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.

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