It’s Shakespeare, but it’s fun – really!

By John Lyle Belden

Fans of William Shakespeare need only be told that Indy’s Eclectic Pond Theatre Company has staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one weekend remaining at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis.

Those less familiar with the Bard, casual fans, or those who think of him in the context of dramas like “Hamlet,” might also find this production a surprising treat.

In the modern tradition of putting the old plays in new settings, the “Athens” of ETC’s “Dream” is located in the world of a 1960s teen beach movie. The fairy folk have Polynesian-inspired garb, while our human characters are in hip threads for a California summer.

Though Shakespeare comedies typically overwhelm the viewer with their multitudes of characters, this play keeps the groupings simple, and, under the direction of Zach Neiditch, easy to follow.

Athenian nobles Theseus (Jay Hemphill) and Hippolyta (Carrie Fedor) are soon to marry. It will also be the wedding of young Hermia (Betsy Norton), but she wishes to wed Lysander (Ethan Mathias) rather than Demetrius (Matt Walls), to whom she has been promised. Hermia’s bestie Helena (Andrea Heiden) wants Demetrius, who isn’t interested. Lysander and Hermia head into the forest during the night, seeking to elope. Helena tells Demetrius, and they follow.

Meanwhile, a group of local artisans – the “mechanicals” – are in the same forest, secretly rehearsing a play they hope to present at the wedding. They are led by Quince (Marcy Thornsberry) who has a hard time containing the boisterous ego of her star, Bottom (Tristan Ross).

And also meanwhile, fairy royalty Oberon and Titania (Hemphill and Fedor) have a disagreement. She storms off, and he decides to have some mischief at her expense – which impish Puck (Sarah Hoffman) is all to eager to provide. Oh, and while she’s at it, she could also make a couple of the mortals wandering the woods fall in love as well.

What follows, of course, are transformations and confusion for the characters, but – despite the Elizabethan language – an easily understandable and hilarious twisting path towards the inevitable happy endings. The production even concludes with the Mechanicals’ play within the play, wherein Ross over-acts to wonderful effect.

As usual, we end with Puck’s apology, but it is hardly needed. This “Dream” is a joy for everyone from the energetic cast to the audience surrounding the IndyFringe stage. Get info at www.eclecticpond.org and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

Review also posted at The Word.

Review: Quirky ‘Crumble’ holds up

By John Lyle Belden

Theatre on the Square presents the tragic comedy – or comic tragedy – “Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake),” through June 18.

This is one of those stories with characters so quirky, in so many ways, that they somehow feel like someone you know. Even, in this case, entities that are not even technically alive.

In this play, we meet a house (Clay Mabbitt) that used to be considered a mansion, but has been falling into disrepair. He feels so lonely at the neglect by and indifference of his human occupants that he might have to kill them in hopes of getting better people to move in. The residents are neurotic mother Clara (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and hyper daughter Janice (Paeton Chavis). The husband/father Gary (Joshua C. Ramsay), dead for about a year at Christmas, is a shadowy ghost.

Ramsay is also the vision of Justin Timberlake that comes alive from the poster on Janice’s bedroom wall to advise and confess his love to her before flying away. As she sings macabre songs and deconstructs a doll, Janice works on her holiday surprise.

Meanwhile, Clara tries to keep her sanity while making four-star gourmet meals like she prepares at work for herself and her daughter. She speaks in poetry, and her only friends are her crazy-cat-lady sister, Barbara (Amy Hayes), and a phantom celebrity of her own.

The presentation as a single 80-minute act helps builds tension towards something frightening and dangerous, but with moments of surprising dark humor on the way. The five veteran actors are each excellent in their own way. Chavis convincingly plays a disturbed tween struggling to understand what has happened, while convinced that some part of it is her fault and only she can make it right. Schlatter easily carries us along on her mental roller coaster, so desperate to connect with her daughter that she buys all seven unusual items on Janice’s gift wish list. Hayes is endearing as the ever-helpful sis who stays willfully blind to her own issues. Ramsey turns on the charm, adding humor and emotional depth to his moments as helpful hallucinations.

And aided by the clever script by Sheila Callaghan and direction by Rob Johansen, Mabbitt makes the house a fully-realized character, perhaps the most “real” person in this drama.

Overall, this is the kind of story that only works as a stage play, and an example of why an active theatre scene like Indianapolis enjoys is so important. There are mature topics, and Janice expresses herself very colorfully, so this show is for teens and older.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave. Get info and tickets at www.tots.org or 317-685-8687.

(Also posted at The Word)

Review: Complex killer musical at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

For about a year now, it has been the unofficial Year of Sondheim around central Indiana stages. And now it appears to be Buck Creek Players’ turn, with its production of the musical, “Assassins.”

This play brings together in a dark-humored fantasia various men and women who killed – or tried to kill – the President of the United States. The genius of this piece by Sondheim and James Weidman is that it compellingly presents these individuals’ point of view without glorifying their acts.

The Proprietor (Steven R. Linville) in this room outside of time and space is offering guns to the various frustrated characters seeking – something. Perhaps it’s personal relief; perhaps it’s attention; perhaps it’s to change the world. The solution? Shoot the President.

The characters represent people who actually existed (a couple are even still alive), who you may or may not have heard of, but they all look up to the one we all know: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Meyer). Charles Guiteau (David Wood) would be shocked that we don’t know his name as readily, as he expected his shooting of President James Garfield (briefly played by chorus member W. Michael Davidson) to boost sales of his book and lead to him becoming President himself – rather than be hanged, which happened instead.

We also hear of the irrational motivations behind Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee) shooting William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood) shooting at Franklin Roosevelt, John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker) shooting Ronald Reagan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Stacia Ann Hulen) and Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann) taking shots at Gerald Ford (played, complete with pratfall, by Bryan D. Padgett).

Most intriguing are the ramblings of Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves), taken from the actual tape recordings he made and sent to journalists, before attempting his plan to crash a passenger jet into the White House to kill Richard Nixon (his gun was used on others as he tried to take over the plane).

To let us know these assassins’ stories, we hear from a Balladeer (Luke McConnell), who eventually finds his own dark and infamous purpose.

These are not heroes; most are arguably insane, but it’s hard to say they are entirely bad people. These facts add depth to performances throughout the cast. Guiteau’s delusions make Wood’s portrayal one of the more entertaining. Hulen as a loopy-hippie Fromme and Tolzmann’s Kathy-Bates-esque turn as Moore provide much of the dark humor, especially in Moore’s total incompetence with a firearm. Mary Hayes Tuttle boldly portrays famed anarchist Emma Goldman, an influence on Czolgosz, who McDuffie infuses with desperation. Fleshood plays Zangara earnestly, an appropriate approach for someone whose pain was real but actions made little sense. And Draves is like an obscenity-spewing force of nature as Byck – the dirty Santa suit he wears to protest Nixon making him look even more unhinged. Baker’s Hinckley is a lost, confused boy with a gun.

Above all, Meyer exudes a charisma befitting Booth, a renowned actor before committing the one act his is known for, as he takes charge of this macabre exclusive club. Linville and McConnell ably represent American Culture and History, respectively, as tangible beings with genuine influence on the stories we see, making it feel inevitable when McConnell’s young man picks up the rifle.

(Note: This production doesn’t hold back on language. But then, the topic already makes this not a show for children.)

With sharp direction by D. Scott Robinson with Christine Schaefer, and interesting set design by Aaron B. Bailey, this is worth taking a shot at seeing down at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through June 12. Just kindly leave your firearms outside.

No actual Presidents were harmed in the making of this musical. Find info at www.buckcreekplayers.com or call 317-862-2270.

(Also published at The Word)

Review: Great Dane on the Westside

By John Lyle Belden

Regarded as one of the greatest dramas of all time, if not the greatest, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” by William Shakespeare, has seen numerous stagings, including the occasional production in central Indiana.

The trick is to make a portrayal of the old familiar story something new, yet still true to the Bard. First Folio Productions and Wayne Township Community Theatre manage that quite deftly with their “Hamlet,” which has one weekend left (Friday through Sunday) at the WTCT home stage, the Ben Davis High School auditorium on Indy’s west side.

The story stays the same – Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, the King, whose brother, now married to the Queen, murdered him. Hamlet then devises plans to test his uncle’s conscience, then to take his revenge, all while acting like a lunatic. People die; Hamlet cheats death on a cruise to England, then comes home to talk to a skull; then everyone dies except Hamlet’s buddy, Horatio. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, then by all means, go see the show!)

The twists employed by First Folio are to set the play in a steampunk circa-1900 version of Denmark, and to edit this very long drama down to two one-hour acts. (Rosencranz and Guildenstern never appear, and are not even named when it’s revealed they will die.) The latter is well executed, and aside from the omission just noted, hardly noticeable. As for the fine skirts and Edwardian suits with goggled hats and other Jules Verne chic, it is all tastefully done, creating an alternative world that is somehow timeless. As in all alternative-setting Shakespeare plays, the original language is left intact.

But the play’s the thing, as someone once said. And this play is a very good thing, with a great cast. Carey Shea holds our attention, charms and exhibits his full range as Hamlet. Devan Mathias pulls our heartstrings as tragic Ophelia. Matt Anderson is masterful as crafty King Claudius. Erika Barker portrays well the conflicted soul of Queen Gertrude. And Chris Burton steals scenes in dual roles as the “lead player” of the play-within-the-play and the busy Gravedigger.

Director Glenn L. Dobbs (kudos to him) asked me to also note there are some funny moments (and there are) in this otherwise tragic work. It is overall a truly entertaining production, to be sure.

For more information and tickets, click on “Hamlet Show Information” at www.firstfolioproductions.org.

(Also published at The Word)