Coach forced to grapple with past in new drama

By Wendy Carson

Is it possible to redeem a bully and show him the devastating impact he had on others? This question is at the heart of Bennett Ayres’ new play, “Lanista,” brought to you by Catalyst Repertory, directed by Zachariah Stonerock.

First of all, I would like to say that I adore this show. I have not instantly fallen in love with a script like this since I first saw the Phoenix’s production of “The Pillowman.” I honestly can’t help but tell you that you MUST see this show. It is touching, infuriating, yet also cathartic to behold. 

The title of the piece comes from the ancient Roman term meaning a trainer of gladiators. This is how Coach Bill Harrison (Mark Goetzinger) sees himself. He is a molder of high school wrestling champions, a legend throughout the state for his impressive record. However, one of his past students, Joel Beemer (Jamaal McCray) has become his elder-care provider, and is taking the opportunity to show this man just how much he damaged the psyches of his athletes. 

Beemer begins by subtly making Harrison’s family think he is becoming more and more senile. He then begins to subject Coach to the rigors of training, as well as verbal abuse, that he inflicted upon his students. When Harrison tells his daughter Kim (Michelle Wafford) about these occurrences, she sees his stories as further proof of dementia, and besides, this is the first caregiver Coach hasn’t run off. At one point, Beemer feels he may have gone too far, but as the teenager Anna (Olivia Mayer) he regularly visits in Juvenile Detention tells him: When you go for a bully, you have to give them all you’ve got. 

Goetzinger is sheer perfection as the stoic Coach who sees nothing wrong with the way he treated his players – he was just doing his job. McCray shows us every bit of his range as the “caregiver” who appears to be carrying out vengeance on the man partially responsible for the mess his life is today, but don’t forget, Beemer also worked as a teacher. Wafford ably portrays the daughter who has more than enough on her plate, glad to let another handle her dad’s situation. Adam Crowe has a charming cameo as a police officer honored to meet the legendary Coach whose students he once wrestled against. Recent Ball State grad Mayer does an excellent job as the enigmatic bad girl who is in juvie for taking part in a car theft, and has no desire to change her ways. 

Will the former wrestler show the Coach that he was not who he thought he was all these years? Will he realize his methods produced champions but destroyed lives? How does Anna fit into all this? See the show to find out; performances of this World Premiere run Thursday through Sunday (July 7-10) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org.

A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsey VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)