Play based on Hank Williams’ final ‘tour’

By John Lyle Belden

Playwright and retired journalist Garret Matthews incorporates aspects of people he has known and interviewed into his plays. In his latest, “Opening Hank,” he includes the story of someone more familiar to most of us.

On New Years Day 1953, country music legend Hank Williams Sr. rode his Cadillac into eternity. In a body weakened by a hard life that included alcohol and painkillers (mainly to deal with chronic back pain), his heart gave out on the way to a Jan. 1 concert in Ohio, discovered dead in the backseat in Oak Hill, West Virginia. This necessitated another ride, in a hearse from there back home to Montgomery, Alabama.

On that route, in Mathews’ play, is the town of Bluefield, where you can get gas, car repairs, and “a free Coky-Cola with a fill-up” at the West Main Esso. Willie T. McClanahan (Taylor Cox), a savant with car engines but largely seen as a kind but simple soul otherwise, barely notices the news on WHIS radio as he challenges himself at checkers, but his second-shift manager Steve Tatum (Zachariah Stonerock) has heard and is not taking it well. Williams’ music and songs inspired him to take up writing for the first time since his horrific experiences in World War II a decade earlier.

A nicely dressed gentleman, Hiram Ledbetter (David Mosedale, who also directs) enters what he declares to be the “gasoline emporium” not seeking fuel but rest, and offering a proposition. He pilots Williams’ transport, and while he finds a meal and a nap elsewhere in town, he says, he would leave the coffin at the service station for safekeeping and in exchange for a fee, Steve could then charge the townspeople to get their last look at the hillbilly music superstar.

Having a dread fear of the trappings of death, Willie is sent away, leaving Steve, who takes up the undertaker’s offer, but for his own reasons.

While fictional, this story contains characters, events and anecdotes based on actual stories Mathews reported, and we get an excellent refresher on Hank Williams’ life, struggles and music, with several songs featured before and during the play. There is much heart and humor, with moments of dire drama. We get a feel for the brotherly relationship between Willie and Steve long before we learn their connection, as well as how they are essential to each other’s wellbeing. Cox and Stonerock have a natural chemistry, borne of talent as well as working together before. Mosedale cuts an interesting character himself, with hints of the Devil-in-a-suit archetype but with Southern charm and a grudging bit of good conscience. Ol’ Hank is a bit stiff in that box, but does sound good on the old radio.

In a post-show talk, Mathews and the cast give hearty thanks to stage manager Aaron Henze for his contributions, so we will as well.

Remaining performances are today and tomorrow (Nov. 19-20) as I post this, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at thecat.biz.

IndyFringe: Bigfoot Saves America

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

If you see only one cryptid-centered action-adventure comedy this Fringe Festival, it was probably this.

“Bigfoot Saves America,” by Dakota Jones, tells the story the government (allegedly) doesn’t want you to see, how in 1978, agents of H.A.I.R. reactivated the being known as Bigfoot to team up with the reanimated – but lycanthropy-infected – President Theodore Roosevelt to rescue Mr. Foot’s ex-wife, top scientist and hot blonde Dr. Love Interest from the diabolical Mothman. For this reenactment, the roles are portrayed by Tony Schaab, Aaron Henze, Kyrsten Lyster, and Jo Bennett, with Matthew Walls and Taylor Cox as both Federal Agents and Gay Hench-Moths (see if you can tell the difference), as well as master stagehand Lillian Eisenbraun as needed.

Sponsorship for this episode provided by wonder-drug Sexadryl (“Sexadryl”). See show for possible side-effects.

The best description I can come up with for this is a Cartoon Network “Adult Swim” episode come to life. Absurdity, goofy go-with-it attitudes, and echoes of the self-awareness of action spoofs like “Venture Brothers” or “Bird Girl” abound, with the characters taking things just seriously enough to advance the plot. Cartoonish but for college-age kids, taken on this level “Bigfoot Saves America” is one of the funniest things you’ll see at the Fringe.

If you love America, and don’t want your genitals to explode, you’ll see this unbelievable adventure, playing Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon, Aug. 25 and 28, as well as noon and 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, at the District Theatre.

Death stalks doctors in ‘Ambush’

By John Lyle Belden

Both a parent’s and a physician’s worst nightmare: A young person is dying, and it seems no one can stop it. This is at the heart of the medical mystery thriller “The Ambush,” on stage at The Cat in Carmel. The play is by Dr. L. Jan Eira, a local cardiologist whose work as a playwright has been seen from IndyFringe to Off-Off-Broadway, and directed by Aaron Henze.

It seemed odd, but not too suspicious at first. The Zionsville (Ind.) High School soccer team is invited to a pre-season exhibition at Danville, Ill. Zionsville Police Detective Ben Sinclair (T.J. O’Neil) and his wife, research scientist Dr. Amy Sinclair (Stephanie Riley), accompany their son, a member of the team. At the game, the boy suddenly collapses, and at the hospital his parents learn the awful truth – it was deliberate poisoning with a neurotoxin, and if an antidote isn’t found or created, he will soon die.

The couple discover other coincidences: There is a research facility at the hospital, much like the one where Amy works, headed by Dr. Miranda Phillips (Tanya Rave), daughter of Amy’s past colleague and friend, Dr. Terri Phillips (Wendy Brown), who recently retired. Miranda is assisted by wheelchair-bound Dr. Jack Stevenson (Adam K Allen). In addition, Danville Police Lieutenant Lela Rose (Jessica Hawkins) and Detective Rubin (Josh Rooks) inform them there have been a series of brutal murders, all involving the use of neurotoxin. As ICU Dr. Jenner (Miranda Lila Jean Nickerson) informs them that the boy’s condition is worsening fast, all understand they are in a race against time to find both a cure and a killer!

Eira combines his medical knowledge with love of a mystery to create a plot similar to the many action-mystery dramas we see on television. My impression was that this was like a blend of “House M.D.” and CBS’s “FBI” series, with a hefty dose of melodrama as the tension ramps up.

O’Neill gives us a furious combination of angry father and impatient cop that would be right at home in a “Lethal Weapon” film, but his maverick ways get results – and a lot of (to be honest, appropriate) pushback from Hawkins’ Lt. Rose, who plays it cool and professional throughout. Riley has a lot to work with in her role, feeling desperate at possibly losing her son and guilty at the possibility this is someone’s way of getting back at her for a perceived past slight. When the killer is revealed, we get some scenes of “boo-hiss”-worthy evil before our heroes prevail.

There is also a theme of faith and its power to salve or solve, as well as personal sacrifice.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, July 8-10, at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, Carmel. Get info and tickets at themdwriter.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.

KCT in interesting Shape

By John Lyle Belden

A hallmark of plays by Neil LaBute is the aspect of seemingly ordinary people doing terrible things.

On the other hand, Khaos Company Theatre strives to give ordinary people a place to do great things in the pursuit of art and performance, becoming a positive resource on Indy’s East Side.

So – cue the irony – a LaBute play, “The Shape of Things,” was KCT’s last production in its former home on Sherman Drive. While it was sad to have had only one weekend of performances in late September, the company did end on a very strong note.

In the 2001 play (and 2003 film), a young man, Adam (played here by Kyle Dorsch), who works at a museum, meets a beautiful woman, Evelyn (Gorgi Parks-Fulper) who takes an interest in him, helping him to improve his looks, wardrobe and physique. At first, this is well received by his best friend, Phillip (Aaron Henze). But then, the plot takes a turn.

Phillip is engaged to Jenny (Kayla Lee), who had secretly been in love with Adam – who had been too shy to make the first move – but settled for his friend, feeling it was as close as she could get. But she can’t help but notice her crush’s improvements, and his improved confidence. They kiss.

With his relationship with Phillip fraying, Adam is persuaded by Evelyn to cut off all contact with both him and Jenny. He is only devoted to her.

But then, the semester ends, and Evelyn reveals her Masters of Fine Arts project: Adam. It wasn’t love, just her “sculpting” him to put on display. He manages to regain a little dignity in an epilogue scene, but we are still left with the central questions of trust and honesty, and even though he was used for another’s gain, isn’t Adam better off in the end?

Director James Banta gets excellent performances from these four actors, especially Parks-Fulper as our smooth manipulator. Dorsch nicely portrays the transition from dweeb-with-potential to a man who appears complete, able to stand on his own – until that rug is ripped out from under his feet. Henze and Lee present a couple who appear to have a perfect relationship, but can stay willfully blind to its cracks for only so long. Kudos also to Case Jacobus for tech and props, including the climactic slide show.

The production of “Shape of Things” is not scheduled to resume, but KCT itself will continue in one form or another. Production director Anthony Logan Nathan says the organization has achieved 501c3 not-for-profit status through Emerging Artist Theatre Inc., and is searching for a new regular home.

Next, KCT, with Emerging Artist, present their scheduled production of the classic tragedy, “The Duchess of Malfi” – with a cast that includes Lee – Friday through Sunday (Nov. 10-12) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.