Little-known story of man’s American ‘Dreams’

By John Lyle Belden

While most know how the United States has failed to be a land of opportunity for natives and people of African descent, we might be less familiar with the manner with which Asian immigrants have been treated. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act made coming to America difficult, but in the 20th century, circumstances gave some hope by way of “paper families” – exploiting the loss of official records in events like the Great San Francisco Earthquake to claim relatives in the States.

This process, and the consequences of its necessary deception, are dramatized in “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” by Jessica Huang, on stage (after a two-year delay) at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

It’s been one year since Laura (Anne Bates) departed, but still too early for the traditional month when the Dead come to visit – however, she’s not Chinese, so she haunts her daughter Sheila (Allison Buck) and husband Harry (David Shih) anyway. 

Her arrival takes Harry Chin back to past moments, meeting young Laura as he struggles with his English, yet managing enough to tell her an old story. The supernatural effect then takes him further back, to when he was Leong Cheung Yu, leaving behind his name and past life to become the alleged relative of a Chinese American named Chin, complete with backstory he must memorize to the last word. He coaches a fellow immigrant (Linden Tailor), who grows more nervous every moment. Reciting the papers exactly becomes literally the most important thing in their lives.

Flashing back from the present-day of the 1970s to decades past takes its toll, as his boss (Sam Encarnation) re-appears as his Immigration interrogator. Harry sees the face of the woman he left behind (Stephanie Soohyun Park) in the interpreter assigned at his questioning, and later in a surprise visit from Susan, the girl he had last seen as an infant.

The restless dead have a lot to teach Harry, Sheila (a person “of two worlds,” they note) and, most importantly, us. After all, “Haunting is helping,” as Harry’s old companion says. 

Be sure to read the historical notes in the play program, as they add clarity to what is happening on stage. Huang based this on the actual story of a man who lived in Minnesota after arrival via a “paper family,” so this dramatization contains a lot of discomforting truth, as well as the strength of character of a man trying to do the best he can for himself and his people – both those he left, and the new family he makes here.

Shih excellently gives us the fiercely proud Chin. Buck is both caring and curious, portraying a woman at the crossroads of immense possibility – not only in learning more about her true heritage (in shocking fashion) but also being in the “women’s lib” era with the openings that entails. Bates has Laura loving fiercely as well, to her limit and beyond. Tailor entertains in his supporting roles. Park catches our heart in softly tragic moments. Encarnacion is appropriately frightening as the face of cruel bureaucracy.

Jaki Bradley directs this otherworldly yet accessible story, set in the IRT’s intimate Upperstage, with clever set design by Wilson Chin. 

An important story, as well as a bold and fascinating drama, “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” continue through May 15 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

District drama explores daunting ‘Place’

By Wendy Carson

By Wendy Carson

The District Theatre presents “What Is This Place? A Journey of Self in the Aftermath,” in which five souls ask the title question, while knowing on some level exactly where they are.

Welcome to their nightmare – where you, too, will likely go one day.

I first saw a version of this show in August of 2016, at IndyFringe. In the six years since, playwright Jan White has reshaped it into an even greater work of beauty and hope. If you go back to that first review, I didn’t say much about the show because I didn’t want to spoil the mystery for anyone. However, the current version allows more room to meditate on the performance.

The story begins with Darlene (Holly Hathaway) being flung in through a door which she cannot unlock to make her escape. She claims to know the place, because in her past she saw her mother inside it. She protests that she wants to leave, but is afraid of what lies beyond the door.

The other denizens of this place are: Maggie (Miki Mathioudakis), a wealthy widow, distantly connected to Darlene, who has transformed into a sloppy, hot mess; Sophia (Brittany Magee), a perky, meditating, goof who searches for peace she cannot find; Cindy (Bianca Black), who just wants to sleep, but no combination of drugs and alcohol are able to work; and finally, Jake (Chad Pirowski), the apparent caretaker, whose silence makes him appear creepy.

Periodically, each person will go to a space at the side of the stage to view pieces of their memories, which we are privy to by way of a video screen. It does not take us long to realize what this place actually is, but the point here is the characters’ journey to that same discovery. Once they fully acknowledge it, they must then decide whether to leave or stay (each option has its benefits).

As each woman comes to terms with that which landed them there, they must also deal with the fact that some questions never have answers, that perhaps “everything happens for a reason” is nonsense, whether you accept it or not. Eventually, they find the darkness they have in common, and how to wield it as a key to that door that perhaps was never really locked after all.

While this is a story about grief and loss, it also embodies the accomplishment and hope that lies at the end of that road.

Performances are truly remarkable, considering the gut-wrenching dramatic exercise this play puts the cast through, under the direction of Rosana Schutte. We get small bits of relief, in humorous moments with Cindy’s substances, Maggie’s endless Doritos bags, or Sophia’s attempts at serenity with bells and “tapping.” Still, the pain is never far from them, lurking just outside the windows. Our heart goes out to all five, even Jake, who has the darkest truth.

Remaining performances of “What Is This Place?” are Friday and Saturday, April 29-30, with ASL interpretation, at the District, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, go to IndyDistrictTheatre.org.

CCP with ‘Fantastick’ musical

By John Lyle Belden

It might be late April, wild weather and all, but at The Cat in downtown Carmel, it’s a special kind of September, as Carmel Community Players bids you to follow “The Fantasticks.”

Written by Tom Jones (the American songwriter, not the Welsh singer) and Harvey Schmidt, the musical is noteworthy for its world-record Off-Broadway run (1960-2002, plus later revivals, tours, etc.) as well as its charming contrast of simple staging and story with deep universal themes. It also has a hit song, “Try to Remember,” which gets under way right near the beginning.

This light-hearted fable presents The Boy, Matt (Theodore Curtis) and The Girl, Luisa (Brook-Glen Gober), who grow up neighbors, but with a wall between them. It seems Hucklebee, The Boy’s Father (Kevin Shadle), and Bellomy, The Girl’s Father (Kevin Caraher), are feuding – probably something about gardening – and forbid the youths to meet. So, naturally, they rendezvous in secret and fall in love.

All this is presented and explained by The Narrator (JB Scoble), who also appears as the suave bandit El Gallo. Making the scene complete is The Mute (Hannah Janowicz), who provides and spirits away props and curtains, and embodies the Wall when needed.

But it’s revealed to us that the fathers only pretend to feud! To complete the scenario and ensure the Happy Ending, they arrange for The Girl to be in peril so that The Boy can rescue her, and the two families can rejoice and unite. To achieve the faux abduction, the men hire El Gallo, who gets help from Henry, The Old Actor (Duane Leatherman), and his apprentice, Mortimer, The Man Who Dies (Thom Johnson). Their plan seems to execute perfectly, so everyone is happy now – right?

This was a dream job for director Rich Phipps, who saw “The Fantasticks” during its original New York run. He opts for the less-problematic “abduction” script that avoids the original’s use of the term “rape” in its literary sense to lessen discomfort and confusion. Still the style, with its commedia dell’arte influences, manages to communicate the story’s dark and serious aspects even while peppered with elements of absurdity.

Scoble is in his element as El Gallo. You can tell Kevins Shadle and Caraher are having fun with this show, as are Leatherman as the master who has forgotten more Shakespeare than you’ll ever know, and Johnson, as clever a fool as one could ask for. Curtis is a young artist showing a lot of potential, and Gober is ever charming. Janowicz displays natural mime skills, enhancing the scenes without stealing them.

A fun and entertaining musical with a moral for all ages, performances run through May 8 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, Carmel. Get information and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

IF welcomes you to ‘Pooh Corner’

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Most of us have spent at least part of our childhood in the Hundred Acre Wood, or even in an acre of our own with some dear plush pals. Return to that wonder-filled place at “The House at Pooh Corner,” presented by Improbable Fiction Theatre Company at the Ivy Tech auditorium in Noblesville.

In pajama-esque costume, Winnie-the-Pooh and friends from A.A. Milne’s books come to life, adapted by Bettye Knapp, directed for IFTC by Dana Lesh. 

Today’s adventure starts with an Emergency Meeting, with much to address. Eeyore is tired of standing out in a field at 3 a.m. and wants a house. A mysterious and frightening new creature has appeared, wreaking havoc on Pooh’s chair and Owl’s home. Who or what is the mysterious “Backson”? Most concerning, though, is that Christopher Robin’s parents are intent on sending the boy away to “Education.” 

This calls for action – perhaps an excursion to the South Pole, as the North Pole has crocodiles.

In this production, what would have been just a charming experience for young audiences has been made truly exceptional by near-perfect casting: 

  • Daniel Shock has not only the constantly contemplative look but also the familiar classic voice of Pooh Bear down solid. 
  • Diann Ryan masters Piglet’s mix of energetic, neurotic, and eager-to-please. 
  • Scott Prill exudes all the gentlemanly gravitas of Owl. 
  • Jennifer Poynter is endearingly maternal and germaphobic as Kanga, dealing with Sean Wood as hyper and eager-for-fun Roo. 
  • Barb Weaver has the take-charge attitude of Rabbit, who also watches over bunny relatives Early (Evelyn BeDell) and Late (Paxton Shock). 
  • Geoff Lynch embodies the blustering braggart force of nature that is Tigger, complete with animated giggle.  
  • Ryan Shelton brays as discontented, depressed Eeyore so well, it’s a wonder he isn’t on the others’ nerves. 
  • Gabrielle Morrison seems to have stepped off the page as Christopher Robin. The voice of his father (one of “them”) is provided by Jeff Bick. 

The commitment by the actors to their plush alter-egos helps immerse us in the whimsy of their world, making this a nice experience for theatre-goers of any age. As an added treat, the cast comes out to greet and take pictures with fans at the front of the stage after each performance. 

Visit “The House on Pooh Corner” April 22-24 – 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday – at Ivy Tech, 300 N. 17th St., Noblesville. Find information and tickets at iftheatrecompany.org.

ALT: ‘Living’ not easy in award-winning drama

By John Lyle Belden

This is a story about entrapment. It is people trapped by situations, accidents, choices – even their own bodies. What you pay to deal with that is the “Cost of Living,” a play by Martyna Majok presented by American Lives Theatre at the Fonseca Theatre.

Eddie (Clay Mabbitt) seems to be stuck in the Twilight Zone. To deal with loss, the former trucker leaves texts at an old number that has mysteriously texted him back. And now, the trap has snapped on you in the audience. This isn’t the main plot point, and as we get into the next scene, we’re not even sure where what we just saw fits. Hold on, though, it’s worth working our way back out.

John (Preston Dildine) has a mind that’s making him rich, and a body with cerebral palsy that requires him to hire someone to bathe it. In a manner like pelting with stones, he questions Jess (Teneh Karimu) to see if she is of the mettle to do the undignified job. Also, he finds it intriguing that she is Ivy-educated, yet works all night waitressing at bars. 

Ani (Olivia Mozzi) really doesn’t want to deal with Eddie right now. She’s managing well enough since the accident that shattered her spine, and would rather have someone other than her ex taking care of her. But he, babbling attempts at kindness and bouncing like a hyper puppy, really wants to help. 

This Indianapolis premiere of the 2018 Pulitzer-winning drama is directed and stage-managed by ALT founder and Artistic Director Chris Saunders, who made a point of casting people with disabilities in the two chair-bound roles (their actual conditions are different than what is portrayed). Don’t look for heroic uplift from them; they portray genuine people trying to live as best they can – like those of us without wheels. This helps give the actors meat to work with, lending dimension to John and Ani that contrasts with the binds that able-bodied Eddie (mental) and Jess (economic) find themselves struggling against. 

The chemistry between Dildine and Karimu is compelling. Mozzi takes someone who is a bitter pill and makes us love her. And Mabbitt has the chops to keep a character that means well but overtalks in that likable lane between pathetic and comic caricature. 

Where will these characters be when the “bill” comes due? “Cost of Living” runs through April 30 at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org.

GHDT: Ancient yet familiar story of power, plague, and redemption

By John Lyle Belden

I am the most casual fan of dance programs there is. I appreciate it in a general sense, but have not studied or participated intensively. Still, I continue to be amazed and delighted by the visual storytelling skills of Gregory Glade Hancock.

On April 7-9, a week before Passover, Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre presented its “Exodus,” a modern story in movement inspired by the ancient story of Moses. It premiered in 2019, with plans to perform again the next year, but our modern plagues pushed the date back to this month.

The themes include freedom from oppression, as well as sacrificial love. In consideration of this, as well as Hancock dedicating this – like much of his work – to the memory of his mother, he chose to have the central figure, the Chosen One, performed by a woman. Entrusted with this role is Olivia Payton, full of passion and sacred sense of duty. In place of the Biblical Pharoah, we have The Prosecutor; Thomas Mason struts the stage, projecting authority while at times struggling with it.

Other individual roles, as well as the Slaves and Plagues, are performed by Abigail Lessaris, Hannah Brown, Chloe Holzman, Zoe Maish, Josie Moody, Audrey Springer, and Rebecca Zigmond.

The Persecutor’s army of Oppressors are danced by Ellen Burks, Grace Burks, Taylor Colter, Adrian Dominquez, Zoe Hacker, Allie Hanning, Kloie Hargrove, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Moriah Knuth, Kallie Leib, Grace Mazurek, Evangeline Meadows, Rachel Morrow, Leah Pitman, Maria Porter, Sophia Rice, Hillary Riley, Alexia Rumrill, Rachel VonDommelen, and Elissa Weisz.

The Chosen as a young prince was Leighton Metcalfe; other children were Fiadh Flynn, Poppy Lomax, Vincent Kitchen, Violet Kitchen, Elli Thacker, and Megan Webb.

Aside from the Academy of GHDT, the company included dancers from Anderson University; The Conservatory of Dance, Granger, Ind.; and Ballet Arts of Peru, Ind.

Choreography and Costumes were by Hancock, who also credits much of the look and feel to the show to Ryan Koharchik’s lighting and set design. Dance styles vary from boldly modern to living animations of hieroglyphics, exciting and always clear in their intent.

We are presented with the plight of the oppressed from the opening moments, confined by a curtain of chain-link fence. As slave children are rounded up, a desperate Mother (Lessaris) leaves her infant in a basket for the Persecutor’s Daughter (Brown) to find. In time this Child grows (Metcalfe, Payton), knowing privilege but feeling for those in shackles. A moment of compassion leads to violence, and exile. The Chosen encounters a sacred Burning Bush (an expertly flowing grouping of about a dozen dancers, pulsing with life like a landbound sea anemone) and she understands what she must do.

The Persecutor has no interest in freeing the Slaves. He is surrounded by an army, members uniformly unisex and masked, a familiar emblem on their hoodies showing they have the “power.”

The oppressed now appear as pale avenging angels, bringing forth plagues that speak to us in the audience: Desecration (pollution) of the Earth, Gun Violence, Racism, War, Poverty, Crime, Social Media (apathy), uncaring Government, and Selfishness. To drive the point home, like in the source book, finally the First Born are struck down.

In Act Two, we get parting of the Red Sea, the giving of Commandments, and the people’s disobedience. We also get a joyous reunion, saddened by the story coming full circle. As in the scriptural Exodus, we conclude with our formerly oppressed people in the wilderness, but bold and ready for whatever comes next.

The overall program is thrilling, stunning, and inspiring – the effective telling of an epic story without a single word. Let this be an encouragement to see whatever you can attend by GHDT (next up is an adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” in June) and insistence to experience “Exodus” the next time it is revived.

Performances are in downtown Carmel, get information and tickets at GregoryHancockDanceTheatre.org.

Ankh at Storefront: Taking knife in hand to dissect ‘Love’

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes, being reckless pays off.

Ankh Productions was bold enough to inquire about a residency at the relatively new Storefront Theater in Broad Ripple. Local actor Jamaal McCray was brave enough to explore the dynamics of relationships, writing “Love You Reckless” in 2017, then to dust it off, polish it and present it on stage with Chandra Lynch, Friday through Sunday, April 15-17.

And hopefully, you are curious enough to brave this examination of Yin/Yang, Power/Compassion, Man/Woman, presented raw in nearly a dozen thought-provoking scenes.

McCray and Lynch stand before us, serving up moments of aggression, fear, mischief, compassion, all as off-balance as life itself. Friends, countrymen, lend them your ears – they wield curved blades with which to collect. Other notable moments include the coming stampede(!); the consequence of control; “1,000 pieces of silver in the trash;” the longings of a lonely “sit-izen;” hard promises kept; the glitch; and an exchange of “vows and truths” that are uncomfortably honest.

The stage is decorated with just a pair of altars, to the Masculine/Sun and Feminine/Moon, featuring artworks by Kristin Stepp that are available via silent auction. McCray said that in developing this play, he looked toward old African folktale traditions. Hip-Hop is a binding ingredient, as well, but the themes are universal. Anyone in any kind of relationship can see echoes in these character pairings.

“Love You Reckless” is the kind of experience that works best — maybe only — in an intimate theatre setting. It is similar to a Fringe show but runs a bit over an hour (no intermission). Find the Storefront at 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. For information, visit AnkhProductions.org or Facebook/ankhproductions.

Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.

Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Wacky ‘Idiots’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

“Flaming Idiots” is not Shakespeare, but the Bard does get a shout-out. This farce by Tom Rooney, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield through Sunday (April 10) is the kind of laugh-out-loud escapist fare that comes in handy in ever-troubled times. 

The cast features many kinds of fools: 

  • Phil (Ethan Romba) is really good at jumping into things and not thinking them through, while convinced he has a fool-proof plan. So he accepts a local mobster’s offer to take over a failing restaurant, though Phil knows next to nothing about the business (which is apparently more than enough, in his mind). 
  • Phil’s partner Carl (Austin Uebelhor) is the kind of general dunce who is randomly curious about everything and understands nothing. His one stroke of genius is creating the eatery’s signature cocktail, the Flaming Idiot (“One drink makes you silly,” he explains.) 
  • Local police Officer Task (Jeffrey Haber) has an IQ somewhere between that of his horse and his last donut (so, of course he’s studying to become Detective) but at least he’s friendly and helpful.
  • Eugene (Austin Hookfin) is a waiter and aspiring ACTOR! who is really invested in his method and eager for his chance to shine.
  • Ernesto Santiago (Chris Taylor), a busboy from the barrios of Norway(?), seems to have some sense about him, as well as a mysterious briefcase, though he does lose his cool when anyone mentions “laundry.”
  • Bernadette (Wendy Brown) is the most sensible of the bunch, and the best vegetarian chef in town, but also completely deaf from a recent accident. (Will this be exploited for comic misunderstandings? Note the word “farce” above.)
  • Jayne Fryman (Ashley Engstrom) seems to do everything for the hometown newspaper – advertising, food critic, crime beat – which, having been a small-paper writer myself, I find the most believable character. However, she is plagued with a “wardrobe malfunction” that is the cause of a lot of cheeky laughs.
  • The play’s plot includes the idea to fake a mob murder to give Phil’s Restaurant the buzz of noteriety; enter Louie (Eric Bowman), the past-his-prime hitman who needs a diagram to make sure he goes through the correct door.
  • Aside from Bernadette, the smartest character by far is a random Body that, when shaved, somehow resembles a famous stage producer. He gives a truly moving performance (in a wheeled office chair).

Actually, it takes a lot of smarts to make an “idiotic” performance funny, and this crew delivers a MENSA-level effort under the genius direction of Brian Nichols. And for an all-ages show, you end up seeing a lot of underwear!

It’s all in good fun, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get information and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.