Memory of a ‘Wild’ time at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

I find it interesting that in “Wild Horses,” by Allison Gregory, on stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the main character of the one-woman play is 13 in the 1970s, around when I turned that age.

The story would feel familiar to anyone – recollections of a teenage year when it felt big things were happening and everything was changing – but there is a distinct feel in those days of kids among the first to identify as Generation X, more recent than the halcyon era of the 1950s or ‘60s, but before the decades when technology overtook our daily lives.

The girl we meet is unnamed (though one friend calls her “Frenchie,” likely a reference to the recently-released “Grease” movie) so we see things happen through her eyes. She lives in a countryside southern California suburb with a troubled mother, very strict father, and a 14-year-old sister she calls “the Favorite” whom she resents as much as she loves. Her best friends are accident-prone Skinny Linnie and budding delinquent Zabby, a tomboy with older brothers, Donno (whom our narrator is crushing on) and the eldest, who is aptly called “Mean Dean.”

When you hit your teens, a popular song on the radio is your anthem; for a typically horse-crazy girl, that’s doubly so with America’s “Horse With No Name.” The story opens with her trying to win an unusual radio contest in which entrants are asked to give the poor animal a name. We find out about the Favorite’s dangerous liaison, Mom’s condition – and her little secret – and the adventures our girl gets into with her besties. A badly-planned trip to rob a liquor store turns into an ill-advised venture through the fields of Morningstar Farms, a local horse ranch. A discovery made there in the dark is part of a summer she will never forget.

Directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, “Wild Horses” is performed by two different women: artistic director Constance Macy on some dates, and Jen Johansen on others. Macy, who we saw, notes in the program that the two have quite similar styles, which we agree makes for what we can assure will be an excellent theatre experience. However, the fact that this is a passion project for her does show through in her performance. We see both the woman remembering, and the girl living these events, in the way she presents this unique yet relatable coming-of-age story.

To help set the mood, theatre patrons are encouraged to add to a wall of notes reflecting on what ‘70s music we love and how we were in our youth.

Performances run through March 5 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis. Get tickets and info at phoenixtheatre.org.

Twisty ‘Trap’ in Bloomington

By John Lyle Belden

A young playwright has possibly written the perfect thriller – could this lead to a perfect crime?

The less you know about the 1978 play “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin, presented by Constellation Stage and Screen in Bloomington, the more vague I should stay in describing it, as it twists and turns like country road switchbacks. This is a sharply written two-act five-person one-room thriller complete with scares and laughs, about a sharply written two-act five-person one-room thriller… Yes, it does get a bit meta, but in a masterful way, fascinating as it is dizzying.

Directed by Chad Rabinovitz, who couldn’t help adding a little appropriate entertainment of his own during the curtain speech, our talented five persons are:

  • Mark Andrew Coffin as aging playwright Sidney Bruhl, who would practically kill for another Broadway hit, and keeps an awful lot of old weapons around his study.
  • Greta Lind as Sidney’s wife, Myra, who doesn’t mind supporting him with her wealth, yet is afraid of what he might do.
  • John Drea as Clifford Anderson, the aspiring writer who has sent perhaps the only copy of his first play, “Deathtrap,” to Sidney for his perusal.
  • Mary Carol Reardon as Helga ten Dorp, likely the world’s most authentic psychic – though the visions do get fuzzy at times.
  • And, Steve Scott as attorney Porter Milgrim, who comes in during the second act for necessary business, and to advance the plot with clever insights.

Coffin and Drea each give us characters who are simultaneously charming and a little suspicious, and good at dark physical comedy. Reardon relishes her work as a wacky medium, while adding suspense as the audience realizes that all her predictions come true – eventually.

In the intimate confines of the Ted Jones Playhouse, the characters can almost sense that audience witnessing them (none were harmed at our performance, and Constellation staff were standing by), adding to the spooky atmosphere provided by designer Seth Howard’s rustic/Medieval set.

For a February chill, step into “Deathtrap,” playing through Feb. 19 at 107 W. 9th St. in downtown Bloomington (formerly home of Bloomington Playwrights Project, now part of Constellation). Get info and tickets at SeeConstellation.org.

Being in ‘Error’ feels just right

By John Lyle Belden

It’s fascinating to see Clerical Error Productions expand its offerings beyond an annual parody of a popular offbeat British sitcom. Case in point: company Creative Consultant and Vaudeville Coordinator James Benn just brought to the District Theatre cabaret stage, “In the Life: Songs of Gay Harlem.”

Accompanied by longtime local pianist Carl Hines, Benn introduces himself as Dr. Tyrell Leviticus Worthington, our instructor in American History – to be more precise, American Black LGBTQ History.

Moments later he is settled on his seat by the piano, enlightening us about “The Life” (code for LGBTQ culture at the time) in 1920s and ‘30s Harlem neighborhoods of New York. As we quickly discover, many of the jazz, blues and early pop icons are also Gay Icons, some surprisingly out and proud. The names include Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ethel Waters, and the legendary Ma Rainey. With his warm earnest delivery, and the perfect beat popping out of his fingers, Benn puts the “easy” in speakeasy, entertaining in a way so everyone in the packed room feels his personal touch.

Also, you come away knowing a bit more than you did going in. An evening with these classics could have you itching to find the records yourself – provided you’ve got something that plays 78s.

Keep an eye and ear out for his next show – follow “James Solomon Benn” on Facebook and LinkedIn – and check out ClericalErrorProductions.com for upcoming productions, including the Beckett play “Happy Days” with CEP founder Kate Duffy, Feb. 23-26 at the District Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

ALT: Voices on the right take their ‘Turn’

By John Lyle Belden

What if you were in an echo chamber, and the voice coming back questioned you? Or said something else entirely?

Welcome to the edge of a small town in the west-central part of Wyoming, home of cowboys and a Catholic college. It’s Trump country – especially in August 2017, with conservatives still grateful they narrowly avoided a Hillary Clinton presidency and perhaps realizing that buffoonery was about all they would get from the President they elected.

In the Pulitzer-nominated drama “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, presented by American Lives Theatre, you will find no “liberals,” yet these four young men and women gathering seven years after graduation from the college, celebrating their mentor becoming its president, aren’t entirely of the same mind.

The atmosphere is ominous: Could it be that the infamous Charlottesville riot was just days ago? Or that this land where the Plains meets the Rockies will soon be in the totality of a solar eclipse? Or is it something about the deer that Justin (Tyler Lyons) shot, or that unnatural noise in his shed? His guests – Teresa (Morgan Morton), who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and admires then-White House advisor Steve Bannon; Kevin (Taylor Cox), an apparent alcoholic working for a Catholic publisher in Oklahoma; and Emily (Devan Mathias), who lives with chronic pain and in the shadow of her mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Gigi Jennewein), whom they have gathered to honor – start to have what Kevin likes to call “big conversations.”

Teresa is fascinated by the controversial 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning,” by social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe, and treats it like prophesy, asserting the “Turning,” a time of upheaval, is upon them. She calls it an imminent “war,” and Justin, a Marine veteran, agrees, seeing the conflict not as spiritual, cultural or rhetorical, but armed revolution. Emily, who battles mental and physical torment with an exceptionally upbeat outlook – “pain and grace,” she calls it – doesn’t want to hear any of it. Kevin, feeling uncertain about everything, wants to delve further. To change the topic, Justin tells of a children’s-book story he is working on, “The Grateful Acre,” about the stoic optimism of a plot of land.

Eventually Gina arrives, and when prodded for her thoughts, adds her perspective to the party.

In the words of Arbery, with the guidance of director Andrew Kramer, we get excellent insight on what people on the political right are thinking and why. Any notes from the other side of the spectrum come from experiences with others, as bits of devil’s advocacy, or in warnings from Teresa that “this is what they say about us.” The militant and reactionary perspectives dash against the rocks of Gina’s intellectual conservatism (think Bannon vs. George Will), but even her logic frays at the edges.

Morton and Lyons are solid as characters who stick to their guns (one figuratively, the other literally). Jennewein’s stalwart academic reminds me now much I miss the relatively measured stance of the late Bill Buckley Jr.

Mathias nimbly gives us a necessarily complex character, too often finding herself in the middle of things with no real control. Emily also has a life experience that impacts her conservative Catholic beliefs, a thing that won’t reconcile easily.

“It’s hard to be the ‘Holy Fool,’” Kevin says, but Cox gives us a master class in embodying the archetype. Like the Fool who stood by King Lear in a storm, his Kevin is all over the place both in dialogue and movement, ever probing for the veritas his vino won’t provide. Ridicule, insult or pity him – as others do – but his jagged queries are worthy of answers.

This play was written and first staged in 2019, yet instead of feeling dated its contents become more profound in the light of what would happen in America over the next three years. One can argue if the Pandemic is the Fourth Turning, or if events have damaged the presumptions of Strauss and Howe’s work, but what’s portrayed are what people did (and do) think and feel.

Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, this is a worthy challenge to experience, leavened with a few situational laughs and a curious bit of supernatural edge. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at the Basile IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

IRT: A ‘West’ we don’t often see

By John Lyle Belden

Just northwest of the center of the state of Kansas is a little town called Nicodemus.

Today it is a National Historic Site, and for good reason. This is living proof that it wasn’t just White families who settled the American West. Many Blacks sought true freedom under the Homestead Act, with, in this case, the help of the Nicodemus Town Company. In “Flyin’ West,” by Pearl Cleage, at Indiana Repertory Theatre, we see an imagined family who held their own land there.

Circumstances including escaping racially-motivated riots in Memphis brought three sisters – Sophie (Lakesha Lorene), Fannie (L’Oreal Lampley), and Minnie (Kayla Mary Jane) – to claim their own stake. On neighboring acres, elderly Miss Leah (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) kept the farm after her husband passed.

Sophie, gun on her hip to fend off pests in both animal and human form, prepares for winter and to pass a resolution in town to fend off (White) land speculators.  She is persuading Miss Leah to stay on at their homestead, while Fannie is about to be swept off her feet by neighbor Will Parish (Enoch King) if he can sum up the gumption to court her properly. Minnie has recently arrived with her husband Frank Charles (Allen Tedder), whose pale skin masks his slave upbringing. The couple had been living in London, England, where social acceptance came easier, but they hardly saw another with African skin. Frank, eager to get back there, awaits word on a possible inheritance from his father’s estate in New Orleans. Somehow, Minnie also arrived with a bruise around her eye.

Cleage’s compelling drama combines timeless themes of family, dealing with the effects of violence and slavery, and the power of sisterhood in even the most challenging environment. The women’s  performances embody many forms of tested strength, which work together to do what must be done. King plays Will as a rock-solid support without being controlling – in contrast to Tedder’s turn as despicable Frank.

Stories and situations of family drama played out often in these times and places; there’s more to the West than the OK Corral, with a lot more diversity among those involved than our histories and media suggest.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this production includes a deceptively simple-looking turntable set by Junghyun Georgia Lee that suggests a cozy cabin without the obstruction of outer walls, as well as an excellent hand-painted background by Claire Dana, also masterful in its simplicity.

Performances run through Feb. 4 on the IRT Mainstage at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets and information at irtlive.com.

Storefront: A comedy of the corrupt

By John Lyle Belden

The title, “Post-Democracy,” is a little misleading. This short darkly comic drama by Hannah Moscovitch, presented in its U.S. premiere by Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is less about the halls of government power than it is the ivory towers of corporate privilege where the truism, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” rings as true as your recently-signed non-disclosure agreement will allow.

Bill (Ronan Marra Sr.) has serious business on his mind. His health is forcing his hand in picking his successor as CEO. That would be distant cousin Lee (Alex Oberheide), the COO who just swung an acquisition deal for a manufacturing plant in Latin America, however the young man can’t stop acting like a misogynist jerk (complete with tics like a slimy Jim Carrey), enraging Bill’s daughter, Justine (Tracy Herring), the CFO.

Meanwhile, Shannon (Carly Wagers), the executive working on preserving the company’s public image, is scrambling to contain the damage of Gary the Brand Manager’s flagrant sexual harassment. She seeks escape in the arms of Lee, who blurts a drunken confession that adds another layer of issues to an already deep mess.

How would you handle this? Or, to be more realistic, how would people with massive wealth and a lot more money and power at stake handle this? Does being in a third-world country make things more permissible? Does buying and nurturing an entire village of “those people” give you the moral high ground? Is the NDA binding?

While it would be easy to write off these characters as just four sleazy people, Moscovitch’s script, and these performances, directed by Ronan Marra (Jr.), won’t let it be that simple. Marra Sr. keeps Bill’s focus on his suddenly-fragile legacy. Herring’s Justine is holier-than-thou and privilege-blind, but means well, and perhaps sees herself (an adopted orphan) in a likely victim. Wagers shows how the demands of Shannon’s job eat at a soul she thought healed long ago. And Oberheide’s Lee, especially in a vino veritas moment, lets slip there might be some conscience beneath that frat-bro persona.

Plenty of food for thought here, entertainingly prepared. Bring your corporate boss (or their overworked assistant) to see “Post-Democracy,” through Jan. 29 at Storefront’s new home, 2416 E. 55th Place (near the Subway on N. Keystone, across from the Meier), Indianapolis. Tickets and info at storefrontindy.com.

Footlite: New take on ‘New World’

By John Lyle Belden

“Songs For a New World,” the first show by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “13,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “Mr. Saturday Night”) is hard to describe, existing in an undefined middle ground between musical, song-cycle, and cabaret. Critics haven’t been kind, but many adore it, including local performer Jerry Beasley, who directs the current production of “Songs” at Footlite Musicals.

“It’s a concert,” he said, desiring it to be something more. “I wanted to tell 14 little stories.”

Perhaps bringing it closer to Brown’s original concept of various narratives all linked by a common theme – a person’s profound moment of decision – Beasley enriches the musical without altering its content. The cast is expanded from four to eight main singers plus two soloists, and he adds little touches to bring more context. The classic “Stars and the Moon” becomes a lesson shared among more than one singer, and thus us watching. “Christmas Lullaby” shows how an expecting mother truly feels she is giving hope to others. The youth in “The Steam Train” returns to a later song, giving it a today’s-news edge. There is humor in “The River Won’t Flow” and heartache in “The Flagmaker, 1775” – there is something for everyone throughout.

Wonderful performances by Ryan Bridges, Cameron Callan, Erin Emtiaz, Dylan Kelly, Maggie Meier, Abigail Miller, Keziah Muthama, and Kendrell Stiff, with Kayvon Emtiaz as “King of the World” and the incomparable Kevin Bell in “Surabaya-Santa.” Kelsey McDaniel stands by as swing; the on-stage orchestra is led by Jeremy Kaylor.

Appropriately, this is Footlite’s January “cabaret” production, with the audience seated on the stage in close proximity to the actors. While the chairs are in rows rather than at tables, there are still only so many of them, so act quick for tickets to remaining performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 19-22. Contact Footlite.org or call 317-926-6630.

Healthy dose of love and laughter in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

Could love be considered a disorder? Think about it: The irrational behavior, the mood swings, the heart racing, the feeling in the pit of your stomach – nothing about being in love seems healthy!

Consider our case study of several infected individuals in and around the SuperCenter shopping experience in the comedy “Love/Sick,” by John Cariani, presented by Theatre Unchained at Theater at the Fort in Lawrence, directed by Kaya Dorsch.

The highly talented cast of Lucy Fields, Aaron Henze, Kyrsten Lyster, Brittany Magee, and Joe Wagner bring these afflicted souls to life as various characters in nine scenes in this charming hour-plus one-act.

The performance bar is set high by the first scene, in which – due to their disorder – Fields and Wagner have to deliver their exact same lines, with the same energy, at the exact same time. Add in a bit of intimate physical comedy, and they succeed to hilarious effect.

Fields then takes on the role of delivering a most awkward message to Lyster. We also have, among other bits, Henze discovering how literal “deadly boredom” can be, and Magee on a search to “find herself” that many of us can relate to.

The result is a mix of laughter and heartache that any physician would agree are a sure sign of a love outbreak, and for us in the audience the feelings are contagious.

Dorsch took a lot of TLC in growing this specimen, and if it leads to a pandemic of uncertain joy – know there’s no cure.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 19-21, at 8920 Otis Ave. Get info at TheatreUnchained.org and tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Time tick, tick, ticking forward

By John Lyle Belden

As I post this, 2022 has recently come to a close. And you might wonder, what were our favorite shows of this last year? Well, I just did a rough count of more than 150 reviews we posted, so – yeah, hard question.

Like an actor who never forgets that line he stumbled on at opening night, I can’t help but think about the reviews we didn’t do. Aside from scheduling and illness having us miss shows outright, there were a couple of performances that we caught at the ends of their run and didn’t get around to the writeup.

And like Jon in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” I feel the march of time.

There were actually two productions of that Jonathan Larson musical in central Indiana this last year – running practically simultaneously. We managed to get a review in of the well-done Phoenix Theatre production, but circumstances had us nearly miss the Carmel Community Players edition, which had its differences and was excellent in its own way.

Wendy and I would like to go on the record as saying we also enjoyed the CCP “TTB,” directed by Kathleen Horrigan, performed at the Switch Theatre in Fishers.

As is easier to do in volunteer community theatre, there was, in addition to Dominic Piedmonte as Jon, Ervin Gainer as his roommate Michael, and Margaret Smith as his girlfriend Susan, an ensemble of B.K. Bady-Kaye, Onis Dean, Abby Morris, and Ryley Trottier to portray other roles. This also helped distinguish the production from the stripped-down Phoenix show.

Piedmonte was great as Larson’s stand-in character, and Gainer is frankly one of those actors I can’t get enough of. Smith also did well as a character that is tricky as you don’t want to find yourself disliking Susan or Jon too much as their relationship falters. Having the full cast helped in letting Trottier play “Superbia” star (and potential “other woman”) Karessa, leading to a brilliant moment with both women singing “Come to Your Senses.”

Wendy found this version of the show really gave the feel of Larson’s dilemma of the world changing around him – not all for the better – as he turned 30 years old. And as he somehow feared and we have come to know, his life would end a few short years later.

A big thanks again to Carmel Community Players (hat tip to Lori Raffel), and all the local stages who let us come in and see what they have to show us. We look forward to another big year of theatre in 2023.

Fulgham ‘Christmas’ comes to Carmel

By John Lyle Belden

Poinsettias are immortal.

Also, treasures and saints come in unexpected forms; cherished traditions can include a bad pageant or enthusiastic bell-ringer; there’s nothing like a well-stocked fridge; and love can bring anyone together. These lessons and more are brought to us by Robert Fulgham, author of the best-seller about life-lessons from kindergarten, in “Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas!” presented by Carmel Community Players, directed by Kate Hinman.

Aptly-named Joy Ried joins new and familiar faces Tonya Rave, Tom Riddle, Kevin Shadle, and Matt Trgovac as they work through 14 scenes and skits – including a recurring bit about a certain red-leafed plant. The audience, in turn, gets a full-body workout, focused on both the heartstrings and funny bone.

Fulghum’s simple yet deep essays come alive in able hands – with an extra shout-out to assistant stagehand Mitchell Ried – for a must-see holiday treat.

The crew also includes stage manager and assistant director Jeremy Ried, stagehand Chrysa Keenon, and Lori Raffel on lights and sound.

Four performances remain: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Dec. 15-18) at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (just south of the Main Street arts district). Get info and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.