Examining our Hoosier President

By John Lyle Belden

History’s judgement of President Benjamin Harrison, Ohio-born but spent most of his public life in and in service to Indiana, is sort of a mixed bag. During his one term, 1889-1893, he championed progressive policies and admitted a half-dozen states to the Union, but then there was the protectionist tariff and economic troubles, rocky relations within his own party, and, in hindsight, the opportunities lost. Scholars rank him middling to lower-half on the list of best-to-worst Presidents, while Hoosiers like to celebrate their only Chief Executive (aside from his grandfather, territorial governor and “Tippecanoe”).

In “Benjamin Harrison Chased a Goat,” a new play by Hank Greene finally getting its premiere at Theater at the Fort (former U.S. Army post Fort Benjamin Harrison), the policy and politics are background to an examination of Harrison the man. In addition, we are reminded of important women in his life: Caroline Harrison, his wife, and Alice Sanger, the first woman stenographer in the White House.

And then, of course, there’s Old Whiskers, which would be referred to as the First Pet by today’s news media.

We meet the President (Steve Kruze) in the Oval Office as just a few hours remain before returning it to Grover Cleveland. He works on his Farewell Address, stuck for an ending, when he is surprised by the arrival of Sanger (Morgan Morton) – the only staffer left working in the White House, as all the men have exited for new positions. He is reluctant, but she persuades him to let her “polish up” his scattered notes. As he goes out to ruminate on the speech’s closing, Harrison is distracted by the wandering ruminant.

Much of the story follows in flashback. Harrison, flanked by trusted advisors Caroline (Carrie Schlatter) and longtime aide James Noble (Alex Oberheide), greet inauguration with optimism, despite not winning the popular vote in the 1888 election. Haunted by his famous name – and the soured legacy of John Quincy Adams not living up to his own Founding Father – Harrison is determined to accomplish great things in his own right. Seeds of doubt from this are nourished by Republican Party operative Edward Proctor (Joshua Ramsey), who blunts the President’s bold moves by advising the GOP’s cautious approach.

We also get glimpses of the relationship between Benjamin and Caroline, from the first dance to the last chimes of the music box. Her importance becomes clear, despite the mostly ceremonial position of First Lady. She chafes at being only known as the woman who brought electricity to the White House, and who rid it of (four-legged) rats. Trouble stirs at both the speech Mrs. Harrison gives to the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the speech she opts not to give.

What happened to that electrifying speaker who helped elect an Indiana governor? What will his last words as U.S. President be, and will they be remembered? And where is that goat, anyway?

Kruze and Schlatter make a dynamic First Couple, devoted though their love gets tested to the breaking point. Their then-controversial “progressive” views sound more like conventional wisdom now (and the gold vs. silver standard debate, rather quaint) so we mainly see committed public servants working with the noblest intentions. Morton helps put a spotlight on another real historical figure, as Sanger speaks for the common person wanting to know why all this politics and policy matter.

Oberheide delivers an excellent performance of the right-hand man who becomes taken for granted, Noble’s disillusionment the indicator that our leader’s path has gone astray. As Proctor, Ramsey’s delivery is as perfect as his impeccable facial hair. He doesn’t twirl that curled mustache, though, as he is not a villain but more representing the way party politics have been conducted throughout American history. His arguments for inaction and vague promises can be heard on Capitol Hill today.

Directed by Christine Kruze, this play, like many historical dramas, is an enlightening look at the past with some lessons for our present. Best of all, it’s a nice insight into a man whom history largely overlooks. Circumstances limited the run to the current weekend, Aug. 12-14. If you are reading this in time, find tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

CCP brings unbelievable adventure to Cat stage

By John Lyle Belden

“Truth is stranger than fiction
But De Rougemont is stranger than both”

 – The Wide World Magazine, June 1899 (quoted in Wikipedia)

*

Louis De Rougemont was an actual 19th-century personality; Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies did not make him up. Whether Mr. De Rougemont invented his “amazing adventures,” though, is another question.

See and judge for yourself at “Shipwrecked: An Entertainment! The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (as Told by Himself),” presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat, directed by Lori Raffel.

Embodied by local actor Earl Campbell, De Rougemont relates his fantastic story with an ensemble of Vickie Cornelius Phipps, Joe Aiello, Margot Everitt, Jayda Glynn, Hannah Janowicz, and Tom Smith. He tells of being a sickly boy, raised on stories of adventure read to him by his mother (Phipps). As a teen, he meets a sea captain (Phipps again) and leaves home to find adventure aboard the good ship Wonderworld, searching for pearls off the coast of Australia. As the title hints, he finds himself wrecked and marooned with the ship’s dog, faithful Bruno (Aiello). His journey back to London will take decades, during which he befriends local Aborigines, marrying one (Phipps yet again). He becomes the toast of Britain when he publishes his adventures, but not everyone believes him.

The basic stage set takes us back to a bare-bones turn-of-the-20th-century hall, appropriately giving free rein to our imaginations as the tale is presented with simple, improvised props. Campbell takes on our hero’s charm and charisma with unwavering boldness. Phipps is sweet and versatile, her talent allowing us not to dwell on the Freudian overtones of her casting. Bruno, a literal scene-chewing role, is taken to with endearing gusto by Aiello, who also gets non-barking characters such as the editor of Wide World Magazine, and Queen Victoria.

Other ensemble members get their moments to shine – Smith as the Aboriginal elder and a Royal Geographic Society skeptic, Janowicz showing mime skills reminiscent of her turn in “The Fantasticks,” Glynn as a Paperboy and the card-turner, and Everitt as an able utility player, as well as the gentle nudge needed when the story goes awry.

When all is said and done, we have the highs and lows of our hero’s journey, as well as a counter-narrative. But wherein is the “truth,” and does it matter? To an audience accustomed to watching “Ancient Aliens” and “inspired by true events” on a screen, the bigger questions feel familiar – even current – despite over a century passing since Wide World published the original story.

So, saddle up your sea turtle and indulge in this entertaining “Entertainment,” opening tonight (Aug. 12) and running through Aug. 21 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

BCP drama examines historical mystery

By John Lyle Belden

On Aug. 4, 1892, somebody murdered Abby and Andrew Borden in Fall River, Mass. This is historical fact, as well as the arrest and trial of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, for the killings. The last 130 years have seen the growth of legends, myths, and a nursery rhyme around the incident, the kind of true-crime story familiar to those who remember the sensationalized double-murder trial of a former football star in the 1990s.

Buck Creek Players takes a whack at the lore with “Lizzie Borden of Fall River” by Tim Kelly, directed by Ben Jones.

The first act sets up the infamous events. Lizzie (Renee Whiten Lopez) is smart and headstrong, as well as kind to those she loves, even her strict and stingy father, Andrew (Tim Latimer). She shows no love or affection to stepmother Abby (Sarah Latimer), whom she is sure married her father for his wealth and controls his decisions. Lizzie and sister Emma (Rachel Bush) are very close, sharing to a degree an impatience with their father and distrust of the stepmother. Their live-in maid Bridget (Amelia Tryon) is adored by the girls, but has problems with the parents, who blame her and not the days-old mutton for recent stomach ailments.

Other characters who factor into the coming events include handyman Mr. Sousa (Josh Rooks) from whom Andrew withholds part of his pay because “you might spend it foolishly;” Aunt Vinnie Morris (Cyrena Knight), who wishes to claim a New Hampshire property promised by her sister (the girls’ mother) as her dying wish, but which Andrew refuses as there is no binding contract; neighbor Mrs. Churchill (Lea Ellingwood), who is outraged that Lizzie took the church’s Sunday School superintendent position she felt entitled to; church minister Rev. Jubb (Matt Trgovac), who is very fond of Lizzie; and the girls’ friend Alice (Cass Knowling).

Fortunately, the dire deed is done with sound-effects, the only blood being on Lizzie’s hands after she discovers her father’s body.

The second act, appropriate for an audience raised on Law & Order reruns, focuses on the arrest and trial. Patrolman Harrington (Jason Roll) at first has to protect against the mob and onlookers around the Borden home, but then has to slap the cuffs on Lizzie when the Marshall (Dustin Miller) comes to arrest her. On her side are Boston attorney Ms. Jennings (Melissa Sandullo) and New York Sun reporter Amy Robsart (Nora Burkhart). At one point Sousa’s wife Carlotta (Breanna Helms) appears, concerned that her husband is a potential suspect.

Though it does present its own theory of what happened, don’t expect this drama to be the conclusive last word. Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence is still a matter of debate, and Kelly took some license with characters and events.

Presented as an entertaining history-based whodunit, the play works with a bit of melodrama and almost comic foreshadowing. In what I suspect is a mixture of the script, Jones’ guidance, and Sarah Latimer’s stony delivery, Abby is so thoroughly despicable, we all want to take a turn with the hatchet. Tim Latimer’s performance shows Andrew to be more a product of his times and frugal upbringing, but not entirely without heart. Tryon’s Sullivan is sweet and likable, even when the discovery of poison adds her to the suspect list. Rooks manages to perfectly balance Sousa’s principled stance and his hot-headedness. Knight gives Aunt Vinnie charming sweetness that gives way to injured desperation. Ellingwood delivers a mix of nosy and nasty that helps make Churchill an unreliable witness. Bush masterfully works Emma’s interesting arc that draws her slowly from the periphery to the center of the plot.

Lopez gives us a fully realized, relatable character in Lizzie, with charisma somewhere between Susan B. Anthony and Mary Poppins, but always with that dark edge, a shadow that still follows over a century later.

So, who did it? Who saw what and when? What of the poison, or the destroyed dress? You have one more weekend to find out, Friday through Sunday, Aug. 12-14 at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

Starting over with Stageworthy

By John Lyle Belden

Indy theatre-goers may remember Stageworthy Productions, which had last performed in 2017 at Broadway United Methodist Church. However, a fire in the church’s Community Room late that year destroyed most of SWP’s property.

Aside from fire recovery, the events of recent years forced a lot of starting over for everyone. Seeking a new home for Stageworthy, Artistic Director John Kastner was put in touch with Deb Kent and Jamie Willis of Gallery of Homes Real Estate in the Irvington community of Indianapolis’ eastside. They found him a space near their office, a former garage at 5635 Bonna Ave., which Kastner and friends (SWP is all-volunteer) turned into a nice black-box theatre space.

Dubbed the Stage Door Theater, it hosted SWP’s revival with the Indiana premiere of another story of starting over, “The Impossibility of Now,” through the end of July. This romantic comedy by Y. York is the story of a writer, Carl (played by Larry Adams), who recovers from a coma with no memory of his prior life. His wife, Miranda (Alyssa Johnson), is astonished to find as he recovers bits and pieces of the past, and relearns words, he is completely happy and cheerful. This is far different from the bitter “soul-sucking” man she was about to leave, which complicates her plan to move out and live with her lover, Anthony (Jaime Johnson), a children’s dentist.

Adams practically glows expressing Carl’s joy at every word he rediscovers, envisioning them hanging in the air or falling like snowflakes. He even savors the word “savor.” Negative words seem to physically hurt, though. His rebooted brain confuses memories with movie scenes. Also, stories told him by people whose biographies he wrote come back to him like they are his own experiences. Yet the old Carl is a stranger to him, even when he brings himself to read his old journals. He even takes an odd delight at a negative review to one of his books.

Alyssa Johnson makes Miranda surprisingly sympathetic for a woman who was about to leave her husband, as we see her personal insecurities and how she is caught in the middle of what had felt like an easy decision, suddenly vastly complicated. She’s not heartless, so she seeks a way to true happiness, even if it means breaking a vow.

Meanwhile, Jaime Johnson gives Anthony a gentle descent from anxious and impatient, to kind of a jerk, to total jerkdom. (However, in this play, the dentist isn’t eaten by a plant.)

Hopefully another stage will host this easily-produced charmer. Until then, I’ll note the plot’s conclusion is a statement on the importance of mental health and being willing to ask for help. Carl has been given a second chance in more ways than one, but it shouldn’t have to take a major injury to kickstart your happiness.

Speaking of new chances, Kastner says he can use any and all assistance as he works on bringing the next production to Stage Door. Plans are for this to be a resource not only for SWP, but also to the Irvington community. At stageworthy.org, find Kastner’s address and email, as well as online forms to donate or volunteer.