Finding secrets among the clutter

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy presents a new approach to the haunted house story with “Static” by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

The setting is a cluttered home laden with a collection of collections, gathered over time and rendering the space forever a place belonging to the past. Time and space blend with past scenes of aging couple Walter and Millie (Rich Rand and Jolene Mentink Moffatt) and present scenes of young couple Emma and Owen (Chelsey Stauffer and Ben Schuetz) occurring in the same space and, occasionally, at the same time.

Walter was a compulsive collector, constantly bringing things home for Millie, who used to appreciate them, but she became haunted – frightened mute and locked in a pattern of searching by a loss no object can make up for. Walter also collected sounds, putting them on dozens of cassette tapes. He eventually also started collecting thoughts, including his worries for Millie and concerns that he might have recorded ghosts.

Emma compulsively bought this old house in her home town, planning to renovate and resell it. But she finds the old tape recorder and cassettes, and, listening to them, realizes this is the home from a tragic local legend. She is amused by Walter’s collection of noises around the house, until she hears his worried entries and realizes she must know the whole story – but one of the tapes is missing.

Rand tugs our heartstrings as a man whose creed is, “I can fix it,” but struggles with things he can’t seem to make right. Moffatt displays a different aspect of her immense talent. In contrast to recent brash and funny roles, she excellently delivers a sad, disturbed soul. She almost never speaks, yet communicates volumes. Stauffer believably portrays the transition from simple enjoyment of a project to unshakable obsession, while Schuetz wrestles with growing impatience with the woman he loves. Eliot Simmons completes the cast as a younger version of Emma, in a scene that hints at deeper connections.

The play is more suspense than horror, with supernatural elements – lights flickering and locks rattling, etc. – but the full nature of the haunting stays elusive. I don’t want to elaborate for fear of spoiling the plot’s surprises, but while it’s appropriate that some aspects of the mystery stay with you long after viewing the show, the resolution of this story felt incomplete. Still, Horan’s drama is an interesting examination of loss and to what degree we own our possessions or they own us.

“Static” plays through Nov. 20 at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Civic’s puttin’ on a hit

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

For a more-silly-than-spooky Halloween crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with “Young Frankenstein,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Nov. 5 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

In this Mel Brooks musical, based on the Mel Brooks movie (inspired by the Mary Shelley novel), Frederick Frankenstein (played by Steve Kruze), grandson of the infamous mad doctor – who has changed the pronunciation of his surname in a vain attempt to shake its infamy – must go to his grandfather’s castle in the generically central/eastern European town of Transylvania Heights to settle the estate.

Once there, Frederick meets family servant Igor (Damon Clevenger), who has rounded up a lovely lab assistant, Inga (Devan Mathias). At the castle, they are welcomed by Frau Blucher (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), who was more than a housekeeper to the elder Frankenstein – a case in which a single line from the film became a whole song in the musical.

The temptation to follow in the family business becomes too great, and Frederick makes a Monster (B.J. Bovin) despite the village having passed a law against such practices, inviting the ire of local police Inspector Kemp (Parrish Williams). Add a surprise visit by Frederick’s fiancé Elizabeth (Nathalie Cruz) and a lot of mayhem – and song-and-dance numbers – ensue.

This production goes all-out on the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” singing Monster scene, a great credit to the cast and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck. And Williams doubles as the blind Hermit in another famously funny scene.

No one can match the manic genius of Gene Wilder, but Kruze manages to make the title role his own. Cruz and Phipps are natural scene-stealers, and Mathias is a treat. Bovin makes the most of the limited motions of the Monster, and his often-confused expressions add to the comedic effect. But the show doesn’t work without a great Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), and Clevenger is pitch-perfect in the role. It’s a credit to the others that he doesn’t steal the whole show.

Brooks’ gags still zing and his Tony-nominated monster of a musical still entertains. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

So much more than the sum of its parts

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

The Khaos Company Theatre production of “Frankenstein,” adapted from the Mary Shelley novel by Indiana playwright Lot Turner, demands patience of the viewer.

It seems a bit wordy in the beginning, a flood of exposition as Victor Frankenstein (James Crawley) makes his confession to the sea captain (James McNulty) who has found him near the Arctic Circle. But the pace becomes more manageable as the story continues. Perhaps it was because I saw the play on opening night, but I saw Crawley get more comfortable in Victor’s skin as the evening wore on.

I was surprised to find that Sarah Johnson was in her first stage role as Justine, Frankenstein’s beautiful assistant – a petty thief who repays Victor’s kindness by plying her trade in graveyards. Johnson is natural and compelling in her complex role. There are no hunchbacks in this story; instead we get the tension between Justine’s genuine affection for Victor and his engagement to his bitter cousin Elizabeth (Linda Grant).

Jason Neuman is excellent as The Creature. His patchwork man speaks – and remembers, deepening the tragedy. Also notable is Bridget Isakson as Frankenstein’s mother, who never forgave Victor for surviving a childhood accident while her other son died.

The drama concludes with an interesting twist, a thought-provoking alternative ending to Shelley’s original fable.

I must also praise Johnson’s makeup effects and the KCT crew’s inventive creation of Victor’s laboratory machinery.

For the wary and budget-crunched, know that Friday, Oct. 28, is pay-what-you-want admission. Final curtain is Saturday, Oct. 29; performances are at the KCT stage, 3125 E. 10th St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at kctindy.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

 

Three great plays at Bardfest

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Bardfest had a great opening weekend, and has two more – Oct. 20-23 and 27-30 – at the little Carmel Theatre Company stage, 15 First Ave NE in Carmel’s downtown Arts District (former home to Carmel Community Players).

It was noted in the curtain speech of one show I attended that Indianapolis is about the only major metropolitan area without a Shakespeare Festival. Fortunately, Willie’s plays do reach the boards a few times a year in individual productions around Indy, including a free summer production in White River State Park. But having three shows by the Immortal Bard – only one of which you would likely name off the top of your head if asked to list his plays – is a wonderfully unique experience.

‘KING LEAR’

I confess to missing the First Folio production of “King Lear.” Fortunately, I was familiar with the play and I trust First Folio Productions to pull this classic off more than competently. The title character is played by David Mosedale, and the role of her eldest daughter Cordelia (and a turn as the Fool) by Ann Marie Elloitt, two of the best speakers of iambic pentameter I’ve seen in central Indiana. Sarah Froehlke and Beth Clark as Lear’s devious other daughters are no slouches, either, and excellence is reflected throughout the cast and crew list, including the incredible Tristan Ross.

For those unfamiliar, “Lear” is about a British king who decides to give his kingdom to his three daughters. When the eldest refuses to flatter him, he misunderstands her actions as an insult and banishes her. She ends up in France, and leads an invasion to save her father’s kingdom from the machinations of her sisters. Mix in more madness and intrigue, and end it all tragically, and you have an excellent evening of drama. Which I didn’t have to see, but I highly recommend you do if you can.

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’

I did get a look at Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” It runs down the Bard comedy checklist: Shipwreck? Check. Siblings in distress? Check. Thinly made, but still effective, disguises? Check. Misunderstandings? Check. Wild wooing, leading to unlikely marriage? Check and check!

Perhaps understanding this, Garfield Shakespeare Company and directors Chris Burton and Sam Brandys made this a highly entertaining production by blending conventional pop songs into the narrative – one in particular, you’d swear was written for the play – as well as having instrumentation performed live on stage, especially by Feste, the minstrel Fool, played with perfect charm by Ashley Chase Elliott.

Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian (fraternal, yet perceived by other characters as identical in appearance, performed by Abby Gilster and Spencer Elliott) have washed up on different shores of Illyria after their shipwreck, each presuming the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for the local Duke Orsino (Benjamin Mathis), a single man pursuing the one woman who doesn’t want him, Lady Olivia (Audrey Stonerock). Orsino sends his new servant to deliver his messages of love, but Olivia instead falls for Viola-in-disguise – compounding the “boy”s confusion as s/he is smitten with Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s brother, the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Jay Brubaker) and his dim-witted companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Monica Verdouw) are carousing with Feste, an apparently freelance Fool working in both the Duke and Lady’s households. They and Olivia’s servant Maria (Kate Ghormley), play a cruel but hilarious prank on the prideful fellow court member Malvolio (Anthony Johnson), which only adds to the wild goings on – made even wilder when Sebastian makes his way to Olivia’s house.

Confused yet? It’s a Shakespeare comedy; a lot of various characters doing silly things to one another is part of the standard formula. Just relax, let the major groupings and who-loves-who sort themselves out, and just enjoy the ensuing mayhem. And nobody dies – that’s his other plays.

I must heap high praise not only upon every cast name listed above, but also Burton, who takes on various character roles on top of his other duties – he was even fixing the lights before the show.

‘CORIOLANUS’

As for “Coriolanus,” regarding the odd name, if we must get to the bottom (sorry!) of the story it is simply an unfortunate (for modern audiences, though Shakespeare did enjoy a bawdy pun) honorific bestowed on the main character, Caius Marcius (Taylor Cox) to celebrate his victory in battle at Corioli, where pre-Empire Rome defeated the rival Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidious (Ryan Ruckman).

Back in Rome, Marcius is not quiet about his elitist attitude, which doesn’t sit well with the commoners who already blame him (falsely) for a grain shortage. Fortunately, his smooth-talking friend Menenius (Matt Anderson) calms things down, but two Tribunes, Brutus and Velutus (Matt Walls and Paige Scott) observe this and stir up the citizens to oppose Coriolanus’s inevitable ascension to Consul.

Marcius himself doesn’t want the office, but his ambitious domineering mother Volumnia (Nan Macy) insists he take power, while his wife Virgilia (Abby Gilster) agrees, hoping it will keep the lifelong soldier home. But despite his friends and family insisting he stay calm, Marcius verbally explodes, giving the Tribunes the excuse to banish him.

In the second act, the exiled Coriolanus turns to his blood enemy Aufidious, who sets him in charge of the Volscian invasion of Rome. Being the era’s greatest general, Marcius practically brings troops to the gates of the capitol. Desperate to save Rome and win back his friend, Menenius tries to reason with Coriolanus. Finally, his mother, wife and son make their desperate plea. I’m not giving any further spoilers, but it all doesn’t end well.

Cox, who is proving himself to be one of the best actors in Indy, is excellent as his frustratingly complex character. You may not like this Caius Marcius Coriolanus, but you have to respect him. Davey Pelsue applies his matching talent as fellow Roman officer Titus Lartius, a dutiful soldier of inevitably conflicting loyalties. Macy’s is the top performance, a force of nature like a mother wolf who wants to be pack Alpha. You might not want her for a Mom, but you want her on your side. Anderson imbues his glib character with genuine feeling, fearful yet hopeful that his smooth tongue can cure any roughness he encounters. As for Walls and Scott, their villainous portrayal has them practically twirling old-time movie moustaches.

The other “bad guy” of the piece, Ruckman’s Aufidious, stays true to his character and principles, and carries a confident air throughout. Were the audience made of Volscians, he would be the easy hero. This adds to the many gray areas this play works in – not all virtuous win, not all villainous are punished, few are completely noble or evil – which might explain why it so rarely produced.

Unafraid, director Casey Ross gives this story a chance to show us all its complexities. The era portrayed is unspecified, the costumes mildly punk without being distracting, leaving us only with these characters and the drama that plays out among them. Occasional music is modern, but works with the timeless narrative. If you are a fan of great theatre, seeing this “Coriolanus” should be a priority.

For information and tickets to Bardfest, see http://uncannycasey.wixsite.com/bardfestindy.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Doesn’t seem so “Dirty” these days, does it?

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

It seems few people give a thought towards Mae West these days. After all, she was a star of the black-and-white film era, a Vaudeville player. She was curvy when ample curves were cool, but sexy when the mere hint of sex – let alone making “Sex” the name of your play – could get you in trouble.

But she deserves a closer look, not only for how she confronted those troubles and withstood them, but for how she was an advocate not only for sexual freedom but for LGBT rights.

This life is explored in the play “Dirty Blonde,” which has one more weekend (today through Sunday) at Buck Creek Players just southeast of Indy.

We meet not only West (played by Sonja Distefano) and the men in her life (portrayed by Jay Hemphill and Michael Patrick Smiley), but also Jo and Charlie (Distefano and Hemphill), two West fans who meet in the years following West’s 1980 death at her tomb. Charlie had actually met the siren in her later years, an encounter that deeply affected him.

We see the progression of West’s career: from Vaudeville struggles; to controversy with Broadway plays “Sex,” its follow-up “The Drag” – centered on homosexuality – and her hit “Diamond Lil;” to success in film; and finally her stubbornness in insisting on staying in the spotlight and doing things her way to the very end. The scenes are interspersed with the growing relationship of Jo and Charlie, as the line between wanting to know Mae and wanting to be her blurs.

Distefano has the voice and gestures down, but struggles with the charisma of her larger-than-life role; she is far more appealing as Jo. Hemphill and Smiley do great work, but the pacing and overall feel of the show gave a sense that something was lacking. Still, it is a good effort and an enlightening look at an American icon.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or www.buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

CCP brings fun in the ‘Park’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Some days, all you need from a stage play is just an easy-going fun comedy. Maybe something by Neil Simon? Then head on up to the Carmel Community Players stage in Clay Terrace for its production of Simon’s first hit, “Barefoot in the Park,” playing weekends through Oct. 16.

In the winter of 1963 in New York, a free-spirited new bride, Corie (played by Lauren White Hall), has chosen an oddly-shaped fifth-floor walkup for a first apartment for her and her husband, Paul (Nicholas Barnes), a rather straight-laced young lawyer. It’s not what he would have wanted, but out of love for Corie, Paul tries to make do with the living arrangements – broken skylight and all. Making the situation even more interesting are visits by Corie’s mother Ethel (Bridget Schlebecker) and eccentric upstairs neighbor Victor (Will Pullins). A horizon-expanding evening with the four enjoying drinks and a dinner out proves fateful for all.

Hall is effervescent and charming, and Barnes ably plays the more reserved but still likeable half of the duo, making it believable that these two opposites did attract one another. Schlebecker and Pullins are natural scene-stealers in two of the more fun roles of the Simon repertoire. And Joe Meyers hits the right note as the telephone repair man whose timely advice helps fix more than a broken line.

Director Lori Raffel (also executive director at Theatre on the Square) found a fun solution to the problem of the set change between the first two scenes – a time-consuming transformation of the apartment from bare to fully-furnished. Under half-light, the cast brings out the bed, tables, couch, etc., to a dance routine. Raffel said she even got help from a member of Dance Kaleidoscope in arranging the actors’ steps with minimal improvisation. The result is almost as entertaining as the play itself.

As for the play, “funny,” “romantic” and “satisfying” are words too easy to throw around, but they fit so well here, to the greatest extent of their meaning.

Put on your shoes and head up to the top of Carmel. Info and tickets at 317-815-9387 or www.carmelplayers.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.