TOTS dramas the hell out of this ‘MF’

By John Lyle Belden

If you’re like me, you don’t know much about the play “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, aside from the provocative title and perhaps that it was Chris Rock’s dramatic stage debut in its Broadway run.

Now,  know that it is a gritty solid drama with comic elements, playing through May 13 at Theatre on the Square.

Granted, the language is not clean; it reflects the everyday talk of the working-class New Yorkers we are presented with, trying to live day to day with the struggles of addiction and recovery, and the consequences of bad choices, including incarceration. The laughs are mainly situational from the dark humor of living with your demons. Still, it’s not preachy to the audience, though upbeat AA sponsor Ralph D (Ben Rose) does dish out life-lessons to any who will hear.

We open with a deceptively happy scene. Jackie (Eric Reiberg) comes home to Veronica (Carrie Schlatter), his sweetheart since eighth grade, to announce he has found a job. They mention the fact that he is on parole, but that only makes the victory sound sweeter.

But then, he sees The Hat.

It’s a nice fedora-style hat, sitting on the coffee table (next to Veronica’s cocaine mirror), which he doesn’t recognize and she claims to know nothing about. With this, Jackie’s unraveling begins. His pursuit of the titular character and increasing realization that his addict girlfriend has not been faithful triggers his desire to use drugs and alcohol, and make other unwise decisions including acquiring a gun.

We then meet Ralph and his wife, Victoria (Chelsea Anderson), both in recovery as well as a very rocky relationship. There is also Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Ian Cruz), who has his own quirks, but compared to the others is the voice of reason.

In this production, a talented cast sharply execute a complex drama about the tangled feelings and impulses that come with taking that next step: whether it’s the numbered one in the program’s “big book;” to walk out the door; or to – against all your frantic brain’s desires – just not-do what comes next. And in the process, we learn the importance of the Commodores, Van Damme and the theory that dinosaurs invented waterfalls.

As the show is just opening, I’ll avoid further spoilers, deliver a tip of my MF’ing hat to director Gari L. Williams, and just encourage you to see this great MF’ing show. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

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The generosity ‘The Open Hand’ and its consequences on Phoenix stage

By John Lyle Belden

While most of us like to think of ourselves as generous people, we forget how deeply ingrained our capitalist culture is in our psyches. We give to get. When we receive, there is a price, even if it’s “free.”

The notion of something-for-something, and making sure two parties are “even” need not apply just to events that are deep or life-changing. What do you do when someone gives something to you, truly expecting absolutely nothing in return?

This is question drives the plot of “The Open Hand,” a play by Robert Caisley at the Phoenix Theatre through May 14.

Allison (Leah Brenner) seriously wants no presents, or even acknowledgment, of her upcoming birthday. We are unsure of her vocation, as may be she, admitting, “I majored in indecision.” But her fiance Jack (Jay Hemphill) is a talented chef and aspiring restaurateur. Her friends Todd (Jeremy Fisher) and Freya (Julie Mauro) are at crucial points in their careers – he is a car salesman who hates his job and she is a wine expert about to potentially win a highly-lucrative position. All four are full of potential, but their hopes for a lucky break are overshadowed by fear that they haven’t earned it.

One day, after Allison is accidentally left at a restaurant with the check and no money, a curiously friendly man, David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), steps in and pays the bill. As it had started to rain, he also gives her his umbrella, then exits.

Allison is so stunned by this generosity that she can’t bring herself to tell Jack about it, until later, giving the impression that she had done something wrong. When she, by chance, comes across David again, she offers to do something to repay him, but he sees no need. She finally invites him to a gathering that is “coincidentally” on her birthday. But when he arrives, his generosity becomes even more casually extravagant. This does not sit well with anyone.

This drama, with lots of comic elements, has surprising depth as we see each character’s relationship with giving, receiving and obligation (real or imagined), including hints into David’s mysterious backstory. It is also an interesting look at the different perspectives between the haves and the have-nots – or in this case, the wish-to-haves.

Goad is in his element, bringing gentle gravitas to a character that is all subtlety. Brenner, too, embodies the complexity of her role. Fisher, Hemphill and Mauro all ably portray explosive personalities with fuses of varying shortness.

Whether it is better to give than receive, this play suggests it might also be easier. The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

It’s like this thing than never happened, totally happened, at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

We know two things for certain: First, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were alive and in Europe during the first years of the 20th century, and second, comic legend Steve Martin has an exceptional wit and entertaining flair for the absurd.

These things considered, it was inevitable – in a Martinesque world much like our own – that Einstein would meet “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” in the play by Mr. Martin now on stage at Mud Creek Players through May 6.

When you arrive at the old barn – which hasn’t seen livestock in ages, but they call it that anyway – at 9740 E. 86th St., Indy, you will receive a program, and looking within, you will notice two things: First, that the director, Kelly Keller, is quite handsome. Perhaps it is Photoshop, perhaps moisturizer. Second, you will see the characters listed in order of appearance. This is important, as characters must appear in order for a play to happen. They should also arrive in order, but note that this is Paris and people like Einstein are forever altering history.

You will also notice the barman, barmaid, a local drunk who really should get his prostate checked and others engaged in interesting clever conversations on art and genius. Perhaps this is a European thing. And Picasso does show up, redeeming the apparent premise of the play, to learn the most important aspect of his career – that he should sign his drawings.

We also meet the greatest inventive mind of the 20th century, Charles Davernow Schmendiman. This alone should have you calling the box office.

By this point in the review you should notice two things: First, that I do like doing that “two things” thing, and second, that I’m not very good at being consistent.

I must warn you that when this comic drama of a dramatic comedy concludes, you will discover that the ladies and gentlemen are not who they have presented themselves to be. Einstein turns out to be Justin Lyon, a local actor, though he is quite convincing, and even shows us “the hair.” Likewise, Picasso was nicely impersonated by Brad Root, who, it turns out, does not have a single piece hanging in the Louvre. Zach Haloski should be commended for his striking resemblance to Schmendiman. We are also cleverly deceived by Eric Matter, Collin Moore, Monya Wolf, Savannah Jay, Robert C. Boston Jr., Susan Hill and Lexi Odle. It would be best not to mention that Brock Francis appears in this production, as it is a surprise. Fortunately, despite this allegedly being a barn, there were no pitchforks or torches, so the audience was very forgiving of the illusion portrayed on the stage – on the contrary, they quite enjoyed it.

For a pleasant evening of highly meaningful nonsense, call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.

At KCT: A crazy time with a couple of gods

By John Lyle Belden

I understand it’s a bit of a risk, going to see a new play in a small community theatre. But it would be lunacy to miss the full-length premiere of “Lunacy: A Play for Our Times” at Khaos Company Theatre.

In this play by Joe Reese, winner of KCT’s 2016 Dionysia New Play Competition, Anthony Logan Nathan and Kayla Lee play a modern mortal couple, as well as the gods Jupiter and Diana. They switch between roles from scene to scene, as lustful Jupiter seduces the mortal woman with plans to place a new star, “Susan,” in the night sky, while Diana sees in the forlorn man a partner in her hunt (stalking the wild Toyota). But Jupiter’s wife is about to catch him fooling around, so he must distract her – and what better distraction than a nuclear war?

Describing this in a single sentence: Imagine “American Gods” as a romantic situation comedy.

I won’t say this is perfect, but there is a lot of wit, hilarity and fun interplay among the characters. Perhaps the play could use some more work on smoothing the exposition at the beginning and message at the end – perhaps Reese and future productions could consider trying it with a cast of four, to smooth some of the transitions covered by frantic quick-changes. But this production does live up to most of its potential (and it’s already won one award!).

Two performances remain: Friday, April 28, is pay-what-you-can admission; and final curtain is Saturday, April 29. The play is at KCT’s new building at 1775 N. Sherman Drive, Suite A, on Indy’s East Side.

By the way, the 2017 Dionysia New Play Competition is May 19, 20, 26 and 27 at KCT.

Get details and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

TOTS: Bitter arguments in a ‘City of Conversation’

By John Lyle Belden

In today’s political climate, many wonder how and when America became so polarized, with right and left (Republican and Democrat) in separate camps, each fiercely partisan and bitter. In the days of a more traditional Washington “establishment,” was it truly both sides talking to each other, or merely D.C. elites talking among themselves?

These questions and their accompanying history are played out with members of one Washington family in the drama, “The City of Conversation,” playing through April 29 at Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass. Ave. in downtown Indy.

In the late 1970s, a country in recovery from Vietnam and Watergate is being led by a Georgia peanut farmer with few friends in the D.C. Establishment. And Colin Ferris (Carey Shea) returns home from college in London, bringing his fiance, Anna Fitzgerald (Emily Bohn), to the Georgetown home of his mother, Hester (Nan Macy), and Aunt Jean (Forba Shepherd). A longtime liberal firebrand, Hester shares her bed with Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Doug Powers), and the evening includes a dinner with fellow Sen. George Mallonee (David Mosedale) and his wife Carolyn (Anna Lee).

The ulterior motive of the gathering (and there always is in Georgetown dinners) is for the senators to discuss aiding Teddy Kennedy in his efforts to take the 1980 Democratic nomination and restore the glory days of liberalism to Washington.

But Anna, an economics student from Minnesota, gives her outsider view that the growing support for California Republican Ronald Reagan should be taken seriously – to Hester’s horror, Colin agrees.

A decade later, Colin and Anna are working for GOP officials, but their son, Ethan (Max Gallagher), is getting a different political point of view from his grandmother and great-aunt. As the hard-fought battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court wages downtown, in Georgetown, Anna demands that Hester no longer have contact with Ethan, forcing Colin to choose sides.

The last scene takes place on the day of Pres. Obama’s inauguration, when adult Ethan (Shea) brings his partner, Donald (Bradley Lowe), to meet his grandmother.

This play is a conversation of its own, a conversation with us with our 2017 point of view, and a conversation starter to be sure. Macy is glorious, like a more-grounded Auntie Mame – well-versed in what she understands, but blind to what she doesn’t. Shea ably plays the complexity of being the kind of young person whose means of rebellion against his parents is to become more conservative, even while refusing to cut his long hair. Bohn’s Anna is very much like Hester in that she has to be always certain and in control of her world, which sets up their inevitable clash. Powers’ smooth voice and manner makes him well suited to playing the kind of politician used to compromise in a world where that is starting to become difficult.

The intimate feeling of the family living room setting is completed by inhabiting the intimate TOTS Second Stage. This also means seating is limited, so contact 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

Tensions of modern espionage play out in IRT’s ‘Miranda’

By John Lyle Belden

Meet Susanna Jones, known to some as Dana Sanders, and to her mother as “Miranda,” in the spy thriller by that name by Indiana Repertory Theatre playwright in residence James Still on the IRT upper stage through April 23.

An offstage character in Still’s “The House that Jack Built” (which it is not necessary to have seen), Miranda was said to be working overseas for IKEA. But actually, the appropriate letters are CIA.

As Susanna, Miranda (played by Jennifer Coombs) has as her cover an international program teaching Shakespeare to kids in Adan, Yemen. The ancient city actually sits in a dormant volcano, an excellent symbol of the growing tension of the play.

She works with and reports to John (Torrey Hanson), an old hand brought out of retirement for this very sensitive mission. No agent can get close to the men plotting local, regional and global terrorism, but Susanna can talk to one of the few female doctors, Dr. Al-Aghari (Arya Daire), as by religious law only women can touch women, and thus she treats local wives – who whisper secrets to her.

Meanwhile, only one young student, Shahid (Ninos Baba) has shown up to learn “Othello” (with his own ideas about which character is more Yemeni, which one more American). And a supervisor (Mary Beth Fisher) is not pleased that Miranda was inadvertently contacted by someone as her “Dana” alias the year before in Jordan.

This sets up a web of who-can-trust-who that draws the audience in, as our only reliable narrator is the title character (or is she?). A chance meeting at a café suddenly has broader meaning and context. Why do lights dim when they do? Where do characters go when they leave our sight? The Bard’s words, “I am not what I am,” haunt every scene.

Miranda, through Coombs performance, gives us far more of herself than she shows to the other characters. We see her addicted to the spy game, but also how it has affected her – “Bin Laden still shows up in my dreams,” she laments to her partner.

Daire garners our sympathy as a woman in a harsh but familiar world, torn between conflicting loyalties and cultures, while concerned for her own family’s survival. “Certainty is an American luxury,” the doctor tells Susanna.

Hanson and Fisher are also solid. Baba as Shahid gives us a unique perspective, reminding us that this is more than an American story.

The play is set in 2014, near a recent turning point in Yemen’s ongoing conflicts, giving the narrative freshness and urgency. Still did extensive research and interviews with people in the know, so that he could – as one character put it – “lie truthfully.”

No cloak and dagger are needed for you to find “Miranda” – the IRT is at 140 W. Washington St., near 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, which ran a story on this play in the April 1 edition, and will have an edited version of this review in the April 15 edition.