Phoenix uncorks wine that makes you spill

By John Lyle Belden

“In Vino Veritas” means “in wine, there is truth,” referring to the way social beverages can loosen tongues so that unintended honesty spills out.

In the play, “Vino Veritas,” by David MacGregor, at the Phoenix Theatre, the central device is a vintage with a special ingredient (not grapes) that makes it a truth serum. After our characters imbibe, like Jim Carrey in the film “Liar, Liar,” they can’t not tell the truth. And for us in the audience watching the revelations unfold, it is fascinating, thought-provoking, and incredibly hilarious.

Lauren (Carrie Schlatter) and Phil (Wolf J. Sherrill) have a good life as professional photographers, having settled down from globetrotting to running a portrait studio while they raise their family. Lauren, who longs for adventure, resents what they’ve become, while Phil is quite happy. No longer risking his neck, he tracks how he outlives the lifespan of various animals, part of the endless useless trivia he knows — a trait that further irks Lauren. But she has brought home the rare and mysterious wine from their recent vacation in South America, and is eager to share it with their neighbors and best friends — Ridley (Michael Hosp) and Claire (Sarah Hund) — when they visit on Halloween prior to going to a neighborhood costume party.

The other couple arrives. While Claire, the reigning costume champion, has an intricate gown she worked on for months, Ridley, a doctor, takes advantage of the fact he is still technically on duty for a few hours to dress “ironically” as a doctor. 

Despite the obvious stress they all ignore, they agree to try the wine. After all, they have known each other for years, living next door to each other, attend the same church, and their children play with each other. What dark secrets could they possibly have? As it turns out, plenty.

The plot is in a similar vein to plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “God of Carnage” wherein situations get more and more out of hand with each revelation, and alliances constantly shift among the foursome. While some serious issues of trust, intimacy and truly understanding one another are addressed, it all comes packaged in wacky exchanges that leave you gasping from laughter. Hosp, a great physical comedian, actually plays it kind of easy, getting big laughs from small moments. Schlatter gets a lot of mileage from playing a personality who loves to stir the pot, while Hund is at turns masterfully manic and silly. Sherrill mainly displays an aw-shucks demeanor that meshes perfectly with the various neuroses on display. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

It’s said that the truth will set you free — will that be the case here? Find out at the Phoenix’s smaller Basile stage; in performances through Nov. 24. Note Saturday times are 2:30 p.m. matinees instead of evening shows. Find the Phoenix Theatre at 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Join IRT on a difficult, but enlightening journey

By John Lyle Belden

Indianapolis, Indiana, translates to “Indian City, Land of Indians,” where, ironically, the natives were forcibly removed.

Now, actor DeLanna Studi — a “card-carrying Indian” — has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where she has played Native American roles in the past, to share with us part of her personal journey. Specifically, it was that part that she chose to take because her recent ancestors were given no choice.

“And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears” is the culmination of a project exploring Studi’s Cherokee heritage. The tribe once occupied much of present-day Georgia, North Carolina and neighboring states, but at the order of President Andrew Jackson most were forced to travel by foot to lands in present-day Oklahoma, where Studi’s family settled. Her personal journey began in childhood, when her father, who brought Studi up to be proud of her heritage — a privilege he was denied growing up in a government-run boarding school — went to her elementary school to inform her teacher that American Indians are not “extinct,” as was being taught.

Recently, Studi had the opportunity to undertake her project, bringing her father and a videographer to Cherokee, N.C., to begin their “walk.” They visited numerous sites and conducted many interviews with the help of her father, who could speak the Cherokee language. 

It would be accurate, but misleading, to say that “And So We Walked…” is a one-person show. Studi stands by herself, but she is not alone. Through her careful acting, we can see her father with her, as well as many of the people she meets and travels with. In her dreams and quiet moments, she is accompanied by her grandmothers — and she is haunted by the Cherokee legend of Spearfinger, the wicked woman used to scare children into behaving, with whom Studi surprisingly feels a degree of kinship.

This story is rich with history you likely never heard in school — all true. You learn of the Dawes Rolls of tribal citizenship, and how some Indians don’t “count;” of the everyday ritual of “going to water,” and the sacred pool still kept from outsiders; of the Stomp Dance, and why Studi is always only a “guest” there; and of the proud nation that was, the forced removal that shattered it, and the betrayal by their own kin that sealed their fate.

“What you are looking at is a scar,” she is told at the beginning of the Trail of Tears. She shares with us the pain of that national wound, makes us feel it.

And this is a very personal story for Studi, as the spirits she has awakened force her to deal with unresolved mental trauma.

Directed by project collaborator Corey Madden, the performance is helped along with a simple but evocative stage design by John Coyne, lighting and projections by Norman Coates and beautiful soundscape by Bruno Louchouarn with Aimee Lynn Phillips, and music by John-John Grant and Sarah Elizabeth Burkey.

Performances are held through Nov. 10 on the IRT Upperstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

A king’s journey, from fun with Falstaff to hostilities with Hotspur

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

While I can heartily recommend any of this year’s Bard Fest shows, the one that has the most elements of Shakespeare’s storytelling is the oft-overlooked “Henry IV, Part 1,” presented by First Folio and directed by Glenn L. Dobbs. It combines comedy, drama, adventure, and a bit of actual British history in a rather entertaining package.

It is a story of the misspent youth of “Bonny Prince Hal” (Matthew Walls), the man who would eventually become the legendary King Henry V, as well as the struggle by his father, Henry IV (Abdul Hakim-Shabazz), to maintain a united kingdom.

Hal has his fun with best friend Ned Poins (John Mortell) as they jest with famed drunkard Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Socey) and his minions, cowardly Bardolf (Jonathen Scoble) and berserker Peto (Missy Rump). From these scenes we get a lot of laughs, and are treated to some of the Bard’s more colorfully-written insults.

Meanwhile, the King has to deal with a plot led by Henry Percy (Matt Anderson), known as Hotspur for his fiery temper, aided by relatives Worcester (Sara Castillo Dandurand) and Mortimer (Eric Mannweiler), the Scottish Earl of Douglas (Andy Burnett), and Welsh rebel Glendower (David Mosedale). On Henry’s side stand Sir Walter Blunt (Eli Robinson), Lord Westmoreland (Brian Kennedy), and eventually Hal, the Prince of Wales himself, having sworn off his prior foolishness.

The decisive battle that ensues gives the narrative a sense of completion, especially in Hal’s arc from boy to man, but leaves sufficient details to be resolved in the more serious “Henry IV, Part 2.” Still, this play easily stands alone.

Our cast inhabit the roles naturally — perhaps Socey is just an alias for Falstaff? Hakim-Shabazz is appropriately noble, Walls slips easily into Hal’s many modes, and Anderson can play a villain like no other. Also notable are Afton Shepard as Percy’s bitter wife (as well as a sweet “working girl” at the tavern), and Michelle Wafford as a Welsh lady betrothed to a man she loves but whose language she can’t understand, and especially as the in-charge Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday (with talkback afterward) and 1 p.m. Sunday at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Bard Fest: Trauma has woman caught in ‘Lear’s Shadow’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

For many of the people I know, theatre is life. Sometimes it feels like the two blend together, and in “Lear’s Shadow,” by Brian Elerding, the words of a William Shakespeare drama can help one to deal with a real-world truth.

Jackie (Nan Macy) arrives at her company’s rehearsal room to find it empty and the wrong scripts on the table. She has unexplained bruises and a sore neck, but her main concern is that no one is there to start working on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” 

Then, company member Stephen (Tom Weingartner) arrives, visibly worried. He calls Rachel (Morgan Morton), who is on her way, but in the meantime he needs to keep Jackie occupied, working through her frequent mental re-sets until she is ready to understand…

For much of the hour of this First Folio production in the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, Jackie and Stephen explore the idea of following just the plot of the King in “Lear,” apart from other intrigues, exploring his relationships and growing madness. Thus many passages from the play are quoted and enacted, leading up to Act IV, Scene 7. Jackie, who has the script memorized, takes the title role, which she instructs must be played starting less-mad, giving his character somewhere to go, “to see someone gaining strength as they lose everything.”

Macy is incredible, both as Jackie and as Jackie-as-Lear, as we come to learn the parallels between the two — picking favorites, pushing away a loved one, psychological trauma, and the need to rage against something that can’t be controlled.

Weingartner shows deft command of the stage as well, and Morton acquits herself well in her scene. 

Directed by Glenn Dobbs, this drama is a worthy addition to the festival, a good “Shakespeare-adjacent” play that helps relate the old texts to today’s world as well or better than just putting players in modern suits (though we do enjoy those, too, theatre friends!). 

Remaining performances are Oct. 24-27: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with talkback after Friday’s show) and 2 p.m. Sunday. 

Agape work their magic in terrific ‘Tempest’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

“The Tempest” may be as close as Shakespeare came to what we now classify as sci-fi/fantasy. In its world, magic is assumed, without giving much backstory of how exiled nobleman Prospero came to own the spellbook, staff, and skills to use them. Maybe they were with him and his daughter in the leaky boat his treacherous brother sent to sea, allowing Prospero to summon a portal from the Mediterranean to an island near Scotland. Perhaps they were a prize from the witch who left behind her hideous son Caliban on that enchanted island. Perhaps he gained power as he found a way to release the faerie Ariel, who then swore obedience to him.

Sounds more like a cheap paperback than the Bard? Well, he did write fantasies for the masses — he just did it very well. And now we get an appropriately excellent production of “The Tempest” by Agape Performing Arts Company.

Agape, a church-sponsored youth program, gives teens and tweens the opportunity to explore moral lessons in various stage works, including “Les Miserables” and “Newsies,” and at a level of performance and production matching the various excellent “young performers” programs around Indy. 

Thus we have Evan Wolfgang play Prospero as a noble father who has a bold plan and the drive to see it through. He sees an opportunity for revenge, as the men who wronged him are on the open sea, and with a teleport spell and the ability of Ariel (Audrey Duprey) to call up and control a storm, brings them to his shore.

The tempest of the title is wonderfully portrayed with brilliant use of costume and movement. (Director Kathy Phipps designed the costumes and choreography is by Joel Flynn.) The boat rocks, the waves surge, and the crew cry out in barely contained panic. But all arrive safely, scattered by Prospero’s spell in accordance with his plans.

Prince Ferdinand (Grant Scott-Miller) is washed up alone and encounters Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Laura Sickmeier) and a courtship begins. 

Meanwhile, the prince’s father, King Alonso of Naples (Matthias Neidenberger) is with his brother Sebastian (Gilead Rea-Hedrick), advisor Gonzalo (Kathryn Rose), and Antonio, Duke of Milan (Nathan Ellenberger) — Prospero’s brother, whom Alonso allowed to take his title. Ever plotting, Antonio sees an opportunity for another power grab, which fortunately Ariel invisibly spies.

On another part of the island, the king’s jester Trinculo (Kennath Cassaday) and drunken butler Stephano (Maura Phipps) — who salvaged the booze — meet up with Caliban (Aidan Morris), who considers them gods for the power in their bottles, and persuades them to join him in his plot to kill Prospero so he can take over the island.

The large cast includes a number of sailors — including Jack London as Master of the Ship and Raymond Lewis as Boatswain — and Island Spirits, including Iris (Kidron Rea-Hedrick), Ceres (Evelyn Skaggs) and Juno (Gemma Rollison), who help celebrate the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda.

Yes, it’s a typically large number of names for this Shakespeare play that is like his comedies, but with dramatic elements and quite a bit of music  — lyrics by the Bard, music from traditional tunes, Gustav Holst’s “Planets,” and a composition by Michael Roth. But Kathy Phipps’ direction manages to keep the plotlines easy to follow.

Though all give great performances, notable turns include Duprey and Morris (both aided by excellent makeup by Angie Morris), as well as Maura Phipps, giving the best possible “drunken” performance by a person too young to imbibe.

See all set right with a spirit of redemption and forgiveness, in a most entertaining fashion and with all the spectacle that the District Theatre main stage can hold. Remaining performances are this weekend (Oct. 25-27), 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.