Phoenix’s ‘Sex’ about changing more than one’s clothes

By John Lyle Belden

A play with a title like “Sex With Strangers” can’t help but set up questions and expectations about what you are about to see. Then, when you peek at the program, and it stars just two people?

Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Angela Plank is Olivia, a struggling writer who has resigned herself to a career teaching. But a friend lets her use a remote cabin where she can work on her new novel in peace. Enter Brandon Alstott as Ethan, another writer in search of direction, who also knows the owner of the cabin.

Published as “Ethan Strange,” the young man got his start with a blog called “Sex With Strangers,” which cataloged his escapades – some true, some exaggerated – in a year of freely indulging his lusts. This led to two racy books and a movie deal, but he feels the need to do something more literary.

The theme of this 2014 drama by Laura Eason is change: Can a casual misogynist change his stripes? And is it possible to get a second chance at your dream career? Ethan can’t help but employ his well-practiced seduction on Olivia, who can’t help but respond. He makes her face her fears, and in turn she finds things turning out better for her than she dreamed. But does she, in turn, owe him for this – and what is the price?

The surprising depths of this two-act duet inspired some intense discussion as Wendy and I talked afterward about how we would approach this review. We saw thematic elements of “The Shape of Things” and even “Pygmalion,” but this does tell its own story, while making the publishing business somewhat interesting (like when it’s a subplot in a Stephen King novel).

Plank and Alstott have great chemistry, and connect well with us, so that we feel for Olivia’s struggles and are even a little disappointed in Ethan in those moments he comes off a bit creepy.

While the characters do get intimate, that happens offstage – it’s more of a “PG-13”or light “R” story about sex, and so much more. Playing through April 9 at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-2381 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.

Civic presents fun ‘complete’ look at Bard’s catalog

By John Lyle Belden

Whether you have only a passing interest in the Bard of Avon, or have memorized all his plays and sonnets, you will enjoy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through April 1.

Since this is a more intimate show than the typical Civic play, it is staged in the Studio Theater, at the other end of the lobby from the Tarkington in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Frankie Bolda, Kelsey Vanvoorst and Antoine Demmings (as themselves) are Shakespeare enthusiasts – you might even have seen Frankie or Kelsey in one of the Bard’s plays – who, thanks to a script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, discuss and present the man and all his works in 97 minutes (plus intermission).

The results are fun and unconventional — just as Shakespeare was in his day — with features such as “Othello” in rap, all 16 of the Bard’s comedies as a single mashed-up play, the Histories as a football game and, naturally, “Titus Andronicus” as a cooking show.

The second act is mostly devoted to “Hamlet,” which gets further abbreviated over and over with madcap results.

This trio do an excellent job, not only Bolda and Vanvoorst, who are no strangers to the art of making acting silly look easy, but especially Demmings — who had not done stage work before, but should now consider playing Othello for real. A tip of the Elizabethan headgear to John Michael Goodson for his directing, and to Will Tople for the simple yet appropriate stage design.

This house is smaller than the regular Civic stage, so sellouts are likely; call 317-924-6770 or visit civictheatre.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.

Triple-timing playboy in for bumpy landing in IRT’s ‘Boeing Boeing’

By John Lyle Belden

Everybody has a fool-proof system, until they are proven the fool. In “Boeing Boeing,” the popular farce by Marc Camoletti on the beautifully-set stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Bernard (Matt Schwader) has the perfect love-life arrangement.

This architect playboy juggles three fiances, all air hostesses on different carriers. Thanks to ever-reliable airline timetables, they arrive at his Paris flat on different days, each oblivious of the others, keeping Bernard perpetually engaged – in both senses of the word. But faithful maid Berthe (Elizabeth Ledo) is getting tired of the shuffle, and Bernard’s college buddy Robert (Chris Klopatek), visiting from Wisconsin, asks the fateful question: What if all three of the women are in town at the same time?

Impossible, Bernard says – until it happens.

Hillary Clemens charms as Gloria, the hot American stewardess far more clever than she appears. Melisa Pereyra is siren-seductive as Gabriella, the passionate Italian. Greta Wohlrabe comes closest to the line between character and caricature as German hostess Gretchen, a Teutonic Amazon with a strudel-sweet side.

Schwader and Klopatek have the knack for the frantic acting required of this kind of comedy, as cool collected Bernard becomes more unraveled and fish-out-of-water Robert starts to go with the flow. In fact, all the cast have the rhythms of the farce down, with well-timed entrances and exits through seven sets of doors, the well-choreographed gags presenting a situation spiraling hilariously out of control.

As for Berthe – the eye of the hurricane, unlistened-to voice of reason, and keeper of the secrets no matter how morally questionable – Ledo’s performance is a bold punctuation to every scene, which she can’t be accused of stealing because she already owns it. Her look is reminiscent of Edna from “The Incredibles” (I couldn’t help but want her to say something about “no capes”) but it works in that she, too, is no one to trifle with and the best help to serve a show’s wacky plot.

Make your reservation for high-flying fun at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre, through April 2. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

At TOTS: A story of street-lights people who don’t stop believin’

By John Lyle Belden

The rock hits of the 1980s form the tapestry of “Rock of Ages,” the Broadway musical in its first local production at Theatre on the Square.

Sarah Hoffman plays Sherrie, a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world; Davey Pelsue is Drew (a/k/a aspiring rocker Wolfgang von Cult), a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit – you know how the song goes.

They work at the Bourbon Room, an LA bar and club owned by Dennis Dupree (Dave Ruark) with Lonny (John Kern), our Narrator – they want nothing but a good time, and it don’t get better than this.

But foreign developer Hertz Kleinaman (Bryan D. Padgett) and son Franz (Zach Ramsey) have plans to tear down the Sunset Strip. When City Planner Regina Kuntz (Andrea Heiden) objects, the Mayor (Josiah McCruiston) fires her, so she leads the resistance, reminding all that they built this city on rock and roll.

Facing the final countdown, the Bourbon Room has one last show, headlined with newly-solo rock god Stacee Jaxx (Thomas Cardwell) and featuring Wolfgang’s debut. In all that’s happening, Drew loses Sherrie, and it will take more than words to win her back. And yes, “Oh, Sherrie” is also in the show (but not the title song, as they couldn’t get rights to Def Leppard’s hits).

This exceptional, energetic cast includes Paige Scott as “Mama” Justice, owner of the nearby Venus Gentleman’s Club; Jonathan Krouse as Joey Primo, Jaxx’s replacement in Anvil; a dancing chorus including Jessica Hawkins, Jordan Fox, Tessa Gibbons, Katherine Jones, Janice Hibbard and Jessica Hughes; and Hannah Boswell as the wonderfully anonymous Waitress No. 1. Director Ty Stover let Boswell expand her role to help smooth scene changes, she said, and she has become an audience favorite.

Not everyone is radio-perfect in reproducing the old FM-band tunes, but this isn’t meant to be a revue. Some lyrics and verses are altered by context, and some songs nicely mashed-up, to serve the musical’s story. The performers front-and-center, however, are stellar – especially Hoffman, as well as Pelsue, who delivers as though this musical was written for him.

The show is incredibly fun, whether you remember the decade of big hair and big attitudes, or only know the 30-year-old songs (yes, that old) from the Classic Rock station. The onstage bar actually offers retro sodas and beer before each act, and cast members occasionally cross the fourth wall to sit with you.

Got too much time on your hands? You have no excuse not to see this. Here they go again at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., through April 1. Call 317-685-8687 or visit www.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.

Old lore gets modern makeover in Catalyst’s ‘Slaying the Dragon’

By John Lyle Belden

I got so much more than I expected when I saw “Slaying the Dragon,” and I have high expectations from a play written by Casey Ross.

Ross’ plays are character-driven with great dialogue, flavored with enough of the absurd to make them entertaining without stretching credulity. And with her latest comedy production – presented by her Catalyst Repertory at Theater at the Fort, directed by Carey Shea – Ross enters the realm of fairy tales and conjures a thought-provoking fable.

Mythical kingdoms have reluctantly come into the 21st century, and the castle of King Farenwide (Dan Flahive) is now a condo. His Queen (Nan Macy) is happy as long as she has a place to garden, but Princess Maleena (Abby Gilster) is frustrated that her parents neither embrace New World ways nor accept that she has. To the King’s delight, a Knight has moved nearby – and being the only handy noble, a good prospect for his daughter (she’s not pleased with that prospect). But upon visiting Sir Alexander Meander (Matt Walls), they meet his roommate, Flameson (Tristan Ross), a dragon.

The inevitable conflict of old prejudices (that dragons are beasts worthy of little more than slaying) and outdated loyalties (a knight must obey orders and kill such beasts) with more modern attitudes can’t help but raise comparisons to events in the offstage world. True to the style of Casey Ross (no relation to Tristan, though they are good friends), the issues are handled with great humor and humanity. While it’s easy to make “Shrek” comparisons, the inspiration here seems more like the Disney short “The Reluctant Dragon” and the stage/film/TV classic “The Odd Couple.”

Gilster is great as the sane center of the swirling silliness. Flahive is fun, and makes riding a mobility chair look as noble as an actual royal steed. Macy tackles yet another maternal role with soothing ease (and a fantastic hat). And Josh Weaver adds to the laugh factor as obliviously mellow Page Jon, the castle servant.

It’s easy to see which is the “Felix” and which is the “Oscar” with Walls and Tristan Ross. Meander makes his best effort at being noble in tarnished armor, while Flameson is an excellent housekeeper and cook (who can light the stove by breathing on it). The actors’ performances are totally up to snuff, especially in Tristan’s talent for not going over-the-top with a fantasy character, aided by excellent makeup effects.

This is definitely a new work that is worthy of seeking out – and a little seeking might be in order. Theater at the Fort is located on the grounds of former Fort Benjamin Harrison (technically in Lawrence) at 8920 Otis Ave.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 16-19. Get info at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory or follow Catalyst Repertory on Facebook; get tickets here.

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

Footlite show on a ‘Cole’-fired ship

By John Lyle Belden

With so much drama around us, sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a light musical: All aboard, then, for a “De-Lovely” voyage aboard the SS American in Footlite Musicals’ production of “Anything Goes.”

The comic plot involves love, gangsters on the lam, and a lot of silly disguises and misunderstandings. Billy Crocker (Trenton Baker) wants to stop his girl Hope Harcourt’s (Sydney Norwalk) ill-advised marriage to English “gentleman” Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Ryan Straut), and gets aid from “America’s Thirteenth-Most-Wanted” Moonface Martin (Tom Bartley) and song-and-dance sensation Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff).

While that’s good for some laughs, the show’s main purpose is as a delivery vehicle for the hits of Cole Porter (“You’re the Top,” “De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Blow Gabriel Blow” and more, including the title tune) and at that, this production delivers.

Norwalk makes a shining Footlite debut; Baker provides his triple-threat credentials; and Harloff, with the help of Reno’s Angels (Kristen Tschiniak, Becca DeTar, Tara Roberds and Nicole Bridgens) takes charge of the ship with dynamite song and dance numbers (with much credit due to Trish Roberds’ choreography). Straut’s frantic fop is a hoot, and Bartley’s comic chops are spot on, aided by another brilliant performance by Emily Schaab as Martin’s accomplice, Bonnie. Craig Kemp adds to the laughs with his hard-luck businessman, Elisha Whitney (Crocker’s boss). Also impressive are dancing sailors Kyle Cherry and Noah Fields.

The book is admittedly a little dated – and director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan admits as much in her opening curtain speech – but this old gem still entertains. Performances are weekends through March 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. 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.