Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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IndyFringe: Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace

By John Lyle Belden

This is the kind of show you go to Fringe festivals for: Entertaining, immersive, funny – and you might win a prize!

Drag diva Betsy Carmichael is the self-proclaimed “First Lady of Bingo,” and for the most part the show has everyone in the audience playing rounds of the game, called by her accompanist Jerry Mosey as “Chip.” But she spices it up with planned responses to many of the numbers she gets everyone to call out. Or maybe she has a little story to tell. Or maybe some lucky “player” gets to craft a good-luck charm right on the stage. Whatever she’s up to, she’s always charming.

And be ready when the number called ends in 4: that’s “four – candy store,” when Betsy throws candy.

She only had three performances during the recently-concluded IndyFringe. Hopefully, since she hails from Chicago, she’ll make the trip back down again soon.

Info at www.BetsyBingo.com.

IndyFringe: ‘Tonight, Tonight’

By John Lyle Belden

Comedy works best when the comic has someone good to play the jokes off of. In “Tonight, Tonight,” the improv talk show, that person is you!

Mark Cashwell is attempting the TV talk format as a one-person show, no sidekick or bandleader, and the tech in the back is mostly there to play music for the dance breaks — there are dance breaks, you will dance.

You could also be “Tonight”s guest.

To be honest, this show only works if you help make it work. But when you do, the result is hilarious fun.

The show also includes breaks for “commercials,” when familiar local radio ads get skewered.

So give Mark your time, some suggestions, your funky moves, or even silly answers to “What’s your movie about?” and he will give you a highly entertaining hour.

Remaining performances of “Tonight Tonight: An Improvized Late-Night Talk Show” are in a few minutes — 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24 — and at 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the downstairs stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave.

Festival info at www.indyfringe.org.

IndyFringe: ‘Meatball Seance’

By Wendy Carson

John Michael has a new boyfriend!

Now, he just wants to take him home, introduce him to his beloved mom, and have him try her amazing meatballs which are overflowing with her love. There’s just one problem with this, she’s dead. His only hope is to have his new boyfriend help him make a batch in order to bring back her spirit.

We, the audience, are invited to add our collective energy to the process as well as fill in for some of the characters (apparently, John Michael can be a bit difficult to work with, hence the lack of other cast members).

The journey is brilliantly hilarious and touchingly delightful. Although some of this material edges on melancholy and sad, in John Michael’s deft touch, the hope and and joy of his memories of him mom’s love and advice make it side-splittingly funny.

So, make sure you catch one of his two remaining performances at the INDY ELEVEN Theatre in the IndyFringe building – tonight (Monday) at 7:30 p.m. and Tuesday (Aug. 22) at 9 p.m. – before you regret missing out. The show is not only a perfect palate-cleanser to your Fringe experience, but a whirlwind of happiness that must be seen.

Remember, that bread must first be torn apart in order to create the breadcrumbs that bind everything together.

Info: www.indyfringe.org

Down with BHC? Hey, you know me!

By John Lyle Belden

Do you have a favorite BHC?

That stands for Beloved Holiday Classic book, movie or television special; nearly everyone has at least one they love to revisit this time of year. And nearly all get at least a shout-out in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told …and then some!” on stage through Dec. 18 at Buck Creek Players.

Steven Linville apparently loves Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” and is eager to get its performance under way – “Marley was dead…” etc. – but Jessica Bartley and Stacia Ann Hulen revolt, and insist that other holiday classics get their due. Thus the trio address the plots of various BHCs, from Charlie Brown to Dr. Seuss to Dylan Thomas, and throw in facts about Christmas celebrations in other countries around the world.

In Act Two, Linville finally gets to lead a production of Christmas Carol – but wait! One of the more popular BHCs was almost forgotten, and its story ends up in a wild mash-up with Scrooge’s.

Bartley, Hulen and Linville charm and bring plenty of festive comic energy to the show, but they can’t do it alone – the audience and select members occasionally get called on to help things along. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re bound to have a fun time at this holiday treat.

And I must praise set designer Aaron B. Bailey for the wonderful stage set, with our players standing among a library of giant holiday-themed books.

Director D. Scott Robinson said he wasn’t sure he wanted to helm a Christmas show, until he saw this script. He especially enjoyed mixing the music for the show’s “Nutcracker” interlude, which sounds a little different from how Tchaikovsky wrote it.

P.S. Bring cash for the annual cookie sale fundraiser.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor for The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based LGBTQ news source, where he also places his reviews. He’d like to think of “Die Hard” and “Trading Places” as BHCs, and has a great fondness for “Year Without a Santa Claus.”