Summit: Feel the love of ‘Mary Jane’

By John Lyle Belden

“Mary Jane,” as the name of both central character and the play presented by Summit Performance Indianapolis, refers not to a quasi-legal substance but to an American everywoman – dealing with one of the worst nightmares a mother could face.

In the drama by acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog (staged Off-Broadway in 2017), Mary Jane – played with bold optimism by Bridget Haight – is the primary caretaker for Alex, a nearly three-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and other conditions likely caused by a brain-bleed during premature birth.

Presented on the intimate confines of the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the play is presented without intermission (as intended) but its scenes present the narrative in two acts: In the first, we are in Mary Jane’s apartment, which includes various medical equipment (much of it unseen behind Alex’s door) and a visiting nurse (Nathalie Cruz). In the second, we are in a hospital which becomes for Mary Jane a sort of home – her son still being cared for just off-stage.

The “third act” is the audience’s ride home, reflecting on what they have seen, heard and felt. Yes, it’s that kind of play. Expect no easy answers, or an ending that brings triumph or catharsis. This is a reflection of real struggles, how we find the strength to confront them, and the search for understanding among others in a similar situation, as well as through faith.

Cruz plays a doctor in the latter half; others in the cast take on dual roles as well. Mara Lisabeth Malloy twice plays a mother with a special-needs child – first a new mom receiving an avalanche of advice from Mary Jane on how to cope; later a Jewish mother of seven who, having faith and family for support, takes the mentor role. Kelsey Johnson is a young woman wanting to help but out of her depth, first as a visitor, charmed by the little boy then overwhelmed by the reality of the situation; later as a musical therapist shaken into not becoming yet another part of Mary Jane’s problems. Jan Lucas bookends the story, at first as a helpful apartment Super, and later as a serenely savvy Buddhist nun.

The play is directed by Summit founding artistic director Lauren Briggeman, who – like Herzog – has some understanding of being a caregiver. It’s easy to see the devotion she and all involved had in giving their production genuine heart – including many moments of appropriately uplifting or soothing humor. Haight plays Mary Jane with great strength, even in passing moments when the facade cracks. Castmates all exhibit empathy so convincingly it seems there truly is a sickly toddler residing on the corner of the set.

If you go to theatre for “the feels,” or are open to, I encourage you to visit “Mary Jane,” with performances through Aug. 18 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.summitperformanceindy.com.

Kids play the darndest things

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presented its Young Artist Program production of the popular musical “A Chorus Line” over the weekend (July 25-28). Considering the actors are all teenagers, one familiar with the show might ask, “Really?!” “Did they even do THAT song?”

Yes, and yes.

Putting aside that kids are usually quite familiar with the language and concepts expressed by the play’s young adult characters, director Emily Rogge Tzucker answers the concerns in her program note, stating that this story of Broadway “gypsies” giving their all for a possible chorus role is instructive to young aspiring performers. Not every singer or dancer will become a star; in fact, most don’t. In “Chorus Line,” nearly 30 are vying for eight spots – “four boys, four girls.” The musical, with book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, and songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, humanizes those random faces we see in the background of every show, as each of the main contenders tells what brought them to this point in their lives.

Given the various school and youth programs (including YAP) around central Indiana, the Civic cast are all incredibly talented, a stage loaded with singing/dancing/acting “triple-threats.” And they gave excellent performances in this one-weekend run.

Outstanding performers included: Emily Chrzanowski, who as Diana nearly brought the house down twice, with “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love;” Katelyn Soards as sassy Sheila; Laney McNamar as stage veteran Cassie, stunning in “The Music and the Mirror;” Elie Anania as Val of the infamous “Dance Ten; Looks Three” number; Hayden Elefante as brash Bobby; and Jacob Schilling as troubled Paul. Luke Vreeman played Zach, the director of the show within the show – at first a godlike presence, eventually a man who has to make some hard decisions.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see these names (or any other listed in the program) again on stage here – or elsewhere.

Keep up with future Civic productions at civictheatre.org.

Supporting Local Theatre

With all the distractions around, there are too many excuses to not see live theatre. We give you the reasons you should.

However, like you, we’ve been watching the news on COVID19, as well as updates from Indianapolis area stages and companies. If you are doing OK, they could use your support at this time, as they are all struggling to some degree.

Starting in July 2020, a few companies are carefully taking their first steps towards bringing the lights back up. Click on the Stage Calendar for details.

Also, while you’re on the Web, see if your favorite theatre is hosting virtual and online activities and performances. For example, Phoenix Theatre and Actors Theatre of Indiana have been busy. Get details at websites and Facebook pages.  

We’ve got our masks, are washing our hands, and will carefully continue to cover the central Indiana stage scene as we have on this site for five years now.

Thanks for reading and following!

– – – – –

See THIS PAGE for a linked list of reviews from the 2019 IndyFringe festival. (We didn’t see everything, but did get in most of the shows.) On THIS PAGE is the shows we saw at the 2018 IndyFringe. Sadly, the 2020 festival season is cancelled.

Looking back, we don’t have an index page for IndyFringe 2016 or 2017, but HERE is one we did for 2015.

See below (scroll down on main page) for the most recent stage reviews.

 

CCP: Trial drama revisits USS Indianapolis tragedy

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the USS Indianapolis, a World War II heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering essential parts of the first atomic bomb, is well known to Hoosiers. But less known is the fact that the ship’s captain, Charles McVay III, was court-martialed afterward – the only U.S. commander to ever face charges for losing a vessel in wartime.

This is portrayed in the drama “The Failure to Zig-Zag,” presented by Carmel Community Players. The title is also one of the charges against McVay – a violation of the practice of constantly changing course in good weather to avoid being targeted. The play by John B. Ferzacca (which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre in 1981) examines the trial, as well as the events that led up to it. It combines courtroom drama with flashbacks to the ship and the survivors’ ordeal, lending elements of horror.

Director Susan Rardin brings this powerful story back to central Indiana with a cast of varying experience, including military veterans, but all dedicated to bringing an important part of history to life. They even got to perform scenes for the annual USS Indianapolis survivors’ reunion.

Tim Latimer portrays McVay with constant unshakable dignity, mingled with disbelief that the Navy to which he had devoted his entire life would so crudely abuse him. Powerful performances run through the entire cast, including Kevin Caraher as Cpt. James Harcourt, the defense counsel; Ron May as Cpt. Dwight Effis, the prosecutor; Robert Fimreite as Rear Adm. David Wall, tasked with keeping the Navy’s reputation spotless; Jeremy Teipen as Lewis Greene, a reporter and grieving father; Brad Staggs as Lt. Cmdr. Alan Brett, the USS Indianapolis Executive Officer; and especially Ron Gotanco as Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto (another unprecedented element of the trial was testimony by the enemy). Other roles, including ship’s crew, were played by Kirk Donlan, Drew Hunter, Hank Kratky, Tyler Marx, Nolan Karwoski, Rich Phipps, Pavel Polochanin, Jeremy Ried, Austin Uebelhor and Joe Wagner.

Wendy and I had an opportunity to read the script over a year ago, and this is one of the plays we had most anticipated. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing this unfold in front of and around you, all based on actual events, tragedy compounded by travesty – but with the spirit of a survivor throughout.

The term “must-see” gets thrown around a lot (even by us) but this play definitely qualifies. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, July 25-28, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Tickets are selling fast (Thursday is already sold out) at www.carmelplayers.org.

Fat Turtle @ the Fort: Go see ‘Joan’

By John Lyle Belden

Something precious has been stuck in a house for a long time.

Joan Wright was once an “author, traveler and businesswoman,” but in the three years since her husband died she has just been Joanie, a lonely woman spending her days in a bathrobe, knitting and watching the world out her back window.

But changes are coming. Her adult daughters are planning to move halfway across the country, and suddenly an old friend is in her living room, inviting her to a gathering of “the old gang” to celebrate her upcoming birthday. It’s exciting, and a bit frightening, but does it feel right?

This is the essence of the new drama, “Go Be Joan,” by Nathaniel Adams, a premiere by Fat Turtle Theatre at Theater at the Fort.

Kathy Bauchle plays Joan as a strong woman throughout – sometimes channeling that strength into her stubborn insistence on “not being a burden” by getting into nice clothes and out of the house to be among others.

Her girls each have their own issues, especially with the changes that life cast their way. Elder daughter Katherine (Afton Shepard) wears her constant nervous smile like a shield as she tries to maintain control of every situation she’s in. Her little sister Lindsie (Audrey Stonerock) has been taking care of Joan the past few years and really, really, wants their mother to move to St. Louis with them. Shepard and Stonerock swing from comaraderie to conflict and back like real siblings, as the deeper layers of the plot are revealed.

Katherine’s daughter Cara (Natalie Marchal) adds another generation to the mix, with her own quirks and concerns. She seems a bit two-dimensional and cliché at first, a selfish child preoccupied with the digital world in her smartphone, until Joan’s insistence on communicating yields to us a nice insight into Cara and her post-Millennial perspective. In return, we see the girl help her grandmother into the 21st century – which in the context of Joan’s shutting herself off from the world in recent years takes on special relevance.

Dan Flahive is neighbor and old friend John Patty, who delivers the invitation – and a mysterious wrapped gift – to Joan. He, too, lost a spouse years ago, so has a special insight into their situation. Flahive’s knack for playing a best friend you feel you’ve known and loved all your life is in full effect here. He plays it coy enough to balance the chemistry between his and Bauchle’s character deftly between platonic/agape friend and possible love-interest.

Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood directs.

This is a good start for a promising play, and an excellent opportunity for local audiences to support local art. The characters and their story touch our hearts with gentle humor and an insightful look at how we grieve and learn to go on living.

Oh, and my opening statement above refers to more than just the title character.

Performances of “Go Be Joan” run through July 28 at 8920 Otis Ave., on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence. Get information and tickets at www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Fonseca Theatre’s journey through America with ‘Miss You Like Hell’

By Wendy Carson

In the style of an organization willing to challenge conventions, Fonseca Theatre Company stages it’s latest offering, “Miss You Like Hell,” in a garage-warehouse. The sets surround the audience and a trail divides it into four sections, which are mostly filled with rolling and swiveling chairs to help viewers follow the action.

This musical by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, is the spiritual and physical journey of a mother and daughter as they travel across the United States. While on the surface this sounds like a cliche plot, there are a lot of story elements twisting and turning so that you are never quite sure exactly how you feel about the main characters at any time.

Beatriz (Sarah Zimmerman) says she has come to reconnect with her teenage daughter, Olivia (Sharmaine Ruth), who she has not seen in years. She seems genuinely worried about Olivia’s mental state after finding a blog post threatening suicide, but Beatriz has her own needs and agenda as well. Zimmerman does a skillful job meting out her character’s motivations in a way that makes you understand that no matter how many mistakes she has made, she is still a parent and ultimately loves her child, even if her actions don’t always seem that way.

Very reluctant at first, Olivia eventually embraces this adventure with her mom and discovers more about her family history, including the background of major events in her life. Ruth deftly swerves from belligerent brat to scared child to young adult seamlessly. Her performance shows the truth of what growing up means to a person as well as what it takes out of a child.

The rest of the cast compose a Greek chorus as well as their individual roles.

Paul Collier Hansen and Patrick Goss delightfully provide some much needed comic relief as Mo and Higgins, two best friends from Arkansas on a meaningful journey of their own. Ian Cruz is in rare form as Manuel, a possible love interest and convenient rescuer. Bridgette Ludlow charms us as Olivia’s most active blog respondent, as well as the strong dose of reality that she needs to grow. Paige Scott plays up her fierce side playing the various officers of the law that are encountered throughout the trip. Yolanda Valdivia is solid as Beatriz’s attorney, taking on her difficult immigration case. Dan Scharbrough gives his curmudgeonly best as a South Dakota bureaucrat and a Wyoming hotel manager. Some scenes are punctuated with a dancing ancestor, portrayed with bold grace by Camile Ferrera. Company founder Bryan Fonseca directs. Tim Brickley leads an excellent on-stage band.

The story begins in Philadelphia, our cradle of freedom, and ends in southern California, where part of the “wall” we hear so much about now stands. This examination of the American dream dwells on questions of heritage, culture, justice and rights. But above all, it is about family, the one we are born to, and the fellow travelers who become just as important to us.

This road trip is worth the journey, playing through July 28 at Kinney Group, 2425 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just a block from Fonseca Theatre’s new home, now under construction). Enter at the back doors. The venue gets rather warm in the summer weather, so dress light. Find info and tickets at FonsecaTheatre.org.

‘Mamma Mia!’ gets the local treatment

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hard to imagine a more fun musical than “Mamma Mia,” with its high-energy blend of a sunny exotic setting, Shakespeare-worthy rom-com plot, and the familiar 70s-80s hits of international supergroup ABBA. At long last, the rights are available to community theatres, and CrazyLake Acting Company of Greenfield has taken it on in marvelous fashion. 

Set on a Greek island resort around the year 2000, young Sophie (Jamie McDowell) prepares for her wedding to boyfriend Sky (her real-world fiance, Austin Fisher) but first, she wants to invite her father, who could be one of three different men. So, she invites them all — and they all show up! This only adds to the stress for Sophie’s mother, Donna (Shari Jacobs), who fortunately has her “Dynamos” — Tanya (Noelle Russell) and Rosie (Amy Studabaker) — to literally back her up. 

The three men, Sam (Patrick McCartney), Bill (Coy Hutcherson), and Harry (Matt Little), don’t know what’s going on — at first. This will not be a typical wedding!

Throw in more than 20 others to play various roles and the chorus, and the whole production is infused with infectious fun — making it hard not to sing along.

The whole cast seems to enjoy it, too, with moments like the frog-dance of “Lay All Your Love On Me;” the three “dads” each offering to give the bride away, inspiring a wild nightmare as McDowell sings “Under Attack;” Russell going full-cougar with “Does Your Mama Know,” and even in more emotional scenes like Jacobs belting “The Winner Takes it All.”

Direction is by Studabaker and Christine Schaefer — no strangers to fun and funny goings-on, with choreography by Studabaker and Elizabeth Orr.

For much less than the last touring production’s ticket, you can experience all this with familiar (and just as talented) performers, Friday through Sunday at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) in downtown Greenfield. Info and tickets at www.CrazyLakeActing.com.

IPAI & StageQuest put a new shine on ‘Pippin’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Performing Arts Initiative, a program of Claude McNeal Productions, presents, with StageQuest Theatricals, the Roger Hirson and Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin.”

StageQuest’s Ty Stover directs this version of a surreal take on a Medieval character — Prince Pippin, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne — which differs a bit from other productions, yet keeps the spirit of the Tony-winning show. The stage and costume aesthetic is a sort of urban homeless/punk with dirty faces and mismatched clothes. At least one on-stage clue, and the initial look of our Leading Player (Dave Pelsue), establish a dark cult-like atmosphere with this eclectic company of mostly-young men and women. 

Our leader wishes to tell us a story, the tale of Prince Pippin — not a restless hunchback, as history relates, but a restless healthy educated young man, played by an actor plucked from the audience (Cameron Brown).

Pippin wishes to find his purpose in life, which amuses — and at times irks — his father King Charles (Josiah McCruiston). Meanwhile, his stepmother Fastrada (Laura Lockwood) and dimwit half-brother Luis (Ben Fraley) plot against him. The quest brings on a lot of adventure, but no happiness. Not even a visit to exiled grandmother Berthe (Denise Fort), who basically tells him to just lighten up, brings satisfaction. 

The Leading Player is getting impatient — how will he get the subject of his story to go out appropriately in a blaze of glory? Perhaps an encounter with a lovely widow (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell) and her son (Kate Boice) will do the trick.

Our other players in various roles are Maddie Altom, Isaac Becker, Nik Folley, Seth Jacobsen, Rosemary Meagher, Piper Williams, and Jill Wooster. 

If you’ve seen this show, you know these plot points, but the fun is seeing how they are executed. This troupe does it with great wacky humor and even a sing-along. McCruiston’s big personality makes him a perfect fit for the crown. Brown plays his searching soul a little naive, but without being annoying. Fraley comes across too goofy to be threatening; Lockwood can threaten with a glance. Fort easily keeps up with her younger castmates. Boswell wins us with natural charm. Our tween Boice, already a rising star, shines through the grime on her face. Meanwhile, even in the lightest moments, Pelsue maintains an undercurrent of menace throughout that will lead to a shocking end.

The set includes a small screen at the top of the stage with visual gags and silent commentary (especially during the war scenes). The show features popular show tunes including “Magic to Do,” “No Time at All” and the recurring theme, “Corner of the Sky.” As a whole, the production is both familiar and new — enough of the former to make us comfortable, and enough of the latter to give you plenty to think about after the last curtain call. 

Performances are Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, at Herron High School, 110 E. 16th St. (enter on the west side). Get tickets at ipai.tix.com.

 

Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.

‘Hunchback’ musical at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals had chosen for its young adults (high school/college student) production Disney Theatricals’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” long before the historic cathedral suffered from a recent fire. But with that reminder of the building’s central place in French culture in mind, this performance takes on even more resonance.

Like the Disney animated film, the musical is based loosely on the Victor Hugo novel, but retains much of the original story’s air of tragedy. Its grounding in a sacred place is reinforced by a well-voiced choir that adds atmosphere and exposition throughout the show. Stained-glass windows are projected on the theatre walls and actors frequently work the aisles, giving the production an immersive, intimate feel.

The Archdeacon Frollo (Markell Pipkins) is not a two-dimensional villain; his backstory is shown to give him motivations, but not justification, as he is not entirely the righteous figure he believes he is. Kyle Cherry shows great talent and charisma in embodying Quasimodo, our titular Hunchback, providing the man within the disfigured face (under heavy makeup) and body.

Director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan had so much talent to choose from that any of the dancing Gypsies could have flying-kicked their way into the lead role, but Adrian Daeger was wisely chosen for lovely Esmeralda. Though highly regarded among Gypsies, the character is not a part of the Parisian band led by Clopin (Jim Melton), so she doesn’t notice their cruelty to Quasimodo until it is nearly too late. Her kindness then distinguishes her from the other characters, all cruel and selfish except perhaps for the soldier Phoebus (Jacob Hardin), who has become Captain of the Notre Dame cathedral guard.

Melton is superb in what turns out to be more than just a supporting character, as Clopin provides much of the narration. Fortunately, Hardin acts and sings as good as he looks. Pipkins was aptly cast in a central role, as he is fascinating to watch and listen to.

Supporting characters are also excellent, particularly the statues that are our hunchback’s only friends: Gargoyles (Olivia Ash, William Cisneros and Noah Fields) and statues of The Madonna (Tayler Seymour) and a female warrior Saint (Megan Delucanay), possibly Joan of Arc (though a French Catholic hero, not officially a saint at the time). Not wasted as comic relief, these five are Quasimodo’s advisors in the moments he is alone, each from their carved-in-stone perspective.

While the ending is not happy-shiny (potentially a relief or a shock to you, depending on if you preferred the book or the animation), it is quite appropriate and heroic in its own way. I found it satisfying, as it adheres to the musical’s central question, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

And as is typical of “student” productions on central Indiana stages, these actors are no mere kids, having walked – and danced – the boards for maybe a decade in various youth productions. They provide another quality show at Footlite, and a good excuse to go inside from the summer heat. Performances are July 4-7 and 11-14 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.