Bard Fest: Agape gets wyrd with ‘Macbeth’

By John Lyle Belden

Though it is the most familiar Shakespeare work in this year’s Bard Fest, the adaptation of “Macbeth” (“the Scottish Play” to the superstitious) by director Dr. Kathy Phipps for Agape Theater Company makes the famous tragedy fresh and fascinating. 

From the opening moments, we see the production has gone all-in on the “Wyrd Sisters.” Aside from the principal three Witches – Mary Zou, Hailey Ready, Laura Sickmeier – and Queen Hecate (Sylvia Seidle), we have a full coven, with Mia Baillie, Rebekah Barajas, Ashlynn Gilmore, Anastasia Lucia, and Maggie McKinney, as they make full use of song and movement to add atmosphere and propel the plot. They are envisioned as Wood Sprites, which gives them a clever supporting role in the play’s final battle. 

But don’t put the blame for what ensues on the Witches. As always, Agape (a youth theatre program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church) delves into human morality and the consequences of men’s – and women’s – actions. Temptation can tell us things, but it is up to us how we use the information. Heroic Macbeth (Aidan Morris) and comrade in arms Banquo (Nathan Foster) are told that the former will become King, while the latter is father to monarchs. Banquo senses something troubling in the sprites’ words. Macbeth, seeing part of the prophecy fulfilled, eagerly embraces the rest. And upon hearing of this, Lady Macbeth (Brynn Hensley) immediately goes into murder-mode.

We get solid work from the mostly high school- and college-age cast, including Jake Hobbs as prince Malcolm; Nathan Ellenberger as Macbeth’s rival, Macduff; Kyle Hensley as Banquo’s son Fleance; and Doug Rollins (an Agape parent usually working behind the scenes) as doomed King Duncan. Sickmeier also plays Lady Macduff. Notable in support are Virginia Sever as Ross, Grant Scott-Miller as Lennox, and Carter Thurnall as Angus. 

Morris takes on the title role with gusto, part of a tradition of Shakespeare leads who charge headlong into action before thinking it through. When he does hesitate, however, his wife is there to remind him to “screw (his) courage to the sticking place.” That brings us to Brynn Hensley; the Lebanon High School senior may have put in the best performance in a festival full of strong women in strong women’s roles. She makes the most of an arc that goes from power-mad to just plain mad, even bringing out in just a word or sharp glance the play’s dark humor. 

Other touches are well-served, like frequent appearances of the unsettled dead, a murder in silhouette (part of the excellent stage design by Ian Phipps), the effective use of banners to quickly change scenes, and even a nice “reenactment” in an early scene. Agape cast and crew have taken great care to give this cursed classic it’s due. A work of “sound and fury,” as always, but with some significance after all.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 28-30, at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., in Lawrence. Get info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com and www.artsforlawrence.org

IndyFringe: Narnia

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

To be fair, I must note that since the opening performance of “Narnia” by Agape Theater Company, there were a lot of notes and technical fixes. For this youth company, hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, this was not one of their most polished productions – but they have set themselves a high standard over the past few years.

But it was a daunting project, even for its original creators, to adapt “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis – an epic fairy-tale fantasy layered thick with Christian symbolism – into a workable musical, which then the local players, a talented cast of about two-dozen aged tween to college, had to hammer down into a single hour.

This heroic effort, directed by Aidan Morris and Grant Scott-Miller, is led by Ethan Wood, Rebekah Barajas, Flannery Partain and Alyssa McDonald as the Pevensie children, Silvia Seidle as the White Witch, and Caleb Wilson as the lion Aslan (and briefly as Father Christmas). McDonald steadily manages the heavy, conflicted role of Edmund. Laura Sickmeier gives a “best supporting”-worthy turn as Tumnus. Alex Bast (who is also music director) and Julie Seidle deftly handle scene-stealing roles as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.

Since scenes and props, aside from a well-constructed sleigh, had to be rudimentary for a shared stage, the artistic emphasis is on excellent costuming, from regal Aslan to Indy’s cutest Squirrel.

The songs (by Thomas Thierney and Ted Drachman from the book by Jules Tasca) are servicable, but reach their height at “Deep Magic,” which lets Wilson and Silvia Seidle shine in a hero-villian standoff.

Will Aslan defeat the Witch? Will the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve ascend the Four Thrones? See it all play out on the Basile Auditorium in the Athenaeum.

Agape kids return “Sound of Music”

By John Lyle Belden

Even when one of your musical’s biggest songs is, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” who expects to have to scale the peak of a global pandemic?

Agape Performing Arts Company (to which I’ve given much praise in the past), a youth theatre program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, bravely opened its production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” in March of 2020, only to immediately close.

Because COVID-19, which shut the whole world down.

But director Kathy Phipps and the cast and crew kept following that dream of telling the beloved story of the Von Trapps. With the lineup largely intact, they perform a one-weekend engagement at the Basile Theatre in the Athenaeum downtown, in the heart of Indy’s again-bustling Mass Ave arts-entertainment-dining-etc. district.

Remaining live performances, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday (June 5-6), are sold out, but Sunday’s shows are available livestreamed at agapeshows.org.

The quality of the child/tween/teen performances is top-notch, as usual, with the bonus that the Von Trapp children actors are very near their characters’ stated ages. Liesl IS “Sixteen, going on Seventeen.” Agape wisely chose to keep college-student Elise Scrogham as the principal Maria, who anchored a solid ensemble Friday night.

To maximize the experience for all young actors, many roles are understudied and double-cast, with the alternate players taking the stage at different performances. Maria is also played by Meghan Wombles. Others include Elijah Beasley and Grant Scott-Miller as Captain Von Trapp, Rebekah Barajas and Silvia Seidle as Liesl, Devyn Knauss and Jackson Steuer as Friedrich, Josee DeBoor and Maggie McKinney as Louisa, Tobin Seiple as Kurt (God bless him), Evelyn Skaggs and Marygrace Rykowski as Brigitta, Adilyn Walker and Regina Kalscheur as Marta, Kesslee DeBoor and Victoria Franklin as Gretl, Olivia Schemmel and Jocelyne Brake as the wise Mother Abbess, and Clayton Muchman understudies Scott-Miller as collaborator Baron von Elberfeld.

Caleb Wilson fits right in as a late casting addition as Franz, the butler. Virginia Sever is the housekeeper, Frau Schmidt. Maura Phipps makes Frau Schraeder (the Captain’s wealthy momentary fiance) likable, and even noble in her final gesture. Aidan Morris, on the other hand, maintains a sinister air around messenger-boy Rolf that only Liesl apparently doesn’t see. The large and harmonious chorus of Sisters of the Abbey are led by Brilynn Knauss (Berthe), Kat Seiple (Margaretta) and Gemma Rollison (Sophia). And we look forward to the energetic Nathan Ellenberger, here as conniving Max Detweiler, chewing up scenes for many shows to come.

You likely know this story (and many songs) by heart. But if you don’t, here’s the pitch: It’s an old-school story of the original Antifa. With music. And children. And nuns. Who sing, even if they’re not supposed to. If you are only familiar with the classic Oscar-winning Julie Andrews film, note that the popular tunes are not in the same order or context, and there are a couple more songs. But “Edelweiss” will still touch your heart.

Even in a volunteer organization, keeping the rights to a legendary show for a dark year aren’t cheap. Please consider buying some swag, making a donation, and making a point of seeing Agape’s future productions, including a one-act “Narnia” at this August’s IndyFringe, and their staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” during BardFest in the fall.

Agape work their magic in terrific ‘Tempest’

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

By John Lyle Belden

“The Tempest” may be as close as Shakespeare came to what we now classify as sci-fi/fantasy. In its world, magic is assumed, without giving much backstory of how exiled nobleman Prospero came to own the spellbook, staff, and skills to use them. Maybe they were with him and his daughter in the leaky boat his treacherous brother sent to sea, allowing Prospero to summon a portal from the Mediterranean to an island near Scotland. Perhaps they were a prize from the witch who left behind her hideous son Caliban on that enchanted island. Perhaps he gained power as he found a way to release the faerie Ariel, who then swore obedience to him.

Sounds more like a cheap paperback than the Bard? Well, he did write fantasies for the masses — he just did it very well. And now we get an appropriately excellent production of “The Tempest” by Agape Performing Arts Company.

Agape, a church-sponsored youth program, gives teens and tweens the opportunity to explore moral lessons in various stage works, including “Les Miserables” and “Newsies,” and at a level of performance and production matching the various excellent “young performers” programs around Indy. 

Thus we have Evan Wolfgang play Prospero as a noble father who has a bold plan and the drive to see it through. He sees an opportunity for revenge, as the men who wronged him are on the open sea, and with a teleport spell and the ability of Ariel (Audrey Duprey) to call up and control a storm, brings them to his shore.

The tempest of the title is wonderfully portrayed with brilliant use of costume and movement. (Director Kathy Phipps designed the costumes and choreography is by Joel Flynn.) The boat rocks, the waves surge, and the crew cry out in barely contained panic. But all arrive safely, scattered by Prospero’s spell in accordance with his plans.

Prince Ferdinand (Grant Scott-Miller) is washed up alone and encounters Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Laura Sickmeier) and a courtship begins. 

Meanwhile, the prince’s father, King Alonso of Naples (Matthias Neidenberger) is with his brother Sebastian (Gilead Rea-Hedrick), advisor Gonzalo (Kathryn Rose), and Antonio, Duke of Milan (Nathan Ellenberger) — Prospero’s brother, whom Alonso allowed to take his title. Ever plotting, Antonio sees an opportunity for another power grab, which fortunately Ariel invisibly spies.

On another part of the island, the king’s jester Trinculo (Kennath Cassaday) and drunken butler Stephano (Maura Phipps) — who salvaged the booze — meet up with Caliban (Aidan Morris), who considers them gods for the power in their bottles, and persuades them to join him in his plot to kill Prospero so he can take over the island.

The large cast includes a number of sailors — including Jack London as Master of the Ship and Raymond Lewis as Boatswain — and Island Spirits, including Iris (Kidron Rea-Hedrick), Ceres (Evelyn Skaggs) and Juno (Gemma Rollison), who help celebrate the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda.

Yes, it’s a typically large number of names for this Shakespeare play that is like his comedies, but with dramatic elements and quite a bit of music  — lyrics by the Bard, music from traditional tunes, Gustav Holst’s “Planets,” and a composition by Michael Roth. But Kathy Phipps’ direction manages to keep the plotlines easy to follow.

Though all give great performances, notable turns include Duprey and Morris (both aided by excellent makeup by Angie Morris), as well as Maura Phipps, giving the best possible “drunken” performance by a person too young to imbibe.

See all set right with a spirit of redemption and forgiveness, in a most entertaining fashion and with all the spectacle that the District Theatre main stage can hold. Remaining performances are this weekend (Oct. 25-27), 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. 

Bard Fest: What a fool this mortal be to have missed ‘Midsummer’

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

By John Lyle Belden

This time, I’m going to do something a little unusual. As you can tell from the amount of postings we’re making at PWJW, there was a lot of theatre opening last weekend. Lost in the shuffle was the Agape Performing Arts Company youth production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” So I didn’t see it, but I do want to say something about it – and recommend it – anyway.

The Agape program is based out of a church, but attracts young performers, 8 to 18, from all over central Indiana. It is “Christian” in its members’ faith, but rather than trying to stage church-sanctioned morality plays, it boldly takes on classic stage works, and lets the moral lessons reveal themselves. Thus they have mounted ambitious productions such as the musicals “Les Miserables” and “Pirates of Penzance.” In a more daring move, they now take on what may be the Bard’s most “Pagan” of his folio.

But I’m sure these kids are doing an excellent job of bringing out, as Shakespeare’s plot does, the fickle humanity of the immortal realm, as well as the human foibles of the people wandering the woods. It will be a valuable experience for them, whether they in coming years become Royalty of the stage, or like the humble Mechanicals, just tread the boards from time to time for fun. It should be a good experience for you the audience, as under able adult supervision and with some big productions under their belts the cast and crew have set themselves an ever-increasing standard of performance.

I spoke with one of the parents recently, who said that they had researched accurate period dances to make the play more authentic. That’s the cool thing about having student actors, we all get to learn something.

And besides, this show is always fun and entertaining – and you get to see someone in a donkey head.

Follow Puck down to the District Theatre (formerly TOTS) at 627 Massachusetts Ave. for performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

‘It is, it is a glorious thing!’ Agape kids plunder another classic

By John Lyle Belden

A year after their triumphant production of “Les Miserables,” the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company take on something much lighter, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance.”

In this classic piece of British silliness – with its biting satire of Victorian devotion to class, honor and duty – our hero Frederic concludes his indenture as a Pirate (he was to become a sea “pilot,” but there was a misunderstanding). His duty done, he leaves the ship to do what any good English citizen would do: Fight piracy. When he sees the dozen daughters of the local Major General, Frederic dumps his middle-aged nurse, Ruth, and seeks to woo the girls. Naturally, they refuse, except for nightingale-voiced Mabel, who takes pity on him. But as romance blooms, we find we aren’t yet done with the Pirate King and his crew, especially when Ruth reveals a technicality that could bring Frederic back into their ranks for the rest of his life.

As this large production features so much young talent over its two-week run (ending Sunday), many of the roles were double-cast. The leads I saw, in the “Gilbert Cast,” included Alex Bast as Frederic and Carlynn Berners as Mabel. Maura Phipps was impressive as Ruth, and Tekoa Rea-Hedrick nimbly recited the popular patter of the “Modern Major General.” In the “Sullivan Cast,” these roles are played by Aidan Morris, Christina Canaday, Sabrina Duprey and Luke Proctor. Working with both casts are Eli Robinson as the charming and energetic Pirate King, and spry Carter Dills, showing his dancing skill as Sergeant of the reluctant Constables dispatched to confront the pirates.

While the youths and their adult mentors take their stagecraft seriously, evident by the choreography, excellent costuming, and commitment to the comic bits, no matter how slapstick, there was a definite air of fun throughout. Thus, you won’t find this reviewer nitpicking – no doubt flaws and technical issues are being addressed as I write this, readying this crew to sail afresh on Friday. Speaking of which, it is notable that during the curtain call after each performance, all backstage crew members are called on stage to take a bow as well. Everyone’s hard work is appreciated.

Direction is by Kathy Phipps, with student assistant Mikaela Smith; musical director April Barnes, with Alex Bast. Choreography is by Faith Anthony and Arabella Rollison.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday (Sullivan), 3:30 p.m. Saturday (Sullivan), 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Gilbert) and 3:30 p.m. Sunday (Sullivan) at McGowan Hall (Knights of Columbus #437), 1305 N. Delaware in downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at www.agapeshows.org.

Agape Performing Arts is a program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, Greenwood, Ind.

Can you see the children sing?

By John Lyle Belden

For sheer ambition alone, the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company should be commended for their production of the musical “Les Miserables.” And as is often the case with student theatre around Indy, you’ll enjoy this show even if you don’t know the kids involved.

The dozens of youths in cast, crew and orchestra give tremendous energy to the sweeping Victor Hugo saga of redemption, love and revolution in 19th-century France. The production acquired a rotating stage, and made an easily-assembled but stageworthy Barricade that was swiftly put together and disassembled. One death scene utilizes a Hollywood-style stunt fall. Costuming and makeup are excellent.

And while one can forgive the limitations of youth and experience as the actors bravely take on the near-operatic almost non-stop singing, there were some genuine stand-outs, including Samantha Koval as Fantine, Olivia Ortmann as Eponine, Eli Robinson as Javert, Connor Cleary as Marius and Alex Bast as Enjolras. Luan Arnold holds the center of the show as Jean Valjean. Young charismatic Aaron Sickmeier is a Broadway-quality Gavroche. Thomas Tutsie and Hannah Phipps do a gritty good job as the Threnardiers. And as a mild comedy relief character, the drunken member of the student revolutionaries, Christopher Golab is the best Grantaire I’ve seen in any “Les Mis” production.

Agape, a youth arts ministry of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, performs the School Edition of the musical, so some language is softened – often cleverly – but not too jarring for those familiar with the original lyrics. Still, the story deals with topics including prostitution, death and war, so it is still “PG” in content. As adult director Kathy Phipps points out in her program Note, the play suits a Christian company as it tells the story of redemption and reaching for goodness, contrasted with a character who thinks he’s serving God by his inflexible adherence to the law.

This production has just one weekend of performances, through Sunday, April 9, at the Knights of Columbus McGowan Hall, 1305 N. Delaware St. in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets are just $10 each, less for students, at www.thelittleboxoffice.com/agape.

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