A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsy VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

 

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Review: ‘Lobby Channel’ something to see

CRP Lobby Channel

By John Lyle Belden

Casey Ross Productions’ latest show is a perfect conversation starter for this age in which humanity has never been so connected, yet individuals still find themselves so lonely.

In “Lobby Channel,” a new musical written and directed by Ross’s friend (and local actress) Paige Scott, based on a story once told on NPR’s “This American Life,” a pair of morning radio jocks are trading insults as usual when one tells of something extraordinary – his home VCR managed to pull from the cable system a closed-circuit feed from an unfamiliar building somewhere in the city.

With only one view and no sound, Ted (Bradford Reilly) watches an empty hallway for hours, waiting for the brief appearances of a beautiful woman in a pillbox hat. She approaches, alone, often dropping her keys as she reaches her door, and hours later she departs for destinations unknown.

As the story unfolds, the woman in the black dress and hat (Miranda Nehrig) appears, ghost-like, expressing Ted’s wonder at who she could be. His partner Brian (Evan Wallace), unsure what to think of his story, throws another barb at Ted, saying the woman must be a stripper. In response, her next song takes a seductive turn, almost too much for Ted to bear.

Is Ted a sort of stalker? Is this the beginning of an unconventional love story? The play concludes in a logical manner, but still leaves those questions hanging for us to wonder – as good theatre should.

Reilly ably expresses the frustration of someone trapped in an incomplete puzzle, unsure of what to do with the pieces he has been given. Wallace easily portrays the friend who gives you a hard time, but still has your back. And Nehrig’s beauty and voice are a perfect fit for our mystery woman. Scott’s haunting music and lyrics suit the mood perfectly, providing the right tension to hold this simple-yet-complex story together.

It’s one act, clocking in at just under an hour, yet this show packs a lot into its frame. It echoes both a time not long ago when personal privacy was a sacred thing and today with social media like open books that we all show each other. We all get to know perfect strangers, imperfectly. Do you really understand this person, or are you only watching their “Lobby Channel”?

The musical’s performances are Friday through Sunday, through May 22, at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook Ave. near Indy’s Fountain Square. See uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions/ or Casey Ross Productions on Facebook for info and tickets.

Review: Footlite’s ‘Gypsy’ a triumph

By John Lyle Belden

It’s regarded as the story of the ultimate “stage mom,” a helicopter parent from before those birds were invented. “Gypsy,” based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee and her relationship with her Mama Rose, is at Footlite Musicals through May 22.

We meet Rose and young daughters Baby June and Louise as the girls sing and dance for a Seattle talent show. But Mama’s ambitions run much higher, getting an act centered on June – with lesser-talented Louise blended in with backup boys – on the vaudeville circuits all the way to Broadway. But as the girls grow up and vaudeville fades (weakened by the “talkies” and Depression before its eventual demise at the feet of TV), Rose keeps pushing despite the odds, famously declaring “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

The word “awesome” is so overused in this era, but is the most appropriate adjective for Susan Boilek Smith as Rose. She inhabits this tiger mom with claws out all the way, making us feel for her and root for her, even when her ways seem too overbearing or her fast-talk borders on grift. Fortunately, Rich Baker is well able to keep up as Rose’s longsuffering companion, Herbie.

A quick salute to Rogue Salyers as Baby June and Brynn Elliott as little Louise, a good start to hopefully long careers or avocation on stage. After a strobe-lit time transition, Stacia Ann Hulen excellently slips in as Dainty June.

Elise Annette Delap plays teen/adult Louise, barely able to keep her immense talent under the facade of her “untalented” character. (Playing a skilled seamstress who eventually found international fame on the burlesque stage, perhaps she wasn’t so lacking after all.) Her strong portrayal matches well with Smith as a force of nature, revealing that this is the story of two women, each strong and wonderful in her own way.

As for the supporting cast, it’s a pity that Noah Nordman as chorus-boy Tulsa only gets one song.

As those familiar with the musical know, the title “Gypsy” refers to the life Rose, Herbie and the kids live in their pursuit of fame, as well as the blossoming Gypsy Rose that Louise becomes. We meet strippers in the “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” scene, and Delap as Lee does a little “teasing,” but there’s no real nudity, keeping this largely an all-ages show.

Footlite Musicals is in the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., just north of downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or see footlite.org.

(Review also posted at The Word)

Review: Civic Theatre continues ‘Tradition’

By John Lyle Belden

The popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof” has a few nights left, Wednesday through Saturday at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Brent Marty, the story of a poor Jewish man confronting changes in society in Russia at the turn of the 20th century still maintains its power in this latest production of a show that has seen many local stages – not to mention Broadway runs and a 1971 movie.

Tobin Strader is an entertaining narrator as Tevye, the dairyman blessed with five headstrong daughters. Marni Lemons is an excellent complement as his wife, Golde. We also get great performances from Laura Muse, Virginia Vasquez and Daniela Pretorius as their eldest daughters, and Troy Johnson, Tanner Brunson and Joseph Massengale as the girls’ suitors.

One of the more interesting cast members is the title character – the Fiddler – a living metaphor performed by Erin Jeffrey. She appears throughout in various scenes as emphasis is needed, proficiently playing her instrument.

Praise is also due to choreographer Anne Nicole Beck, as scenes with various numbers of the cast of more than 30 players flow smoothly, naturally, and at times breath-takingly (yes, the “bottle dance” is included, involving five dancers).

Whether you’ve seen “Fiddler on the Roof” a dozen times or never at all – and really, you should at least once – the Civic production is well worth the ticket. Call 317-843-3800 or see civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

(Review also published at The Word)