For young audiences, IRT presents the power of positive playacting

By Wendy Carson

Our new friends, Devan (Mathias), Isaiah (Moore), and Frankie (Bolda) have decided to put on a play for us.

Devan has drawn a picture of a train and wants to deliver it to her other friends who live a long way away on the other side of the big, big hill. So it is decided that Devan will be a train engine, Isaiah wants to be everything but finally settles on being a doggie passenger on the train, and Frankie will help out by making all the proper sounds throughout.

This is “The Little Choo-Choo That Thinks She Can,” the return engagement of a play for very young patrons at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, a familiar story made new by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still.

Once the train is all loaded up with passengers, Devan begins the trip up the big, big hill. However, the hill is just too big for her to make it over. She tries to enlist the assistance of various other engines but they all can’t, or won’t, help her out. 

She keeps trying, and each attempt gets her a little farther up the big, big hill — but quite not over it. We, her friends in the audience, offer encouragement to assist her in believing she has the ability to actually make it up the big, big hill by herself.

Will she make it? Will her special delivery get through to her friends? What sound does a giraffe make? These questions and others will be answered in terms that preschoolers, special-needs kids, and even the grown-ups who brought them will understand..

This show is a wonderful introduction to live theater shows for young children. It never talks down to them and encourages them to have fun, be themselves and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The room is divided into three seating areas. Each actor takes one section and gets to know their new friends (the individual kids in the audience) prior to the show. We are all asked to participate in the show, but only to our levels of comfort. 

This was especially evident in the performance I attended, one of their “Sensory Friendly Performances:” The lights are kept brighter; there are fidget spinners, headphones, and other toys available to use during the show; and it is acceptable to leave and return as the need requires. There is also a guide for parents to assist with knowing when loud or potentially off-putting things will occur. This allows all attendees to enjoy the show as much as possible. In fact, I hardly would have known it was not a regular performance if they had not brought it up beforehand.

The play was a delight for myself and my companions, especially the precocious little 4-year old for whom this was her first live show. She liked meeting Isaiah, both as an actor with skin like hers, as well as the purple puppy. She told me and her mother she can’t wait to see a play again.

This IRT Exploring Stages production (targeted to ages 3-8) is directed by Benjamin Hanna. Performances are held in the “cabaret” space, which isn’t too big and allows for easy interaction, through March 1. Tickets start at just $8 for a child to sit on the floor near the action, $17 for an adult to join them. The IRT is at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis, close to Circle Centre. For more information, call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

ATI and CSO combine for one killer production

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel – a first-time collaboration of Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra – explores the full potential of its dramatic and musical experience.

This popular musical is an inspired choice, with its blending of the macabre, dark humor, and tragic and romantic love, backed by an operatic aural tapestry.

The ATI company — including members of its 2016 “Sweeney” production including director Richard J. Roberts — and the CSO, under the baton of Janna Hymes, are joined by the Indianapolis Arts Chorale with area singers including members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Their powerful vocal presence is like another section of orchestra, on par with the strings or wind instruments. Taken together they provide a properly dense dramatic atmosphere for the actors upon the stage to flourish.

The ATI co-founders reprise their roles. Don Farrell totally disappears into the wig, makeup, and scowl, so that all you see is Sweeney, the barber unjustly exiled so that a corrupt judge could take his wife. Now Todd has returned for vengeance; his plan includes giving the best shave in London – if you survive it. Judy Fitzgerald likewise transforms into Mrs. Lovett, baker of the “worst pies in London,” but the problem isn’t her talents, but her lack of good flesh for the meat pies. Mr. Todd’s impulsive nature with his silver razors presents her with a ghoulish opportunity. Cynthia Collins returns as the mad Beggar Woman, ever present and revealed to be more than just the one to babble “Mischief! Mischief!” outside Lovett’s shop.

Joining the cast for this spectacular: Matthew Conwell is the charming and aptly-named Anthony Hope, who repays his off-stage rescue by wooing and rescuing Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (bold beauty Elizabeth Hutson). Conwell’s voice is superb, filling the song “Johanna” with harmonious longing. David Cunningham is wonderful as the tragically naive Tobias Ragg. Mario Almonte III is sharp as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

For the villians, Tim Fullerton plays judge Turpin as one whose growing madness makes him increasingly dangerous, a true rival to Todd. ATI veteran Michael Elliott presents Beadle Bamford with easy slimy charm.

Rory Shivers-Brimm reprises his earlier turn as characters including madhouse keeper Jonas Fogg, truly triumphant considering his recent recovery from health issues. Karaline Feller completes the cast in roles including the Bird Seller. Thanks to Roberts’s direction and effective use of costumes by Katie Cowan Sickmeier, various players easily morph into supporting roles, such as the pie shop customers, giving the illusion of a larger cast.

Scenic designer Paul Bernard Killian and prop master Amanda Pecora make creative use of this unique setting, with simple set pieces, only the infamous baking oven being instantly recognizable. As for what could be the true “star” of the show, the Barber Chair is deceptively simple. Painted blood red, it takes its proper place on the stage, but doesn’t pull focus from the brilliant work of its human costars. Roberts makes great use of the space as well, further including the orchestra as part of the production by having characters encircle it and making use of the Palladium’s rear balconies.

Did I say “today” at the beginning of this? Yes, for those looking online on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, you have the opportunity to make the second of two performances tonight at 8 p.m. (Tickets at thecenterpresents.org or Palladium Box Office). Friday celebrated a triumphant “opening night” (with jokes that they were “halfway through the run”).

For those who can’t make it or read this later, note this as a shining example of what future collaborations can be. Hymes noted after Friday’s show that they had only two weeks of rehearsal to put the various components together – a testament to the level of talent and dedication local theatre performers and musicians put into their work for you, the Central Indiana audience.

Bizarre courtship for ‘Sara’ at Epilogue

By John Lyle Belden

“Getting Sara Married” plays out like a rom-com by way of the Twilight Zone, but if you roll with the absurdity, it’s a lot of fun.

In this comedy by Sam Bobrick, directed by Veronique Duprey at Epilogue Players, Sara (Monya Wolf) is a busy New York defense attorney and, as the title hints, single. She enjoys her solitary lifestyle and has no interest in marriage whatsoever.

Thus her Aunt Martha (Molly Kraus) takes it upon herself to engage in some unusual matchmaking. She has Brandon (Vince Pratt), the handsome professional she has selected for Sara, bonked on the head by “jack of all trades” Noogie (Brian Nichols) and delivered, unconscious, to Sara’s apartment. Need we mention Martha might not be entirely sane?

Shocked, Sara scrambles to prevent needing a defense lawyer herself. Brandon awakes, and after an amusing bout of amnesia, sorts out who he is, but not why he’s in a strange woman’s home — which he is impressed with, by the way. He grabs a quick bite before leaving, but is taken down by a just-remembered food allergy.

How is Brandon going to explain all this to his fiance, Heather (Rachel Kelso)?

Set just before smartphones took over the world, we only see Martha at the stage edge, on the other end of her landline — sometimes getting work from her favorite chiropractor (Alex Dantin) — presented charmingly by Kraus with unflagging confidence. 

Wolf ably takes us along on Sara’s emotional roller-coaster. Pratt plays a bit of a confused goof, but not dumb, so we can see the qualities that got Brandon chosen for this odd adventure. Nichols as eager-to-please Noogie is a likable mook, and I’m not just saying that so I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder. Kelso has an interesting arc with Heather, a woman who — though initially infuriated — comes to understand the situation. Dantin seems to enjoy being the strong, silent type.

Hilarious with an odd charm, the show has four more performances, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 20-23, at Hedback Corner, 1849 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.

Monument presents classic commentary on racial tension

By John Lyle Belden

“Dutchman,” presented by Monument Theatre Company, is a play, but it feels like a poem. It is a verse that surrounds you, confronts you in the intimate staging at Indy Convergence. 

On a subway train, in which the audience find ourselves to be passengers, traveling in New York City towards New Jersey, a handsome young black man, Clay (Jamaal McCray), sits reading. A beautiful young white woman, Lula (Dani Gibbs) enters, eating an apple. Is she Eve, the Serpent, or both? 

The monologues and conversation between them roll out like verse, dense with meaning. She teases, both in the sexual and bullying sense of the word. They move together and against one another — a dance rich with subtext. But, what is more shocking: the moments of violence, or the fact that she keeps saying n****r with impunity?

The play by Amiri Baraka is set in the year it was first presented, 1964, but could happen today, with passengers capturing it all on phones. Her short, slinky dress is a hot retro style; his buttoned suit still the best armor to reassure the whites around him that he is “civilized,” that his black life matters. And the tense banter would still apply — even with 56 years of “progress.”

Under the direction of Shawn Whitsell, Gibbs and McCray deliver Baraka’s words with cutting precision. We feel this play as we observe it, as the fascinating drama plays out in one intense hour. Dont’a Stark completes the cast in a quick but essential role.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Feb. 21-23, at 2611 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at monumenttheatrecompany.com.

Gregory Hancock gives fairy tales a fun twist

By John Lyle Belden

An issue I sometimes have with dance is that I find it hard to follow exactly what is going on, what the dancers are trying to portray — there is no such problem with “Once Upon a Time,” by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre.

The subject matter is as familiar as childhood — popular fairy tales. But Gregory Glade Hancock and his dancers have put their own spin (and leap, and…) on the stories to freshen the narrative. Like in the musical “Into the Woods,” they all seem to occupy the same fanciful space, including an Enchanted Forest, in which the dancers got to work their own choreography.

Red Riding Hood (Hannah Brown) starts the stories by making her delivery. It seems Grandma appreciates the goodies so much, she just wants to dance with Red, though she does look suspiciously furry. As it turns out, the Wolf (Olivia Payton) while big, isn’t so bad — despite harassing pigs — and mostly just wants to get belly-rubs from the Princesses. 

Narcoleptic Beauty (Chloe Holzman) — turns out it wasn’t just a cursed spinning-wheel — turns in the show’s best performance, especially when constantly dancing in and out of consciousness with the Handsome Prince (Thomas Mason). She puts in moments of gracefully collapsing throughout the show, to great comic effect. As for his Highness, being the only man in the company, he has to be everybody’s Prince, which does result in a chase scene or two. But the one he loves is himself, exemplified with his solo number with a hand-mirror — what a “selfie” was 500 years ago.

In other stories coming to life: 

  • Cinderella (Camden Lancaster) sweeps through, dreaming of future happiness, but the glass that is most important to her is in the spectacles on her face, not the shoes on her feet. The Fairy Godmother (Hannah Winkler) gives her frames worthy of Elton John. But Cindy’s desire to look good is greater than her myopia, with appropriately funny results.
  • Little Bo Peep (Josie Moody) has given up on sheep and herds the Three Little Pigs (Payton*, Winkler, and Jillian Hogan). 

(*Not only ironic — playing Pig and Wolf — but I could have sworn all three Pigs were with the Wolf when he huffed and puffed them. Talk about talent.)

  • Rapunzel (Zoe Maish) has the strongest weave in the kingdom, which others can’t resist messing with. 
  • Snow White (Anna Williamson) shakes off the apple’s effect and, with the Prince otherwise occupied, looks for love elsewhere. Seven young students don cap and beard as the Seven Dwarves (Annabelle Breeden, Ashton Curry, Violet Kitchen, Vincent Kitchen, Josephine Meadows, Isabella Webb, and Elli Thacker) — one of which also opens the show by playing the Boy in pajamas with the storybook of these twisted tales.
  • Pinocchio (Morgan Beane) is the Trickster character of the show. Having not learned his lessons yet, he gets his long nose into all manner of mischief throughout the evening.
  • As for the Witch (Abigail Lessaris), the apple isn’t the only curse that’s failing. Her powers have fizzled, and she dances desperately to rekindle them — but be careful what you wish for.

We are also enchanted by some fairies (Zoe Hacker, Alyssa Henderson, Evangeline Meadows, Megan Webb). The supporting cast (who also act as ushers) include Stephanie Blaufuss, Allie Hanning, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Stella Kitchen, Sophia Rice, Taylor Smith, Audrey Springer, Ava Thomas, and Rebecca Zigmond. 

This is the Hancock company’s annual cabaret fundraiser, fitting nicely into the big black-box studio of the Academy of GHDT (329 Gradle Drive, Carmel, near the Center for the Performing Arts). The students don’t pressure you too much to give, though there is a clever “grow Rapunzel’s hair” board to track giving. There is also a free treat at every seat.

The talent and athleticism are amazing to watch, with graceful and easy-to-follow storytelling through movement. This show gives a chuckle to all ages, is an easy inspiration to youth — and reminds the casual viewer that there is more to dance than “The Nutcracker.”

It’s also very popular. The final performances Saturday and Sunday are sold out, but Friday, Feb. 21, has been added. Get tickets at ghdtonceuponatime.eventbrite.com. Get company information at www.gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

 

Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.

Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.