Vital to war effort, ‘Fly Babies’ remembered on BCP stage

By John Lyle Belden

For any fan of history, especially if your knowledge of the “aviatrix” begins and ends with Amelia Earhardt, you need to see “Fly Babies,” playing through Sunday at Buck Creek Players.

Based on the actual Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II, this drama by Rusty Harding, directed by Melissa DeVito, features a portrayal of real-world aviation legend Jackie Cochran, who – among numerous accomplishments – started this civilian corps of women pilots that helped deliver military aircraft around the United States, and train (male) pilots and crew members for deployment overseas. The ever-masculine Army Air Corps kept the program under wraps at the time, with the women only getting their due in recent decades.

At Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Cochran (Sue Kuehnhold) takes under her wing a flock representing the various types of women aviators who trained for WASP wings: Dotty Moore (Sabrina Duprey), who flew with her father as a crop-duster; Pauline Yates (Cass Knowling), a daredevil barnstormer who keeps on flying despite her husband’s death in a crash; Peggy Taylor (Audrey Duprey), a spoiled socialite whose Daddy had her take flying lessons, then apply for this duty, to buff up the family brand; and Hazel Ying (Maria R. Manalang), representing the few minorities allowed into the program, a veteran of action against the Japanese in her parents’ homeland, China.

Mazy Buford (Alicia Sims) represents one of the less honorable aspects of the story: not even allowed in the all-male Tuskegee Airmen, this experienced African American pilot settled for working as a seamstress and cleaning lady to be as close to the aircraft as she could get.

Adding a little levity and charm is Sgt. Louis Lewis (Josh Rooks), the soldier who can get you anything, and despite his non-stop faulty flirting, is a good and likable guy.

Col. Thomas Evans (Tom Smith) is the officer in charge. He’s not thrilled with the program, but sees its necessity in freeing up men to fly in the War. Less understanding is WASP instructor Cpt. John Whitaker (Logan Browning), a man bitter with prejudice – misogynist and racist – and scarred in mind and body from being shot down in the Pacific. The lone survivor of his squadron, Whitaker took out enough of the enemy to earn a Silver Star, but is too damaged to return to action. He takes no pleasure in training “broads” to fly warbirds, but orders are orders, and he grudgingly comes to admit they are pretty good. The women respect his abilities but chafe at his constant meanness; they flip one of his insults – Fly Babies – into a badge of honor.

In the course of their training, Dotty seeks to rectify the injustice done to Mazy, infuriating Cochran, who understands, but also knows pushing the issue could jeopardize the whole program. Meanwhile, some gremlin has been defacing and damaging the WASP training planes. Whitaker insists it’s just harmless “hijinks” by some of the men on the base, but how far will such pranks go?

Dotty in later years is played by Sarah Latimer, in scenes that bookend the story. Stage manager Lauren E. Ruddick steps in as her nurse.

Performances are strong all around. An aviator offstage, Sabrina Duprey adds that confidence to her already impressive talent. Real-world sister Audrey is no slouch either, playing the girl who must become an independent woman who serves not just her family, but her country. Knowling shows no rust in taking her first stage role since high school, giving us one of the more well-rounded characters in the cast. Experienced performer Manalang charms in her first major drama role. Sims brings an important character to life, ranging from expressing the joy of flight to the supreme irritation at how the country she wants to defend treats her. 

Smith plays an apt representative of Army brass, working from tolerating to appreciating to defending the unit he commands. Browning manages to lend some degree of humanity to a very damaged man. Rooks doesn’t take his Radar-esque role too far, projecting a clear sense of duty under the goofy exterior, as well as honest affection. Kuehnhold plays Cochran as both mission-focused and a mama-bear, rock steady always.

In this high-stakes high-pressure environment, the story does take tragic turns. Social attitudes of the era cannot be avoided, either. Appropriate in context, but disturbing to modern ears, there are some racial-ethnic slurs against both Blacks and Asians. DeVito says these parts of the dialogue were discussed with the cast, who agreed it would be more impactful to be true to the period.

Though overall an imagined story, “Fly Babies” is true to the history and shines a light on a nearly forgotten part of America’s effort in winning WWII. Opening-night turnout was surprisingly low. Hopefully more will come out to see this inspiring play, 8 p.m. Friday or Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (April 8-10) at BCP, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Touching treatment of Steinbeck classic in Westfield

By Wendy Carson

There was a comedian who once said he doesn’t like “Star Wars” because growing up he saw the movie “Spaceballs” first and was disappointed by the lack of comedy. Growing up with numerous Looney Tunes cartoon shorts parodying various high-minded subjects, I feel the same way about “Of Mice and Men.” I liked the comedic versions I grew up watching. However, I have learned that with local theater offerings, a great production can change your opinion of a show — and that is the case here.

Main Street Productions in Westfield has on stage a remarkable version of the John Steinbeck novel. George Milton (Brian Coon) and Lennie Small (Joe Wagner) are two drifters in search of a small stake they can use to purchase a small house and farm in order to “live off the fat of the land.” This brings them to the barley farm that proves to be their salvation and undoing.

Once they arrive in the farm bunkhouse, they meet our somewhat usual assortment of characters: the gruff, no-nonsense Boss (A. Mikel Allan) and his hot-headed son Curley (Jake Hobbs), who recently married and seems to always be searching for his flirty wife (Audrey Duprey). For the actual working members of the crew, we have Slim (Robert Webster Jr.), the mule driver and de facto supervisor; Candy (Chris Otterman) a crippled, aging farmhand with a dog (Meeko) about as broken as he is; Crooks (Austin Hookfin), the black stable-hand who gets his name from his injured back (NOTE: As the script was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression, certain racist terms are used, in context); as well as the other farm hands Carlson (Logan Browning) and Whit (Nathaniel Taff).

Coon does a great job of balancing George’s ambitious dream of the future with his concerns for Lennie’s actions erasing all hope of it. While Wagner seemed to take a little bit to fully get into character, once he settled in, his Lennie emulates all of the sweet naivete and simplicity of purpose that the character struggles with in his desire to just hold and enjoy the feel of something soft in his hands.

Otterman’s performance is perhaps my favorite. He manages to keep Candy upbeat while embracing the character’s desolate vision of his pathetically painful demise on the farm. He takes on the hopefulness of joining George and Lennie on their farm, trusting them to “take him out back and shoot him” when he is no longer viable. He even manages to upstage Meeko, whose debut turn as Candy’s Dog makes him a rising star to watch for in future roles.

Chris Otterman aptly brings out Curley’s obsessively neurotic desires to keep his wife happy, yet under control, at any cost. As Curley’s wife, Duprey delicately treads the line between the lonely woman who just wants companionship and the “tart” out to make trouble among the menfolk for her own pleasure. Webster does an admirable job of subtly showing Slim as a man just wanting to keep peace throughout the workforce without encouraging any of them to fall for the “honey trap.”

Hookfin gives us a window to the struggles people in his skin had in that era, even in the otherwise egalitarian world of the farm worker or ranch hand.

James H. Williams directs, and Ian Marshall-Fisher provides an excellent bunkhouse/barn design for the stage. Coon also created the lighting design.

While the show is a heady mixture of the stark realities of life, it does manage to portray the human struggle for hope and happiness throughout. Whether you liked the novel or not, you should certainly give the play a viewing. It will help open dialogues regarding its message and why it remains a classic of literature that should continue to be taught in our schools.

One weekend of “Of Mice and Men” remains, though Sunday, Feb. 20, at the relatively new Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Info and tickets at www.westfieldplayhouse.org.

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. 

Mud Creek hosts hilarious holiday hostage hijinks

By John Lyle Belden

Christmas should not be this funny, should it?

From the beginning scene, Mud Creek Players’ “In-Laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should Be Shot)” starts firing off the zingers, as holiday host Thomas Douglas (Ronan Marra) and teen daughter Beth (Audrey Duprey) discuss frankly the odd behavior of the relatives who will gather for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

There will be redneck Bud (Tom Riddle), his wife Bunny (Jennifer Poynter), a Jersey girl with no sense of personal space, and their super-achiever daughter Tracy (Alaina Moore); as well as elderly New Yorkers Aunt Rose (Kerry Mitchell) and Uncle Leo (Robert C. Boston Jr.) who never stop talking — either to bicker at each other or to name-drop and reminisce from days gone by. Tom’s wife Janet (Margie Worrell) is also expected, but her business flight from Vermont is late.

The Douglas home is caught in an unexpected snowstorm, but that doesn’t stop neighbor and local busybody Mrs. Draper (Veronique Duprey) from coming over to complain that Tom hasn’t turned on his holiday lights. Soon, they have bigger problems — unexpected guests Tony (Brock Francis) and Vinny (Connor Phelan), a pair of robbers hiding from police patrols. At gunpoint, Tony insists that everyone have a normal evening meal, but he soon finds that “normal” has no place in this house.

The home becomes more crowded with hostages as neighbor kid Paul (who is sweet on Beth) shows up, followed later by his sister Emily (Rylee Odle), then their mother (Jennifer Kaufmann). The robbers try to contain the situation by putting men and women in separate rooms, but that only spreads out the madness. Also, good-natured Vinny seems to be succumbing to a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

Add Aniqua ShaCole’ as the inevitable visiting police officer, and you have a situation ripe with comedy.  Yes, being a Christmas play, the Steve Franco script does include a bit of heart — and maybe a happy ending — but I also found a lot of moments of laughing until I nearly passed out. Francis, Phelan and Moore especially get to stretch their comic muscles, as this whole ensemble shines in an uproarious good time. You may even see a little of your own relatives in this bunch, or at least have something to compare to when holidays at home get extreme.

Find this farce at the Mud Creek Players Barn, 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton and Geist), through Dec. 15. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.