Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

TOTS dramas the hell out of this ‘MF’

By John Lyle Belden

If you’re like me, you don’t know much about the play “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, aside from the provocative title and perhaps that it was Chris Rock’s dramatic stage debut in its Broadway run.

Now,  know that it is a gritty solid drama with comic elements, playing through May 13 at Theatre on the Square.

Granted, the language is not clean; it reflects the everyday talk of the working-class New Yorkers we are presented with, trying to live day to day with the struggles of addiction and recovery, and the consequences of bad choices, including incarceration. The laughs are mainly situational from the dark humor of living with your demons. Still, it’s not preachy to the audience, though upbeat AA sponsor Ralph D (Ben Rose) does dish out life-lessons to any who will hear.

We open with a deceptively happy scene. Jackie (Eric Reiberg) comes home to Veronica (Carrie Schlatter), his sweetheart since eighth grade, to announce he has found a job. They mention the fact that he is on parole, but that only makes the victory sound sweeter.

But then, he sees The Hat.

It’s a nice fedora-style hat, sitting on the coffee table (next to Veronica’s cocaine mirror), which he doesn’t recognize and she claims to know nothing about. With this, Jackie’s unraveling begins. His pursuit of the titular character and increasing realization that his addict girlfriend has not been faithful triggers his desire to use drugs and alcohol, and make other unwise decisions including acquiring a gun.

We then meet Ralph and his wife, Victoria (Chelsea Anderson), both in recovery as well as a very rocky relationship. There is also Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Ian Cruz), who has his own quirks, but compared to the others is the voice of reason.

In this production, a talented cast sharply execute a complex drama about the tangled feelings and impulses that come with taking that next step: whether it’s the numbered one in the program’s “big book;” to walk out the door; or to – against all your frantic brain’s desires – just not-do what comes next. And in the process, we learn the importance of the Commodores, Van Damme and the theory that dinosaurs invented waterfalls.

As the show is just opening, I’ll avoid further spoilers, deliver a tip of my MF’ing hat to director Gari L. Williams, and just encourage you to see this great MF’ing show. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see tots.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: ‘Spoonful’ has unexpected depth

Elloit (Mauricio Miranda, front, left) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn, right) deal with the death of the woman who raised them, among other issues, while the ghost of an Iraqi Elliot killed (Sunny Arwal) haunts in the background in a scene from "Water By The Spoonful," presented by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project at the IndyFringe Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. -- Wisdom Tooth photo
Elloit (Mauricio Miranda, front, left) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn, right) deal with the death of the woman who raised them, among other issues, while the ghost of an Iraqi Elliot killed (Sunny Arwal) haunts in the background in a scene from “Water By The Spoonful,” presented by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project at the IndyFringe Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. — Wisdom Tooth photo

By John Lyle Belden

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project likes to present thought-provoking plays, and “Water by the Spoonful” definitely digs into your noggin.

Director Ronn Johnston confessed he “fell in love” with this drama by Quiara Algria Hudes. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s about addiction,’” he said, “but then I found it was so much more than that.”

Marine veteran Elliot (Mauricio Miranda) and his cousin Yazmin (Elysia Rohn) find themselves dealing with the death of her mother and his aunt, the woman who raised them. It doesn’t help that he is also shadowed by the ghost of a man he killed in Iraq (Sunny Arwal).

Meanwhile, Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa (Dena Toler), has become “Haikumom,” the admin for an online forum for fellow recovering crack cocaine addicts. She keeps the peace as the harmony between her, Chutes&Ladders (Butch Copeland) and Orangutan (Tracy Herring) is disturbed by Fountainhead (Scott Russell), a man clearly not being honest with anyone, especially himself.

What is presented as a simple family and relationship drama gains a number of layers as our characters deal with their demons, confront truths and test how far they would truly go for each other – to the hospital? To Japan? And are some acts truly beyond forgiveness, beyond redemption? These questions, and how the characters struggle to answer them, echo beyond the play’s curtain call.

The title refers to events in Elliot’s childhood that led to his being raised by his aunt, and a lifesaving act that takes place one small spoonful at a time – a process those in recovery understand all too well.

This cast is strong and believable. Toler is beautifully tragic; Miranda keeps Elliot’s emotions at a low boil throughout, helping us feel his pain; Russell makes us dislike, then admire his conflicted character; Copeland and Herring get us rooting for their unlikely yet inevitable friendship; Atwal is the glue of the plot; and Rohn perfectly embodies the person who is involved in the story, yet feels like a bystander because she is not an addict herself.

“Water by the Spoonful” has two more weekends at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.