Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jan Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White) a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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Old theater tradition done afresh under Indy’s sky

By John Lyle Belden

Something interesting is happening on Indy’s westside. A commedia dell’arte troupe, wandering from the Renaissance to modern day, has found its truck broken down on the campus of Marian University. So, in order to raise the funds to continue their journey home, A Company of Wayward Saints will perform for us – after all, a rich Duke may be in the audience!

In this instance, life is imitating art, as local actor Adam Tran and friends have been conducting a GoFundMe online campaign (still ongoing) to finance this production of “A Company of Wayward Saints,” the 1963 play by George Herman.

Tran leads the troupe as Harlequin. The others also play character archetypes: the boastful Capitano (Davey Pelsue), wisecracking know-it-all Dottore (Ronn Johnstone), the unfortunate Pantalone (Zach Stonerock), misunderstood youth Scapino (Josh Maldonado), the beautiful Columbine (Kelsey Leigh Miller), grasping Ruffiana (Miranda Nehrig), and the Lovers, Isabella (Nina DeWitt) and Aurelia (Andrea Heiden).

To perform what they call commedia la improvviso, they need a prompt from the audience. Harlequin reveals the mysterious Duke has asked for “The History of Man.” A tall order. “I will play God,” the Captain bellows, and the play is on. But as members of the company lament, “As actors, temperament is our original sin,” and dissension builds in the ranks.

This performance is a wonderfully unique experience, though you should bring lawn chairs to sit by the busted flatbed truck that is the stage. The actors give their all for the art, as though they don’t worry about getting paid (or is this like hustling for tips?). Johnstone can land a cheesy punchline in the first act, and bring surprising tenderness to an unexpectedly dramatic scene with the Lovers in the second. Maldonado displays tumbling skill along with his acting chops, and shares a charming and touching scene with Nehrig. Miller nicely turns the Odysseus legend on its ear, and has a fun look at love and marriage with Stonerock. Tran shows his depth with the final scene – a scene of finality – opposite Pelsue.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday, May 18-20, by the Amphitheater at Marian University, 3200 Cold Spring Road. Get info at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/acompanyofwaywardsaintsindy/.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

NoExit literally surrounds you with scenes of people barely getting by

By John Lyle Belden

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing “Nickel and Dimed” – which is appropriate for a NoExit Performance show.

The play, by Joan Holden, is based on the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who spent months at a time taking low-paying jobs to find out first-hand how the working poor in America get by. She hustles for tips as a waitress, risks injury cleaning houses, puts in long hours at a nursing home, and deals with the workplace culture of a big-box store.

But what is shocking and eye-opening for her is old news to many of us in the audience. Friends of the theatre tend to take in shows (or perform in them) between shifts as a barista; or perhaps we have a good career going, but only after some lean years. Still, there are two aspects to this that should give us some pause: First, Barbara’s adventures took place in the late 1990s (the book published in 2001), yet, except for the fact that the minimum wage is marginally higher, the play’s events could be happening today – and for a lot of people, they are.

Secondly, we who have had some college and a few breaks must remember that for many – such as Barbara’s coworkers portrayed – this is as good as it gets. This made me feel a little uncomfortable with the writer just pretending to be a broke divorcee with no prospects – acting like an anthropologist hanging out with the natives until she’s gathered enough data to leave them and return to her comfortable life (to the play’s credit, Barbara’s boyfriend does point this out to her). This seems cruel to those she leaves behind, especially after she tries to run interference in their lives – it is these with no fall-back position who deal with the consequences. One still lives in her vehicle; another still struggles with single motherhood while keeping the terms of her probation; still another trades one unhealthy workplace for another, but the new job pays a little more.

So, while Barbara, played earnestly by Bridget Haight, is the focus of the play, more important are the various people she works with – portrayed excellently by Lynn Burger, Carrie Bennett, Kallen Ruston, Tracy Herring, Latoya Moore, Elysia Rohn and Ryan Ruckman (who also plays the boyfriend). Their stories and struggles should resonate with us, and help us to take notice of all the “invisible” people in our day to day lives – busboys, shelf stockers, cleaning staff, etc.

Director Callie Burk Hartz and set designer Lizz Krull took an inventive approach to “theatre in the round,” placing all the sets around the edge of the large room while the audience sits in the middle in swivel rolling desk chairs. Thus, as the actors and light cues (credit to Christian McKinney) send us around the room, we constantly turn to face them. Little need for crew to move set pieces, and the chairs are kinda fun.

Aside from inventive staging and thought-provoking subject matter, this is also a NoExit show in the fact that the site isn’t one of the city’s theatre spaces, but a vacant office building at 3633 E. Raymond St., Indianapolis, near the intersection of Raymond and Sherman (south of Edwards’ Drive-In, turn in behind the McDonald’s). It works as a roomy space for the play’s set-up, and symbolically as a location where an office temp might toil for whatever she can get before the assignment ends and the job search resumes. However, being on Indy’s Eastside could make it difficult to bring in the folks from the more affluent areas of town who really need to see this show.

So, grab an upper-middle-class friend and see this production that helps put faces and names to the people we only hear vaguely about in government policy debates. After all, we’re all closer to that economic bottom than we think.

Performances are through May 19. Get tickets and info at noexitperformance.org.

Get on board ‘Priscilla’ with Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

To my gay friends reading this, I have just two words to say about “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (based on the film “The Adventures of Priscilla…”), at Footlite Musicals through May 20:

FABULOUS! GO!

Need more details? OK. This spectacle is the journey of three Sydney, Australia, drag queens: Tick a/k/a Mitzi (Michael Howard), who wants to connect with the son he barely knows; Bernadette (John Phillips), a widow and aging diva needing to find her next chapter; and Adam a/k/a Felicia (Chris Jones), an impetuous lass in search of fun and adventure.

Tick’s very understanding wife, Marion (Carolyn Lynch), needs an act for her casino in Alice Springs (located in the center of the Australian continent, far from coastal Sydney) and his traveling there would fulfill Tick’s promise to visit his boy, Benji (Rocco Meo). Bernadette provides the showbiz know-how, and Adam provides the transportation – a fabulous RV that is the Priscilla of the title. While the wildlife ignore our trio, the treacherous part of the journey is the human denizens as they travel through Australia’s equivalent of Kentucky (Broken Hill, Woop Woop) and West Virginia (Coober Pedy). Along the way, they do meet one helpful soul, Bob (Dan Flahive), who ends up along for the ride.

Howard presents Tick with charm, charisma and rugged good looks reminiscent of Hugh Jackman. Phillips exudes authority appropriate to a, at turns, regal and maternal personality. Jones goes from carefree to careless and back with aplomb, like the younger sibling you just want to slap sometimes, but love anyway. And Flahive is sweet in his portrayal of what was my favorite character in the film.

Also notable are Sarah Marone as Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia, of the infamous “ping pong scene,” and Dennis Jones as Sydney diva Miss Understanding.

The story is embellished with more than 20 pop and disco hits from the 1970s and ’80s, including “It’s Raining Men,” “Go West,” “I Will Survive,” and “True Colors.” For those who can’t resist singing along, a special matinee this Saturday (May 12 at 2:30 p.m.) will let you do just that, complete with lyric sheets.

Another spectacular feature of this show is the costumes – the genuine Tony and Oscar-winning outfits sent to Indy from Broadway. The headdresses must be seen to be believed, as well as the visual effect of the big “gumby” pants.

All this, for a story with a little pain, a lot of heart, and a sense of fun as big as the Outback. Footlite is at 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

IRT puts on ‘Noises Off’

By John Lyle Belden

We know how the workplace can be the site of ridiculous interpersonal drama, so imagine how it can get when you have a group of temperamental artistic folks in the same space for hours on end – you get something like “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce on stage through May 20 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

On a January day in a forgettable English town, the cast of the comedy “Nothing On” – which explores the humor inherent in multiple platters of sardines – are rehearsing less than 24 hours before the play opens, with director Lloyd Dallas (IRT mainstay Ryan Artzberger) at his wits’ end. Dotty (Hollis Resnik) struggles with where to place the sardines, while Frederick (Robert Neal) struggles with his character’s motivation. Brooke (Ashley Dillard) only seems to have room in her brain for her lines, while Garry (Jerry Richardson) and Belinda (Heidi Kettenring) scramble to be in the right spots for them to make sense. It’s hoped that aging thespian Selsdon (Bob Riley) will be sober and on time, so stage manager Tim (Will Allan) is on standby as understudy. Meanwhile, assistant stage manager Poppy (Mehry Eslaminia) jumps to Dallas’s every demand.

The eventful run-through of the first act gives us an idea of what’s supposed to happen on stage. Next, midway through the tour of “Nothing On,” we see what’s happening backstage. Nerves and relationships are frayed as Brooke threatens to walk out, Selsdon keeps finding the whiskey, and Dallas ends up in a very prickly situation. Finally, the third act brings us to the memorable final performance of the tour, during which some improvisation becomes necessary.

The genius of this play is the perfectly timed “bad” timing, everything going “wrong” in just the right way. As is the standard at IRT, this cast has it down, making slamming doors and slipping on sardines an art and moving props such as a bottle, an axe or a cactus like a ballet. Praise must also go to scenic designer Bill Clarke for the two perfectly arranged coordinated sets, as well as director David Bradley for containing the chaos for a thoroughly entertaining show.

Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre in downtown Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at irtlive.com or call 317-635-5252.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.