There’s a lot going on with ‘Hir’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Talk about having issues with the “binary” – if one feels overwhelmed while viewing “Hir,” on stage through June 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s because we are slammed with two dramatic themes simultaneously.

First, we are hit with the affects of trauma and abuse: After years of dominating his family and using them as punching bags, Arnold (Brad Griffith) suffered a stroke, making him barely able to talk or even think. We meet him a year later, during which his long-suffering wife, Paige (Jen Johansen), has gone the opposite way in every aspect of life. What was clean is left dirty; what was ordered is in disarray; what was put away is tossed to the floor or stuffed in an odd place. And, once forbidden to work outside the home, she has taken a job with a non-profit. What she makes there doesn’t matter, as paying bills on time was the old life. As for Arnold, he is kept in a medicated stupor and deprived of all dignity.

Into this situation comes their son, Isaac (Ben Schuetz), a discharged Marine who had the duty of picking up combatants’ body parts from the battlefield. Returning from his recent traumatic environment to his old one, all he wants is a world that makes sense.

The second theme – from which comes the play’s title – is that among the family’s changes is that the younger sibling has changed from daughter to son. Max (Ariel Laukins) has taken hormones and insists on being referred to by the pronouns “ze” and “hir” (rather than he/she or her/him). Paige is overjoyed to have something so different and new – “the future!” she declares – that she homeschools Max so that they can learn together.

The aspect of gender roles and identity takes on irony in that while Max is free to be hir-self, part of Arnold’s humiliation is being made to always wear a dress. What’s more, in the mixed-up world of this drama, Max is the most stable and certain person on the stage.

Johansen once again comes through in chewing through a meaty role. Griffith ably compensates for his role’s limited speech with his physicality. Schuetz has Isaac deal with the swirling insanity in a convincing manner, without going over the top. And Laukins makes an excellent debut.

The world of “Hir” is exaggerated and mildly bizarre, providing a lot of laughs, but this is no comedy. Trans playwright Taylor Mac’s script uses the funhouse mirror to magnify these issues, allowing us to confront what is wrong about these people’s lives without distraction by the underlying tragedy – but one way or another, it has to be dealt with.

Find the Phoenix at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair downtown, near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Putting the ‘Cat’ in Catalyst

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Corbett (Pat Mullen), right, converses with local cats (from left) Orangey (Dane Rogers), Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and Striper (Matt Anderson) in Bennett Ayres’ “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at Wheeler Arts Community near Indy’s Fountain Square.

By John Lyle Belden*

We’ve likely all seen that internet meme along the lines of “I don’t want to adult today; I want to cat.” Local playwright Bennett Ayres took that idea to its bizarre conclusion in the new drama, “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory on the LongShot Theater stage at Wheeler Arts through May 28.

Corbett (played by Pat Mullen) has graduated college and is expected to take his next step in life. But is it truly his? He excelled in classes, became president of a fraternity, made friends with his bros and had sex with the right girls. Next comes internships and an internet marketing career to make his upper-class parents proud.

But after his roomates (Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney) depart, he starts to see the world through his own eyes – the fish tank in the neighbor’s (Dennis Forkel) window; the cute townie, Betsy (Patty Blanchfield), who works at the nearby convenience store; and especially all the neighborhood’s feral cats.

One night, a feline neighbor, Orangey (Dane Rogers), speaks to him. From then on Corbett draws himself further into their world, meeting gentle Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and their alpha, Striper (Matt Anderson). With the help of Wikipedia’s data on cat behavior, Corbett makes joining their ranks his mission.

The cats are represented by Patrick Weigland’s puppets – elegant slender alley-cat forms with expressive movement provided by their three actors, as well as lurking projected shadows. The portrayals nimbly display their cautious grace and suspicious attitudes expressed in different ways: Rogers’ Orangey blustery and paranoid, Stonerock’s Calico wary but trusting, and Anderson’s Striper cool and controlling.

Mullen excellently guides us through his journey from “imaginary” human to something he sees as more “real.” What appears to others as a man coming apart and abandoning responsibilities, he embraces as a necessary transformation. Blanchfield also shines as the woman caught up in his madness, seeing Corbett as her means of escape – but she can’t follow where he’s going.

The cast also features Sarah Holland Froehlke as Corbett’s mother, and the voices of Jim Tillett, Jolene Moffat and Ayres.

The play itself is an absorbing story, embracing its absurdity – reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) – without any tongue-in-cheek. Is Corbett delusional? (The cats never speak to anyone else or when he’s around others.) It hardly matters when considering the play’s allegory and questions raised about identity, expectations and how we decide a life’s path. Taken together, director Zach Stonerock and his cast and crew have woven a darkly beautiful drama.

Wheeler Arts Community is located at 1035 Sanders St. in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood. For information and tickets, visit uncannycasey.wixsite.com/catalystrepertory or Catalyst Repertory’s Facebook page.

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*Full disclosure: Wendy and I are good friends with Catalyst founder and artistic director Casey Ross, and I helped the production by designing the play program booklet – and making a few copies. But it really IS a good show, just ask Lisa G!

Footlite’s sweet ‘Dream’

By John Lyle Belden

Simply put, the Footlite Musicals’ production of “Dreamgirls” is a triumph.

The whole show gives off energy, channeled through the performances of our Dreamettes/Dreams – Deena (Kat Council), Lorrell (Tiffany Gilliam) and especially Effie (Rayanna Bibbs) – along with Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Tyler Futrell), ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Ollice Nickson), faithful Marty (Jalil Stephens) and the electric James “Thunder” Early (Brenton Anderson).

In a story inspired by the struggles of African-American singers, especially girl groups, to make it big in the mainstream music scene in the 1960s, a hopeful trio from Chicago enters the famous Apollo Amateur Night in New York. They don’t win, but get their break as Taylor, then a car salesman, exploits opportunities and arranges for the Dreamettes to back Early under Marty’s management. From there, their arc goes upward, even if it takes cash payola to get their songs on the charts over white imitators. Taylor’s manipulations become more and more brazen, until Marty quits and Effie finds herself replaced (by Michelle [Vanessa Web]) and left crying backstage. Act II finds our characters in the 1970s and the transition from R&B to disco. How has success, or lack thereof, treated our Dreamgirls?

If you know how that turns out – see it for the beauty and power of it in your presence again. If you haven’t, see it, it’s one heck of a show. If you have only seen the movie (excellent in its own way), see the difference with its inventively single set and churning pace. Feel the heat from Early’s performances. Get blasted by Effie’s pipes.

Hats off to director Damon Clevenger, something this good couldn’t happen by accident.

And I am telling you, you should be going – to the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., weekends through May 21. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.

IRT ‘Dial M’ nearly perfect

By John Lyle Belden

Many have considered what it would take to commit the “perfect crime;” some even attempt it. The concept is fascinating, especially when it comes to murder. This could explain why the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, chose the Frederick Knott stage drama, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” to be one of his iconic films.

To conclude its 2016-17 season Indiana Repertory Theatre presents Knott’s noir thriller, complete with Hitchcockian touches, on its mainstage through May 21.

Jealous, scheming husband Tony (Matt Mueller) has planned the perfect murder, arranging for an unsavory acquaintance to kill his wife Margot (Sarah Ruggles) while he is at a party, alibied by none other than the man she had had an affair with, Max (Christopher Allen). But when the perfect crime goes wrong, Tony resorts to the next-best thing: the perfect frame-job.

As always, the IRT provides excellent production values in setting and costume, and sharp direction under James Still (who is also IRT’s playwright-in-residence). The atmosphere is completed with projected images and shadows on the set’s upper walls. Performances are first-rate, including Robert Neal as Detective Inspector Hubbard, who must sort out the truth from the contradictory evidence he has found.

There’s also a cheeky touch that Hitch would have loved: Major scene changes are done by “detectives” acting as though they are removing and planting evidence.

The weather is warming up, but IRT is good for one more chill. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

TOTS dramas the hell out of this ‘MF’

By John Lyle Belden

If you’re like me, you don’t know much about the play “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, aside from the provocative title and perhaps that it was Chris Rock’s dramatic stage debut in its Broadway run.

Now,  know that it is a gritty solid drama with comic elements, playing through May 13 at Theatre on the Square.

Granted, the language is not clean; it reflects the everyday talk of the working-class New Yorkers we are presented with, trying to live day to day with the struggles of addiction and recovery, and the consequences of bad choices, including incarceration. The laughs are mainly situational from the dark humor of living with your demons. Still, it’s not preachy to the audience, though upbeat AA sponsor Ralph D (Ben Rose) does dish out life-lessons to any who will hear.

We open with a deceptively happy scene. Jackie (Eric Reiberg) comes home to Veronica (Carrie Schlatter), his sweetheart since eighth grade, to announce he has found a job. They mention the fact that he is on parole, but that only makes the victory sound sweeter.

But then, he sees The Hat.

It’s a nice fedora-style hat, sitting on the coffee table (next to Veronica’s cocaine mirror), which he doesn’t recognize and she claims to know nothing about. With this, Jackie’s unraveling begins. His pursuit of the titular character and increasing realization that his addict girlfriend has not been faithful triggers his desire to use drugs and alcohol, and make other unwise decisions including acquiring a gun.

We then meet Ralph and his wife, Victoria (Chelsea Anderson), both in recovery as well as a very rocky relationship. There is also Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Ian Cruz), who has his own quirks, but compared to the others is the voice of reason.

In this production, a talented cast sharply execute a complex drama about the tangled feelings and impulses that come with taking that next step: whether it’s the numbered one in the program’s “big book;” to walk out the door; or to – against all your frantic brain’s desires – just not-do what comes next. And in the process, we learn the importance of the Commodores, Van Damme and the theory that dinosaurs invented waterfalls.

As the show is just opening, I’ll avoid further spoilers, deliver a tip of my MF’ing hat to director Gari L. Williams, and just encourage you to see this great MF’ing show. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

The generosity ‘The Open Hand’ and its consequences on Phoenix stage

By John Lyle Belden

While most of us like to think of ourselves as generous people, we forget how deeply ingrained our capitalist culture is in our psyches. We give to get. When we receive, there is a price, even if it’s “free.”

The notion of something-for-something, and making sure two parties are “even” need not apply just to events that are deep or life-changing. What do you do when someone gives something to you, truly expecting absolutely nothing in return?

This is question drives the plot of “The Open Hand,” a play by Robert Caisley at the Phoenix Theatre through May 14.

Allison (Leah Brenner) seriously wants no presents, or even acknowledgment, of her upcoming birthday. We are unsure of her vocation, as may be she, admitting, “I majored in indecision.” But her fiance Jack (Jay Hemphill) is a talented chef and aspiring restaurateur. Her friends Todd (Jeremy Fisher) and Freya (Julie Mauro) are at crucial points in their careers – he is a car salesman who hates his job and she is a wine expert about to potentially win a highly-lucrative position. All four are full of potential, but their hopes for a lucky break are overshadowed by fear that they haven’t earned it.

One day, after Allison is accidentally left at a restaurant with the check and no money, a curiously friendly man, David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), steps in and pays the bill. As it had started to rain, he also gives her his umbrella, then exits.

Allison is so stunned by this generosity that she can’t bring herself to tell Jack about it, until later, giving the impression that she had done something wrong. When she, by chance, comes across David again, she offers to do something to repay him, but he sees no need. She finally invites him to a gathering that is “coincidentally” on her birthday. But when he arrives, his generosity becomes even more casually extravagant. This does not sit well with anyone.

This drama, with lots of comic elements, has surprising depth as we see each character’s relationship with giving, receiving and obligation (real or imagined), including hints into David’s mysterious backstory. It is also an interesting look at the different perspectives between the haves and the have-nots – or in this case, the wish-to-haves.

Goad is in his element, bringing gentle gravitas to a character that is all subtlety. Brenner, too, embodies the complexity of her role. Fisher, Hemphill and Mauro all ably portray explosive personalities with fuses of varying shortness.

Whether it is better to give than receive, this play suggests it might also be easier. The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.