‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Zach&Zack ‘Rocky Horror’ at Athenaeum – ’nuff said

By John Lyle Belden

I could probably skip the synopsis on this one – Anybody here know how to Madison?

“The Rocky Horror Show” (note the omission of “Picture,” this is the live stage version) has returned to Indianapolis like a Halloween tradition, gracing the haunted stage of the Athenaeum,

Presented by Zach&Zack – produced by Zach Rosing, directed by Zack Neiditch – the play greatly resembles the movie scenes and songs, with a few differences (no dinner scene, for instance). The opening theme is a brilliant tribute to the film, complete with cast credits. But the actors here have made these characters their own: for instance, Dave Ruark plays sassy “Sweet Transvestite” Frank N. Furter, not an impression of Tim Curry in the role.

Adam Tran and Andrea Heiden are fun as Brad and Janet – the pair of squares thrust into a night of “absolute pleasure,” and Joe Doyel has stage presence to match his pecs and flex as muscular Rocky (the Creature). But the scenes are not stolen but outright owned by Davey Pelsue as Riff-Raff, combining his considerable acting chops with his rock-star charisma. Also wonderful are Anna Lee as Magenta, Alexandria Warfiel as Columbia, and Josiah McCruiston as Eddie and Dr. Scott.

But is it fair that while Adam Crowe is excellent as the no-neck Narrator, his scenes are pre-recorded so that he can actually see this great show from the audience, while the rest of the cast can’t? And where did his neck go? I blame aliens.

Kudos also to Erin Becker for her “big mouth.”

Perhaps I’m not taking this review seriously enough, but then consider what I’m supposed to be critiquing here. For crying out loud, the best lines are typically shouted by the audience! (And yes, you can do that – just no props allowed, by theater policy.) The bottom line is that this is not just a “play” or even your typical musical, it is an experience. And with this competent crew, you are assured a very good time. (Like a – everybody now – “Science fiction, double feature…”)

Of course, tickets are selling fast. Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 1-3 at the “A,” 401 E. Michigan in downtown Indy. Get info at ZachAndZack.com (or their Facebook page) and tickets here.

Phoenix: Try this ‘reality’ programming

By John Lyle Belden

“Cry It Out,” the drama finishing the Phoenix Theatre’s eventful 2017-18 season, impacts you with just how real it feels.

As I’m sure playwright Molly Smith Metzler and this show’s director, Chelsey Stauffer, are aware, this is an effective “issue” play in that the focus is more on the people going through the issue than the thing itself. In this case, it’s what’s considered a universal experience – becoming parents to your first child, focusing on doing so in today’s world, and the psychological toll we are only beginning to understand.

Metzler has found the perfect setting: a Long Island neighborhood where Jessie (Lauren Briggeman), an upper-middle class professional, lives right across her back yard from Lena (Sally Scharbrough), who is struggling working-class, while on a cliff just hundreds of feet away are the very rich, of whom we meet Mitchell (Michael Hosp) and Adrienne (Andrea Heiden).

Feeling alone in her new-mommy experience, Jessie reaches out to Lena, who is grateful to have a likely friend so close at hand. In their perfectly crafted and acted conversations, we see the psychological walls they hit when their social and financial differences are made clear, followed by the earnest efforts to bridge their gap – for the sake of their own sanity as well as the benefit of their babies – forming a bond that seems so natural, like that friend you just “click” with.

Seeing this from his lofty view, Mitchell decides to ask them if his wife can join them for one of their “coffee meetings” – in one of the most uncomfortably comedic scenes I’ve seen lately. But when Adrienne arrives, she is not happy to be there. Clearly, these people have issues.

The sense of reality goes beyond the fact that it’s easy to forget Briggeman and Scharbrough are not actually moms with sleeping babies just offstage. This drama plays with your expectations in a clever way, by taking your “oh, I know how this is going to go” we’ve been conditioned to by TV, films and wishful thinking, and bringing a twist that is just like what happens to people you actually know. Being largely told from Jessie’s perspective, the story also confronts her and us with our assumptions. And in the process, we get some situational laughs – like real life.

This is one of those plays (thanks again, Phoenix!) that I can’t say you’ll “enjoy” in the fun sense, more like the fact that you’ll savor first-class acting and come away with some great food for thought. Come hungry.

“Cry It Out” plays through Aug. 26 in the “black box” Basile stage – seating surrounds most of the stage area – at the Phoenix’s new permanent home, 705 N. Illinois St. Note showtimes are a half-hour different than the mainstage. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Old theater tradition done afresh under Indy’s sky

By John Lyle Belden

Something interesting is happening on Indy’s westside. A commedia dell’arte troupe, wandering from the Renaissance to modern day, has found its truck broken down on the campus of Marian University. So, in order to raise the funds to continue their journey home, A Company of Wayward Saints will perform for us – after all, a rich Duke may be in the audience!

In this instance, life is imitating art, as local actor Adam Tran and friends have been conducting a GoFundMe online campaign (still ongoing) to finance this production of “A Company of Wayward Saints,” the 1963 play by George Herman.

Tran leads the troupe as Harlequin. The others also play character archetypes: the boastful Capitano (Davey Pelsue), wisecracking know-it-all Dottore (Ronn Johnston), the unfortunate Pantalone (Zach Stonerock), misunderstood youth Scapino (Josh Maldonado), the beautiful Columbine (Kelsey Leigh Miller), grasping Ruffiana (Miranda Nehrig), and the Lovers, Isabella (Nina DeWitt) and Aurelia (Andrea Heiden).

To perform what they call commedia la improvviso, they need a prompt from the audience. Harlequin reveals the mysterious Duke has asked for “The History of Man.” A tall order. “I will play God,” the Captain bellows, and the play is on. But as members of the company lament, “As actors, temperament is our original sin,” and dissension builds in the ranks.

This performance is a wonderfully unique experience, though you should bring lawn chairs to sit by the busted flatbed truck that is the stage. The actors give their all for the art, as though they don’t worry about getting paid (or is this like hustling for tips?). Johnston can land a cheesy punchline in the first act, and bring surprising tenderness to an unexpectedly dramatic scene with the Lovers in the second. Maldonado displays tumbling skill along with his acting chops, and shares a charming and touching scene with Nehrig. Miller nicely turns the Odysseus legend on its ear, and has a fun look at love and marriage with Stonerock. Tran shows his depth with the final scene – a scene of finality – opposite Pelsue.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday, May 18-20, by the Amphitheater at Marian University, 3200 Cold Spring Road. Get info at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/acompanyofwaywardsaintsindy/.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

It’s Shakespeare, but it’s fun – really!

By John Lyle Belden

Fans of William Shakespeare need only be told that Indy’s Eclectic Pond Theatre Company has staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one weekend remaining at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis.

Those less familiar with the Bard, casual fans, or those who think of him in the context of dramas like “Hamlet,” might also find this production a surprising treat.

In the modern tradition of putting the old plays in new settings, the “Athens” of ETC’s “Dream” is located in the world of a 1960s teen beach movie. The fairy folk have Polynesian-inspired garb, while our human characters are in hip threads for a California summer.

Though Shakespeare comedies typically overwhelm the viewer with their multitudes of characters, this play keeps the groupings simple, and, under the direction of Zach Neiditch, easy to follow.

Athenian nobles Theseus (Jay Hemphill) and Hippolyta (Carrie Fedor) are soon to marry. It will also be the wedding of young Hermia (Betsy Norton), but she wishes to wed Lysander (Ethan Mathias) rather than Demetrius (Matt Walls), to whom she has been promised. Hermia’s bestie Helena (Andrea Heiden) wants Demetrius, who isn’t interested. Lysander and Hermia head into the forest during the night, seeking to elope. Helena tells Demetrius, and they follow.

Meanwhile, a group of local artisans – the “mechanicals” – are in the same forest, secretly rehearsing a play they hope to present at the wedding. They are led by Quince (Marcy Thornsberry) who has a hard time containing the boisterous ego of her star, Bottom (Tristan Ross).

And also meanwhile, fairy royalty Oberon and Titania (Hemphill and Fedor) have a disagreement. She storms off, and he decides to have some mischief at her expense – which impish Puck (Sarah Hoffman) is all to eager to provide. Oh, and while she’s at it, she could also make a couple of the mortals wandering the woods fall in love as well.

What follows, of course, are transformations and confusion for the characters, but – despite the Elizabethan language – an easily understandable and hilarious twisting path towards the inevitable happy endings. The production even concludes with the Mechanicals’ play within the play, wherein Ross over-acts to wonderful effect.

As usual, we end with Puck’s apology, but it is hardly needed. This “Dream” is a joy for everyone from the energetic cast to the audience surrounding the IndyFringe stage. Get info at www.eclecticpond.org and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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