Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Milicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Footlite brings simple complexity of ‘Bridges’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an unusual love story, its surprising depth reaching beyond the plot of a lonely housewife having an affair with a traveling photographer. That made it successful as a novel, movie, and finally as “The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical,” presented by Footlite Musicals through March 18.

It`s 1965, and Francesca (Lori Ecker), an Italian war bride, is alone at her husband`s Iowa farm while he and their children are two states away for a national 4-H livestock show, when a strange but handsome and charming man arrives in the driveway. He is Robert Kinkaid (Rick Barber), a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, sent to get shots of the famous local covered bridges. As the rural roads aren`t clearly marked, he has gotten lost looking for the last bridge on his list.

With Francesca`s help, Robert finds the bridge, but they start to lose their way in a manner that will affect them both for the rest of their lives.

What comes to pass seems as inevitable as it is wrong, so we see this couple in how they help each other more than how they are likely to hurt the others they love. But actions have consequences, and force hard choices.

Ecker is outstanding, and Barber has a voice as strong as his muscular body. Though they are committing the sin, you can`t help but feel for them – maybe even root for them.

Darrin Gowan is rock-steady as Francesca`s husband Bud. He could have been played as a victim, a sucker, or one whose behavior pushed his wife into another man`s arms, but we get no such cliché. Just as Francesca acts of her own free will, Bud is constantly true to his obligations and those he loves, even if there`s something about them he frustratingly can’t control. Their son, Michael (Joseph Massingale), and daughter, Carolyn (Elly Burne), are also interesting three-dimensional characters. In each we see both the practical nature of their father and the free spirit of their mother.

Jeanne Chandler as neighbor Marge is a wonderful surprise, her character a bit nosy but out of honest concern for the family next door she has come to love. And Chandler’s solo song allows her to steal the scene in style. Kudos to Bob Chandler for taking the role of Marge’s husband Charlie on short notice after the injury of original cast member Daniel Scharbrough in a fall (according to Dan’s Facebook posts, he is recovering).

The set, designed by Jerry Beasley, is beautiful in its simplicity – especially the covered bridge – giving just enough pieces to let your imagination complete the scene, while the actors (including a large but well coordinated chorus) are free to move and help the setpieces flow in and out as needed.

If you have any liking for a romantic musical – particularly if you enjoyed the James Waller novel or Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film of “Bridges” – this nicely put together community production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin, is well worth your time.

Find this charming little piece of Madison County, Iowa, at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Before CCP shuffles off: a bold ‘Buffalo’

By John Lyle Belden

A quick note for those who haven’t heard: Carmel Community Players has lost its lease at the Clay Terrace shopping center, where “American Buffalo” is their last play on that stage, and is in the process of finding a new home. The next production, the musical “Ragtime,” will be presented at the Ivy Tech theater in Noblesville in April. For more details see carmelplayers.org.

Famed stage and screen writer David Mamet once said that the key to writing drama is to present a character wanting something, then placing obstacles in the way of him getting it. (Apparently swearing a lot is important, too.)

In Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” on CCP’s Clay Terrace stage for one more weekend, Donny (Larry Adams) really wants a valuable coin. It was just another trinket at his junk shop, but some slick buyer came in and bought it from him at a surprisingly high price – now Donny is sure it was worth a lot more, and that this man has other priceless coins as well. Faithful but mentally challenged Bobby (Daniel Shock) is eager to do “the job” for Donny, and not just be the lookout, but Teach (Earl Campbell) insists that the burglary be entrusted to him. Donny agrees, but also wants another accomplice – but can you trust a man who possibly cheated you at cards the night before?

Under the direction of Lori Raffel, this production presents the Mamet formula as a study in complex and conflicted characters. Donny wrestles with his pain at feeling he was taken advantage of, his feelings of responsibility for Bobby, and the need to get one good high-dollar score – Adams works all these subtleties well. Campbell is sharp as a jerk who talks big, but is no fool. Bobby is a cypher, making one unsure what he does and doesn’t know, and does and doesn’t understand – and why is he always asking for money? – Shock is spot-on in his delivery.

It’s that simple, and that complex. Add in some F-words and you’ve got classic Mamet, ending this chapter of the CCP’s ongoing story on a very strong note. Get tickets while you can: call 317-815-9387 or visit the website.

IRT gives mouse-eye view of stage magic

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents an excellent introduction to the world of live theatre for the smallest patrons – preschool to the early school grades – with “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The show is immersive, encouraging audience participation in a gentle manner. Children take their seats on the floor right next to the “stage” area, which includes two paths running through the audience (parents or guardians can sit with them, or to the back in regular chairs). There is an opening introduction led by an IRT staffer, such as actor/educator Beverly Roche or play director Benjamin Hanna, to let everyone know what to expect and get them in the proper mood.

Everyone in the excellent cast play mice — with humans, hazards and a pesky cat (giant from our perspective) portrayed by light and sound effects to aid young imaginations. Claire Wilcher is Granny, matriarch of the Boot family, who resides in an old work shoe in a barn in The Country with grandson William (Grant Somkiet O’Meara, the lone kid actor). They are visited by Town cousin Montmorency De Vere Boot (Paeton Chavis), who informs them that William has inherited a nice piece of luxury footwear in an attic closet in a house in the heart of the city. When Monty brings William to Town to claim his new home, they come across the “tame twins,” white mice who escaped their pen to roam free about the house. Snowey (Carlos Medina Maldonado) is friendly and welcoming, while Silver (Brianna Milan) is mean and mistrusting, trying to trick William into dangerous situations.

While I would find it problematic if the theme emphasized the danger of exploring new places and that one is better off where they “belong,” the lesson emphasis here is on being brave – both in confronting new things and in stepping up to help someone else. The play program has an easy activity worksheet that includes questions on the topic of bravery, and the cast returns after the play to help lead a discussion on being brave.

The play is by British playwright Vicky Ireland, based on the traditional Aesop fable. A bit of the Queen’s English slips in – like “ready, steady, go” – but not in unfamiliar accents.

All the children present at my showing (emceed charmingly by Roche) appeared to enjoy the play, even smaller ones who were fussy at first. Be prepared for learning new dance steps, like the mouse “greeting” and the hot-pipe crossing – bits of physical storytelling that helped keep the young audience engaged. It also helped that the star is a bit closer to the age of the playgoers. When one kid asked during the talkback if he could give a high five, he headed straight to O’Meara. While Chavis being a small woman helped her to connect, Wilcher was nicely maternal and Maldonado and Milan were like oversized children (think Big Bird, but with fur).

Some parents noted after the show that there aren’t many opportunities for small children to experience live theatre like this. For information and tickets to this play, running through March 25 on the Cabaret floor of the IRT – 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis – visit www.irtlive.com.

Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Catalyst raises ‘Hell’ again

By John Lyle Belden

*What if the term “soul-sucking job” could be taken literally?

* What if the dying American institution of the shopping mall resorted to desperate measures to keep itself alive?

* What if a couple of highly talented but potty-mouthed theatre people decided to make a twisted comedy musical about this?

Welcome to “Hell’s 4th Ring: The Mall Musical,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at the IndyFringe building through Feb. 25.

This is not our first visit to Hell’s Gate Mall. A 50-minute version premiered as part of the 2015 Fringe Festival. A lot of people loved it; Wendy even noted (in her review) that the show should be expanded into a full-length musical. Now at last, creators Casey Ross and Davey Pelsue bring us a full two-act version, expanded but not padded-out.

According to Dante, the Fourth Ring of Hell is occupied by sinners damned by greed. So, what better place to erect a temple to consumerism? Whether this Twilight Zone-ish place is in this world or the next is never clear, but this is the place to pick up some great bargains, and where job security takes on new meaning. Just obey the rules: No running; No leaning on the railing; and, No intimate “mingling” between employees.

Brian (Christian Condra), who is this close to selling the massaging chair, wants desperately to mingle with Sofie (Afton Shepard), who refolds clothes far more than she sells them. She believes she is only there for the summer, but Brian knows better; she will soon be full-time, forever. Meanwhile, Eric (Pelsue) doesn’t care as much for working at his Goth-accessories shop as he does trying to hook up with bodacious curvaceous Chelsea (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Then there’s Lee (Pat Mullen), who used to work at a computer game store but now offers bourbon chicken samples in the food court. The mall’s denizens also include a trio of Mall Rats (Jim Banta, Donovan Whitney and Sara Gable) who follow/idolize Eric and never seem to buy anything over a dollar. And then there’s Bart (David Molloy) the security guy, a cross between Doctor Strangelove and the Terminator.

Though Ross directs, the musical shows its flexibility in that the only actors from the Fringe version are Pelsue, Molloy, and Zoe Molloy as the mall’s public address voice. Yet the cast seems right at home, giving this tragic farce their all. Condra handsomely perseveres like Brad from “Rocky Horror.” Shepard smiles through the confusion like a Disney princess trapped in the wrong movie. Pelsue is the perfect mix of charm and attitude, while looking like the opening act for Spinal Tap. And as she did in Bardfest’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Boswell’s moxie and vocal skill blew. me. away. As for Mullen, let’s just say he wields a mean sample tray. The cast also includes Preston Dildine as the ghost of “terminated” coworker Dylan.

From the rockin’ tunes to the odd plot, the show balances suspense and romance with a healthy dose of silly for an entertaining experience. The mature content is mainly multiple F-bombs and some rude gestures in the choreography, so this show is for teens and up (eventually, this will only be for adults, as we’d have to explain to kids what a mall was).

Find Hell’s Gate at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 East St. Clair St. (just east of the College/Mass Ave./St. Clair intersection). Get tickets at www.indyfringe.org and info from Catalyst’s website or Facebook.