Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com

‘Old Broads’ up to new tricks at Buck Creek

By John Lyle Belden

Something’s not right at Magnolia Place senior assisted living facility.

Imogene (Gari Williams) is having “episodes” with memory lapses; Maude (Wendy Brown) has stopped bathing and obsessively plans her own funeral; and best friends Beatrice (Jan White) and Eaddy Mae (Cathie Morgan) need to get to the bottom of why, soon, so they’ll be on time for their planned cruise vacation.

Meet “Four Old Broads,” the comedy by Leslie Kimbell at Buck Creek Players. 

Feisty Beatrice and churchy Eaddy Mae suspect the problem is the hostile new facility director, Nurse Pat (Lauren Johnson), who is keeping all the residents’ medicine and doling it out to them. Since this started, a lot of folks have crossed over to the “dark side” ward with swiftly declining conditions. The ladies are offered help from aging Elvis impersonator Sam (David Mears), who still feels like a hunka-hunka burnin’ love.  At least new nurse Ruby Sue (Ruth Shirley) seems nice, if she can get her nose out of that trashy romance book.

A comedy, mystery, and maybe sly commentary on how we treat our elders, this show is full of laughs and surprises, directed by Tracy Friddle.

White as Beatrice is a force of nature, sporting a wild attitude with clothes to match. Morgan as Eaddy Mae is more a force of nurture, sweet and sensible, with frequent prayer breaks — acting as Beatrice’s conscience as well as her own. Williams as Imogene gets the most complex role, entertaining even when in an apparent coma. Brown’s Maude exasperates all on stage, especially with her attachment to her TV “stories,” further adding to the laugh factor. Mears as Sam seems like a bit much at first, but wins his way into our hearts, as well as one of the ladies. Shirley as Ruby Sue does a lot with what deceptively looks like a little role, and Johnson’s Pat is appropriately despicable. 

“I’m not trying to get into anyone’s personal business,” as Eaddy would say, but I’d advise getting up to stretch and take a break during intermission, as the play does run long. When the mystery is solved, there is still a scene to tie up other loose ends.

One weekend remains with the “Four Old Broads,” Friday through Sunday, Feb. 7-9, at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

Hilarious new creation at Mud Creek

By John Lyle Belden

In the classic comedy style of something simple going wildly out of control, “In the Beginning…” — a new play at Mud Creek Players — God creates the Heavens and the Earth, and immediately regrets it.

At first, the Almighty (Nicole Crabtree) tries to put the Big Bang back into its bottle, or at least mop up it all up with black holes, but alas, once matter and energy exist, they can’t be destroyed. She may as well see what’s happening on the little blue thing, where a bunch of living things are crawling, swimming, flying and running around everywhere. There, she tries to customize a creature that stands upright, with less fur and a big brain — another mistake.

In this silly possibility of how everything came to be, we meet God’s top angels — Michael (Kate Carpenter), Gabriel (Eric Dixon), Lucifer (Connor Phelan), as well as the Voice of God (Craig Kemp) — and Biblical characters including Adam (Kelly Keller), Eve (Tanya Keller), Noah (Fred Margison) and Moses (Alaina Moore). 

Unless you are really devoted to a literal interpretation of Scripture, you should find all this a lot of hilarious fun. If we are made in the Lord’s image, wouldn’t it make sense that — just like when we invent and accomplish things — our Heavenly Parent is also just making it up as they go along?

Crabtree plays that unprepared Mother/Father with the right touch of exasperation and growing love for the critters she brought into being, however unintended. Dixon and Carpenter keep things lively with his urge to “smite” and her love of writing up new Commandments. Phelan’s Lucifer, naturally, is the smartest angel in the room, suave and brash, but eventually resigned to having to deal with all the extra souls that turned sour. Kemp reassures us that, as we all suspected, the commanding voice of the Almighty has a British accent. The humans all have their humanish quirks, especially Eve, who apparently overdoses on the Tree of Knowledge. And young actors Hadley Skinner and Ben Odom get a charmingly amusing moment in featured roles.

The Mud Creek Barn goes high-tech with this premiere production, with visual effects by Stephen DiCarlo that perfectly help the story along. Jay Ganz directs.Crew member Collin Moore wrote the script, and it shows a fair amount of polish for a new play.

Truly, something wonderful has been created. Performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 7-9) and Feb. 14-15 at 9740 E. 86th St. (Castleton/Geist area), Indianapolis. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.

 

ATI: Duo hits all the right notes in musical mystery

By John Lyle Belden

Do you like great comedy? How about an interesting whodunit? A pair of actors taking on numerous roles throughout? A clever musical? Even skillful four-hand piano playing? Well, has Actors Theatre of Indiana got a show for you!

In the Indiana premiere of Off-Broadway hit “Murder for Two,” by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Adam LaSalle primarily plays Officer (on the verge of being Detective) Marcus Moscowitz, and David Corlew plays nearly everyone else — AKA “the Suspects” — in the home of famed mystery author Arthur Whitney — AKA the victim. Both actors also play the piano that sits in the middle of the room — sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes switching off or together, always with a high degree of skill.

A surprise party for Whitney takes a shocking turn when, as he enters the front door, he is shot in the forehead!  His wife is naturally distraught, as someone has stolen the ice cream, and all the other guests, including a talkative psychiatrist, a beautiful prima ballerina, a bickering old couple, Whitney’s highly inquisitive niece, and a three-member Twelve-Member Boys Choir, are all acting suspicious as each one has a motive to off the author. Enter “Detective” Marcus and his unseen partner, Lou (two actors can only do so much). The officers were instructed to secure the scene until the actual Detective arrives, in an hour, but Marcus seizes the opportunity to crack the case and win his promotion.

This show is loaded with laughs, wacky character switching (sometimes seeming to catch the actors off-guard), piano work that’s a cross between Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers, and well-timed fourth-wall moments that work wonderfully in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater. Corlew’s skills as a circus performer (a “quadruple-threat”?) aid the physical comedy, and he and LaSalle have excellent chemistry, despite the fact they first met at rehearsals.

Corlew is based in Chicago, and LaSalle in New York; director Tony Clements said after a triumphant opening night, “I was so glad they got along so well from the beginning.” Clements also noted that despite many free-wheeling moments, the script only allowed for a few points of possible improvisation. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find where in all the controlled chaos they actually winged it. 

And kudos to Lou; we didn’t see a single flaw in his performance. 

ATI serves up “Murder for Two” through Feb. 16 on its stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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P.S. ATI will also present a two-night special event, a special production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with a full cast joined by the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 21-22 at the Palladium in the Center for the Performing Arts (north side of the ice rink). Performers include ATI founders Don Farrell as Sweeney, Judy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Lovett, and Cynthia Collins as the Beggar Woman, as well as Elizabeth Hutson (Joanna), Rory Shivers-Brimm (Jonas Fogg), Karaline Feller (Bird Seller), Mario Almonte III (Pirelli), Tim Fullerton (Judge Turpin), Matthew Conwell (Anthony), David Cunningham (Tobias), Michael Elliott (Beadle), and an 80-member chorus from the Indianapolis Arts Chorale. See the above contact information for tickets.

 

Life lessons continue for aging friends in IRT comedy

By John Lyle Belden

Even after we’ve been around for decades, life can surprise or even shock us, and as long as we’re alive, we have to work out what’s next. In this spirit, “Morning After Grace,” by Carey Crim, a comedy with all the dramatic feels, appears on the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage. 

As the play opens, Abigail (Laura T. Fisher) and Angus (Henry Woronicz) experience a “morning after” following meeting at a funeral. Since they live in a retirement village in Florida, it’s not as unusual as you’d think. And while they are sorting things out, neighbor Ollie (Joseph Primes) pays a visit. From the beginning, misunderstandings and miscommunications bring about hilariously comic moments. 

Through the actors’ skill, and direction by IRT Artistic Director Janet Allen, this trio develop a wild, quirky chemistry that you get with people with so little in common thrust together. What they do share is a need to deal with loss, and with conflicts with those they now find it difficult to love. 

But another facet is how all three look forward — while acknowledging it being “of a certain age,” they each see a future: Abigail has a career as a counselor; Angus has a beautiful house and an opportunity to start over; and soon Ollie will put aside that cane he walks with and embrace life with his beloved. 

With all this depth, I must reiterate that this is a comedy; at times I nearly laughed myself blind. The trio execute the comic beats perfectly — for Woronicz especially refreshing to see the flip side of his dramatic acting in “12 Angry Men” last year.

The end result is like your favorite episode of a classic sitcom with serious undertones, like “MASH,” “Seinfeld,” “Mom,” or the similar “Cool Kids” — but with one well-placed F-bomb.

Escape the cold for this warm-hearted delight, through Feb. 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indy (near Circle Center). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

And congratulations to Janet Allen for being named the Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director with the endowment of a $2 million gift to the IRT by the Eccles charitable fund. The late Ms. Eccles was an avid supporter and board member of the theatre.

Changes around us come into focus on Fonseca stage

By John Lyle Belden

Gentrification is a word and concept that gets brought up a lot — how it’s bad, how it has benefits, how it is inevitable. Indianapolis has seen aspects of it in play in neighborhoods such as Broad Ripple, Mass Ave./Chatham Arch, Irvington, and Fountain Square.

This phenomenon is at the heart of “Salt Pepper Ketchup,” a drama by Josh Wilder now on stage at Fonseca Theatre Company in Indy’s near-westside — an area starting to see the effects of redevelopment.

The play is inspired by the recent real-world transformation of Point Breeze community in Philadelphia’s infamous South Side. “Salt, Pepper, Ketchup” is how longtime local residents, mostly African-American, order the popular fried chicken wings at Superstar Chinese Restaurant, and owners John and Linda Wu (Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring) are happy to fill the orders as they save up for their American Dream. They had just been granted citizenship, and with improving credit, hope to buy their building.

But changes are already under way. New apartments sprang up, occupied by young white people seeking affordable rent. There is a coffee shop, and at the center of it all, the Co-Op grocery. 

Paul (Robert Negron), a leader at the Co-Op, is trying to sign up new members among the locals. John Wu, reflecting the worries of his regulars, suspects some sort of scam. Paul’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf manner isn’t helping. Still, Linda sees hope for life beyond their “Chinese joint.” Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron “Gritty” Grinter) see the Co-Op as a threat, a danger to the ‘hood they grew up in, and they are prepared to take drastic action. CeCe (Chandra Lynch) is trying to see all sides of this, as she works at a daycare and wants the area to get better. She even likes the idea of the Co-Op, until she discovers that a single apple costs $2.50.

We also meet the enigmatic Boodah (Dwuan Watson Jr.) who is street-smart, emphasis on both. A little older and wiser than Tommy and Raheem, he avoids conflict and criminal solutions, but when he senses injustice, he takes action.

Finally, Megan (Lexy Weixel) is a perky Co-Op worker who finds herself thrust into an unfamiliar world, struggling to make the best of it.

Seeing the events play out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed for being white. Paul is such an overbearing caricature, reeking of privilege even as he remarks on it dismissively, that it is easy to understand the backlash that overwhelms him midway through the show. Eventually he takes a more corporate attitude — or was that behind his facade all along? While this can be difficult to watch from my seat, and generating nods of agreement from minorities around me, this portrayed example of how not to gentrify can help start the conversation of how best to positively deal with the changes coming to our own streets. It helps that this important drama brings out the best in all its players.

The play is directed by Tom Evans, with a set designed by Daniel Uhde including a clever way of changing between acts. Founder Bryan Fonseca designed the lighting and Tim Brickley the soundscape, which includes hip-hop by Gritty from his upcoming EP.

As an epilogue, the play program includes a recent article on the real Point Breeze, providing more food for thought. 

“Salt Pepper Ketchup” is served up through Feb. 2 at the FTC Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan Street. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.