Mud Creek has its hands on something special

By John Lyle Belden

“American Dream, Japanese car.”

That line from “Hands on a Hardbody” sums up the theme of this musical, which had a brief Broadway run, but is more suited to the Heartland. Local hands have crafted it for Mud Creek Players through Sept. 24.

Based on a 1990s documentary about an actual contest, in this musical by Doug Wright with songs by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio, a Nissan dealer in the small east-Texas city of Longview selects 10 contestants to stand with at least one hand touching a Hardbody pickup, with the last one who loses contact with the vehicle winning it. Dealer Mike Ferris (Joe Aiello) has ordered extra inventory to sell to onlookers, which annoys his assistant Cindy Barnes (Kathy Borgmann), but she’s hoping for the best. The event is covered live by radio station KYKX, announced by deejay Frank Nugent (Jeremy Crouch).

Benny (Onis Dean) has won this contest before, but his wife left him in that prize truck. He is full of plans and strategies to win again. Aging and injured former oil-rig worker J.D. (Chris Otterman) sees this as the chance for something to go right, as wife Virginia (Beth Ray-Scott) resents his stubborn insistence at competing yet stands by with refreshments and cool towels. Ronald (Noah Nordman) is between jobs and sees opportunities with a new truck, providing there’s no rain and he keeps his blood sugar up. Norma (Anya Andrews) sees the Lord’s Will in winning the contest, buoyed by “prayer warriors” at her church and Gospel music on her Walkman. Jacinta (Natalie Coronado Hammerle) hopes to sell the truck after winning so she can finish her veterinary degree. Janis (Jennifer J. Kaufmann) has six kids and little else, aside from a devoted cheerleader of a husband, Don (Collin Moore). Chris (Nicholas Gibbs), out of the Marines long enough to have grown his hair, doesn’t say much. Greg (Matthew Blandford) is a young, out-of-work dreamer. Equally fresh-faced Kelli (Nicole Crabtree) has a job but could use a better vehicle. Heather (Carolyn Lynch) acts like just being a hot blonde is enough to make her win – and unbeknownst to others, she may be right.

Also on hand are judge and timekeeper Lilly (Kirsten Cutshall), event medic Dr. Stokes (Sophie Peirce), and Service Dept. mechanics Miki (Lauren Bogart), A.J. (Ahnn Christopher) and Jerry (Peyton Rader). The on-stage band are Ben Craighead, Craig Kemp, Katie Ryan, Jill Stewart, and leader Linda Parr.

The true star, of course, is “Ruby,” the body of a 1997 Nissan pickup. Director Michelle Moore said Mud Creek volunteers fixed up the impressive prop so that it looks brand new, complete with shining red paint job, working tailgate and doors, bed one can climb into, seats, and functional headlights and horn.*

This kind of situation lends itself to a lot of humor, like Kaufmann’s charming take on the straight-talking redneck mama, and a bit of intrigue (what exactly is Mike up to?). It also examines the extreme edge of American competitive spirit. For those familiar with it, this show is like a less-tragic version of the dance-marathon classic “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” complete with the mental and physical consequences of forced exhaustion. As Stokes notes, staying awake for what will be 90-plus hours is a tactic used in other countries to torture prisoners. Benny understands this, exploiting the fraying tempers and confidence of fellow competitors – giving Dean a lot to work with in his complex character. We also get an insight into past stresses, such as Chris’s experiences in the first Gulf War, and the frustration of ethnic assumptions, as Jacinta bristles at having to point out she was “Born in Laredo.”

Characters to root for include Norma, as Andrews has us feeling her pain when the Spirit is weak, as well as Greg and Kelli, with their growing feelings and a fateful decision that changes their lives.  

So, who ends up with the truck? That’s kinda beside the point (and a huge spoiler) but this tale does come with a satisfying ending, as well as the what-happens-next lines by each of the main cast during the last songs.  

With the friendly confines of the Mud Creek “Barn,” its excellent stage set (cleverly designed by Moore), and Dani Gibbs choreography that even has the truck “dancing” to the stage edge, there is an immersive element to “Hands on a Hardbody” that makes this as much an experience as a play, complete with a final song with chorus we are invited to join in on.  

Our shortcut to the Lone Star State is 9740 E. 86th St., Indianapolis. For tickets and information, visit MudCreekPlayers.org.

(*Moore said the pickup prop – which has no engine to weigh it down or leak on stage, a reinforced hood an actor can climb on, and sets of casters it rests on for easy movement – will be available after this run to a company that wants to mount a production of this musical. Contact her via the website for details.)   

ALT: What happened there

By John Lyle Belden

In the early 2000s, by annual average there was a suicide in Las Vegas roughly every 26 hours. However I feel about this, I can be confident it is true, as someone checked. The serious and fraught topic of self-harm is what gives the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” its riveting emotional heft, but at its core is the principle noted in the previous sentence.

This drama – with hilarious comic moments to get through the serious context – by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is presented by American Lives Theatre, directed by Chris Saunders, at the Phoenix Theatre. It is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detailing their struggle with D’Agata’s 2010 essay in The Believer magazine.

Editor Emily Penrose (Eva Patton) calls upon intern Jim Fingal (Joe Wagner), a recent Harvard graduate, to fact-check the piece by D’Agata (Lukas Felix Schooler), which is ready to go to print in just a few days. Fingal is told to give it his best effort, as the writer is known to take liberties with details. “Give it the ‘full Jim’,” Penrose instructs, and boy, does she get it.

The essay, focusing on a teenager’s suicide – jumping from the city’s tallest casino tower – to comment on the greater culture of Las Vegas, is riddled with factual errors, starting with the lead paragraph. While the death itself is well-documented, various added details are wrong. Penrose tells Fingal to bring them up directly to D’Agata, which he does by flying out to visit his Vegas apartment.

At first the altered “facts” are trivial, inspiring much of the humor. When Penrose is alerted to one that could get the magazine in legal trouble, she, too, travels from to New York to Nevada, just hours before the presses in Illinois roll for national distribution.

I must note my own bias here. I am an experienced journalist, including a university Journalism degree and experience at four daily newspapers (most recently the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind.). In my mind there was no question that D’Agata was in the wrong with the initial version of the essay. Deviations from the truth, even in details having nothing to do with the core event, and especially easy to confirm and debunk, hurt the credibility of not only the periodical and the writer, but also the valid point of the story itself.

However, D’Agata argues, this isn’t a news “article” but a non-fiction “essay,” and “the wrong facts get in the way of the story.” He justifies altering events for his writing’s symmetry, or because the wording doesn’t “sing” to him otherwise. What could appear as indulging in ego he sees as a higher calling to a deeper “truth.” Having gone to extensive research, interviews, and discussions with the deceased’s family, he feels too personally invested to submit to the smallest correction or alteration.

For his part, Fingal appears absurdly nit-picky – what color were the bricks, how many strip clubs were there? But what we would call “white lies” also contain more misleading falsities, and if any were detected by a reader, he notes, that same person could decry the whole essay as a “hoax” on social media.

Penrose understands the writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a journalist, and her magazine is more literary than hard-news, but she insists on having standards. Still – the writing was so good she senses this could be a major milestone for the publication, if she could just get everyone in agreement on the actual text.

Patton, Wagner and Schooler deliver riveting, top of their game, performances. No winks at the audience, this is serious business involving real people and real incidents (both the publication of the essay and the death that inspired it). The humor is purely situational, the absurd that comes with doing one’s job, this time with higher stakes.

“Trigger Warning” is very much applicable here, if you hadn’t guessed by the subject matter. The play contains the most heart-wrenching moment of silence, and an ending that lets no one off the hook.

The ALT play runs through Sept. 25 at the Phoenix, 712 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis; details and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org or americanlivestheatre.org.

The best-selling 2012 book, also called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is still available in stores and online. The essay in question is still online in its checked, edited, and published form (Note: intensive discussion and description of suicide) here.

IndyFringe: Oh Look, It’s Magic!

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Jordan Allen has been an awesome presence at this year’s IndyFringe. The magician has been around the festival all three weekends, doing a little bit of busking, and a lot of attending and talking up other performers’ shows. So, it’s only fair we say a bit about his own performance, which ran the third weekend (Sept. 1-3) at the main-floor stage at the Athenaeum.

“Oh Look, It’s Magic: ADHD Advocacy Show” combines a lot of clever tricks with an honest first-person account of growing up – and living with – Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which is a real disability, and not something one grows out of (“I wish,” Allen adds). He notes that aside from Houdini’s maxim that magic not only amuses and amazes, but also awakens hope, he feels it can also educate and advocate.

In that vein, Allen maintains a show that is family friendly, and accommodating to all neural patterns. He patiently grins through impulsive outbursts, and gives the neurodivergent their own moments of wonder – as well as to audience members of any brain, even silly folk like me.

It’s cards, ropes, scarves, stories, balls, cups, hope, ripped paper, flashes of color, moments of comedy, and a kind reminder that none of us are alone, if we’re open to life’s magic. And it’s a work in progress, so watch for its next return by following “Jordan Allen – Magician” on Facebook or visiting jallenexperience.com.

IndyFringe: Gloria Mundi

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Gloria (Kayla Jo Pulliam) is not having a good day. She is an addict, out on parole and living in a halfway house. Last night an angel, Harold (Bryson Kramer), came to give her the news that she is to be the parent of the new child of God. When she tells her ex, Jody (Cameron Pride) this “happy” news, is it any wonder he,* and social worker Harold (Kramer), suspect she is using again?

This sets the plot of “Gloria Mundi,” Pamela Morgan’s tale of recovery, parenting, relationships, and faith presented by Nomad Theater Company under the direction of Ashleigh Rae-Lynn.

Morgan and company have created a story that is full of hilarious moments (“the doughnuts have suffered the consequences”) and heartbreaking emotion (the fate of Lanie, Gloria’s first child).

“Don’t f*** it up this time,” angelic Harold advises, and it’s possible that Gloria already has. Through twists both dramatic and funny, we’re taken on a wild ride that ends in a miracle of hope no one expects.

Witness this blessed event, 5:15 p.m. today (as we post this) and 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the District Theatre.

(*EDIT: Character’s pronouns are he/they, we were informed by Morgan after this initially posted, and pronoun and name spelling have been updated.)

IndyFringe: Dadbod

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Local standup comic Brad Hinshaw has once again managed to escape his wife and kids (and not just by hiding in the bathroom) to come out and spend time with actual adults again, bringing another hour of family-centric comedy (not to be confused with “family-friendly,” some words would be bleeped on TV).

Hinshaw returns to further refine his act, “Dadbod,” in anticipation of filming it. While most of his material is the same as last year’s show – if you haven’t heard about the joy of “lactation cookies,” you really should – the newer stories are hilarious. Who knew the dangers of toddlers and super soakers?

As I said last year, this is a delightfully relatable show for parents and non-parents alike. So, take the chance to escape your own family so you can laugh at yourself as well as Hinshaw’s situations.

Today’s performance (as we post this) is 1:45 p.m., and the last is 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, both at the cabaret stage of the District Theatre.

IndyFringe: Gray Pride

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Norman Lasiter, with musical director Christopher Marlow, teamed up to bring us one of the most enjoyable hours of cabaret theater I believe I have ever seen.

Lasiter’s stories of growing up in a small town south of Indianapolis, pursuing his career in New York and California, and being an out and proud since 1980 (he was literally born in a closet) are punctuated with familiar songs that further enhance the tales.

Even during the darkest memories (living in New York during the worst of the AIDS crisis), he finds hope to keep enduring in memory of those lost.

The whole show is upbeat and cheeky, and Lasiter’s voice is sheer beauty. Marlow even gets a chance to shine on his own during their rendition of “I Love a Piano.” I know I say this a lot, but this show is certainly not to be missed.

However, there are very few tickets left for his next two performances at the IndyFringe Theatre – 7 p.m. tonight (as we post this) and noon Sunday, Sept. 3-4 – so get yours immediately, grab a libation, and settle back for an hour you won’t forget.

IndyFringe: Fret Knot

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

First, I must note that comparisons to the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates are inevitable. Madeline Wilson and Lizzie Kaneicki do seem to have the same schtick, sharing the stage – Wilson with ukulele, Kaneicki with guitar – and perform hilarious songs about life and relationships, but does that other pair of funny women present their shared love of crochet, and literally get tied to and tangled up in their hobby as the show progresses? Afraid not, so “Fret Knot.”

No copycats here – Wilson (originally from Phoenix, according to Facebook) and Kaneicki (from West Virginia) joined forces in Chicago, and with friends perform comedy with music biweekly as “Hahaha Lalala”,* so they are quite capable of bringing the funny as their own entertaining act.

Taking them on their own terms – funny bits, singly or together, about odd taco runs, upset housecats, and all – includes some poetry and storytelling, engaging a range of both emotion and talent. We get the downside of summer birthdays, the peril of intrusive thoughts, and the comforting power of mathematics.

The yarn metaphor is literally all over the place – don’t get too caught up in it. But it does help give the show a “something different” Fringe-y vibe, and at one point the audience does help increase their entanglement.

Having blown in from the Windy City for one weekend, you can see and enjoy “Fret Knot” 8:45 p.m. today (as we post this) and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the cabaret stage of the District Theatre.

For Chicago performances, they are presently at the Bughouse Theater.

(*Find them on Instagram, Google search has a cacophony of unrelated “ha” and “la”s if you hunt there.)

IndyFringe: Ballet INitiative – A Social Media Experience

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

This is Ballet INitiative’s first presentation at IndyFringe and hopefully the beginning of a long string of performances for years to come. The troupe in dedicated to inclusion, inspiration, and innovation through multi-genre dance as well as traditional ballet.

The show consists of six offerings, of which, two are unique to each week’s schedule (the other four are on a rotation where each will play twice but in varying order). Taking to social media to have fans chose the set list for each week, they have managed to curate a very solid line-up to highlight all of their troupe’s talents and skills.

Prior to each number, the audience is given some information about what the intention behind the choreography is meaning to portray. There is also a pause afterwards for you to ruminate as well as allowing the dancers to change costumes.

Highlights of the show I saw were their jazzy rendition of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” (originally a part of a past tribute to Darin); their more traditional ballet dance, “A Far off Spring” (being the only one performed “on pointe”); and the weekend exclusive number “Icarus” (showing the passion of flight and striving to be more than you are now).

My personal favorite dance was their delightful tribute to the musical, “Chicago” with the number, “All That Jazz.” While being sheer, sexy fun, it also highlights the physical talents of each dancer beautifully.

Choreography is by Anneka Bellman, Cheyanne Claerbout, Amanda Hickey, Trudy Martin, Lauren Nasci, Michelle Quenon, Candace Reiner, Shannon Stone, and Ola Tarnowski. Company members also include Lexie Carlson, Sarah Farnsely, Brynn Roudebush, and Lauren Smith.

With their talented cast and such a diverse number of offerings, this is the perfect show to see for anyone who is a novice to dance. Performances this weekend are 7:15 p.m. Friday and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 2&4, in the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: Doghouse Moon

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by awarding this troupe the Best Program and Cast Bios in the festival this year.

This show is particularly hard to explain. “Doghouse Moon,” by Matt McDonald and the band Camp Culture, is part concert, part sci-fi epic, part skit show, part social commentary, and entirely hilarious.

After an opening song welcoming us to the world, we meet up with Tanner (McDonald) and Doc (Eric Marquis), who literally carries the fate of the world in his hands. We then find Beige (Shelby Myers) hosting “Looking Like Cooking” where today’s dish is chicken sushi wrapped in bacon. After a brief commercial and a plug for her latest invention, we are privy to the story of how she spent her 21st birthday.

We then rejoin Doc searching within himself for answers; however, he is being harassed/distracted by Herman (Luke Lowrance), a devious hat thief. We next join Chet Chuckles (Michael Muldowney) at Chuckleberry Finn’s, where the death of his precious fish, Joel McScale, has left him unable to make anyone laugh.

The exploits and stories of these five souls play out in story and song throughout the show – until we reach the grand moment when they must band together with Jim (Jacob Worrell) to save the earth.

It’s hard to explain how funny this is without giving away some of the best jokes, but my favorite parts were: Big Bob’s Discount Therapy Racket; the song about writing a song; Herman’s costume (straight out of the 1969 Sears catalogue); and as mentioned before, the program.

Remaining performances are 7 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: Ship of Dreams

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

First of all, I must warn you that this show is one of the hottest selling tickets at this year’s IndyFringe and every performance has and will sell out. Get your tickets immediately, or regret missing the greatest parody of an Oscar-winning tragic film in existence.

Even before the show begins, our captain, Jason Adams, is inviting the crowd to draw some artworks for the overhead projector used during the show

All of the movie’s major plot elements are covered here, including only referring to one character by the name of the actor portraying him. The show features extremely pun-filled dialogue, visuals on the projector, and simple cardboard props used so well they raise the level of each scene where they appear.

The spectacle reaches epic proportions encompassing karaoke, kazoo ballet, a singing iceberg, and the spectacular dance number showing the dramatic ending to the ship.

Paige Scott and her amazingly talented Party Island troupe of performers (Elysia Rohn, Courtney McClure Murray, Aaron Stillerman, Taylor Daine, Chad Woodward, and Brittany Magee) are each spectacular in all their numerous roles. Adams’ work on the overhead projector is just icing on this deliciously witty cake.

The 7:15 p.m. Friday performance is sold out, so act quickly to get on board 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, on the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe Theatre.