New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.

An important ‘Dinner’ date at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents a beautiful production of the comic drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” by Todd Kreidler, based on the 1967 film’s screenplay by William Rose. And by “beautiful,” I also mean the set looks like a home you’d want to move into, with its free-standing fireplace, warm colors and comfortable yet stylish furniture. But the cast are not upstaged by these props; the actors deliver brilliant performances as IRT audiences have come to expect.

Annie Munch plays Joanna Drayton, the idealistic and optimistic daughter of a politically liberal newspaper publisher and his wife (Craig Spidle and Brigitt Markusfeld). She comes home unexpectedly, bringing her fiancé, accomplished physician Dr. John Prentice (Chike Johnson). But the bigger surprise, especially as it’s 1967 America, is that while the Draytons are white, Prentice is black.

This visit tests the beliefs, ethics, friendships and family ties of all. Mr. Drayton, writer of civil rights editorials, finds himself torn between hypocrisy and honest concern for his daughter.  The black maid Matilda (Lynda Gravatt) is suspicious of this well-dressed, well-spoken man, as she has seen too many con men who look like him. Mrs. Drayton is concerned not only about her feelings, but also those of her society-conscious friend Hilary (Constance Macy). Family friend Monsignor Ryan (Mark Goetzinger), practically a gushing fan of Dr. Prentice, provides welcome optimism. And then, there’s the less than happy reaction of Prentice’s parents (Cleavant Derricks and Nora Cole).

As I noted, all performances are excellent, drawing you into their world, which doesn’t seem quite so out-of-date with this era’s continuing arguments about race and equality. No man can fill the film’s star Sidney Poitier’s shoes, so regard Johnson as his own charming interpretation of the young doctor finding an unlikely second chance at love, and enjoy.

The humor inherent in this play puts fresh meaning to the term “situation comedy.” The side-splitting moments appear among the heart-testing ones, as we get both in great measure. The discussions, debates and arguments inspire thought as well as laughter — and at the performance I saw, some spontaneous applause.

I couldn’t help but think that this play could also work with a more updated look, and Joanna bringing home instead the woman she has fallen in love with. But no matter how it’s staged, this story – this test of how we truly feel when issues literally come to our doorstep – is important to see and experience. The play runs through Feb. 4 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., next to Circle Centre; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Big fun at ‘Little Shop’

By John Lyle Belden

The horror movie-turned-musical “Little Shop of Horrors” has set up at Indy’s Footlite Musicals through the end of the month. And for its many fans, that’s all I need to say.

For the unfamiliar, it is the story of nerdy flower-shop worker Seymour, who discovers an unusual plant that makes the shop prosper and him famous. The one downside: the plant feeds on human blood. Then there’s sweet Audrey, who Seymour is sweet on and even names the plant after, but she has an abusive sadistic boyfriend – as the song goes, “He sure looks like plant food to me!”

Phil Criswell handles the many shades of Seymour, from coward to reluctant hero. Michael Davis is good as well, as shopkeeper Mr. Mushnik. John Kern more than earns his keep by not only playing the sadistic dentist boyfriend, but practically every other supporting character.

Emily Schaab is an excellent Audrey – while she doesn’t have the voice of Ellen Greene (who sang the role on Broadway and in the film) she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to sound like her, making this role her own.

Audrey II is ably handled by puppeteer Theo Vanore with the unmistakable voice of Tristan Ross.

And it’s all backed by a wonderful chorus – both in the doo-wop and Greek sense – of Rayanna Bibbs, Rachel Bibbs, Iloni Cospy, Adrienne Dixon and Bianca Cureton. Hopefully at least one of these women will reappear in Footlite’s production of “Dreamgirls” in May.

While it may be cliché to say this is a fun show, it’s hard to think of a better adjective. The pacing is smooth and the songs dare you to sing along (actually, there is one moment of audience participation). Note that if you have only seen the 1986 Frank Oz film, there are some different songs and a different ending.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see tots.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Classroom drama gets excellent portrayal by student actors

By John Lyle Belden

ATTENTION: Your assignment is to see and applaud some very talented youth.

CYT director Laura Baltz told us that her all-kid cast of “Up the Down Staircase,” playing this weekend at Theater at the Fort, were unsure about how us grownups would judge their efforts, especially as it’s a first-time foray into drama rather than comic musicals. But, simply put, John and Wendy were blown away.

The play – based on the 1960s novel – takes place in an inner-city New York high school where a young first-time teacher is confronted by a run-down building, bureaucratically stifled staff and apathetic students. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film or a stage version (or “To Sir With Love” or frankly any inspiring-teacher film), you know the story. But it’s how the teacher gets through the red tape and reaches the kids that’s important, and it doesn’t seem so cliché when the students are actually played by school-age kids (middle-schoolers in high school are easier to accept than Hollywood’s 20-something screen “teens”).

The adult roles are played by elder members of the CYT troupe, and come off as believably mature. I thought I could guess which actors are 18, but Baltz informed me that actually, none of them are.

Abagail Johnson is appropriately inspiring as new teacher Sylvia Barrett. She seems comfortable in her own skin with an optimistic confidence that shines through her character, even when overwhelmed, making you believe in and root for the “Teach” at the center of the story. Sabrina Duprey convincingly plays at least a decade older than her 16 years as Beatrice, Sylvia’s fellow teacher and mentor.

Sam Surrette couples his excellent performance with a cocky swagger as teacher and frustrated author Paul Barringer, who feels he’s too good for the job he’s stuck in until his efforts to stay emotionally distant from his students backfire almost tragically.

Maria Saam ably plays Ellen, a friend who provides outside perspective for Sylvia (and the audience) through their correspondence.

And Joshua Minnich manages the difficult job of injecting humanity into administrative assistant J.J. McHabe, the personification of much of what Sylvia is up against.

The rest of the cast do very well as faculty and students – keeping events flowing and lines delivered sharply (even when the scene calls for them to talk over one another). Jackson Bell and Makayla Cripe handle the dramatic load of portraying students who are troubled, each in a distinctly different way.

As the original story was told in letters, memos and written notes, the play cleverly provides them as loose conversations or popping in through hidden doors in the wall (like the old TV show “Laugh-In”). Ellen’s home, miles away, enters and exits the stage edge by clever lighting. All elements are executed smoothly.

I should note that CYT stands for Christian Youth Theater. It is easy to assume that such a group might feel compelled to insert Bible verses or otherwise “Jesus-up” the show, but there’s no preaching here. The play carries a theme of Christian compassion that speaks for itself.

And the teachers’ plight might look a little too familiar, even 50 years after the story was written.

As for the concerns mentioned earlier, these young thespians needn’t worry. They are doing solid work in an American classic. My advice to them is to keep working on the stage as long as you feel inspired to, and take the play’s notion of reach-exceeding-grasp to heart. It might not always work (still, you did your best, right?) but this time it definitely did.

Just one weekend of performances (weather permitting) Friday through Sunday, Jan. 13-15 at 8920 Otis Ave. on the former Fort Benjamin Harrison grounds, just off the north end of Post Road. Info at www.cytindy.org.

Rwandan genocide haunts its survivors

By John Lyle Belden

There can be no forgiveness without confession, and confession not only gives others the opportunity to forgive, but also allows one to forgive himself. This theme is explored powerfully in “Dogs of Rwanda,” a new one-person drama by Sean Christopher Lewis at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

David stands before us, telling us of a rite of confession used in Africa in which the whole village must hear a person’s sin. He informs us we are now his village.

In his teens, David eagerly followed a girl all the way to Africa on a mission trip. They were on the border of Rwanda in April 1994, when one tribe turned on another and tried to wipe it out – every man, woman and child – a hundred-day genocide that killed at least a million people. David and the girl found themselves caught up in it, while aiding a young Rwandan named God’s Blessing. Back home in Ohio, David worked through the traumatic events he had witnessed by writing journals, which many years later he turned into a book.

God’s Blessing saw the book, and sent David a note, saying it did not contain the whole truth.

Resisting the idea that he had to return to Rwanda, David seeks out a forgiveness rite in Hawaii, but it only makes his situation worse. So he goes back to Africa.

“Around here nothing stays dead very long,” he is told as he accompanies God’s Blessing on what David refers to as a “tourism of atrocity,” arriving at a place neither of them want to go, but both need to revisit.

Rob Johansen gives voice to David – and through him, God’s Blessing – in a powerful story inspired by the actual events of 1994 and their impact on the people who survived them. Johansen disappears into the characters, helping us to feel the suffering of their souls and their need for understanding and absolution.

As it gives a perspective on world events even those who saw the news in the ‘90s didn’t know, this play can raise many questions. After every performance (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday) there is a talkback discussion with Johansen and director Bryan Fonseca, open to questions and comments from the audience.

The Rwandan genocide is also a theme in the Phoenix’s next play, “How to Use a Knife,” also starring Johansen, opening Jan. 19.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.