton Chavis, A.J. Morrison and Keith Potts act out the stories with the help of colorful costumes, masks, some dancing and even puppetry.

The dialogue is best described as “Spanglish” – but with enough English mixed in for non-Spanish speakers to follow (one story, “Coazones de Fuego/Hearts of Fire,” is almost entirely in Spanish, but is mostly “told” in dance). One tale even features an English-speaker who struggles with Spanish, a welcome reflection of the audience’s possible difficulties.

This show is not only an excellent view into Latin American culture, but also a revelation of how universal some stories are, as we find aspects of tales we’ve heard from other sources, like Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. A few moments, like appearances of El Cucoy (the Bogeyman), get intense, but otherwise this play is good for all ages.

Performances are Thursdays through Sundays, and April 30 and May 1 shows will be entirely in Spanish. For more information and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

 

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Review: Hoosier play brings out actors’ best

By John Lyle Belden

Jim Leonard Jr.’s “The Diviners,” a snapshot of Depression-era Indiana with supernatural overtones, is presented through Sunday by Casey Ross Productions at Carmel Theatre Company (former CCP stage), 15 1st Ave. in downtown Carmel.

The story centers on Buddy Layman (played by Pat Mullen), a youth rendered simple-minded years ago by his near-drowning in the local river, an incident that took his mother’s life. Now a teen, he never bathes and is so afraid of water that he can sense rain hours before anyone even sees clouds, as well as feel it below the ground, allowing him to “divine” locations for wells.

He is cared for by his older sister Jennie Mae (Allyson Womack) and father Ferris (Zach Stonerock), the local engine and bicycle mechanic. Neighboring farmers Basil and Luella Bennett (David Mosedale and Kathryn Comer Paton) see Buddy’s abilities as an asset, as their lives are so tied to the land. In the play’s first scenes, Bennett’s farmhands, Dewey and Melvin (Johnny Mullins and Tyler Gordon) witness Buddy’s “divining” first-hand.

Into this world comes a young drifter, C.C. Showers (Davey Pelsue), looking for work. Ferris hires him, even though the man’s only job experience had been as a preacher, a job he had taken more out of family obligation than spiritual calling, and thus felt no motivation to continue. Showers also takes an interest in Buddy, seeing him more as a troubled person than a human water-detector. In town, they (and we) meet the remaining members of the cast, Bible-thumping shopkeeper Norma Henshaw and her headstrong daughter Darlene (Paige Scott and Heather R. Owens) as well as Goldie Short (Audrey Stauffer Stonerock), who runs the local diner; her bottled soda is about the only liquid Buddy will touch.

Norma’s desire to see the local long-destroyed church rebuilt has her see Showers’ every word and deed as a sign that the man will return to the ministry for their town. His actions to help Buddy with a persistent skin condition become much larger in her eyes, leading to tragic circumstances.

The cast, under the direction of Casey Ross, bring their dramatic A-game. Mullen earns praise for not overselling Buddy’s condition, earnestly delivering the boy’s frustratingly third-person speech and making him feel real. We can see Pelsue’s tattoos peeking out of his shirt sleeves, yet still believe he is a 1930s Kentucky preacher; this is his best performance yet. Mr. Stonerock is convincingly paternal; you can see the zeal gleaming in Scott’s eyes; and Mosedale is rock solid.

To be honest, there are no weak performances at all, which helps keep this play above its potential for cliché or caricature. For comparison, consider the best “Waltons” episode you ever saw, and add water.

For info and tickets, see uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or “caseyrossproductions” on Facebook.

(Also posted at The Word.)

Review: Adults from adult films, adulting

By John Lyle Belden

Let’s clear up one thing right away: There is no sex, simulated or otherwise, in the play “Porno Stars at Home,” on the second stage at Theatre on the Square through April 23. Nor is there nudity (which seems odd, considering TOTS’s brave history). Believe it or not, there is more sex in the shows which both precede and follow it on the theatre’s schedule.

What you get, in Leonard Melfi’s famous 1970s drama, are five people portraying five real, fragile women and men who happen to have jobs engaging in sex acts for adult films.

“My birthday party will not be a disaster,” declares Georgia Lloyd Bernhardt (played by Lisa Marie Smith) as guests start to arrive at her tidy New York apartment. She desperately wants and needs to believe that statement is true, as she faces the stress of turning 35 in an industry that demands youth, as well as a secret she will eventually reveal to her friends. Her quest for a clean space away from her “work” is reflected in her spartan furnishings and desire that all keep even their language clean (a hopeless quest).

First to arrive is her peer, Barry Olivier (Todd Kenworthy). Later we meet hyper Norma Jean Brando (Frankie Bolda), hunky Montgomery McQueen (Jay Hemphill) and beautiful Uta Bergman-Hayes (Miranda Nehrig).

Norma Jean, a confessed nymphomaniac, has a surprise of her own: The last man she casually had sex with is allegedly a playwright and would not only write a part for her, but a play for all five of this group, telling about their lives. (Who knew “going meta” was a thing in the ’70s?) The anticipation of a visit by this man, and the hope it gives to these actors longing for “legitimate” roles, is a touchstone for the drama that follows.

As one might guess, this quintet aren’t happy with a life of boinking on film. Montgomery confesses he hates working in all-male films, despite his ample “talent” tenting his slacks. Meanwhile, Uta says she is tired of sex in all forms and wishes to find a more real and less physical form of intimacy – her attitude is reflected in her wardrobe, sharply dressed in a pantsuit that covers her to her neck and wrists, topped off on her entry with a concealing hat. Barry apparently has compartmentalized his feelings for women from the sex of his job, but seems conflicted on which applies in his relationship with Georgia, one of his more popular co-stars.

I won’t spoil much by saying that Georgia’s little party is indeed a “disaster” – a beautiful, entertaining wreck that tests and humanizes these characters who found themselves in lives of equal parts fame and shame. Considering that thousands of men and women are involved in the adult film industry to this day (a much bigger, wilder world thanks to the internet), this look at the “scene” 40 years ago has striking relevance – only the rotary phone (and no individual mobiles) betrays the era, since retro décor and disco fashion could become in vogue at any time. Kudos to this quintet, and director Bill Wilkison, for bringing these hurting souls to life – and I can’t help but hope those alter egos made it away from their “day job” to answer an audition notice by an enigmatic off-Broadway playwright by the name of Melfi…

Needless to say, “Porno Stars at Home” is for mature audiences. Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Call 317-685-8687 or visit0 tots.org.

(Review also published at The Word.)