IRT: Join the ‘Club’

By Wendy Carson

Book clubs are meant to be a gathering place where friends, both new and old, can commune together over literature – but are they, really? Many devolve into socially-acceptable drinking parties in which wine and gossip are far more important than some silly book.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) is determined to have her Book Club – begun prior to Oprah’s, she notes – to be the gold standard to which all others should be measured. In fact, her group has been selected by a notable Dutch documentary director to be the subject of his newest work, captured by an all-seeing-eye camera installed in their living room.

This is “The Book Club Play,” by Karen Zacarias, directed by Benjamin Hanna and playing on the main stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, its first production before live audiences in over a year.

Ana’s group is comprised of her best friend, club co-creator Will (Will Mobley); faithful gal-pal Jen (Emily Berman); oh-so-perfect husband Rob (Sean Davis); and new (black) co-worker Lily (Cassia Thompson).

Will and Ana are literary elitists who insist that even though book choices rotate, they MUST be considered classic literature. Jen is doing her best to just get each book read (and find her keys), while Rob is only here because it’s at his house and he likes the snacks.

Lily appears to be the only member who is actually participating and gaining something from the group. Therefore, it’s no surprise that she disrupts the dynamic by not only choosing a recently popular novel as her selection, but also by inviting her neighbor Alex (Adam Poss) to the group.

Each of our actors also play short cameos of other people interviewed in the documetary.

Davis is spectacular as the jock husband who gains amazing insight into his being when he actually reads one of the books they choose. Berman plays Jen’s socially awkward bestie perfectly, embodying the comic timing of the role. Mobley does an excellent job of keeping the neurosis of his character in check with the desperate need for validation to bring out the empathy within. San Miguel brings Ana to life as controlling and haughty, while keeping her vulnerable. Thompson’s subtle turn at Lily keeps her part of the action without overtly betraying her role as instigator of the drama that unfolds. Poss is brilliant as the agent provocateur, questioning the club’s motives, choices, and inherent prejudices (both literary and social).

Aside from brilliant comedy, with moments of slapstick, this production is impressive for the simple yet elegant living room set coming alive between scenes with the words of various books projected on the walls, the work of scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.

While a quote from the show describes it as “Lord of the Flies with Wine and Dip,” I think it’s better described as “A coed version of The Talk that you’d actually want to watch.” Oh, and please don’t exit the theater quickly as there is one final joke at the end of the credits.

Performances run through Oct. 31 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.