Summit tells us a story

By John Lyle Belden

“Tell me a story.” 

Helen of Troy sits in a room at a mythical Egyptian hotel where all of time and technology is possible, but there’s still nothing but crap on TV. 

This is the setting of “Helen,” by Ellen McLaughlin, performed as a staged reading (limited movement and props, but scripts in hand) at the outdoor amphitheater on the campus of Marian University, presented by Summit Performance Indy. 

The touchstone of this comic drama is Euripides’ play of Helen, in which it is her doppelganger that goes to Troy with Paris (abduction? elopement? little of both? legends vary), launching the later-cited “thousand ships” and an epic war as King Meneleaus of Sparta seeks to fetch her back, while the “real” woman is exiled to Egypt to await her husband figuring things out and coming for her.

But as McLaughlin’s play makes clear, the real Helen is lost among various brave, frightened, virtuous, evil, wise, vapid, humble, and ambitious personae — every one so beautiful that you hate her, and also love her, with all your heart. She has launched a thousand stories, from antiquity, to Medieval fairy tales, to the perfect faces on your TV screen. While adding to the lore, the script is a deft synthesis of the legends that have gone before. 

Helen dares not leave her room, as the gods have ordered her to wait there, so she berates, cajoles and converses with “the Help,” a longsuffering maid, and is visited by a talking cow — the legendary Io — and later the haughty goddess Athena, before, at long last, her husband shows up. But he’s confused, and not that happy to see her.

All this is done beautifully by an excellent local cast (I don’t have names available to me, so won’t make errant guesses), who are familiar enough with the material to be “semi-book” and to move and emote naturally. The Allen Whitehill Clowes Amphitheater is a beautiful setting, with lawn seating (bring your own blanket or chair) that is close, but perfectly spaced by Summit staff (you get a “box” area to sit in, with boxes set about six feet apart). 

There is one performance left as this is posted, today (Aug. 29, bumped to Sunday, Aug. 30 if it rains). Tickets are $10 each, available online at SummitPerformanceIndy.com. Marian is located at 3200 Cold Spring Road on Indy’s west side.

Hard lessons continue at Fonseca Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The setting of the play “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” by acclaimed playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, is “Today.” Says so right there in the program. So this examination of our understanding of race in early 21st Century America is taking place in 2020. Just add masks on all the characters – sadly, no need to change any of the story.

Fonseca Theatre Company brings back this drama from its first season (I wrote about it then, too), again directed by Ben Rose, in the wake of the real-world drama of this tumultuous summer. Rose noted that actor preparation took on a more serious tone this time, and he was grateful to also have Chinyelu Mwaafrika and Joshua Short return to star.

Marquis (Mwaafrika), a suburban teen from posh (mythical) Achievement Heights, outside Baltimore, has gotten caught up in the latest online challenge and is in a police holding cell for trespassing. His cellmate, Tru (Short), fits the conventional African-American stereotype, and is amazed that Marquis doesn’t. Eventually, Marquis’ adoptive limousine-liberal mom Deb (Megan Ann Jacobs) arrives to spring them from the clutches of Officer Borzoi (Keegan Jones). Tru then gets to experience Marquis’s world, with his nice home and all-white classmates at Achievement Preparatory Academy: jocks Hunter (Joseph Mervis) and Fielder (Maverick Schmidt), and top girls’ clique led by Meadow (Vicki Turner) with Prairie (Jacobs) and Clementine (Sarah Ault).

Seeing Marquis as “too White,” Tru fills a notebook with “Being Black for Dummies” in the hope of connecting him with his racial heritage. But the book falls into the wrong hands, with tragic results.

Meanwhile, Marquis dreams of visits by ancient gods – fair-skinned Dionysus (Schmidt), who wants him to take the easy life; and dark-skinned Apollo (Jones), who whispers to him a dark secret.

This show is spiced with a surprising amount of humor, and the production does include a “laugh light” to let you know when it’s safe to react without being racist. However, there are a lot of hard questions and uncomfortable discussions. Also, the characters make an embarrassing number of assumptions, including the fateful conclusions drawn by school Headmaster Burns (Mervis) that sound a lot like your “I’m not a racist, but…” friend when telling you the “truth” about a Black victim of a shooting. Thus does this fictional story connect solidly with our real world; Chisholm’s characters are each simultaneously flesh-and-blood and living metaphor. You know this person; you’ve met this person; you’ve seen this person on the news; you are this person.

The cast do a great job of communicating all this to us through their cloth masks, and with the intimate (yet with seating properly distanced) stage in the backyard of the FTC building, we even hear clearly when the mic-packs sputter. This was an important and enlightening drama already, and today it feels more vital to make the effort to experience. Fonseca staff even have nice masks available for a donation.

All performances are 8 p.m., continuing Saturday, Sunday (Aug. 22-23), and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30, at 2508 W. Michigan, Indianapolis. Details and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Indiana Ten Minute Play Festival

By John Lyle Belden

In our restricted world, there are not a lot of opportunities for live entertainment. Fortunately, IndyFringe has managed a nice setup in its “pocket park” next to the theatre building, where an audience can sit at tables spaced about six feet apart. The actors use the garage-style opening of the Indy Eleven stage to set up their play space. (See indyfringe.org for upcoming shows at this unique venue.)

Last weekend, that little space held a big variety of entertainment as Fringe presented the Indiana Ten Minute Play Festival. The seven brief comic dramas had a surprising degree of depth and content, even at their silliest, thanks to sharp writing and excellent acting from a fun group of players.

We started with “Hurry Up, It’s Almost Bedtime” by Janice Neal, directed by Anthony Nathan with Emerging Artists Theatre. David Malloy is Frank, who is likely dead, which spells trouble for fellow senior-home residents Rose (Linda Grant), Lucille (Wendy Brown) and Betty (Joy Shurn). Nurse Brittany (Stephanie Anderson) hasn’t caught on, yet. The fast-approaching bedtime of the title gives them an idea to ensure that Frank’s body is found in his bed. While the idea of this play sounds macabre, the Golden-Girls-style repartee among the ladies makes this a nice dark comedy.

“Aloha Apocalypse,” by Marcia Eppich-Harris – directed by Megan Ann Jacobs with Rapture Theatre – is based on an actual event not that long ago when an “incoming missile” alert was sounded in Hawaii. Sophie (Laura Baltz) and Ed (David Malloy) are a mainlander couple on vacation who discover they may only have minutes to live. What to do? After a comically-arranged farewell video to their children, there’s the agonizing wait for The End. Feeling his conscience bother him, Ed makes a confession of infidelity. That doesn’t help them, but it makes things even funnier for us. Fate has the last laugh, of course, when it’s announced that the crisis is a false alarm. Baltz and Malloy have great chemistry, even when the reactions are unstable. A newscaster voice is provided by Thomas Sebald.

“Don’t Toy With Me” by Andrew Black, directed by Casey Ross of Catalyst Repertory Theatre, brings the focus not only down to 10 minutes long but also to 10 inches high, as Thomas Sebald plays a GI Joe action figure that has arrived at the Malibu Beach House occupied by Beach Glam Ken (Grant Nagel). At the moment, they don’t hear the godlike voices of their child masters, so they can be themselves. They remark on how so much of their world is “out of order,” like the canteen or juice bottle they feel compelled to “drink” even if no liquid comes out. Eventually the mistress of the dreamhouse, Malibu Barbie (Kyrsten Lyster), arrives. And even if she can be temporarily distracted by a fashion faux pas, her power over Ken is too strong for the men’s relationship to last. The sharp script and this talented trio make this the most hilarious bit of the evening. And it helps that the actors have their “articulated” movements down, especially Sebald.

“Are You Busy Tonight” – by Russell Ridgeway, directed by Anthony Nathan – is what Mother (Wendy Brown) asks son Kevin (Nathan) in this funny roller coaster of a phone conversation. At first Kevin is annoyed at his mom wanting to invite her to an evening at the theatre, but after suggesting that she ask if someone else is free, he becomes even more exasperated to find out he – her son – was the 28th person she thought to ask! And that included a couple of friends who had died. Nathan is at his best acting flustered, and Brown is a force of nature, so they mint comedy gold here.

Heritage Christian High School Theatre Department presents a teen rite of passage with “Promposal!” by Josie Gingrich, directed by Spencer Elliott. Sam (Bradley Bundrant) likes Anna (Cate Searcy) but over time she has become distant. So, what better way to win her over than by asking her to the Senior Prom, in an extravagant gesture reminiscent of the ’80s movies she likes to watch. Our scene begins as Anna exits the Cafeteria thoroughly embarrassed, and Sam follows, desperate to find out how his perfect plan went so wrong. This sweet and authentic look at high school life, loaded with unforced humor, feels pitch-perfect. Bundrant and Searcy nimbly portray how two such different personalities – he impulsive and loud, she quiet and wanting to be invisible – can eventually feel meant for each other.

Mark Harvey Levine is great at making these short-form plays – Phoenix Theatre patrons may remember some years back he presented a series of them there in “Cabfare for the Common Man.” In this festival, Levine brings us “Ordained,” directed by Megan Ann Jacobs. Sharon (Kyrsten Lister) is manic, unabashed, double-espresso perky, and just recently ordained as a minister by the SacredChurchOfAngelicMinistry.com. Now, at this airport waiting lounge, she has found Abby (Case Jacobus), who is single, and Gary (Grant Nagel), who is also single. Let’s get them married! The resulting scene is wildly hilarious, even as what seems to be an encounter with a well-meaning lunatic starts to have the odd feel of destiny. Jacobus and Nagel play it well, taking the oddness in stride, and Lister is in her element.

What better way to finish an evening of unusual stories than with “Sock Puppet Fetish Noir,” by Kelly McBurnette-Andronicos, directed by Casey Ross, who also stars (stepping in for Missy Rump, who couldn’t make it for health reasons). Jane (Ross) pays a visit to an unusual detective, Inspector Darryl, a puppet sock who will only talk to her sock placed on her hand. It seems some “friends” have gone missing, last seen going into the laundry with their partners. But it turns out that Melvin (David Malloy), the man at the other end of Darryl’s arm, has been keeping secrets in that jar on the desk. So, yes, it’s very weird – quite funny – and with up-for-anything actors like Ross and Malloy, it somehow works.

This was a one-weekend event, so hopefully one or more of these scenes will pop up again somewhere. The festival was an excellent exhibition of local talent and creativity, part of the great and varied Indy theatre scene that we look forward to seeing more of as current events allow.

Bard Fest presents a ‘First’

By John Lyle Belden

As local theatre struggles to get on stage, the organization Indy Bard Fest (with the help of companies that have presented the annual Shakespeare festival under its banner) is adapting to the times. Its first production is a free outdoor staging of the Bard-inspired “Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (of the infamous Reduced Shakespeare Company).

Bard Fest director Glenn Dobbs has persuaded the trio of Matt Hartzburg, J.B. Scoble, and Kelsey Van Voorst — no strangers to Shakespeare, parody, on-the-spot improv, or even the abridging of Wlm. Shkspr. — to put on silly clothes and risk their lives and dignity at a “Pestilent Pocket Park” in front of a bunch of masked strangers at strategically scattered tables.

It seems that some trivial historical bones were not all that were recently found in a Leicester, England, parking lot; there was also an entirely too long and overwrought script by an aspiring young playwright from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It turned out to be much ado over nothing, a winter’s tale for another era, a massive comedy of errors, but measure for measure a potentially great first draft if broken up into thirty-odd comedies, tragedies and histories.

However, Van Voorst (whom I did “mark down as an Ass” in a past review) claims she has gotten the whole monstrosity edited down to a watchable two acts, and Hartzburg and Scoble, having nothing better to do in quarantine, are playing along.

Imagine if the Complete Works of William Shakespeare were tossed into a blender (metaphorically, paper ruins the blades, trust me) and an improv company was ordered to perform it as soon as possible, with whatever was laying around the prop room (or purchased from the local dollar store, judging by at least one price tag we saw hanging). Yes, it’s Just. That. Fun. Perhaps it’s the incredible talent involved; maybe it’s the incredible flexibility of the material of a serious playwright who loved bawdy jokes; and maybe it’s also the fact that under the law, parody is fair game even if you are poking at Disney. Yes, we all know “Lion King” = “Hamlet”, but did Uncle Walt’s company steal other ideas, and characters like Ariel and Iago, from the Immortal Bard?

There’s even an overarching plot to this mess, involving two famed magical beings (from different Shakespeare plays) who don’t get along, and carry out their feud by scrambling characters and plots from various plays into, eventually, a single setting — kinda like “Into the Woods” (does Sondheim know about this?). 

Alas, poor playgoer, I’m committing this to the ether after the opening weekend performances of July 31-Aug. 2 at the IndyFringe Pocket Park are done. But hark! There are more stagings planned for Aug. 7-8 at The Cat performance space in downtown Carmel; Aug. 21 and 23 in Indy’s Garfield Park; Aug. 28-30 in Noblesville; and more locations in September. See indybardfest.com for details. Oh, and mark that admission to all performances is free! (Sack and other accommodations may cost; donations are always welcome.)