CCP drama presents public family’s private truths

By Wendy Carson

In “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Carmel Community Players, the Wyeths aren’t an ordinary family.

The father, Lyman, is a retired Hollywood actor and staunchly Republican former politician and foreign ambassador. The mother, Polly, also a past actor, is a devoted political wife. Her sister, Silda Grauman, was writer and costar of their forgettable series of movies – their Tinseltown legacy. Silda is also a resentful recovering alcoholic whose circumstances force her to endure living with her sister’s family.

It’s Christmas time, and Lyman and Polly’s grown children have come home to Palm Springs, Calif., for the holidays. The son, Trip, lives nearby and works in the entertainment industry, producing a trashy, exploitative reality show. The daughter, Brooke, is a troubled novelist residing in New York. After a broken marriage, mental breakdown and institutionalization, a combination of effective therapy and completing another book has brought her out of her darkness and back to the desert.

The family has lived in the public eye, yet hides dark secrets. It turns out that Brooke’s book is a memoir focused on her older brother Henry, who committed suicide years ago after being implicated in a deadly bombing. Considering Henry a free-spirited hero and best friend, Brooke blames their conservative parents for his fate.

The resulting conflict drives the plot of this acclaimed drama by Jon Robin Baitz. Brooke (Shannon Samson in top form) wants her parents’ blessing before the book publishes, but their pushback, especially from Polly (Vickie Cornelius Phipps, a sharp performance with cutting edges) pushes everyone to the brink. Lyman (Ronn Johnstone, giving the impression this role was written for him) struggles to avoid the growing conflict, but secrets have their own inevitable weight. Trip (Jeremy Tuterow, delivering a lighter counterpoint) also wants to avoid drama, and doesn’t recognize the apparent monsters in Brooke’s book as their parents. Meanwhile, Silda (Miki Mathioudakis, excellent as usual) gives full reign to her bitterness in entertaining fashion.

To discover these fascinating secrets and lies, take the Clay Terrace exit to visit “Other Desert Cities,” through Feb. 11. Call 317-815-9687 or visit carmelplayers.org.

Advertisements

IRT presents sweet ‘Raisin’

By John Lyle Belden

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?”
— From “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

It is the end of the 1950s, and postwar prosperity hasn’t quite reached the Black neighborhoods of Chicago. But for the Younger family, a windfall in the form of a life insurance check – a sad compensation for dreams deferred – brings hope of better times, better things. And every member of the family has ideas for how to invest or spend that money.

This sets up the plot of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama, “Raisin in the Sun,” on stage through Feb. 3 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The IRT’s high professional standards are reflected throughout this production, including director Timothy Douglas and his cast.

Chike Johnson is solid as Walter Lee Younger, who struggles with his need and expectation to be the man of the house. But it’s hard to stay a proud black man when your only way to make money is to drive white men around the city, at their beck and call. His frustration makes communication difficult with wife Ruth (Dorcas Sowunmi), who feels the strain of working as a cleaning woman on top of starting an unplanned pregnancy. She is also wary of Walter’s dreams of business schemes he works up with his drinking buddies. The latest, for which he wants the insurance money, is to start a liquor store.

But matriarch, and widow whose name is on the check, Lena Younger (played with sweet strength by Kim Staunton), doesn’t want her Christian witness tainted by financing such a business. She would rather see the money go towards putting daughter Beneatha (Stori Ayers) through medical school, as well as a down payment on a house for the whole family, especially Walter’s son (and Lena’s grandson) Travis (Lex Lumpkin).

Meanwhile, Beneatha’s college studies are opening her to the swiftly changing world of the era, and the overtures of two very different suitors. George (Jordan Bellow) is from a wealthy family, and sees keeping status as a black man of means through a rather conservative lens. But through Joseph (Elisha Lawson), a Nigerian student, Beneatha sees Africa and becomes fascinated with their ancestral culture. Ayers takes on her interesting and complex character with gusto, adding to the play’s sometimes dark humor. And she provides a great model for costumer Kara Harmon’s designs.

Supporting characters are played by D. Alexander, Dameon Cooper, and Paul Tavianini as the lone white role – a man with a rather interesting offer when the Youngers seek to move into an all-white neighborhood.

The struggle of people of color in America is an ever-present backdrop, even before the family comes face to face with thinly-veneered bigotry. We would like to argue that it’s a different country today – and to a fair degree, it is – but the attitudes in this drama do feel too familiar. And consider that Travis would be in his 60s today; this is not ancient history.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s stage emphasizes the oppressively crowded feel of the setting with stacks of old furniture for walls, a decaying ceiling overhead, and an endless maze of balconies and stairs surrounding the Youngers’ one-bedroom apartment, which doesn’t even have its own bathroom.

In all, IRT provides an excellent opportunity to revisit or discover this brilliant work. Don’t defer your chance to experience it. Performances are on the main stage at 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

‘Brooklyn’ comes to Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As it is often said, context is everything.

“Brooklyn: The Musical” has a backstory that nearly overshadows the show itself. Its creators, Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, once collaborated decades ago before going seperate ways. More recently, McPherson, who had a comfortable life in New England, came across Schoenfeld, then a homeless street musician in Brooklyn. She took him in, and inspired by his tough life, they wrote what would become this musical.

After opening in Colorado, “Brooklyn” had a nearly full year on Broadway – October 2004 to June 2005. New York critics were not kind, but Kathleen Clarke Horrigan of Indy’s Footlite Musicals saw it during its final month and fell in love. After years of hunting for a way to bring the musical to Indiana, she finally has “Brooklyn” occupying the Footlite stage.

This is Footlite’s traditional January “cabaret” style show, with seating right on the stage, actors and audience sharing a common space. When we arrive to take our seats, we are transported to a grubby street corner by the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with trash, graffiti and discarded humanity. One man, the Street Singer (Stevie Jones) starts to perform with a generous voice and open guitar case. He is joined by four others, hardy “City Weeds” that spring up to help present his “Sidewalk Fairy Tale.”

For the most part, this show is the play-within-the-play about a Parisian girl, “Brooklyn,” named for the home of the American father she never knew. After losing her mother (played by Page Brown), Brooklyn (Shelbi Berry) eventually makes her way to New York as a famous singer, with one unfinished song that only her real dad would know. Local diva Paradice (Kendra Randle) is not amused and wants this French upstart off her turf. Brooklyn accepts Paradice’s challenge for a winner-take-all sing-off in hopes that this will aid her quest. But when she finds her father (Donny Torres) and learns his truth, will a happy ending to this tale be possible?

I’m leaving out a lot of details, of course, so you can discover them yourself. Dwelling on them would ruin the overall fantasia effect of the story, anyway. In the end, we truly learn who this story is about and for, which then sets the “fairy tale” as a whole in a clearer light.

The issue of homelessness permeates this story and production, but – as is true in everyday conversations – it is not directly addressed. This show won’t preach to you, but does present these people’s humanity, the “Heart Behind These Hands,” and clues to what can bring a person down to life under a bridge. This production is also helping raise awareness and funds for the local Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (www.chipindy.org).

Jones is a wonderful narrator with sweet voice and charisma to spare. Beautiful Berry and sassy Randle make an exellent sweet-sour yin-yang. Brown is angelic (literally) and Torres brings all the layers of his complex character. In other words, these “weeds” are a pitch-perfect bouquet of talent.

Also impressive is the look and atmosphere of the stage set by Stephen Matters, like a gritty set for “Rent” gone to seed, complete with lights and sounds (but thankfully no smells) to make you feel almost a bit unsafe. Costumes (by Curt Pickard) and props are marvels of recycling and improvisation with discarded everyday objects, oddly adding to the whimsy of some scenes.

Combine these elements with backing street people (Rayanna Bibbs, Tristan Bustos, Amy Douglas and Michael Davis) and an on-stage band led by Linda Parr, and you have one of those musicals that is as much an experience as a show. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming an “Unfinished Lullaby” or have the words “With our tears, we water roses” tattooed to your memory.

This rare gem of an almost-forgotten musical has performances today through Sunday and Jan. 18-21 at 1847 N. Alabama. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Angry Inch’ measures up

By John Lyle Belden

Once again, internationally ignored superstar Hedwig Robinson takes the stage in Indianapolis, fronting “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The German glam goddess tells her story while shadowing former partner Johnny Gnosis, who is on another stage, reaping the benefits of scandal.

“Hedwig,” the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical, is a transcendent sensory experience when done right — and Zach (Rosing) & Zack (Neiditch) may have succeeded with this month’s production on the Epilogue Players stage.

That’s right, this punk youthquake is in the little corner theatre that typically showcases older actors. But on the other hand, given her Cold War backstory, the character of Hedwig isn’t so young anymore. The show was originally performed and set around the year 2000, so to keep the story fresh this play blurs the last 20 years into a spacetime setting of its own — not hard to reconcile for folks like me for whom the 20th century feels like yesterday, but might require some don’t-think-about-it for younger viewers.

Tim Hunt is Hedwig, with face, voice and attitude much like the show’s creator and original star, John Cameron Mitchell. Her look is made complete by exquisite costumes and headpieces by costumer Beck Jones, especially during “Wig in a Box.”

Hedwig’s present husband, Yitzhak, is portrayed perfectly by Kate Homan, from his sulking resentment and grudging fidelity to an outstanding transformation at the end.

They are backed by a solid onstage band of Jacob Stensberg, Matt Day, Steven Byroad and Andrew McAfee. They perform on a punk-aesthetic stage complete with cleverly used discarded-but-functional televisions.

As fans know, the “Angry Inch” refers to more than the band; it’s the result of the botched sex-change operation in East Berlin when young Hansel Schmidt became Hedwig. So, needless to say, there is mature content in this show (but no nudity). And as the historical context slips further into the past, and it being less unusual to see a Trans entertainer on stage, we are confronted with the other, larger, more universal theme of the play — the personal search for completion.

This world’s foundational myth (in the “Origin of Love”) is that humanity was only content when each “person” was a complete set of two individuals fused together. But in the longing for finding one’s other half, they ironically lose or give away parts of themselves. This is Hedwig’s journey — losing her “parts” to gain a man, yielding her creativity in the attempt to hold another, then denying Yitzhak his own completion for as long as her own soul is fragmented.

As the many puzzles presented come together, we all share in the completion of a beautiful experience, a feeling no one can tear down.

Performances are Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 11-14) at 1849 N. Alabama St. Click here for info and tickets.