Satisfy your ‘Curious’ity at IRT

By Wendy Carson

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius but he finds all social and physical interactions to be terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father, who told Christopher that his mother died of a heart attack two years ago.

His great love of animals causes him to go out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it murdered. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the policeman tries to calm him down, the touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but he is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering that others think the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, Christopher decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do so himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery.

While he does eventually find out the murderer’s identity, the journey to that information has him discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities, challenging his autistic limitations.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” opening the 2017-18 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is based on Mark Haddon’s critically-acclaimed 2003 novel of the same name. It won the 2015 Tony for Best Play. However, due to the novel being written in first-person and the production of it needing to have the various characters fleshed out and enacted, many technical alterations were made to bring the tale to the stage.

Shiobhan (played by Elizabeth Ledo), one of Christopher’s teachers, reads much of his inner dialogue from a notebook. He has written the story there in hopes of turning it into a book once it has concluded.

Much of the cast morphs from one character to another while also voicing the self-doubts and thoughts of Christopher. The medium of stage allows for non-linear and abstract elements required to tell the story, and even briefly goes “meta” with the cast discussing the play as themselves with Christopher.

This production includes IRT’s landmark casting of Mickey Rowe as Christopher, making him the first American actor with autism in the role. Familiar faces Robert Neal and Constance Macy portray his father and mother.

The entire cast, which also includes David Alan Anderson, Margaret Daly, Mehry Eslaminia, Eric Parks, Gail Rastorfer and Landon G. Woodson, do an impeccable job, true to the standards of an IRT performance.

Thought-provoking and surprisingly relatable, this drama brings you on an unusual journey through a unique mind, as well as through the English countryside and heart of London. And when you go, be sure to stay after the curtain call for a unique, and highly entertaining, mathematical encore.

No dogs were actually harmed in the making of this play, which runs through Oct. 14. Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St. downtown or online at irtlive.com.

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Footlite presents a class ‘Act’

By John Lyle Belden

I only have a vague memory of seeing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film, “Sister Act.” But you don’t have to have seen it at all to appreciate the Broadway musical version, presented by local talent at Footlite Musicals. Goldberg’s only connection to the stage edition was as producer, otherwise the show was stripped down to the general plot and rebuilt with original songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) and its own sense of fun.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Morgan Webster) witnesses her manager and boyfriend, Curtis (Ollice Aurelius Nickson), commit murder. With the help of Eddie (Donald Marter), a cop with a crush on Deloris, she is hidden with a cloister of nuns at a church with its own problems. Attendance at services has been falling, and the choir is horrible – apparently each sister sings in a different key. Mother Superior (Karen Frye Knotts) prays fervently for help, but can this spoiled foul-mouthed lounge entertainer be the answer?

Webster seems a bit over the top at first, but that’s just Deloris being herself. As she, in disguise as a fellow nun, wins over the sisters, she grows on us as well. Knotts is maternally likable as the one old-fashioned resister to the choir’s new soulful style. The rest are mostly reminiscent of the quietly hip sisters of “Nunsense,” especially Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower) and shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams), who it’s fun to watch come out of her shell. Nickson is equal parts charming and menacing as he hunts for the woman whose testimony could put him away, accompanied by a goofy trio of henchmen, played by Daniel Draves, Josh Vander Missen and Jonathan Studdard. Marter makes the unlikely romantic hero “Sweaty” Eddie a character to root for. And W. Michael Davidson is a blessing as the church pastor, Monsignor O’Hara.

It’s all good music and good times, with a little drama, as this “Sister Act” makes a joyful noise and “Spreads the Love Around.” Performances are weekends through Oct. 8 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit Footlite.org.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

IndyFringe: Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace

By John Lyle Belden

This is the kind of show you go to Fringe festivals for: Entertaining, immersive, funny – and you might win a prize!

Drag diva Betsy Carmichael is the self-proclaimed “First Lady of Bingo,” and for the most part the show has everyone in the audience playing rounds of the game, called by her accompanist Jerry Mosey as “Chip.” But she spices it up with planned responses to many of the numbers she gets everyone to call out. Or maybe she has a little story to tell. Or maybe some lucky “player” gets to craft a good-luck charm right on the stage. Whatever she’s up to, she’s always charming.

And be ready when the number called ends in 4: that’s “four – candy store,” when Betsy throws candy.

She only had three performances during the recently-concluded IndyFringe. Hopefully, since she hails from Chicago, she’ll make the trip back down again soon.

Info at www.BetsyBingo.com.

IndyFringe: ‘Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror’

By John Lyle Belden

These things happened.

We must never forget that. These things happened.

Jubilee, Mississippi, does not exist, and “Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror,” the short drama by Garret Mathews that had a run at the recent IndyFringe festival, is fiction, but racial strife and murderous bigotry in Mississippi in the 1960s were real. These things happened.

Kates (portrayed by Donovan Whitney) represents the various college students – black, like him, or even white – who volunteered as civil rights workers, helping disenfranchised Southern blacks to register and vote. People who put up with derision, verbal and even physical attacks, from white residents who declared them “outside agitators” and an enemy to society. People who landed in a Southern jail cell, like Kates, speaking on a college level with a cellmate who barely finished high school, only adding to the layers of difference between them, yet trying to hard to bridge.

These things happened.

Buell (Clay Mabbitt) represents the Southerners who don’t feel things are quite right, but it’s the world they were born into. Perhaps they play along because it keeps you out of trouble. Perhaps they find other ways to act out at the world, like getting drunk and attacking a traffic light, landing in jail next to this nig… this outsider.

These things happened.

Tadpole (Sam Fields) seems like an unreal stereotype, but we all know someone like him, and in the rural South 50 years ago, there weren’t public services to care for people with mental challenges, but local folks would adopt them and take care of them. But what if your caretaker is in jail?

These things happened.

Spottswood (Kevin C. Robertson) represents the face under the KKK hood, the men invested in the racist status quo, who didn’t even see non-whites as human. Men who not only defied the outsiders, but reveled in the fact that they could kill them, and likely never face justice.

These things happened.

The jail Guard (Dustin Miller) represented the common go-along/get-along citizen. They just don’t want trouble, and really don’t feel comfortable with strangers coming in and upsetting things.

These things happened.

These actors, under the direction of Susan Nieten, do an excellent job of breathing life into these archetypes, making them human – all human – and standing before us, bringing the arguments and ideas of the time to life, presenting “all sides” better than the bluster of a present-day politician reveals. They bring to life Mathews’ imagined scenes, based on numerous interviews of people who were there, in real Southern towns.

These things happened.

And when you see this show, wherever it next gets staged – and you should – even with a different cast and director, and you see what its events lead to, remember:

These things happened.

For information on the inspiration for “Jubilee” visit Mathews’ website, www.pluggerpublsihing.com.