Civic brings Peanuts special to life

By John Lyle Belden

For some, “Good grief” is as much a part of the season as “Happy Holidays!”

For them, and children of all ages, there is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” playing on select dates at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. Directed by John Michael Goodson, this adaptation of the popular television special brings Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” characters to life.

Following all the beats of the animated TV show, Charlie Brown (Max Andrew McCreary) feels depressed, this time regarding the oncoming holidays. Lucy (Mikayla Koharchik), in 5-cent psychiatrist mode, prescribes him directing the gang’s Christmas Program (which will star her as the Queen of Christmas, of course). With the help of Linus (John Kern), our hero eventually gets the meaning of the holiday, which he expresses by adopting the loneliest little Christmas tree.

The cast also includes Frankie Bolda as Sally, Emily Chrzanowski as Violet, Leah Hodson as Patty, Ethan Mathias as Schroeder, Alex Smith as Shermy, Alexandria Warfield as Frieda, and Gideon Roark as a surprisingly dignified Pig Pen. Also on the scene is Evan Wallace as the clever, hip, and ever-charming dog Snoopy.

This ensemble does an excellent job of enacting the characters’ motion from the mid-‘60s animation without mocking them — from Charlie’s footsteps, to bowled-over wild takes reminiscent of the comic strip, to Shermy’s incredible dance moves.  And backed by an actual jazz trio (CJ Warfield, Alex Nativi, Greg Wolff), the atmosphere is so cool you’d swear it was actually snowing.

The show doesn’t run very long, which is good for the attention spans of little theatre-goers, and concludes with a Christmas carol sing-along.

Performances are 10 a.m. and noon, Dec. 4, 11 and 18, and 7 p.m. on Dec. 5, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the ongoing Christkindlmarkt. For information and tickets, visit CivicTheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Bard Fest play catches the conscience of the Queen

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting thing I find in TV talk shows is the stories of celebrities who meet other celebrities, not as coworkers or equals, but as mutual fans, starstruck at each other. Imagine if the most powerful woman in the world were to meet an actor whose performance she found to be exceptional. It happened, and William Shakespeare was there to see it.

“Elizabeth Rex” is perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare could not have made, as the title character could easily have had his head removed to decorate the Tower of London. So it was left to acclaimed playwright Timothy Findley in 2000 to speculate and dramatize what happened on a fateful night in 1601 following a command performance – by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I – of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

You don’t have to know anything about that comedy to enjoy the Bard Fest adaptation of “Elizabeth Rex,” just know that in Shakespeare’s day, all women’s roles were played by male actors, and the rest of this drama’s set-up you can get from context. The setting is a barn at the estate where the play’s after-party (for aristocrats, not lowly actors) is being held, with everyone being stuck indoors as a curfew was declared by the Queen to maintain the peace before the Ash Wednesday execution at dawn of Robert, Earl of Essex – believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, but convicted of treason. 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men grumble about their surroundings as they remove their makeup and tap a keg of warm ale, but the mood totally changes when their Royal visitor arrives. She is regal, the others reverent, but eventually all relax. “I shall require distraction,” Elizabeth declares.

The Queen (Holly Hathaway Thmpson) is quite impressed with the men who played female leads, especially Ned Lowenscroft (Jay C. Hemphill), the play’s Beatrice, and Harry Pearle (Scott Fleshood), who played Hero. She even remembers when Percy Gower (Alan Cloe) would show some leg in his skirts in years past (the old actor loves to reminisce, a recurring comic point). To Jack Edmond (Matthew Walls) who played Benedick (who verbally sparred with/wooed Beatrice in “Much Ado”), Elizabeth shows disdain, perhaps conflating the actor with the role, resenting his being Irish, or both. She also isn’t thrilled with big-mouthed Luddy (Matthew Socey) who she sees as little more than a living version of Falstaff (a great Bard Fest in-joke for those who have seen Socey in that role). Also on hand is Matt Welles (Anthony Logan), who is handy with a guitar; nearly blind seamstress Tardy (Susan Yeaw), always losing her glasses to comic effect; and a bear, which Lowenscroft had rescued.

Quite literally above it all, at his desk in the loft, is Shakespeare (Eric Bryant), working on his next play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” He feels at a loss for what words to put in legendary rulers’ mouths, so makes notes of things the Queen says. This proves problematic when she insists on seeing the script.

Attending Her Majesty are Lady Mary Stanley (Nikki Lynch) and Lord Robert Cecil (Abdul Hakim Shabazz). An attentive soldier enforcing the curfew (Andy Burnett) also appears, as well as, briefly, Countess Henslow (Afton Shepard) to plead in vain for the condemned’s life.

Much of this drama comes down to the interplay between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft, who, because he is dying, exercises a bit of license with the Queen. For her part, resolved to spend the night on the level of her subjects in the barn, she accepts being chided and contradicted – even touched – as the gay actor teaches the monarch, ever required to show a manly demeanor, to get in touch with her woman within. Thus, even in a very talented cast, Hemphill and Thompson stand out with extraordinary performances. 

Glenn L. Dobbs, a Bard Fest producer, directs from a script he adapted with Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles. 

As has been noted, this at times intense drama is peppered with some great laugh-out-loud moments. It also gives a sense of what an important time this was in Elizabeth’s reign. The hour chimes periodically, bringing our players closer to the dawn, when our fantasia ends and true history resumes.

Remaining dates are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

Oz-inspired production a celebration of India

By Wendy Carson

With Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “There’s No Place Like Home,” founder Gregory Glade Hancock has brought us his most personal show to date. He spins the tale of The Boy from Kansas (performed by Thomas Mason) and his journey of grief and self-discovery that leads him back to the inevitable conclusion that all you ever need is right in your own back yard. However, rather than traveling to Oz, he is transported to the even more magical land of India.

The show begins with the Boy visiting his mother’s grave. His sadness and loss is beautifully depicted and left tears in my eyes at its conclusion. He is then swept up in a tornado of grief that eventually lands him in this exotic place where Mother India herself (Abigail Lessaris) welcomes him. He is also treated to welcoming dances from various groups throughout the land.

He is encouraged to “Follow the Golden Path” Where he meets three deities (all played by Abigail Lessaris) who bestow upon him the gifts of Wisdom (like the Scarecrow’s brains); Compassion (the Tin Man’s heart); plus Strength and Courage (the Cowardly Lion’s nerve).

The journey is not without hazards, though. his Antagonist (Adrian Dominguez) portrays the Grief, Fear, Doubt and Cancer that he literally struggles with throughout his time here.

Even with this ever-present danger lurking, he still delights in all of the beauty and pageantry that India has to offer. Amongst the highlights of these experiences are his participation in Holi (the celebration of colors); a Bollywood film; performances from Kathak Dancers and Bhangra Dancers; as well as a ritual cleansing in the Ganges.

There is honestly no way for me to begin to describe the sheer beauty, emotion and celebration of this show. It made me laugh with delight and cry with sorrow but mostly it moved me to experience more of the history and culture of India, especially the wide variety of dance therein.

John adds: This was a truly wondrous performance; I left wanting to see it all again. Hancock, who has repeatedly traveled to India (inspiring this show), took great pains to capture the authentic spirit of the subcontinent. He collaborated with India-born artist Madhuchhanda Mandal to create a beautiful mural that was made into the stage backdrop, GHDT board member Anindita Sen to bring in dancers from the Nrityangan Kathak Academy, and Yusuf Khurram of Jiapur, India, to arrange rare genuine Kalbeliya costumes.

The dancers were outstanding throughout, especially Mason, and the graceful Lessaris who dances as naturally as others breathe. Also notable are Camden Lancaster and Dominguez in their portrayal of Krishna and Radha.

Performaces, at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, were Oct. 28-30, but bookmark this review! Hancock will hopefully bring this marvel back in a future season. For upcoming GHDT events, including December’s “Nutcracker,” see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

Bradbury’s ‘Fire’ at District

By John Lyle Belden

We have become strangers to death. Even during the present pandemic, we look around at largely clean, safe spaces. In the future, we can take this ideal even further. Perhaps, by the year 2349, we can be rid of all morbidity, the imagining of terrible things, even the media that brings them into our imagination. Everything cleaned away, into the fire.

In legendary author Ray Bradury’s “Pillar of Fire,” one man who died in the 1940s stays in suspended animation through intense passion, spending years absorbing lost incinerated stories of the macabre, until that day in the mid-24th Century when workmen come close to excavating his coffin, and his passion realized, William Lantry rises.

“He came out of the earth, hating,” as the story puts it. 

TV/movie actor and Bradbury superfan Bill Oberst Jr. performed his recitation of this short story at The District Theatre in Indianapolis on October 28-29 (a nice lead-in to Halloween). No stranger to spooky roles (including a notable “unsub” on “Criminal Minds”), he fully embodies our unliving man, moving without feeling, speaking without breathing. You can also feel in his delivery of the text his great respect for the author (Oberst last appeared in Indy portraying Bradbury himself!). 

Lantry could experience nothing in his once-living senses, only rage at his country’s fulfilled future. He sees the city’s central incinerator, where he had been destined to go. He finds people who seem content, afraid of nothing as there is nothing to fear. This seems inhuman to him: “I will make night what it once was!” 

Looking upon his dark deeds, Lantry is approached by a stranger, who seems only amused that he is a walking dead man. This person even offers him a ride into town… 

Oberst developed this performance in Los Angeles, directed by Ezra Buzzington, who provides the voice of Lantry’s companion. The show is presented with the cooperation of the Bradbury estate and, in Indy, the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. 

The story, first published in Planet Stories magazine in 1948, helps develop some of the ideas Bradbury would later incorporate in his classic “Fahrenheit 451.” However, this tale takes a more nuanced view of the incineration of reading material. After the performance, I found myself wondering: Was Lantry the “hero” of the story? His actions to re-introduce terror to what he sees as a numbed population have devastating results. The world he sees negatively as sterile, another might call sanitary. And it seems telling that the stranger is so understanding.

Needless to say, this is an extraordinary theatrical experience, as well as a thought-provoking glimpse into the mind of one of the masters of science fiction.

The theatrical reading of “Pillar of Fire” is available on Audible. For more on Oberst’s work visit billoberst.com.

ATI’s ‘Lombardi’ victorious

By John Lyle Belden

Whenever we hear or see Vincent Lombardi in a picture or old game film, or read or hear one of his numerous quotes, he seems larger than life, football’s Zeus or Apollo. But he was a man – and a devoted Catholic, so claiming no godhood – and as we see his very human aspects in “Lombardi,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana, we can’t help but respect him even more.

The Broadway play by Eric Simonson, from the book “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, captures a week in the Green Bay Packers’ 1965 season. Look magazine sends reporter Michael McCormick (played by Adam LaSalle) to Wisconsin to write a profile on the coach, who never had a losing season in the NFL (up to that point, or thereafter). Aside from Lombardi (Don Farrell) and his wife Marie (Judy Fitzgerald), we meet Packers greats Dave Robinson (Joel Ashur), Paul Hornung (Christian Condra) and Jim Taylor (Mat Leonard), who all refuse – at first – to speak to the reporter.

Without any special makeup tricks, perhaps through force of will, Farrell becomes Lombardi – in face, stance, voice, and attitude. When he speaks, always at or above a shout, all must listen. His style as coach and general manager was uncompromising, but in his subtle, paternal way his compassion for both the game and its players comes through. And as he would bellow at his wife, Fitzgerald’s Marie would always give as good as she got, with a knowing grin on her face and drink in her hand. Their scenes include flashbacks, showing how they made their way to Green Bay (including the road atlas).

McCormick is an able narrator; being a character from the non-football world aids his role as audience proxy. Ashur, Condra and Leonard also give strong performances, worthy of working under a legendary coach.

Jane Unger, who last gave us another bit of history in “Alabama Story,” directs. Efficient stage design by P. Bernard Killian seems to expand the limited space of the Studio Theater, hinting at grand scale within an intimate setting.

An inspiring look at an American icon, “Lombardi” runs through Nov. 21 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Following the Sunday, Nov. 7, performance, former Purdue star and Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann will join the cast for a talkback.

Get info and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.