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.

Comedy with ‘Style!’

By John Lyle Belden

If an Asian playwright and Asian actors take on Asian stereotypes, is it still offensive? Is mocking these tropes this way self-effacing, creating awareness, or both?

You might find yourself pausing between bouts of laughter to consider these questions during Mike Lew’s comical cultural exploration, “Tiger Style!” on stage at the Fonseca Theatre, directed by Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Third-generation Chinese Americans, Albert and Jennifer Chen (Sean Qiu and Kim Egan) are the products of what could be called “tiger parenting,” pushed by their parents (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) to excel to the point of perfection at music and STEM careers – Albert is one of the best computer coders, Jen is one of the best oncologists. But instead of super-functional adults, they grew up to be self-aware Asian caricatures.

In the tech world, Albert is passed over for promotion because he’s too good at his job, while goofball slacker Russ the Bus (Jacob Pettyjohn) is better at socializing and getting along with everyone, which boss Reggie (Cruz) sees as more valuable for a supervisor. Albert is boggled at the fact that his deferential attitude, hard work and productivity didn’t pay off, and is appalled that even his Asian employer likes the white guy more than him. The stress literally eats him up inside.

Meanwhile, Jen is dumped by her do-nothing boyfriend (Pettyjohn as another slacker) because she didn’t turn out as “exotic” as he’d hoped. She spirals at the fact her super-structured life plan is out of whack, and that she can’t even keep a man who is way beneath her. The therapist she sees (Herring) doesn’t respect her need for an immediate breakthrough, so she and her brother resolve the only way to fix things is a hard reckoning with their parents.

“Secrets will be revealed that will threaten to tear the family apart” – or not.

I won’t say where this all leads, but Cruz also plays characters named “Tzi Chuan” (pronounced Schezwan) and “General Tso.” Herring adds a Chinese Matchmaker, and self-sacrificing Cousin Chen.

Lew crafted this play so that the more serious it gets, the more silly it gets, like life-and-death moments in a Monty Python sketch. In this, Cruz’s comic flair comes into full flower, as does Herring’s improv-honed skill for rolling through situations, smiling through the absurdity. As for Qui and Egan, rarely has naive overthinking been so entertaining. Pettyjohn committing to the White stereotype is just icing on the cake.

The lessons here, I suspect, are different depending on if you are Asian-American. Still, there is a lot to draw from this look at a culture both different from and intertwined with mainstream America.

Performances run through Aug. 14 at 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just west of downtown), on the newly named C.H. Douglas and Gray Wealth Management Stage. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Warning: Might actually be a play

By John Lyle Belden

They tried to warn us.

Some years ago, New Hampshire teacher Alan Haehnel wrote “15 Reasons Not to Be in a Play” to give our youth something of substance beyond “I don’t wanna!” when asked if they would like to be in a school play. That wasn’t enough, as some kids apparently enjoy being on stage, so Haehnel also wrote “18 More Reasons Not to Be in a Play.” And kids have used it – as a play.

Now the complete edition, Haehnel’s “30 Reasons Not to Be in a Play,” appears in Playscripts archives, and Main Street Productions’ “Rising Star” director Tanya Haas has taken the bait. In a two-hour diversion, which its participants insist is not a play, 19 talented local kids – second grade to senior – present this important (and hilarious) PSA at the Basile Westfield Playhouse.

The brave children recruited to this cause are Harrison Gapinski Coon, Ella Crites, Clayton Crocker, Livy Crocker, Blake Fortier, Dylan Fortier, Sammy Geis, Mia Gordon, Neil Hackman, Isabella Hasseld, Owen Hilger, Anastasia Hobbs, Tatyana Hobbs, Liv Keslin, Annalisa Schuth, Amaya Smith, Mason Yeater, Owen Yeater, and Quinn Yeater. I list them all because they all had lines and moments in the spotlight, and due to repeated family names, I’ll refer to them by their first names from here on.

Neil opens with the most simple reason — just two words — but as adults watching need more context, the list continues. Maybe it’s that certain teacher (Ella) or overbearing relative (Amaya). Mia reveals it could be her cell phone, or an allergy, or her mom (Isabella)’s camera, maybe just someone (Quinn) jumping the “cue.” Perhaps Liv would rather be an auctioneer? Maybe it’s growing up with Sammy, who still wants to play a fairy. Could it be Owen’s dreamy eyes? Or bumping into equally handsome Mason at the cast party? Do we have to bring Neil out again? Amaya has other simple, profound reasons, which she may have to explain.

The most entertaining – if this were indeed a “play” – is the dramatization of The Legend of Mort! (Mort… Mort… Mort…). The story is told by Isabella, with unnecessary color commentary by Owen (Ella, Mia and Amaya providing discipline); Mason as the famous Director Frankenburg; Harrison as the appropriately creepy Gordon; Sammy, Anastasia, and Tatyana as enthralled Actors; Blake, Dylan, and Clayton as the chorus of Echoes (echoes… echoes… echoes…); and Owen as ill-fated Mort, demonstrating that being a slacker and method-acting don’t mix.

Finally, if other reasons don’t suffice, the entire cast comes out, led by Harrison, to explain how a play could end civilization as we know it!

We’re convinced: One of the best reasons to go to a play is “30 Reasons Not to Be in a Play.” Performances are this weekend and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 7, at 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

The beats of a different Shakespeare

King Richard III (top) literally holds the throne as “Ricky 3” comes out of Intermission.

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a theme as old as theatre: An ambitious ruler steps on so many people on his way up, that those who aren’t killed make sure he has nothing on the way down, not even a horse. As William Shakespeare wrote such a history of England’s King Richard III, the Tudor lineage that violently dethroned him was in charge. So, no gray area with this character; our central figure not only acts as a villain but gleefully describes himself as one. As for everyone else? Lessons on power, complacency and misplaced trust abound, making this – like much of the Bard’s catalogue – a feature on stages again and again.

Now, we meet the ruthless monarch in “Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III,” presented outdoors by Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, which evolved from the former Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre that held annual Shakespeare in the Park productions.

“IndyShakes” Artistic Director Ryan Artzberger (a familiar face from numerous productions around Indy, including the IRT’s annual “Christmas Carol”) drew from his appreciation of the rhythms of both Shakespeare and Hip-Hop in working with local creatives including Nigel Long, Geechie, and director Mikael Burke, as the long drama was carefully trimmed, then the text’s beats and rhymes matched to carefully curated DJ grooves.

Comparisons to “Hamilton” are unavoidable, but this is not a musical. The flow and beat emphasize the poetry, as well as the nuances of the plot, making the show relatively easy to follow, despite most actors playing various roles. Artzberger notes this is not an “adaptation;” he took care that nearly every line is Shakespeare’s. It is not completely rapped-through, which I found intriguing. Still, I feel that, as a first venture into this melding, it leans more towards respecting the arts going into it than indulging what could be seen as a gimmick.

The classic beauty of the spacious Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre in Riverside Park is juxtaposed by a simple but effective stage design by Sydney Lynn Thomas: a simple metal frame holds the Throne on high, surrounded by black cases that would hold its pieces at breakdown, hinting at the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of the royals’ reigns. This puts the visual focus on subtle (except moments when it isn’t) and effective lighting by Laura Glover, and the exquisite costumes by Tonie Smith, effectively blending the styles of Africa, Shakespeare-era England, and today’s Urban culture.

I don’t know who Shawnte P. Gaston tapped into to portray Richard, but I don’t want to be that person’s enemy. Imagine the worst anyone lied to your face, manipulated you, had you believing things aren’t as they are, used you for favors and discarded you – all with a big smile – and add the willingness to pay people to poke swords into you. It’s the positive empowered Black woman corrupted in the most tragic manner, and Gaston relishes the ride the whole way. Note that she seems to be this 21st-century female archetype portraying the 15th-century male Duke of Gloucester. The “deformity” of Richard is an allusion to the way a current woman of color may feel disrespected, discarded and ignored.

The rest of the company – LaKesha Lorene, Akili Ni Mali, Chinyelu Mwaafrika, Eric D. Saunders, Kerrington Shorter, Manon Voice, Milicent Wright, and young Quintin Gildon Jr. as the ghost of a murdered prince – acquit themselves very well in various roles. Wright’s powerful speeches as mad ex-queen Margaret sparked spontaneous applause.  

This unique cultural experience is worth your time and the effort to find it at 2441 N. White River Parkway E. Drive, Indianapolis (or north on East Riverside from 16th Street east of the White River, turn left at the park), and no cost at all to attend, though all are required to set up free tickets at indyshakes.com. See the site for details. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, July 28-30, at 8 p.m.

What a ‘Dream’!

By John Lyle Belden

There is a land of centuries-old mysteries, equal parts pagan celebration and reverent tradition working in unique harmony, where in shadowy woods the very air is sodden with magick – Louisiana.

It is in the bayou town of Athens that we find the familiar yet always fresh William Shakespeare rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by Bard Fest with Arts for Lawrence in the park amphitheater behind Theater at the Fort, a production called “Shakespeare at the Fort.”

As appropriate to a free public “in the park” Shakespeare play, this “Dream,” directed by Matthew Socey, is highly entertaining regardless of if you’ve practically memorized it, or you slept through high school Lit and have only heard the title in conversation. Wendy said to me afterward that this is not only one of the best “Midsummers” she has seen, but easiest version to follow.

For those who need it, here’s the silly and overall simple plot (Cajun version): The most respected man in the Parish, Duke Theseus (Jo Bennett) and his lovely amazon, Hippolyta (Afton Shepard) are to be married, but they are first asked to settle the engagement of Demetrius (Matthew Walls) to Hermia (Maggie Lengerich) at the insistence of her mama Egeus (Sarah Froehlke) because Hermia wants to marry Lysandra (Kristie Shuh). Fair Helena (Evangeline Bouw) wishes to wed Demetrius, who is repulsed by her playing so easy-to-get. The Duke puts it all off to the wedding celebration day, and everyone agrees to disagree.

Most of the action occurs out in the spooky forest outside town.

Is that a Tulane track star at home for summer break that we see? Naw, it’s Robin Goodfellow (Diane Tsao)! One of the bayou faerie folk, that trickster Puck only answers to the local voodoo king, Oberon (Bennett), who is having some words with his queen Titania (Shepard) over the custody of a little Indian girl becoming their half-fae Changeling (Beatrice Hartz). To aid in childcare are Titania’s faeries Cobweb (Jamie Devine), Moth (Samantha Kelly), and Mustardseed (Monica Hartz).

Then, trompin’ around these woods are common folk of the Mechanical trades who wish to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding, rehearsing in secret. Exceedingly patient director Petra Quill (Chynna Fry) is staging the old favorite “Pyramus and Thisbee” starring Flute (Justina Savage) as Thisbee, Starveling (Emily Hauer) as Moonshine, Snout (Beverly Roche) as Wall, Snug (Froehlke) as a Gator, and the colorful Bottom (Kelsey VanVoorst) as Pyramus. But then, stuff happens.

A lot of stuff happens – go see the play!

The vicinity of New Orleans is a perfect setting, and not just to try out some passable Southern accents. The environment is embraced in the music used, costuming, and just the otherworldly air of the whole show. More people have watched “True Blood” and other bayou-set stories than have visited Greece, so engaging the audience is easy. The change in what kind of beast chases Thisbee works perfectly and adds to the comedy. (Fear the Chomp!) It all contributes to a flavorful comic gumbo that goes down easy.

And finally, we have a place where the Elizabethan habit of English people always saying “adieu” makes sense.

The stage would be a bit small for most serious productions, but the intimate nature of it and the surrounding lawn allows for an immersive and interactive experience. Entrances and exits are literally from and to anywhere, fairies dance with kids in the audience, and in an ingenious move, the nobles viewing the Mechanicals’ play are seated in the exact center of the audience. Rather than divide our attention at one end of the stage, they are out of the corners of our eyes, allowing us to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of the play-within-the-play on the stage, while they comment and quip like posh robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The cross-gender casting, which has become more common across all stages in recent years, feels more natural here, and non-hetero feelings add to the stress of our four mortal lovers. In a great mockery of Shakespeare-era plays having boys play women, Savage shines as (pardon if I’m wrong on personal gender) a female actor playing a man who resents having to play a woman. Fry’s Petra aside, the other Mechanicals portray rough men in a gentle art (adding to comic potential).

The double-casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta is good as it always is in bringing a unity to the overall play, but largely stopping there avoids audience confusion. (Since we never see them in the same room, perhaps they are secretly the same entities? Voodoo works in mysterious ways.)

The whole cast, top to Bottom, are exceptional – which is praise I often heap on every one of these actors individually in practically everything they do. And to that I’ll add Guy Grubbs as Theseus’ servant Philostrate, whose every entry is a punchline.

The above aside, I’ll toss my text roses at the wonderful surprise that is 7-year-old Beatrice Hartz. Anyone who saw the advance photos of Shepard holding the Changeling as just promotional can be forgiven (if I can be) for thinking her just a dancing prop in the play. With the assurance of her mother in the cast (and her father and a best friend in the front row opening night), she flits her way into and out of her every scene and cue like a pro. Her confidence radiates, and feeds into her character as the fellow fae play along. In this world, she will be become a power to rival her sitters, so it adds meaning as she literally calls their dances at one point, and when she places her hand before a character in a “halt” gesture (which is obeyed) we almost feel the invisible door close. She even gets to speak a line.

Classic with a twist? A drug-induced fever-dream by Tennessee Williams? However you think of it, the price is right – free, but please “buy” $0 tickets online for headcount. While the content is family friendly and the site is easy to reach, do note a few things. The weather is Louisiana-like with high heat and humidity, so shading, sunscreen, and hydration are advised as the play starts before sundown. A couple of food trucks are nearby, and picnics are OK. Bring your own lawn chairs, or sit on a blanket. And in these intimate confines the company goes old-school with no microphones on actors. Fortunately, most lines seem to be uttered in an excited state, but a little audience noise discipline, extending to the nearby swings, would be appreciated.

Performances are just this one weekend: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22; Saturday, July 23; and Sunday, July 24; at the small park behind Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (far north end of Indy’s Post Road). Tickets and info at indybardfest.com and artsforlawrence.org.

Visual storyteller Gregory Hancock sets new season

By John Lyle Belden

First, a bit of unfinished business. After seeing the opening of Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “Antony & Cleopatra” in June, I posted a quick review on the PWJW Facebook page but have yet to officially add a write-up here. Since, like many companies, GHDT can shine up an old gem and give it another whirl in a future season, this may be some useful commentary:

Like most of his work, this production has choreography and costumes by Gregory Glade Hancock. In addition, he insisted on music and songs by award-winning composer Cory Gabel, who also worked with him on 2018’s “The Casket Girls.”

Aside from being a dance showcase without spoken lines, this “Antony and Cleopatra” is quite different from the Shakespeare play in the story it tells. The narrative is pared down and freely adapted, with adventurous casting. It is set not in Roman-era Egypt, but a more modern time – the nightlife world of Club Isis. Gabel’s songs include (prerecorded) vocals, combining with power-pop and dance music for a feel reminiscent of “Movin’ Out,” with the song lyrics and movement weaving the plot to good effect.

The two men in the company, Adrian Dominguez and Thomas Mason, are the title characters respectively. Not just supporting characters (in both the role and lifting-the-women sense), this is quite a showcase for their talents, especially in a beautifully sensuous pas de deux.

Also incredible are Abigail Lessaris as Antony’s spurned wife Octavia, and Zoe Maish as Lamprius the Soothsayer, agent of Fate. As usual, there are first-rate performances from the whole company, including “G2”.

Even (especially?) with its toying with setting and gender, Hancock’s production is still a compelling fascinating story of forbidden desire and love, rash actions and tragic consequences. It may not be what actually took place in Roman Alexandria, but note the Bard wasn’t a historian, either.

The next performance of “Antony and Cleopatra”… is when Mr. Hancock and company feel like doing it.

To open the 2022-23 season, GHDT celebrates a quarter century of dance with the “25th Season Celebration,” Aug. 26-27 at The Tarkington in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. According to the press release, Hancock “link(s) together theatrical tales from throughout GHDT’s rich 25-year history and will tell the collective story through moving, poignant and memorable theater, thrilling movement, and beautiful music.” Sounds like fun.

This year’s remaining performances also have an air of the familiar. October 28-29, Hancock’s “There’s No Place Like Home” returns. This wonderful production, inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” is based on young Hancock’s journey of discovery as the Boy from Kansas in a strange land, with dance drenched in the magic and culture of India. Performances will again be at the Tarkington; see our prior review for more info.

This is followed on December 2-3 with the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” Everyone has their Christmas traditions; if this is yours, get your seats at the Pike Performing Arts Center (6701 Zionsville Road, Indianapolis).

Celebrating the new this season is “New World Dances” on weekends of February 11-26, 2023, featuring work that Hancock created during the recent pandemic, presented at The Florence, GHDT’s new black box performance space, 329 Gradle Drive, Carmel.

This anniversary “season of reflection” also includes “Illumination,” April 7-8, with a spiritual theme, and “Director’s Choice,” June 9-10, which Hancock (naturally) picks, both at The Tarkington in Carmel.

For the information and tickets, see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

Agape youth willing to ‘rumble’ with tough topics

By John Lyle Belden

Agape Theater Company, a middle- through high school youth program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, has a particular approach. It takes on classic stage works – from Shakespeare to Broadway – with an eye to the moral and spiritual lessons they hold. In June, they tackled the subject of a Tony winner with now two Oscar-winning film productions: “West Side Story.”

(Various excuses I could give prevented Wendy and I from attending opening weekend, but Agape invited us for the closing.)

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the mid-20th century musical is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with feuding families replaced by rival street gangs: the Jets, white kids whose working-class families are getting pinched by Manhattan’s building boom; and the Sharks, young immigrants from Puerto Rico hoping for their own American Dream. Personally, I think the “Story” is a little better than in R&J, as the tension and stakes are a little more real with a clash of two cultures, and Tony (our stand-in for Romeo) is, while still a lovesick fool, less immaturely foolish than that boy in Fair Verona. Plus, there are those cool songs (reeeal cool).

Directed by Kathy Phipps with musical director April Barnes, the young cast gave a top-notch performance. The present medical concerns that put a lot of understudies and swings on the stage in New York also struck here, yet the company managed to roll with the changes, with only a couple of cancellations, and making cast changes without losing a step.

Bursting with talent and Latinx pride are Rebekah Barajas as Maria, Jaelynn Keating as Anita, and Cordale Hankins as Sharks leader Bernardo. Leading the Jets with an ever-tense feeling their turf is slipping away are smooth Riff (Grant Scott-Miller, u/s Nathan Ellenberger) and hot-headed Action (Clayton Mutchman), who long for their true leader, Tony (Johnny Gaiffe, u/s Caleb Wilson) to take charge. But Tony has a real job, and senses real possibilities (“Something’s Coming”) but as the saying goes, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet.” The gangs want to have the rumble (gang-fight) to end all rumbles, with the terms set at the neutral-ground school dance. Tony and Maria are each reluctant to attend, but they go – they meet – and their fates are set.

Other tensions include the cops, ever-present but always a step behind (and the butt of the joke in one song). More subtle is the hint dropped by Bernardo that Tony is called “Pollack” behind his back, not even fully respected by his fellow Caucasians. In today’s climate, we especially feel for “tomboy” Anybodys (Aleah Mutchman, u/s Jocelyne Brake) and the desire to join a hoodlum gang being their only hope for being “one of the boys.”

The dancing and acting were superb – having actors the ages of their characters helped – as were the voices, heartbreaking at times. Still, despite the fun moments, the story is still a tragedy. There was no backing down from the dark moments, complete with believable anguish.

In a promotional video, the principal cast spoke of the emotional burden they were taking on, and of being true to all who have done these roles before. When asked what they hoped the audience would take away, the unanimous answer was that all would take time to look past people’s differences and let go of hate. They did well towards accomplishing that mission.

Agape will next perform at IndyFringe in August, with “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales.” They also return to Indy Bard Fest this fall with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” For more information, including supporting this 501c3, visit agapetheatercompany.com.