Catalyst’s ‘Tooth’ gives us much to chew on

By John Lyle Belden

When you enter the Grove Haus theater to experience “Tooth of Crime,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, you enter another world.

It’s a dystopian potential America of the 2080s, a Mad-Max atmosphere in which the battles aren’t over oil but fame – and your place on the rock ‘n’ roll charts. Those on top find themselves “marked,” with life and death consequences.

Hoss (Davey Pelsue) is an aging Marker at the top of The Game. He respects the Code, as well as the country and blues musicians that inform his down-and-dirty rock style. He doesn’t test the wrath of the Keepers, but is not too happy that other performers are bending the rules, especially Gypsies who don’t abide by the Code at all.

Vexed and paranoid, Hoss fires his stargazer, Mirra (Ryan Powell), for advising him to be cautious. A Deejay, Rudio Ran (Jay Hemphill), reassures him he’s still on top, but he suspects it’s flattery. His manager and girlfriend, Becky Lou (Sarah Hoffman) is worried, and the drugs Doc (Nan Macy) give him make him even more unmanageable. Then, right-hand man Chaser (Zach Stonerock) informs Hoss that a rival has marked him, and a Gypsy by the name of Crow (Adam Tran) is on his way to do battle. Chaser finds an impartial Ref (David Molloy) to adjudicate.

The culture of this play has its own dialect – though after a while you can “suss” it out – and the duel is mainly psychic, through words spoken and sung. Though they brandish guns and knives, Hoss and Crow strive to break each other’s mind and soul before fatally attacking the body.

For the audience, this requires paying close attention as much as possible, but not getting too concerned that you can’t tell exactly what’s said or even going on. This drama with music was written by Sam Shepard in 1972 and rewritten in 1997, which helps explain its vibe being somewhere between “Easy Rider” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” filtered through Greek tragedy.

This show isn’t for everyone, but if you go with it, you can witness a stylish indictment of the corrosive nature of celebrity, and experience the passion that Pelsue and his castmates put into their performance. Hoss practically sweats every word and lyric he utters. Crow is like a preening bird, but with a dangerous edge even when knocked off-balance.

An on-stage band provides excellent accompaniment to the show’s proceedings. The music was provided by Shepard, with additions by T Bone Burnett in the 1990s, and director Casey Ross found a more recent hit to finish the play.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays through Feb. 26 at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. Get info and tickets at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

ATI hosts one wild wedding

By John Lyle Belden

“It Shoulda Been You” is a freewheeling comedy musical in a single movie-length act, presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Feb. 12 at The Studio Theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The setting is a wedding held at a hotel, with all its comic potential – especially when the bride and groom come from different backgrounds. Rebecca Steinberg (Laura Sportiello) is from a middle-class Jewish family, while her fiancé Brian Howard (Michael Ferraro) is from well-to-do WASPs. Tasked with not letting this blessed occasion become a disaster is Rebecca’s unmarried older sister Jenny (Karaline Feller), who fortunately has the help of magically fabulous wedding planner Albert (John Vessels).

Bring on the inevitable clash of personalities between Rebecca’s parents, Murray (Matthew Reeder) and Judy (Judy Fitzgerald), and Brian’s parents George and Georgette (Bill Book and Cynthia Collins); and mix in Maid of Honor Annie (Teneh B.C. Karimu) and Best Man Greg (Jeff Pierpoint) – who are more a part of the upcoming marriage than anyone suspects – Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Marty (Nic Eastlund), and the assorted roles played by Paul Hansen and Holly Stults, and you have a volatile combination that results in hilarity with a welcome happy ending for all.

The songs are snappy, adding to the punchlines and helping the story along. The cast is excellent in voice and comic form. Vessels puts his scene-stealing skills to excellent use, and you can’t help but feel for Sportiello’s Jenny from the moment she opens the show through to when she utters its last line.

Having this play in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater adds to the close familial atmosphere, and even facilitates one actor’s entrance. To get everyone in the mood, there is a Guestbook as you enter the theater, and ushers let you know as you are seated whether you are on the bride or groom’s side. A necessary salute, then, to director Bill Jenkins and the crew for a fun production, including an elegantly simple, yet simply elegant set by P. Bernard Killian.

And by the way, I’m leaving out a surprising plot twist – see it for yourself!

For information and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.

Getting through the holidays with TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

While most people are familiar with the “Nice” offering by Theatre on the Square, a live stage version of “A Christmas Story,” the show on the smaller second stage, “A Christmas Survival Guide” – tagged “Naughty” – is a little more obscure. So that’s what we’ll discuss here.

As for the naughtiness, it’s mainly for some language and Grinchy-Scroogey attitude as a jaded quintet – Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, Anna Lee, Josiah McCruistion and Eric Brockett – their piano accompanist, Levi Burke, and stage manager, Nikki Sayer (her actual position, not just a role) deal with going through yet another holly-jolly season, whether they like it or not.

Still, a show is a show, and when the spotlight is on one of this ensemble, he or she shines, whether it’s Niehaus cooing “Santa Baby,” Smith crooning the “New Years Eve Blues,” Lee abducting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Burke tickling the ivories in a solo, or McCruistion frankly singing anything.

It helps that the cast are given copies of the book, “A Christmas Survival Guide,” from which we hear excerpts in the recorded voice of TOTS staffer and local uber-talent Claire Wilcher.

The best bit in this revue of songs and comedy features Lee as a lonely woman dealing with two rather needy and misunderstood roommates, portrayed hilariously by Brockett and McCruistion.

One note to shy audience members: Sitting down front could get you pulled onstage when the gang find themselves a reindeer short.

For something a little different (for teens and older) with a ring of the familiar, in a cozy intimate setting, this show makes a nice change of pace from your typical holiday fare. Performances of this and “Christmas Story” run through Dec. 23 at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

Sharing a sweet treat with family

NOTE: Usually we do reviews of plays we’ve seen and games we’ve played, but everyone’s gotta eat — and when an award-winning Indiana confectioner appealed to our sweet tooth, we had to bite. Enjoy:

By Wendy Carson

Last month, 240 Sweet of Columbus, Ind., sent me a special treat box of marshmallows & hot chocolate to try out and review. I took it along with me down to our Thanksgiving visit to the family so that they could help us try it out and here is the result:

First of all, the hot chocolate mix is aptly named “Decadent Drinking Chocolate” and we all agreed that this was undoubtedly the most delicious hot chocolate any of us had ever tasted. It was rich and had a perfect balance of flavors which made it an excellent conductor for the marshmallows. Since the mix is blended with real milk and heated on the stovetop, that is likely part of the reason it is so delicious.

Now, on to the marshmallows. We were given two different flavors to try: Sugar Cookie and Bourbon Brown Sugar. Each flavor was tasted on its own and in the hot chocolate.

The Bourbon Brown Sugar was yummy but had a distinctive bourbon flavor, so it was only enjoyed by the adults in the group. Those that were non-drinkers of alcoholic beverages were not keen on them due to the bourbon flavor. However, the rest of us thought they were delicious. They blended with the cocoa very well and were amazing when lightly toasted to bring out the full caramelized flavor of the sugar & alcohol. The verdict: A must for anyone who is known to imbibe, but a definite pass for those who abstain.

The Sugar Cookie flavor was tried by everyone and almost unanimously enjoyed. The children loved the taste and were pleasantly surprised yet delighted by the crunch of the cookie bits in each one. One adult, however, felt the crunchy bits gave the marshmallow a gritty texture. These marshmallows were a perfect addition to the hot chocolate. The flavors blended together to enrich each other without either overpowering. Since everyone tried these, we weren’t able to save any back for toasting – but I have sampled one before so I do know it has a very good taste, and again, the cookie bits are an unexpected delight.

We also need to note that one of our tasters doesn’t like marshmallows or sugar cookies and his opinion was that they were “very interesting.” He was surprised that he actually liked them and felt he would be open to having them again.

Our one complaint was that the marshmallow bags were not reseal-able. Since it is unlikely that all of the marshmallows will be consumed in one sitting, some sort of closure to ensure freshness would be recommended.

Overall, we were greatly delighted by the treat box and feel that it would be a worthy splurge (it lists for $35) for the holiday season.  You can purchase this item (or one like it) from their website www.240sweet.com; or at one of the many handicraft and arts fairs around the Indy area, like Yelp’s Totally Bazaar (6:30 p.m. this Thursday at the Indianapolis Central Library, see here for details).

IndyFringe: Harrison!

By Wendy Carson

Hip-hop musicals are all the rage currently. However, acquiring tickets to them is nearly impossible. Currently, you have the chance to see a hilarious improv version of one dripping in Hoosier history.

When you get your ticket you are given a slip of paper prompting you to list a book, musical, TV show, movie, or fairy tale. These suggestions are put in a hat and one is given to each actor prior to the show. They use these as touchstones for their individual characters’ dialogue and motivations during the show. As an example, the actor portraying William Henry Harrison – the general-turned-President of the title – was given “Cinderella” and his “Bobbity Boo-ing” of others during the show was very inflammatory.

Expect dance battles, rap battles, and some twisted historical events intertwining to some epic beats. While the show is ever-changing and never too serious, the final song echoes a strong truth that should be noted: “History forgets, but Death remembers!”

Performances are Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Aug. 27 and 28 at the Indyfringe Basile Theatre. Get info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

 

IndyFringe: C-

By Wendy Carson

Your college years, they were fun — weren’t they?

You had a good time and the worries of the day-to-day working world were but a distant glimmer on the horizon. But now graduation is over 20 years behind you. What have you done with your life and what do you wish that you had been taught back then to better prepare you for your future?

This is the story of one man’s quest to reconnect with some of his frat brothers in order to discern the answers to those questions. Among those Eric Jaffe finds are his redneck buddy who went to college because his parents wouldn’t support his dream of being a “Rock God,” the disgraced athlete who let his scholarship slip through his fingers, and “The Sponge” who was always smoking pot but never bought any of it.

The stories are compelling and their messages are strong. In fact, I would hope that parents would try to bring out their high school-aged kids to see this and maybe learn some of the pitfalls that college offers.

However, the narrative was not at all linear, and this caused the individual characters’ storylines to be impossible to follow. With a little polish, this could be an amazing show that could be a useful teaching tool for college-bound students.

Even so, the message is important enough to make this show worth a look.

Performances are at the Theatre on the Square second stage Aug. 25 and 27. Info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.