Simon comedy gets ‘radio’ treatment

By John Lyle Belden

It’s been a wild year, with social unrest, a wild presidential election, war in Vietnam — yes, it’s 1968. To bring back the flavor of the good ol’ days, “station WCAT” in Carmel is hosting a live radio play of the Neil Simon hit, “Plaza Suite.”

This is the situation presented by Indy Bardfest, which is taking a break from Shakespeare fare to explore more recent celebrated playwrights. The necessity of personal distance for those on the stage, as well as in the audience, in the wacky year of 2020 make the radio drama an excellent format for presenting a character- and dialogue-driven play such as this.

Director Matthew Socey has given the cast of Tony Armstrong, Nan Macy, Afton Shepard, and Matthew Walls, assisted by Tony Johnson as host and sound-effects guy, plenty of opportunities for visual antics to accompany the “theatre of the mind” atmosphere. On-stage social distancing is achieved as each stands apart at their own microphone, even during moments like the creatively unorthodox kissing scenes.

Simon’s ‘68 Broadway smash is three acts, each its own story, all taking place at 3 p.m. on different days in Room 719 of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In the first, an exercise in emotionally-charged dark humor, Karen (Macy) has booked the suite as a surprise anniversary gift in hopes of recharging her lackluster marriage to Sam (Armstrong). But she finds she may be too late, and maybe even in the wrong room. Walls appears as members of hotel staff, and Shepard as Sam’s beautiful secretary.

In the second act, successful young Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (Walls) arranges to meet with his high-school sweetheart, Muriel (Shepard), a working-class New Jersey housewife. He longs for the simplicity of the past, while she is fascinated by his life among the stars. Much humor is derived from the cumulative effect of vodka stingers vs. the delicate dance of seduction. Their exchange is a fun examination of the people we pretend to be, even to ourselves, as Jesse works out how to keep their metaphorical masks in place long enough to get Muriel’s actual dress off.

The third act, arguably the best and most popular, has stressed out parents Roy (Armstrong) and Norma (Macy) struggling to coax daughter Mimsey (Shepard) to unlock the bathroom door so she can make her way downstairs to her wedding. Roy is already fuming at how expensive the ceremony and reception have become, while Norma is a nervous wreck. Slapstick abounds, even with the limited movement in this format. 

This production is wonderfully cast, as all have great range and the ability to convincingly go from serious to silly as the situation demands. Johnson gets surprisingly involved in the action, such as being a sympathetic fourth wall to a character’s asides, adding to the charm of this unusual show. 

Bardfest has one weekend left in the “Plaza Suite,” Friday through Sunday, Oct. 9-11, at The Cat theatre in downtown Carmel. Visit indybardfest.com for info (or see them on Facebook) and thecattheatre.com for tickets.

Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.

A king’s journey, from fun with Falstaff to hostilities with Hotspur

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By John Lyle Belden

While I can heartily recommend any of this year’s Bard Fest shows, the one that has the most elements of Shakespeare’s storytelling is the oft-overlooked “Henry IV, Part 1,” presented by First Folio and directed by Glenn L. Dobbs. It combines comedy, drama, adventure, and a bit of actual British history in a rather entertaining package.

It is a story of the misspent youth of “Bonny Prince Hal” (Matthew Walls), the man who would eventually become the legendary King Henry V, as well as the struggle by his father, Henry IV (Abdul Hakim-Shabazz), to maintain a united kingdom.

Hal has his fun with best friend Ned Poins (John Mortell) as they jest with famed drunkard Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Socey) and his minions, cowardly Bardolf (Jonathen Scoble) and berserker Peto (Missy Rump). From these scenes we get a lot of laughs, and are treated to some of the Bard’s more colorfully-written insults.

Meanwhile, the King has to deal with a plot led by Henry Percy (Matt Anderson), known as Hotspur for his fiery temper, aided by relatives Worcester (Sara Castillo Dandurand) and Mortimer (Eric Mannweiler), the Scottish Earl of Douglas (Andy Burnett), and Welsh rebel Glendower (David Mosedale). On Henry’s side stand Sir Walter Blunt (Eli Robinson), Lord Westmoreland (Brian Kennedy), and eventually Hal, the Prince of Wales himself, having sworn off his prior foolishness.

The decisive battle that ensues gives the narrative a sense of completion, especially in Hal’s arc from boy to man, but leaves sufficient details to be resolved in the more serious “Henry IV, Part 2.” Still, this play easily stands alone.

Our cast inhabit the roles naturally — perhaps Socey is just an alias for Falstaff? Hakim-Shabazz is appropriately noble, Walls slips easily into Hal’s many modes, and Anderson can play a villain like no other. Also notable are Afton Shepard as Percy’s bitter wife (as well as a sweet “working girl” at the tavern), and Michelle Wafford as a Welsh lady betrothed to a man she loves but whose language she can’t understand, and especially as the in-charge Hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday (with talkback afterward) and 1 p.m. Sunday at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Fat Turtle @ the Fort: Go see ‘Joan’

By John Lyle Belden

Something precious has been stuck in a house for a long time.

Joan Wright was once an “author, traveler and businesswoman,” but in the three years since her husband died she has just been Joanie, a lonely woman spending her days in a bathrobe, knitting and watching the world out her back window.

But changes are coming. Her adult daughters are planning to move halfway across the country, and suddenly an old friend is in her living room, inviting her to a gathering of “the old gang” to celebrate her upcoming birthday. It’s exciting, and a bit frightening, but does it feel right?

This is the essence of the new drama, “Go Be Joan,” by Nathaniel Adams, a premiere by Fat Turtle Theatre at Theater at the Fort.

Kathy Bauchle plays Joan as a strong woman throughout – sometimes channeling that strength into her stubborn insistence on “not being a burden” by getting into nice clothes and out of the house to be among others.

Her girls each have their own issues, especially with the changes that life cast their way. Elder daughter Katherine (Afton Shepard) wears her constant nervous smile like a shield as she tries to maintain control of every situation she’s in. Her little sister Lindsie (Audrey Stonerock) has been taking care of Joan the past few years and really, really, wants their mother to move to St. Louis with them. Shepard and Stonerock swing from comaraderie to conflict and back like real siblings, as the deeper layers of the plot are revealed.

Katherine’s daughter Cara (Natalie Marchal) adds another generation to the mix, with her own quirks and concerns. She seems a bit two-dimensional and cliché at first, a selfish child preoccupied with the digital world in her smartphone, until Joan’s insistence on communicating yields to us a nice insight into Cara and her post-Millennial perspective. In return, we see the girl help her grandmother into the 21st century – which in the context of Joan’s shutting herself off from the world in recent years takes on special relevance.

Dan Flahive is neighbor and old friend John Patty, who delivers the invitation – and a mysterious wrapped gift – to Joan. He, too, lost a spouse years ago, so has a special insight into their situation. Flahive’s knack for playing a best friend you feel you’ve known and loved all your life is in full effect here. He plays it coy enough to balance the chemistry between his and Bauchle’s character deftly between platonic/agape friend and possible love-interest.

Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood directs.

This is a good start for a promising play, and an excellent opportunity for local audiences to support local art. The characters and their story touch our hearts with gentle humor and an insightful look at how we grieve and learn to go on living.

Oh, and my opening statement above refers to more than just the title character.

Performances of “Go Be Joan” run through July 28 at 8920 Otis Ave., on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence. Get information and tickets at www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Fat Turtle drama a matter of maturity

By John Lyle Belden

In “Adults,” the new play by Jeremy Grimmer in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company, the characters are all adults.

They are consenting adults, okay with having sex whenever they want. They are adults who are free to gather and play video games at any time. They can feel comfortable enough with any situation to not let it bother them. They can say “I love you.”

“Life isn’t easier, just because it looks freer,” says E.J. (Colin Landberg). This is his house, which he inherited and now lives in alone. One night he brought home Sarah (Afton Shepard), who decided to be “not married” for one day. She awakens shocked to find him fixing her breakfast — is this the way adults do this? Charmed and conflicted, she engages in one more romp before going home to her husband — then returns about once a week. Her marriage is crumbling, having lost its intimacy, but she has kids so she doesn’t divorce; it seems like the adult thing to do.

Old high school friends Meg (Kim Egan), Seth (Josh Turner) and Fred (Brad Root) come over to E.J.’s to play a shared online wargame. While each has a life (and Seth a wife) outside this gathering, all that matters here is leveling up and what snacks are being offered. They even eventually meet Sarah (introduced as E.J.’s neighbor) and are totally cool with her. Why wouldn’t they be? We’re all adults here.

Thus we go through five years of an affair and unusual friendships, the events that lead up to today, when our couple has to make hard — adult — choices.

Directed by Fat Turtle co-founder Aaron Cleveland, this script feels almost too polished to be new, and the cast give solid performances, especially Landberg as easy-going heart-on-sleeve E.J. and Shepard as sweet but girl’s-got-issues Sarah. While even the characters note the improbability of their situation lasting so long, this only goes to the overall atmosphere of arrested development throughout the cast. We find that it’s not enough just to be an adult; at some point you also have to grow up.

Be warned that another theme element is food — starting with the awesome smell of bacon for the first scene in the air before the play even starts. It might be best to have dinner before the show.

This sharp drama nicely leavened with comic elements is worth the effort to find, with one remaining weekend of performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 17-20, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. on the grounds of old Fort Benjamin Harrison off of North Post Road in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at fatturtletheatre.com.

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.

It’s ‘only’ a hit

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Rarely has a play dared me so strongly to write a bad review of it.

“It’s Only a Play,” by legendary playwright and librettist Terrance McNally, is on the main stage at Theatre on the Square through Oct. 1, opening the 2016-17 season. In this comedy, a nervous playwright, Peter Austin (played by Dave Ruark) nervously awaits the reviews after opening night of his Broadway play.

All action takes place in a guest room at the home of the play’s rich producer Julia Budder (Afton Shepard), where Austin’s best friend, TV star James Wicker (Adam O. Crowe) tries to relax, glad that he turned down the lead role in the play – though he won’t tell Austin; scandal-plagued lead actress Virginia Noyes (Kathy Pataluch) and acclaimed “genius” director Frank Finger (Thomas Cardwell) each go to get away from the party crowd downstairs; reviled theatre critic Ira Drew (Jeff Maess) seeks someone to take on the play he secretly wrote; and coat-check boy and aspiring actor Gus (Jacob Swain) comes in to deposit coats and accoutrements worn by various celebrities.

The play is loaded with Broadway references and swipes at critics, and teases us with a cliffhanger at intermission. At the end, things get almost groaningly meta. Need I mention that the first version of this play closed during previews (according to Wikipedia)?

Yet, here, it all works.

Yes, even critics can take a joke – and I and another scribe in attendance could even think of someone who the play’s zingers better fit. The discussion of stage legends like Patty Lupone is mixed with more-recognizable celebrities like Lady Gaga, so references to the party downstairs never go flat. “Hamilton” even gets name-checked (and coat-checked).

And the mixture of dysfunctional characters we are presented with – Budder keeps butchering popular quotes, Noyes wears a court-ordered ankle bracelet, and Finger’s insecurity over his incredible success manifests as compulsive kleptomania – are very funny and well-presented by actors far more talented than the poor hacks they portray.

So, who cares if McNally didn’t get a(nother) Tony for this – for TOTS, this romp is “only” a winner.

Find the stage at 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.