Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

NoExit: Spend a holiday with some damaged people

By John Lyle Belden

If you never thought you’d see No Exit, the local company known for unusual and avant garde performances, and Tennessee Williams, notable for brilliant standard dramas, in the same sentence, have I got a surprise for you.

“The Mutilated,” originally written and staged as a one-act in 1965, is one of Williams’ later, more artistically adventurous plays. Though an initial failure, a New York revival with John Waters acolyte Mink Stole in a lead role five years ago earned praise. So yes, Tennessee, it is a No Exit play. And with the company’s Drosselmeyer taking the holidays off (he had a cabaret in July), this counts as their “Christmas” show.

Most of the cast also act as chorus — not just in the “Greek” sense, but more literally as holiday carolers. The focus is on our leads, Celeste Delacroix Griffin (Beverly Roche) and Trinket Dugan (Gigi Jennewein).

On Christmas Eve, 1938, Celeste has been released from the House of Detention where she had been held for shoplifting — one of her many, many vices. She makes her way back to the Silver Dollar Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter where Trinket lives fairly comfortably, but alone, off the proceeds of a single oil well. The two had been each other’s only friend, but a fight prior to Celeste’s arrest has left Trinket too wounded to forgive.

But Trinket also carries a deeper scar, “mutilated” by the loss of a breast both physically and mentally, in perpetual shame and paranoia of the stigma from anyone finding out. Sadly, Celeste exploits this in her selfish, immature efforts to keep Trinket in her life. Thus the night is mostly a battle of wills between the women. Celeste leaves clues to Trinket’s secrets and calls her by her former, less colorful name. Meanwhile, desperate for company, Trinket takes home a sailor (Matthew Walls) so drunk he wavers between dull confusion and violent agitation. All the while, hotel manager Bernie (Zachariah Stonerock) sits by, eyes on his comic book, exasperated like he’s seen these scenes play out between the women many times before.

Roche and Jennewein give award-worthy performances: Celeste prowls the two-level stage like a predator, while Trinket works her corner like a wounded deer. In fact, all the cast are superb, including Walls, Stonerock, Mark Cashwell, Dan Flahive, Abby Gilster, Elysia Rohn and Doug Powers.

While costumes and sets are standard for a Depression-era drama, there are a number of artsy, edgy touches, including the arresting manner in which the “carols” are sung (words by Williams, music adapted by Ben Asaykwee), and the way so much is left unsaid, including the full story of Trinket’s “mutilation.” Then there is the bewildering ending — a “miracle” is promised, and seems to be delivered, but it is up to you after the lights go up to work out what it all means.

As other commenters on the play have noted, the characters here are all “mutilated” in some way: physically, mentally, spiritually. We see the pains of addiction, whether it be to wine or a person. Yet like any holiday show, even in Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans, anything is possible on Christmas day.

No Exit has located “The Mutilated” in the Carriage House of the Indianapolis Propylaeum, 1410 N. Delaware downtown (a couple of blocks north of the President Benjamin Harrison home). Performances are through Sunday; see noexitperformance.org for information and tickets.

We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.