Walken in a winter wonderland

By John Lyle Belden

For those wanting a little something different during the holidays, Defiance Comedy presents a horror thriller in the form of a comedy musical, “Silent Fright.”

It’s Christmas Eve on the North Pole, and with Santa away on his annual duties, the elves are vulnerable to an evil spirit that stalks the workshop. It possesses their souls, making them mindless zombies which take on a voice that sounds like (a bad impression of) Christopher Walken. 

Ryan Ruckman is our traditional Narrator, who should have warned his other role, party elf Jingle Jams — but apparently these stories don’t work that way. Shelby Myers is Trinket, Santa’s assistant, who is in a relationship with chef elf Butterscotch (Chad Woodward), but things are getting too serious. Totally not serious is Kelsey VanVoorst as Candy Sparkles, the friendship elf. Not being taken seriously is Meg McLane as Pipette, the science elf; she’s a bit green (literally).  And John Kern is old elf Chutney Frostbottoms, just three years from retirement (so, yeah, he’s doomed). 

Director Matt Kramer wrote the play and songs, which go for a full two acts, so this isn’t just one of Defiance’s Fringe shows. But it has all the goofy humor you’d expect from the creators of Fringe hits “Volleybrawl” and “Autumn Takes a Tumble.”

Come for the comedy, stay for the weird voice work. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings, Dec. 6-7 and 13-14, and a matinee Dec. 15, at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair Street. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org; follow @DefianceComedy on social media.

‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

A little ‘Chrystmas’ magic

By John Lyle Belden

Bryan Fonseca returns to his tradition of the holiday show he had nurtured for a dozen years, with Fonseca Theatre Company’s “A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas.”

(That original series is also continued at the Phoenix Theatre, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

Bryan’s cast of Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Jonathan Stombaugh, Phebe Taylor, and Dorian Wilson, with the help of Tim Brickley (music director) and Mariel Greenlee (choreographer), bring us 12 scenes of music, comedy and dance. The works of five local playwrights are featured: Eric Pfeffinger and Mark Harvey-Levine’s modern takes on the Nativity; John P. Gallo’s hilariously macabre holiday tradition; Kenyon Brown’s tale of new Grinch mischief; and Cassandra Rose’s bittersweet scene of family dysfunction. Music includes songs by Tish Hinojosa, Pete Townshend, and Tim Minchin, as well as a mix by DJ QueVee.

For those who remember, Fonseca brings back the ultimate Jewish Mother with Harvey-Levine’s “Oye Vey Maria,” but most of the bits are new, such as Brown’s “Mistletopriation,” which acts out the show’s title statement, with Hansen as the Christmas-hating terrorist. And Taylor shows her knack for playing practically any age, especially in her sweet performance of Hinojosa’s “Arbolito.” 

Throughout, this show is a little irreverent and a lot of fun. Performances run through Dec. 22 at the new Basile Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Footlite hosts fresh take on popular fairy-tale musical

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes, when you need it most, a special person appears, a wise character who makes everything better with their magical touch.

A Fairy Godmother? Sure. But for now. I’m referring to Bob Harbin. Mr. “Bobdirex” has cast his spell on Footlite Musicals in his direction of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” While most often seen as a version of the 1957 television production, he has gone with the 2013 Broadway book of the musical by Douglas Carter Beane. Consider this a more postmodern and “woke” version — as one critic of the New York staging put it, influenced by “Les Mis” and “Spamalot” — while still retaining plenty of the fairy-tale charm and the wonderful R&H songs.

We check off the old story points: A girl is reduced to servitude by her cruel stepmother and spoiled stepsisters, but she keeps a positive attitude “in her own little corner” by the hearth. Meanwhile, the local Prince (who is quite Charming, but he’ll go by one of his several names) needs to find a bride so he holds a Royal Ball, which our evil Steps go to but leave Cinder-Ella behind, to be rescued by a Fairy Godmother, who provides the gown and glass slippers while charming a pumpkin into a carriage and handy animals into its horses, driver and footmen. Spell ends at midnight, so after Cindy and the Prince fall in love-at-first-sight, the clock chimes, and off she goes…

But, wait! Also: Prince ‘Topher (Jacob Hardin) is more than two-dimensional and has his own inner struggle; likewise, stepsisters Charlotte (Kristin Cutler) and especially Gabriella (Tara Cherry) have feelings other than snobby disdain, with the latter secretly in love with peasant rabble-rouser Jean-Michel (Dustin Branum) — oh, and there’s that young student revolutionary added to the cast. Madame Stepmother (Jill O’Malia) is still evil as heck, but we have another villain in minister Sebastian (Markell Pipkins), who maintains the kingdom until the Prince comes of age, enacting all sorts of oppressive measures. And to top it all off, when she runs from the ball, Cinderella (Lauren Russel) takes both shoes! What’s going on here?!

You have until Dec. 15 to see how this all works out to the expected happy ending. With the odd twists and its constant way of mining humor from them, this is an entertaining take on the whole Once-Upon-a-Time schtick, and with tunes like “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” Fol-De-Rol,” “Impossible is Possible,” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” sure to please any who love the original show.

Great performances by all I’ve listed so far — who knew we could find the Stepsisters so fun? — as well as Heather Catlow as Marie, the old woman with something shiny under that frumpy dress; and Chris Jones as Lord Pinkleton, servant to Topher and Sebastian, and master of the sarcastic eye-roll. 

Russel is appropriately beautiful in voice, movement and attitude. Cutler wields both ditsy-ness and sarcasm to hilarious effect. Cherry also plays not-too-bright but makes up for it with chutzpah and surprising depth. Branum plays a boy full of radical fire, but ironically low in confidence, and charming either way. Catlow is appropriately maternal with wry humor. Hardin makes the most of a story that usually just makes him the means to Cinderella’s end, showing some growth from spoiled boy to worthy of his eventual kingdom.

The show also looks great, with costumes by the team of Etta Biloon, Renee Stout, Vickie Tewes, and Darlene Uggen; and wigs by Tim Hunt and Jill Wooster (you’ll never forget Gabrielle’s hairpiece). Sets are by Stephen Matters; choreography is by Linda Rees; music director and orchestra conductor is Kayvon Emtiaz. Note the cast and crew are all volunteers, doing it for the love of the art.

Oh, and there are also puppets. Who doesn’t like puppets?

Thanks, Bob! For a fresh and fun diversion from all the holiday happenings, “Cinderella” graces the Footlite stage at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Searching for something to believe in at ‘Prospect Hill’

By John Lyle Belden

What or who do you have faith in? What is it telling you? And are you truly listening?

These questions of faith and the angels among us come alive in “Prospect Hill,” a new play by Bruce Walsh, presented by Fat Turtle at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Jacob is a therapist badly in need of help, himself. His husband, Rex, a cancer survivor whose last round of chemo left a particularly frustrating side effect, obsesses with kitchen renovations to avoid their waning relationship. Jacob has given up alcohol, but finds addictive urges satisfied by the constant snacks and sodas brought by his young patient, Ethan, a driver for PepsiCo.

And it doesn’t help that Jacob has been in contact with his Mennonite father, who doesn’t approve of him being gay, let alone his relationship.

Ethan has his own problems: His girlfriend is expecting their child, but now wants nothing to do with him, in part due to his drug addiction. He wants to make more to help support the baby, so, hearing that Rex retired from his sales job in his 50s, asks him for “financial advice.” Relishing the challenge, Rex sees the young man as a potential protege. 

But when the inevitable conflicts occur, a sort of miracle happens. Could Ethan be the “third angel” in their relationship?

Directed by Fat Turtle Managing Director Aaron Cleveland, our well-chosen trio of actors bring out three vivid characters, each searching for meaning in his own way.

Zachariah Stonerock presents the stoic Jacob as a miserable mensch who has been worn down over time, so occupied with pleasing others he has no idea how to be happy, himself. Going through the motions, he simply repeats a mindfulness exercise he had just heard from Rex in his session with Ethan — to hilarious effect — almost accidentally making a sort of breakthrough.

Craig Kemp as Rex counters with energy and humor, masking a deep desperation. He needs to feel vital. not only in his loins (another comic point), but in his mind, as his salesman’s instincts are aroused by the prospect of “selling” Ethan to his old pharma company as a potential employee. Meanwhile, despite proclaiming his atheism, he is hooked on a “six-part series” on PBS on the world’s religions, finding inspiration in spite of himself.

As for 20-ish Ethan, Evren Wilder Elliott* excellently presents a character who seems at first so simple, yet has depths and aspects that even surprise him. “I am here because I am a prophet,” Ethan says — to be fair, it wasn’t his idea — which seems absurd, until it isn’t. The actor channeled the insecurity of playing their first “male” role to convincingly give us a grown boy full of bluster and desire to do right, yet lacking the personal discipline to pull it off. 

This locally-based script (Prospect Hill is a neighborhood in Bloomington) makes an excellent debut, a nice blend of human drama with laugh-out-loud moments. It’s still a work in progress, as the ending seemed a little muddled, hinting at more story to tell (perhaps a sequel play or trilogy could come of this?), but it raises some interesting points on faith, relationships, and what we seek to do with our lives.

Performances run through Nov. 24 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, downtown Indianapolis. Get info at fatturtletheatre.com and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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*Trans actor formerly known as Ann Marie (A.M.) Elliott

Kids make a splash in KidsPlay’s ‘Mermaid in Miami’

By John Lyle Belden

Being a former writer and “Arts Editor” at the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, I have long followed and been a booster of KidsPlay Inc., the local children’s theatre featuring kids in grades 3-8 from all over the area. Under the direction of Christine Schaefer, the company puts on a high-quality show, and has helped to develop a lot of talent – a number of central Indiana performers are former KidsPlayers, and now there are alumni with their own children in the program.

Of course, I bring this up because this week is the KidsPlay Inc. fall production, the quirky comedy “Mermaid in Miami” by Wade Bradford. Directed by Schaefer with Alexandra Kern, choreography by Frances Hull and Amy Studebaker, this take on “The Little Mermaid” has a contemporary setting, yet is in a surprising way true to the Hans Christian Andersen story.

An old fisherman, Ernie (Joseph Shininger), happens to come across a young mermaid, Breeze (Olivia Greer), on the run from her tyrannical father Emperor Tropico (Matthew Hentz). As she had escaped with her mother, now missing, the angry monarch asks Ernie if he has seen two mermaids, so he honestly answers “no,” helping Breeze to escape. Grateful, she stays in the safety of the lagoon the fisherman calls home, located just a beach away from Miami, Florida.

Meanwhile, on that beach, hot Latin dancer Rico (Jaxon Brittsan) is ready for the local dance contest, he just needs a partner. The Lambada sisters (Zora Coe and Ashley Pipkin) are injured, and best friend Grace (Ella Miesse) he only sees as his tailor. But hearing of the opportunity, Breeze makes a deal with the Swamp Hag (Bella Turner) for legs so he can join Rico in the dance.

Naturally, those legs come at a cost.

The large cast also includes Anthony Stunda and Josie Joyner as dolphins Ebb and Flo, who provide a lot of the punchlines; Brodie Stout-England as Prince Dorkus, the Emperor’s goofy hand-picked fiance for Breeze; Jordan Kuker as the mysterious Spirit of the Air; Hank Lee and Ava Peters as local reporters; Abbagail Gantt and Cooper Schmitt as vendors with well-timed wares; and Jack Joyner, Grace McCaw, and Lucy Reed, as an entertaining trio of crabs.

This show has excellent performances throughout. Greer shows off some great physical comedy, as she nimbly portrays a wobbly girl who just got her legs minutes ago, right through the obligatory dance montage where she learns to move with rhythm.

Turner is appropriately menacing, and manages to keep a Caribbean accent without it slipping into caricature. Hentz is naturally haughty, while Shininger plays a good go-with-the-flow guy. Miesse stitches together a role with surprising range. Stout-England is too much of a doofus to dislike, despite his role in Tropico’s plot.

Brittsan not only manages to stay likable even while being a bit cheesey, but also he, Coe and Pipkin show off some genuine dance flair, including leading the traditional opening dance number before the play.

As usual, this show is a lot of fun, but there is some substance with the silly, especially in the way this story ends. Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8-10, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) in downtown Greenfield. Tickets are just $5 at the door.

Beautiful production of difficult drama

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “Agnes of God” brings up numerous issues of faith, the damages of abuse, and the power and role of the Church in our lives. So it is appropriate to find it at a church, presented by Downey Avenue Performing Arts in Irvington. 

The 1979 play by John Pielmeier — inspired by an actual 1977 case — had a Tony-winning Broadway run and was made into an Oscar-nominated 1985 film, starring Jane Fonda. A young novice nun, Sister Agnes, is discovered to have been pregnant when she gives birth and the baby is found strangled in a trash can. She and her Mother Superior suggest that it was somehow a miraculous virgin conception, but court psychiatrist Dr. Livingston must get at the truth.

Katie Marie Eaker is sweet and serene as Agnes, complete with appropriately angelic voice, as the character often sings sacred refrains, adding a haunting aspect to her performance. Nearly completely covered in snow-white habit, our focus is on her face, with which she manages to project naive innocence throughout, even when describing the most bizarre things.

Tina Valdois-Bruner projects authority as Mother Miriam Ruth, not only from her Holy position but also from the character’s experiences as a mother and widow (prior to vows), giving well-earned edge to her maternal demeanor. Her black habit gives appropriate contrast from her young charge.

Jesi Brown Friedly as Dr. Livingston is our narrator, and the essential science-based skeptic. The Doctor is also a former Catholic, who feels with some justification that the Church killed her sister. She ably plays the character’s many aspects, the doubter who wants to believe that good will prevail, as she balances her job as investigator with her calling as a healer. She is also a chain smoker — the stage cigarette is never actually lit — a fact that is noted from time to time, including the conversation with Mother Miriam regarding what brands of cigarettes the Saints would have smoked.

Aside from that scene, there is constant tension throughout the play as Miriam and Livingston engage in a battle of wills over Agnes’s fate — and possibly her soul. The girl slowly reveals more about herself, how her own mother still haunts her, and clues to what really happened. 

The stage is in Century Hall of Downey Avenue Christian Church, which director and set designer Anthony Lineberry set up in a manner that draws the audience close to the actors. The back wall of windows looks out on a meditation garden, which during the play we see Agnes go to when not in the scene. Lineberry also took advantage of reflections in the glass to set the actors at certain points.

The result is a visual and dramatic work of art, an experience that sticks with you as you sort out what may have happened and what lessons we can draw from it.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8-9, at the church, 111 S. Downey Ave., Indianapolis (Irvington neighborhood, near Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church). Get information and tickets at downeyavenue.com/performing-arts/.