Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Shakespeare historical drama provides free fun at Garfield Park

By John Lyle Belden

The Garfield Shakespeare Company is a wonderful community asset in the near-southside of Indianapolis. Performing in Garfield Park, the company provides an opportunity for actors and crew of all levels of experience to bring on the Bard — and for everyone else to watch it all for free.

Through this weekend at the Garfield Park Arts Center, see them perform “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” These plays, easily fitting into about an hour each with intermission between, lead up to the popular “Henry V,” and detail some of the events of England’s War of the Roses, struggles between dynasties for the British throne.

While the young “Hal,” Prince of Wales (Dillon Richter), makes merry with best bud Edward Poins (Benjamin Mathis), boisterous braggart Sir John Falstaff (Stephen E. Foxworthy) and company, his father, Henry IV (John Mortell) seeks to squash unrest in his kingdom, even while his health is failing.

The Percy family, especially young “Hotspur” (J.D. Bonitz) don’t like how their former ally is now their ruler and raise up a rebellion. After some wild (and very entertaining) antics by the Falstaff gang, the younger Henry is summoned by his father to take seriously his station and join him in battle. This Hal does, leading to a fateful meeting with Hotspur.

Part 2 deals with the aftermath of the Percys’ rebellion, leading to a “peace” meeting between its leaders and the king’s younger son, Prince John of Lancaster (Eirene Brubaker). The kingdom secure, the crown can pass to young Henry. But is he truly “king” material?

Director Chris Burton has created an excellent environment to experience this rich chapter of history. The audience sits at tables of the “Boar’s Head Tavern,” complete with complimentary platters of fruit and cheese and non-alcoholic beverages. (Friday and Saturday performances also feature sales of Garfield Brewery products.) When a scene happens to take place in the Boar’s Head of the play,  a character might sit by you for a moment, or an argument break out by your table. Simple sets give us Falstaff’s table; Royal chambers; a war camp; or even two environs at once, where similar conversations take place. History comes alive with moments of stark emotion and rowdy humor.

Key roles feature brilliant acting, especially Morrell’s dying king and Foxworthy’s absolutely perfect Falstaff. Burton even has a twist on the Shakespearean habit of casting boys for female parts, by having teen girl Brubaker play the boy Prince John (who was in his early teens when these events took place). Also solid performances from Brant Hughes, Mike Harold, June Greyson, Mallory Ward, Amber Bradley, Ashley Chase Elliott, Elizabeth Fasbinder, Jim Mellowitz, Joshua Minnich, Andrew K. Olin, and Jay Brubaker as one tough Scotsman.

This production is a follow-up to last year’s “Richard II.” Does this mean we can see “Henry V” next spring? Richter told me he is up for it, so we can hope.

Performances of “Henry IV” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 28-30. Their next production will be an outdoor staging of “As You Like It” in August. Find information at Facebook.com/garfieldshakespearecompany.

Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

IRT: Homecoming brings hard questions in stand-alone ‘sequel’

By John Lyle Belden

Regarding “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” I must first note – as others have – that you absolutely do not have to have seen or read the original Henrik Ibsen play to appreciate this follow-up by American Lucas Hnath. I read it in college, and about all I remember about it is the essential fact that Nora feels her life is too suffocating to bear any longer, and at the end of the play she boldly exits through the front door to go live her own life.

That’s about all you need to know, and that in doing so she also abandoned her husband, Torvald, and their children – an ending nearly as shocking now as it was in 1879. These facts are thoroughly reviewed in the scenes of “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the Broadway hit now on the main stage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

It is 15 years later (1894) and there is a knock at the front door of Torvald Helmer’s house. The housekeeper, Anne Marie (Kim Staunton), answers to find it is Nora (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who has lived a full and successful life in the intervening years. But suddenly Nora has the need to take care of unfinished business with Torvald (Nathan Hosner). Amid a whirlwind of emotion, he tells her the resolution of their business will not be so easy. Nora then turns to Emmy (Becca Brown), the daughter she hardly knows, who has her own feelings regarding women’s independence, as well as the reasons why no one will end this visit unscathed.

Needless to say, this is some intense drama, but punctuated with moments of situational humor. Hnath’s play also connects to us through the use of contemporary speech (appropriate, considering that to be “authentic” everything would have been said in Norwegian). Director James Still said that at various points the dialogue read like a lecture, so, often the actors would seem to speak directly to the audience. To aid this, the stage front appears to thrust forward towards the seats.

Thus do Nora, Torvald, Emmy and Anne Marie bridge the 125-year gap to show us the issues of gender and family they struggled with then, which are still not perfectly resolved now. What Nora could do as a single woman, contrasted with being married, reminds me of how it wasn’t that long ago that American women couldn’t open credit card accounts without their husbands’ signatures. And what a better future could be differs for each person – Nora ecstatically desires a 20th century where marriage is abolished; Emmy, preparing her own wedding, greets that notion with horror. And Torvald gives his side of the story, providing even more rich food for thought.

Performances are solid, from Hosner’s overwhelmed gentleman to Brown’s confident air, to the ever-shifting facade Arnold puts forward as events unfold. Staunton is the proud patience-wearing-thin mother figure, just wanting things to resolve as well as possible.

Don’t let the title dissuade you; this is no mere sequel. Performances run through April 7 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

A grand tribute to Samuel L. Jackson, and some dinosaurs

By John Lyle Belden

The Fringe Festival favorite, “Hold On To Your Butts,” is back on stage in Indianapolis. Indiana native Nick Abeel and Recent Cutbacks had toured the show around the country, including at a past IndyFringe, but now trust it to local actors Jim Banta, Pat Mullen and Olivia Schaperjohn.

The show is a one-hour shot-for-shot reenactment of the film “Jurassic Park” (never mentioning the title for legal reasons) with Banta and Mullen portraying nearly all the roles and Schaperjohn – clever girl – providing the sound effects. With so many funny and memorable lines scattered throughout the film, just reciting them with appropriate overacting and minimal, cheap, homemade props is sufficient to make this whole experience entertaining.

In a tribute to his awesomeness, and for providing the title line for this parody, Samuel L. Jackson is the only actor clearly identified and portrayed with a handsome cutout mask. The show also has lots of fun with Jeff Goldblum, whose shirt is more open each time he’s portrayed.

The trio is totally up to the task, commiting to this wacky enterprise. The intimate confines of the District Theatre secondary cabaret stage add to the atmosphere, especially when Banta and Mullen’s antics take them through the audience.

For those who are fans at all of the movie, this is a great way to both laugh at and remember the thrill of watching it in the theater, or a darkened living room, looking over your shoulder for ‘raptors. And remember that Sam Jackson was in it, too.

Performances are 8 and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 30 at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

P.S. Recent Cutbacks also made a shot-for-shot parody of “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” called “Fly, You Fools!” which will be at the District Theatre in May, with these same actors, a/k/a Loud And Fast Funny Shows (LAFF).

Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.org.

‘What a glorious feeling…’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

“Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the greatest films of all time. And being a fun singing-and-dancing musical, it only takes a little adapting to bring the Betty Comden and Adolph Green script to the live stage. So now you can come in out of the winter weather to see it rain on the boards of Footlite Musicals.

For those unfamiliar, this is a show about Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent pictures suddenly gave way to the “talkies” as studios found ways to add sound to movies. Don Lockwood (played by Grant Russel) and Lina Lamont (Sarah Marone) are the biggest stars of the silent screen, but after the popularity of “The Jazz Singer,” Monumental Pictures mogul R.F. Simpson (Bryan Padgett) is forced to make the next Lockwood & Lamont film with sound. Don speaks and sings beautifully — Lina, not so much. Fortunately, Don has found (and fallen in love with) young chorine Kathy Seldon (Sydney Norwalk), whose angelic voice could save the day. Just don’t tell Lina!

The cast also includes Juddson Updike as Don’s best pal, Cosmo Brown. The two sparkle on their feet through the many dance numbers. Norwalk is sweet and sings superbly. And Marone is so fun to watch, even when you “cyaaant staand” her character’s selfish antics.

Directed by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, the Footlite production “makes ‘em laugh” with all the hilarious moments of the story, including pre-filmed footage such as the ill-fated first cut of “The Dueling Cavalier.” There is even a silent-movie curtain speech, starring Josh Vander Missen, who also has a fun scene as Lockwood’s diction teacher (“Moses supposes…”).

And, yes, it does rain on stage.

If you are a fan of the film, you’ll enjoy this. There’s something special in seeing something so good in three dimensions (sans gimmicky glasses), and when the cast work the aisles, it gives new meaning to “surround sound.”

Performances run through March 17 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.