NoExit ‘1984’ – experience the love of Big Brother

By John Lyle Belden

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks had struck nineteen 30 minutes ago. The back door to a facility commandeered by the Party and Ministry of Truth opened, and we were allowed to enter.

After Agents determined our country of origin and loyalty to the Party, we were detained with other participants until 20:00, when the Ministry provided a goodthink show of a man discovering his love for Big Brother. This is all it is and ever was.

I would never be unfaithful to the Party and tell you that this was a clever and insightful production of “1984” – adapted from the George Orwell novel by Matthew Dunster, produced by NoExit Performance (with co-conspirators including AnC Movies, Cat Head Press and iMOCA) and directed by Ryan Mullins – as that would be “fake news.”

But if I were to say such a thing, I would point out that Ryan Ruckman gives an excellent performance as Winston Smith, the conflicted everyman who tires of his duties for the Ministry, constantly “correcting” history and sending obsolete information down the Memory Hole so that it never happened. He wears his depression and ennui like an extra layer of clothing, feeling the weight of the Telescreen eyes upon him. NoExit mainstay Georgeanna Smith Wade wins his heart and ours as secret rebel Julia, who inspires Winston to defy the Party – simultaneously the smartest and stupidest thing he would ever do.

The Party orders that I denounce Dave Ruark for his commanding portrayal of the mysterious O’Brien, Adam Crowe for his deceptively warm turn as Charrington, and Tristan Ross for his appropriately milquetoast presentation of Smith’s co-worker Parsons (extra rations go to Zac Schneider and Elsie McNulty as the Party-faithful children, though Shannon Samson as Mrs. Parsons is still under suspicion). If Syme had not become an unperson, I’d praise Phil Criswell’s double-plus-good performance. I also hallucinated sharp work from Taylor Cox and Ann Marie Elliott in supporting roles.

Where NoExit – I mean the Ministry – most excels is in the way this drama is presented. It is totally immersive: You stand in or right outside the room where each scene occurs; and the actors frequently move from one area to the next, forcing all to turn and/or follow. Ministry agents help guide the audience. There is no climbing stairs, and limited seating is provided at every scene. Compare the amount of movement necessary to an easy tour of a museum gallery with about a half-dozen display areas in three large rooms. Appropriate set design (by Andrew Darr), with occasional video images (by AnC) and haunting sound (by Rob Funkhouser) enveloping the rooms, provide a perfectly tense atmosphere throughout. Big Brother’s red glowing eye is everywhere, watching us all.

I advise all to take time out from news of whatever war we have always been fighting, and observe this double-plus-good entertainment appropriate for whatever year this happens to be. Performances through Nov. 18 at Ministry Headquarters, 1336 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit www.noexitperformance.org.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

IndyFringe: ‘An Elegy for Peter Through’

By Wendy Carson

This show has been the most surprising of anything I’ve seen at this year’s festival. The title lends itself to a dour subject matter, which is further reinforced by the setting, the interior of a funeral home. However, once the show begins, all of that is thrown out the window.

The funeral directors are expecting a quick, simple service when a gaggle of children and teens show up carrying a large wooden frame and demand to offer their own eulogies for the departed.

The frame becomes a sort of time portal in which the actors are transported to the day that they first met the deceased. With the seven actors quickly slipping into and out of 13 different roles, it may seem like it would be confusing, but the cast pulls off this feat seamlessly.

The stories told are funny yet uplifting and make for a warm, pleasant feeling of satisfaction afterwards. This show is definitely a good counterpoint to some of the more intense shows at the Fringe; it will greatly help you to readjust your psyche, so you really should not miss it.

John’s note: This is one of the best shows of the Fringe, in my opinion. Director Ann Marie Elliott told us that she and the Savage At Last actors worked out the story themselves without an initial script, and they all do an excellent job of channeling their inner teens and tweens facing a life-changing experience.

One performance remains, 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Theatre on the Square second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.

Three great plays at Bardfest

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

Bardfest had a great opening weekend, and has two more – Oct. 20-23 and 27-30 – at the little Carmel Theatre Company stage, 15 First Ave NE in Carmel’s downtown Arts District (former home to Carmel Community Players).

It was noted in the curtain speech of one show I attended that Indianapolis is about the only major metropolitan area without a Shakespeare Festival. Fortunately, Willie’s plays do reach the boards a few times a year in individual productions around Indy, including a free summer production in White River State Park. But having three shows by the Immortal Bard – only one of which you would likely name off the top of your head if asked to list his plays – is a wonderfully unique experience.

‘KING LEAR’

I confess to missing the First Folio production of “King Lear.” Fortunately, I was familiar with the play and I trust First Folio Productions to pull this classic off more than competently. The title character is played by David Mosedale, and the role of her eldest daughter Cordelia (and a turn as the Fool) by Ann Marie Elloitt, two of the best speakers of iambic pentameter I’ve seen in central Indiana. Sarah Froehlke and Beth Clark as Lear’s devious other daughters are no slouches, either, and excellence is reflected throughout the cast and crew list, including the incredible Tristan Ross.

For those unfamiliar, “Lear” is about a British king who decides to give his kingdom to his three daughters. When the eldest refuses to flatter him, he misunderstands her actions as an insult and banishes her. She ends up in France, and leads an invasion to save her father’s kingdom from the machinations of her sisters. Mix in more madness and intrigue, and end it all tragically, and you have an excellent evening of drama. Which I didn’t have to see, but I highly recommend you do if you can.

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’

I did get a look at Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” It runs down the Bard comedy checklist: Shipwreck? Check. Siblings in distress? Check. Thinly made, but still effective, disguises? Check. Misunderstandings? Check. Wild wooing, leading to unlikely marriage? Check and check!

Perhaps understanding this, Garfield Shakespeare Company and directors Chris Burton and Sam Brandys made this a highly entertaining production by blending conventional pop songs into the narrative – one in particular, you’d swear was written for the play – as well as having instrumentation performed live on stage, especially by Feste, the minstrel Fool, played with perfect charm by Ashley Chase Elliott.

Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian (fraternal, yet perceived by other characters as identical in appearance, performed by Abby Gilster and Spencer Elliott) have washed up on different shores of Illyria after their shipwreck, each presuming the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for the local Duke Orsino (Benjamin Mathis), a single man pursuing the one woman who doesn’t want him, Lady Olivia (Audrey Stonerock). Orsino sends his new servant to deliver his messages of love, but Olivia instead falls for Viola-in-disguise – compounding the “boy”s confusion as s/he is smitten with Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s brother, the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Jay Brubaker) and his dim-witted companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Monica Verdouw) are carousing with Feste, an apparently freelance Fool working in both the Duke and Lady’s households. They and Olivia’s servant Maria (Kate Ghormley), play a cruel but hilarious prank on the prideful fellow court member Malvolio (Anthony Johnson), which only adds to the wild goings on – made even wilder when Sebastian makes his way to Olivia’s house.

Confused yet? It’s a Shakespeare comedy; a lot of various characters doing silly things to one another is part of the standard formula. Just relax, let the major groupings and who-loves-who sort themselves out, and just enjoy the ensuing mayhem. And nobody dies – that’s his other plays.

I must heap high praise not only upon every cast name listed above, but also Burton, who takes on various character roles on top of his other duties – he was even fixing the lights before the show.

‘CORIOLANUS’

As for “Coriolanus,” regarding the odd name, if we must get to the bottom (sorry!) of the story it is simply an unfortunate (for modern audiences, though Shakespeare did enjoy a bawdy pun) honorific bestowed on the main character, Caius Marcius (Taylor Cox) to celebrate his victory in battle at Corioli, where pre-Empire Rome defeated the rival Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidious (Ryan Ruckman).

Back in Rome, Marcius is not quiet about his elitist attitude, which doesn’t sit well with the commoners who already blame him (falsely) for a grain shortage. Fortunately, his smooth-talking friend Menenius (Matt Anderson) calms things down, but two Tribunes, Brutus and Velutus (Matt Walls and Paige Scott) observe this and stir up the citizens to oppose Coriolanus’s inevitable ascension to Consul.

Marcius himself doesn’t want the office, but his ambitious domineering mother Volumnia (Nan Macy) insists he take power, while his wife Virgilia (Abby Gilster) agrees, hoping it will keep the lifelong soldier home. But despite his friends and family insisting he stay calm, Marcius verbally explodes, giving the Tribunes the excuse to banish him.

In the second act, the exiled Coriolanus turns to his blood enemy Aufidious, who sets him in charge of the Volscian invasion of Rome. Being the era’s greatest general, Marcius practically brings troops to the gates of the capitol. Desperate to save Rome and win back his friend, Menenius tries to reason with Coriolanus. Finally, his mother, wife and son make their desperate plea. I’m not giving any further spoilers, but it all doesn’t end well.

Cox, who is proving himself to be one of the best actors in Indy, is excellent as his frustratingly complex character. You may not like this Caius Marcius Coriolanus, but you have to respect him. Davey Pelsue applies his matching talent as fellow Roman officer Titus Lartius, a dutiful soldier of inevitably conflicting loyalties. Macy’s is the top performance, a force of nature like a mother wolf who wants to be pack Alpha. You might not want her for a Mom, but you want her on your side. Anderson imbues his glib character with genuine feeling, fearful yet hopeful that his smooth tongue can cure any roughness he encounters. As for Walls and Scott, their villainous portrayal has them practically twirling old-time movie mustaches.

The other “bad guy” of the piece, Ruckman’s Aufidious, stays true to his character and principles, and carries a confident air throughout. Were the audience made of Volscians, he would be the easy hero. This adds to the many gray areas this play works in – not all virtuous win, not all villainous are punished, few are completely noble or evil – which might explain why it so rarely produced.

Unafraid, director Casey Ross gives this story a chance to show us all its complexities. The era portrayed is unspecified, the costumes mildly punk without being distracting, leaving us only with these characters and the drama that plays out among them. Occasional music is modern, but works with the timeless narrative. If you are a fan of great theatre, seeing this “Coriolanus” should be a priority.

For information and tickets to Bardfest, see http://uncannycasey.wixsite.com/bardfestindy.

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

Review: The price of defying godlike power

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of Eclectic Pond Theatre Company, one of Western civilization’s oldest surviving plays truly becomes timeless.

“Prometheus Bound,” attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, was based on the myth of the Titan who defied the ruling god Zeus and brought fire – and with it, civilizing knowledge – to humankind. For his “crime,” Prometheus was chained to a rock and subjected to daily torture. In the play, he is visited by characters who ask him why he committed the act and to beg for forgiveness.

In the ETC production, playing Friday through Sunday at Wheeler Arts Community Center, Prometheus is the online name of a hacker (played by Bradford Reilly) who worked for the NSA and its director – nicknamed “Zeus,” of course – to develop the all-knowing Firenet. Acting similarly to real-world fugitive Edward Snowden, the online titan makes the secret program public – giving “Fire” to mankind.

He is shackled by Hephaestus (Tristan Ross) and Kratos (Taylor Cox), now represented by the prison warden and guard. The Chorus who questions Prometheus and listens to his soliloquies is a TV reporter played by Ann Marie Elliott. Oceanus, the fellow Titan who begs the prisoner to reconcile with Zeus, is in 2016 his attorney, played by Ross. Cox also takes a second role as Hermes, Zeus’ messenger.

Prometheus also encounters Io (Elysia Rohm), a woman whom Zeus lusted after. In mythology, she was turned into a cow, today she is only called one as an epithet, and is disappeared to a neighboring prison cell.

The classic translation of the Greek drama is kept intact, so to be understandable we must take myth as metaphor, but Reilly manages to communicate well his disdain for a tyrant of any era. Ross, Cox and Elliott, all experienced with Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, have no trouble with this material either. I first thought that Elliott in her role smiled a bit much for such serious subject matter, but it works as a portrayal of the cynical nature of today’s media – addressing world-changing news with an incredulous grin. Rohm is effective in making us feel Io’s plight – whether as the maiden pursued by an amorous god, or an inconvenient affair that a man in power can’t let walk free.

To better understand the story and put it in a relatable context, there are several well-produced broadcast news breaks shown on a screen to the side of the simple set of Prometheus’s cell. These were helpful and fit right in with the whole concept of the play.

Director Carey Shea and company have produced an excellent fresh take on an old story, a commentary on the “gods” we may all find ourselves answering to. Find Wheeler Arts at 1035 Sanders St., Indianapolis, near Fountain Square. For information and tickets, see eclecticpond.org.

(Also posted at The Word)