Bard Fest play catches the conscience of the Queen

By John Lyle Belden

One interesting thing I find in TV talk shows is the stories of celebrities who meet other celebrities, not as coworkers or equals, but as mutual fans, starstruck at each other. Imagine if the most powerful woman in the world were to meet an actor whose performance she found to be exceptional. It happened, and William Shakespeare was there to see it.

“Elizabeth Rex” is perhaps the greatest play Shakespeare could not have made, as the title character could easily have had his head removed to decorate the Tower of London. So it was left to acclaimed playwright Timothy Findley in 2000 to speculate and dramatize what happened on a fateful night in 1601 following a command performance – by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I – of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

You don’t have to know anything about that comedy to enjoy the Bard Fest adaptation of “Elizabeth Rex,” just know that in Shakespeare’s day, all women’s roles were played by male actors, and the rest of this drama’s set-up you can get from context. The setting is a barn at the estate where the play’s after-party (for aristocrats, not lowly actors) is being held, with everyone being stuck indoors as a curfew was declared by the Queen to maintain the peace before the Ash Wednesday execution at dawn of Robert, Earl of Essex – believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, but convicted of treason. 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men grumble about their surroundings as they remove their makeup and tap a keg of warm ale, but the mood totally changes when their Royal visitor arrives. She is regal, the others reverent, but eventually all relax. “I shall require distraction,” Elizabeth declares.

The Queen (Holly Hathaway Thmpson) is quite impressed with the men who played female leads, especially Ned Lowenscroft (Jay C. Hemphill), the play’s Beatrice, and Harry Pearle (Scott Fleshood), who played Hero. She even remembers when Percy Gower (Alan Cloe) would show some leg in his skirts in years past (the old actor loves to reminisce, a recurring comic point). To Jack Edmond (Matthew Walls) who played Benedick (who verbally sparred with/wooed Beatrice in “Much Ado”), Elizabeth shows disdain, perhaps conflating the actor with the role, resenting his being Irish, or both. She also isn’t thrilled with big-mouthed Luddy (Matthew Socey) who she sees as little more than a living version of Falstaff (a great Bard Fest in-joke for those who have seen Socey in that role). Also on hand is Matt Welles (Anthony Logan), who is handy with a guitar; nearly blind seamstress Tardy (Susan Yeaw), always losing her glasses to comic effect; and a bear, which Lowenscroft had rescued.

Quite literally above it all, at his desk in the loft, is Shakespeare (Eric Bryant), working on his next play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” He feels at a loss for what words to put in legendary rulers’ mouths, so makes notes of things the Queen says. This proves problematic when she insists on seeing the script.

Attending Her Majesty are Lady Mary Stanley (Nikki Lynch) and Lord Robert Cecil (Abdul Hakim Shabazz). An attentive soldier enforcing the curfew (Andy Burnett) also appears, as well as, briefly, Countess Henslow (Afton Shepard) to plead in vain for the condemned’s life.

Much of this drama comes down to the interplay between Elizabeth and Lowenscroft, who, because he is dying, exercises a bit of license with the Queen. For her part, resolved to spend the night on the level of her subjects in the barn, she accepts being chided and contradicted – even touched – as the gay actor teaches the monarch, ever required to show a manly demeanor, to get in touch with her woman within. Thus, even in a very talented cast, Hemphill and Thompson stand out with extraordinary performances. 

Glenn L. Dobbs, a Bard Fest producer, directs from a script he adapted with Barbara Willis Sweete and Kate Miles. 

As has been noted, this at times intense drama is peppered with some great laugh-out-loud moments. It also gives a sense of what an important time this was in Elizabeth’s reign. The hour chimes periodically, bringing our players closer to the dawn, when our fantasia ends and true history resumes.

Remaining dates are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

Oz-inspired production a celebration of India

By Wendy Carson

With Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “There’s No Place Like Home,” founder Gregory Glade Hancock has brought us his most personal show to date. He spins the tale of The Boy from Kansas (performed by Thomas Mason) and his journey of grief and self-discovery that leads him back to the inevitable conclusion that all you ever need is right in your own back yard. However, rather than traveling to Oz, he is transported to the even more magical land of India.

The show begins with the Boy visiting his mother’s grave. His sadness and loss is beautifully depicted and left tears in my eyes at its conclusion. He is then swept up in a tornado of grief that eventually lands him in this exotic place where Mother India herself (Abigail Lessaris) welcomes him. He is also treated to welcoming dances from various groups throughout the land.

He is encouraged to “Follow the Golden Path” Where he meets three deities (all played by Abigail Lessaris) who bestow upon him the gifts of Wisdom (like the Scarecrow’s brains); Compassion (the Tin Man’s heart); plus Strength and Courage (the Cowardly Lion’s nerve).

The journey is not without hazards, though. his Antagonist (Adrian Dominguez) portrays the Grief, Fear, Doubt and Cancer that he literally struggles with throughout his time here.

Even with this ever-present danger lurking, he still delights in all of the beauty and pageantry that India has to offer. Amongst the highlights of these experiences are his participation in Holi (the celebration of colors); a Bollywood film; performances from Kathak Dancers and Bhangra Dancers; as well as a ritual cleansing in the Ganges.

There is honestly no way for me to begin to describe the sheer beauty, emotion and celebration of this show. It made me laugh with delight and cry with sorrow but mostly it moved me to experience more of the history and culture of India, especially the wide variety of dance therein.

John adds: This was a truly wondrous performance; I left wanting to see it all again. Hancock, who has repeatedly traveled to India (inspiring this show), took great pains to capture the authentic spirit of the subcontinent. He collaborated with India-born artist Madhuchhanda Mandal to create a beautiful mural that was made into the stage backdrop, GHDT board member Anindita Sen to bring in dancers from the Nrityangan Kathak Academy, and Yusuf Khurram of Jiapur, India, to arrange rare genuine Kalbeliya costumes.

The dancers were outstanding throughout, especially Mason, and the graceful Lessaris who dances as naturally as others breathe. Also notable are Camden Lancaster and Dominguez in their portrayal of Krishna and Radha.

Performaces, at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, were Oct. 28-30, but bookmark this review! Hancock will hopefully bring this marvel back in a future season. For upcoming GHDT events, including December’s “Nutcracker,” see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

Bradbury’s ‘Fire’ at District

By John Lyle Belden

We have become strangers to death. Even during the present pandemic, we look around at largely clean, safe spaces. In the future, we can take this ideal even further. Perhaps, by the year 2349, we can be rid of all morbidity, the imagining of terrible things, even the media that brings them into our imagination. Everything cleaned away, into the fire.

In legendary author Ray Bradury’s “Pillar of Fire,” one man who died in the 1940s stays in suspended animation through intense passion, spending years absorbing lost incinerated stories of the macabre, until that day in the mid-24th Century when workmen come close to excavating his coffin, and his passion realized, William Lantry rises.

“He came out of the earth, hating,” as the story puts it. 

TV/movie actor and Bradbury superfan Bill Oberst Jr. performed his recitation of this short story at The District Theatre in Indianapolis on October 28-29 (a nice lead-in to Halloween). No stranger to spooky roles (including a notable “unsub” on “Criminal Minds”), he fully embodies our unliving man, moving without feeling, speaking without breathing. You can also feel in his delivery of the text his great respect for the author (Oberst last appeared in Indy portraying Bradbury himself!). 

Lantry could experience nothing in his once-living senses, only rage at his country’s fulfilled future. He sees the city’s central incinerator, where he had been destined to go. He finds people who seem content, afraid of nothing as there is nothing to fear. This seems inhuman to him: “I will make night what it once was!” 

Looking upon his dark deeds, Lantry is approached by a stranger, who seems only amused that he is a walking dead man. This person even offers him a ride into town… 

Oberst developed this performance in Los Angeles, directed by Ezra Buzzington, who provides the voice of Lantry’s companion. The show is presented with the cooperation of the Bradbury estate and, in Indy, the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. 

The story, first published in Planet Stories magazine in 1948, helps develop some of the ideas Bradbury would later incorporate in his classic “Fahrenheit 451.” However, this tale takes a more nuanced view of the incineration of reading material. After the performance, I found myself wondering: Was Lantry the “hero” of the story? His actions to re-introduce terror to what he sees as a numbed population have devastating results. The world he sees negatively as sterile, another might call sanitary. And it seems telling that the stranger is so understanding.

Needless to say, this is an extraordinary theatrical experience, as well as a thought-provoking glimpse into the mind of one of the masters of science fiction.

The theatrical reading of “Pillar of Fire” is available on Audible. For more on Oberst’s work visit billoberst.com.

ATI’s ‘Lombardi’ victorious

By John Lyle Belden

Whenever we hear or see Vincent Lombardi in a picture or old game film, or read or hear one of his numerous quotes, he seems larger than life, football’s Zeus or Apollo. But he was a man – and a devoted Catholic, so claiming no godhood – and as we see his very human aspects in “Lombardi,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana, we can’t help but respect him even more.

The Broadway play by Eric Simonson, from the book “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, captures a week in the Green Bay Packers’ 1965 season. Look magazine sends reporter Michael McCormick (played by Adam LaSalle) to Wisconsin to write a profile on the coach, who never had a losing season in the NFL (up to that point, or thereafter). Aside from Lombardi (Don Farrell) and his wife Marie (Judy Fitzgerald), we meet Packers greats Dave Robinson (Joel Ashur), Paul Hornung (Christian Condra) and Jim Taylor (Mat Leonard), who all refuse – at first – to speak to the reporter.

Without any special makeup tricks, perhaps through force of will, Farrell becomes Lombardi – in face, stance, voice, and attitude. When he speaks, always at or above a shout, all must listen. His style as coach and general manager was uncompromising, but in his subtle, paternal way his compassion for both the game and its players comes through. And as he would bellow at his wife, Fitzgerald’s Marie would always give as good as she got, with a knowing grin on her face and drink in her hand. Their scenes include flashbacks, showing how they made their way to Green Bay (including the road atlas).

McCormick is an able narrator; being a character from the non-football world aids his role as audience proxy. Ashur, Condra and Leonard also give strong performances, worthy of working under a legendary coach.

Jane Unger, who last gave us another bit of history in “Alabama Story,” directs. Efficient stage design by P. Bernard Killian seems to expand the limited space of the Studio Theater, hinting at grand scale within an intimate setting.

An inspiring look at an American icon, “Lombardi” runs through Nov. 21 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Following the Sunday, Nov. 7, performance, former Purdue star and Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann will join the cast for a talkback.

Get info and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ a noble find

By John Lyle Belden

Did William Shakespeare invent the sitcom?

In a wacky set-up worthy of a TV yuk-fest, or even an old Abbot and Costello romp, a group of proud manly-men determine they are so serious to improve their minds that they pledge to ignore the urges of other, more primal, body parts for three whole years. But within minutes, they are visited by beautiful women – one for each of them – and, suddenly, “What oath?! I don’t remember promising anything!”

That, loosely, is the plot of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” one of the Bard’s early comedies, but a play he took great pains to craft, as it was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself. Thus we deal in the realms of nobility and courtly love. The master of our men is the King of Navarre (little kingdom between Spain and France) and his three nobles were named after popular figures of the era. The visiting party is led by the Princess of France, to discuss a deal for the lands of Aquitaine (a highly valued southern French region), but once she learns of the men’s allegedly binding oath, she puts up with being camped outside the Navarre court with her ladies as an opportunity to indulge in some fun. To please its sophisticated audience, the dialogue is woven with all manner of clever and complex speech – even when topics get a bit bawdy.

To further spice the plot, visiting Spanish noble Armado (not bound by a chaste oath) fancies the love of commoner Jaquenetta. This story crosses streams with the main one when simpleton Costard switches a love letter to her with one intended for a lady of the Princess’s company.

So much going on, and fortunately Bard Fest provides plenty of talent to pull it off. Aaron Jones is noble, in charge, and a little lonely as our King, tutor to Chris Bell as Longaville, Colby Rison as Dumaine, and Matt Hartzburg as Berowne, who resists taking the oath, but reluctantly signs. John Mortell is wonderfully blustery as smitten Armado, attended faithfully by page boy Mote (a sly yet exceptional performance by Justina Savage). Gorgi Parks Fulper charms as Jaquenetta. JB Scoble is scene-stealing Costard, playing the goof to the hilt. Connor Phelan is Dull – that’s the constable’s name and the man’s personality, which Phelan hilariously commits to. We also have Dan Flahive as schoolmaster Holofernes and Thom Johnson as Sir Nathanial, who organize an entertainment for the royal visitors.

Attending the Princess (Jennifer Kaufmann) are Maria (Brittany Davis), who is sweet on Longaville; Katherine (Abigail Simmon), who thinks Dumaine is kinda cute; and Rosaline (Rachel Kelso), who has her eye on Berowne. Kaufmann maintains royal bearing throughout, but with Kelso, in her exchanges with Hartzburg, we see an early version of Shakespeare’s trope of the smart-alec man verbally sparring with the clever woman, sparks of which kindle romance. Director John Johnson takes a hands-on approach by taking the role of the ladies’ escort, Lord Boyet.

In all, this is a fun entertainment full of clever wit and colorful characters, with little in the way of big lessons other than the Princess learning that the time for fun inevitably ends, and our gentlemen exchanging an oath made lightly for a more serious pledge. Being a less-familiar play, I’ll spoil this no further.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: Scott edit does ‘Measure for Measure’ justice

By John Lyle Belden

“Measure for Measure” is classified by Shakespeare scholars as one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” fitting not quite into the comedies (though using many of the familiar devices) yet not quite a tragedy, as it doesn’t end with someone dying on stage. In adapting the drama for Bard Fest, director Paige Scott lets us know the true “problem” is injustice and misogyny.

In a mythically modern Venice, the Duke (David Mosedale) notes that many laws, especially dealing with vices, have gone unenforced for years. In a bizarre experiment, he charges pious Angelo (Zachariah Stonerock) with taking charge of the Duchy and its ordinances while away on a journey. However, he doubles back, and disguised as a priest, observes how justice is meted out. 

Things get serious quickly, as Claudio (Bradford Riley) is arrested for fornication with now-pregnant Juliette (Brittany Magee) and Angelo coldly sentences the man to death. But when the condemned man’s sister, novice nun Isabella (Morgan Morton) goes to plead for his life, Angelo agrees to do so only in exchange for the woman’s virginity. Appalled, but desperate, Isabella finds herself torn between bad options. Fortunately, a kindly priest offers a solution.

We also have a sense of Angelo’s character in the way he treats his loyal assistant Escalus (Miranda Nehrig), who takes her bruises against the glass ceiling with grin-and-bear-it frustration. 

Magee also plays sex-worker Mistress Overdone, as well as Angelo’s nearly-forgotten fiance Marianna. Further good performances from Aaron Henze as Lucio – a good friend to Claudio, but a flair for exaggeration is his undoing – and Daryl Hollonquest Jr. as Pompey, a “bawd” barely a step ahead of dogged constable Elbow (Tracy Herring).

Stonerock plays his calculating villany chillingly straight, his contemporary suit and tie reminding us that not much has changed in the last 400 years with men in charge. Morton bristles as a woman in a conflict she should never have to endure, finding her Churchly authority useless, cheapened to a powerful man’s fetish. 

There is humor and an imperfect happy ending, but Scott’s skillful edit leaves us appropriately unsettled, focused on three women bravely looking for their fair “measure.” 

This stunning, conversation-starting production has performances Friday through Sunday, Oct. 29-31, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest: Agape gets wyrd with ‘Macbeth’

By John Lyle Belden

Though it is the most familiar Shakespeare work in this year’s Bard Fest, the adaptation of “Macbeth” (“the Scottish Play” to the superstitious) by director Dr. Kathy Phipps for Agape Theater Company makes the famous tragedy fresh and fascinating. 

From the opening moments, we see the production has gone all-in on the “Wyrd Sisters.” Aside from the principal three Witches – Mary Zou, Hailey Ready, Laura Sickmeier – and Queen Hecate (Sylvia Seidle), we have a full coven, with Mia Baillie, Rebekah Barajas, Ashlynn Gilmore, Anastasia Lucia, and Maggie McKinney, as they make full use of song and movement to add atmosphere and propel the plot. They are envisioned as Wood Sprites, which gives them a clever supporting role in the play’s final battle. 

But don’t put the blame for what ensues on the Witches. As always, Agape (a youth theatre program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church) delves into human morality and the consequences of men’s – and women’s – actions. Temptation can tell us things, but it is up to us how we use the information. Heroic Macbeth (Aidan Morris) and comrade in arms Banquo (Nathan Foster) are told that the former will become King, while the latter is father to monarchs. Banquo senses something troubling in the sprites’ words. Macbeth, seeing part of the prophecy fulfilled, eagerly embraces the rest. And upon hearing of this, Lady Macbeth (Brynn Hensley) immediately goes into murder-mode.

We get solid work from the mostly high school- and college-age cast, including Jake Hobbs as prince Malcolm; Nathan Ellenberger as Macbeth’s rival, Macduff; Kyle Hensley as Banquo’s son Fleance; and Doug Rollins (an Agape parent usually working behind the scenes) as doomed King Duncan. Sickmeier also plays Lady Macduff. Notable in support are Virginia Sever as Ross, Grant Scott-Miller as Lennox, and Carter Thurnall as Angus. 

Morris takes on the title role with gusto, part of a tradition of Shakespeare leads who charge headlong into action before thinking it through. When he does hesitate, however, his wife is there to remind him to “screw (his) courage to the sticking place.” That brings us to Brynn Hensley; the Lebanon High School senior may have put in the best performance in a festival full of strong women in strong women’s roles. She makes the most of an arc that goes from power-mad to just plain mad, even bringing out in just a word or sharp glance the play’s dark humor. 

Other touches are well-served, like frequent appearances of the unsettled dead, a murder in silhouette (part of the excellent stage design by Ian Phipps), the effective use of banners to quickly change scenes, and even a nice “reenactment” in an early scene. Agape cast and crew have taken great care to give this cursed classic it’s due. A work of “sound and fury,” as always, but with some significance after all.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

OnyxFest 2021

This last very busy weekend, aside from various production openings, was opening weekend of the two-week OnyxFest: A Celebration of African American Voices, presented by IndyFringe with performances at the IUPUI Campus Theatre, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis. We (John and Wendy) were unable to make the shows, but a friend of the site, a member of Indiana Writers Center, gifted us the following review. Opinions are the author’s. Get festival information and tickets at indyfringe.org/onyxfest-2021.

By Celeste Williams

That Day In February,” Janice Morris Neal’s OnyxFest play, directed by Dena Toler, tugs at all of the strings.

One of five productions in “Indy’s first and only theatre festival dedicated to the stories of Black playwrights,” Neal’s play returns 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, at IUPUI Campus Theatre, 420 University Blvd.

The three siblings, portrayed by Ennis Adams, Jr., Katherine Adamou, and Lakshmi Symone Rae, perform an intricate, emotion-laden word-dance on stage, as they navigate relationships laced with trauma of their mother’s love, but grounded in love.

Neal wrote the play with true events at its core. Even if audiences did not know the specific story behind the production, they would recognize parts of themselves, through the nuanced performances led by Adams and enhanced by Adamou and Rae.

The actors’ interplay brings the background story to life. The presence of the liquor bottle on a table subtly hints at the older brother’s internal fight — to separate himself from his father’s act, even as he fears he has inherited some his ways.

The sisters’ presence brings the brother’s insecurities to light. The more insecure he becomes, the more pours and sips. The middle sister’s anxiety is illustrated expertly by Adamou, whose leg jiggles nervously throughout. Rae, as the younger sister, is the picture of young rebellion.

The fact that it is the younger, rebellious sister, who could not have remembered the events at the heart of the story, is the one to bring the narrative to a head, is a brilliant turn. The father is an invisible presence throughout.

There is a last line (no spoilers) that leaves a viewer satisfied and wanting even more.

In interviews, Neal has said that she wanted to convey “the perspective of adult children who did not grow up with their parents.” The play also touches strongly on issues of domestic violence and the resulting traumas.

“They all grapple with different issues and how to reconcile them,” Neal said. “Even things that happen to us as children can affect us as adults.”

It is a good thing that the ending leaves one imagining what comes next. And, “That Day in February” rightfully leaves appreciative audiences wondering what playwright Neal has in store for us next.

We’ll be eagerly waiting for that day.

Thanks again to Williams, and IWC board member Mary Karty, for the assist. The other festival shows are (descriptions provided by OnyxFest):

1200 Miles From Jerome” by Crystal Rhodes, directed by Deborah Asante, 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14

In the 1940’s, during World War II, a mother, her two daughters, a young school teacher and a 14-year-old Japanese-American fugitive from an internment camp are forced to leave the town of Jerome, Arkansas, and flee over 1,200 miles to New York City. The journey is filled with danger, a daunting experience in which “driving while black” could mean the difference between life and death.

Fly Blackbird Fly/Voices We Can’t Unhear” written and directed by Latrice Young (Distinctly Unique), 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, and 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

A choreopoem recounting traumatic experiences of several Black women. Each woman is at her breaking point and desperately wants to escape the cages they’re in, but this can only happen if they’re willing to relax, relate, and release.

Ranson Place” by Jameel Amir Martin, directed by Shandrea Funnye, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15

Two unlikely companions holding on to a precious thing, reluctant to leave a special place, must contend with forces that would spur their belated departure.

This Bitter Cup” written and directed by Charla Booth, 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16

A Black family in the rural south in the 1950’s struggle to find balance in their lives. A son who wants an education to rise above the limitations of the Old South, and a daughter whose dreams are thwarted by being Black and a woman and loved by the wrong man, in a complicated entanglement that leaves us wondering if this family can find peace.

Bard Fest cast brave Albee classic

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by saying the old adage is true: Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

This is the precise hour in which our tale begins. George (Tony Armstrong) and Martha (Nan Macy) have arrived home from one of her father’s numerous parties just in time to continue the “festivities” by initiating the new professor into the way of life at their provincial college. Since Martha’s father is the President (and ersatz owner) of this establishment, Nick (Matthew Walls) and his wife Honey (Afton Shepard) feel compelled to attend.

What begins as two couples sharing cocktails quickly escalates into a verbal brawl in which no one is safe. At first, Nick and Honey gape in shock as the barbs fly back and forth. but as time passes and alcohol is consumed, their own skeletons explode out of the closet for all to see.

Edward Albee’s classic play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shows the author’s mastery of language and its power. Martha’s tongue is a lethal weapon, which no man, save perhaps George, can survive. However, George can hold his own in this melee.

Watching Martha and George go at each other is akin to seeing different beasts battle for dominance, the saddest thing is that they honestly do love each other, in their own way. Macy is a black belt at this sort of verbal karate, complete with Martha’s sharp tools of wit and psychological warfare. Armstrong presents George as the weathered stone taking on wave after wave of abuse, but with the eerie calm of one who has little left to lose, and one more devastating ace to play.

Walls brings his own cockiness, in which Nick manages for two of the drama’s three acts to feel that he will come out of this skirmish unscathed, and perhaps ready to exploit what he’s heard. But too late he finds he’s way too Kansas for these Ivy League-level head games. Shepard manages a lot with her character, an easy foil for Albee’s humor who, with the help of lots of brandy, devolves from a waif lost in the playground to a girl lost in the woods.

For those unfamiliar with the play, or the Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor film, note this production, directed by Matthew Socey, is a wild ride, an emotional roller coaster with no brakes, so engaging you may not notice it runs three hours. No story told or alluded to is without importance (except one bit in the first scene, more on that later) and only at the end do we get a full view of the field of play. However, while the show is very intense, it can be amusing to notice how often various couples in the audience knowingly look at each other after some of the exchanges.

Oh, and to save you a minute or two of Googling during the first intermission, the answer to Martha’s question is, “Beyond the Forest.”

Presented by Indy Bard Fest as part of its Prestige Project of great stage plays not written by Mr. Shakespeare, performances continue Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 14-17, at The Cat theatre 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (note there are some construction street closures, but it’s possible to reach the building). Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.