A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

IF welcomes you to ‘Pooh Corner’

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Most of us have spent at least part of our childhood in the Hundred Acre Wood, or even in an acre of our own with some dear plush pals. Return to that wonder-filled place at “The House at Pooh Corner,” presented by Improbable Fiction Theatre Company at the Ivy Tech auditorium in Noblesville.

In pajama-esque costume, Winnie-the-Pooh and friends from A.A. Milne’s books come to life, adapted by Bettye Knapp, directed for IFTC by Dana Lesh. 

Today’s adventure starts with an Emergency Meeting, with much to address. Eeyore is tired of standing out in a field at 3 a.m. and wants a house. A mysterious and frightening new creature has appeared, wreaking havoc on Pooh’s chair and Owl’s home. Who or what is the mysterious “Backson”? Most concerning, though, is that Christopher Robin’s parents are intent on sending the boy away to “Education.” 

This calls for action – perhaps an excursion to the South Pole, as the North Pole has crocodiles.

In this production, what would have been just a charming experience for young audiences has been made truly exceptional by near-perfect casting: 

  • Daniel Shock has not only the constantly contemplative look but also the familiar classic voice of Pooh Bear down solid. 
  • Diann Ryan masters Piglet’s mix of energetic, neurotic, and eager-to-please. 
  • Scott Prill exudes all the gentlemanly gravitas of Owl. 
  • Jennifer Poynter is endearingly maternal and germaphobic as Kanga, dealing with Sean Wood as hyper and eager-for-fun Roo. 
  • Barb Weaver has the take-charge attitude of Rabbit, who also watches over bunny relatives Early (Evelyn BeDell) and Late (Paxton Shock). 
  • Geoff Lynch embodies the blustering braggart force of nature that is Tigger, complete with animated giggle.  
  • Ryan Shelton brays as discontented, depressed Eeyore so well, it’s a wonder he isn’t on the others’ nerves. 
  • Gabrielle Morrison seems to have stepped off the page as Christopher Robin. The voice of his father (one of “them”) is provided by Jeff Bick. 

The commitment by the actors to their plush alter-egos helps immerse us in the whimsy of their world, making this a nice experience for theatre-goers of any age. As an added treat, the cast comes out to greet and take pictures with fans at the front of the stage after each performance. 

Visit “The House on Pooh Corner” April 22-24 – 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday – at Ivy Tech, 300 N. 17th St., Noblesville. Find information and tickets at iftheatrecompany.org.

CCP: Explore ‘Curious Incident’ with unique mind

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius who finds all social and physical interactions terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father in Swindon, UK, having lost his mother two years earlier.

His love of animals brings him out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it killed. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the responding policeman tries to calm him down, his touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but Christopher is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, he decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do it himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” This 2015 Tony-winning play by Simon Stephens, based on the acclaimed novel by Mark Haddon, is on stage at the Cat Theater through March 6, presented by Carmel Community Players. 

While he does eventually find the killer’s identity, the path to that information has Christopher discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities.

The staging, like the novel, is from Christopher’s point of view. Director Larry Adams and his crew (assistant Karissa Monson, lighting and video design by Eric Matters, set by David Muse, and sound design by Lori Raffel) excellently deliver the technical aspects of his world with all its abrupt stimuli, cacophonous sounds, and tangled language. 

Being on stage the whole time, the role of Christopher is demanding to start with – add to this a British accent, various physical tics and almost constant movement and it turns into a Herculean challenge. In his first leading role, Noah Ebeyer is spectacular in embodying the part. He never seems to act; we only see the troubled genius trying to make sense of his world, get the answers he feels he deserves, and get to school in time to take his Maths A-Levels exams. Adams agrees with the talk of the performance being award-worthy, marveling at how Ebeyer took naturally to the role. And while the boy he plays may be put off by us strangers, he makes us feel something special for him.

Christopher’s teacher Siobahn (Lori Colcord) provides support and reads to us much of his inner dialogue from a notebook he had kept. Earl Campbell is sharp as his father Ed, struggling to do what’s best for Christopher and learning the hard way the consequences of keeping facts from one whose mind relies on them for his whole life’s structure. Nikki Lynch plays Christopher’s loving but overstressed mother Judy.

The rest of the cast – Tanya Haas, Kelly Keller, Cathie Morgan, Gus Pearcy, Ryan Shelton, Barb Weaver – morphs from one character to another (people as well as inanimate objects) while also voicing Christopher’s self-doubts and thoughts. No actual dogs were killed in the making of this show – including Bob Adams in a touching canine cameo.

Also, you will cheer for a mathematical solution! (Stay through the curtain call.)

The Cat is at 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Find information and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Mud Creek presents a little mystery with a lot of laughs

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a real treat to see stage veterans cut loose on a good American farce, such as the faces familiar to audiences at Mud Creek Players generating laughter with “Exit the Body.”

In the early 1960s – when telephones were not only still connected to the wall, in rural areas you still had to talk to the local operator – popular mystery writer Crane Hammond (played by Linda Eberharter) is spending a few weeks in the New England countryside to relax and work on her next novel, dragging reluctant secretary Kate (Barb Weaver) along. The cottage, just down the road from best friend Lillian (Judy McGroarty) and arranged by local real estate agent Helen (Ann Ellerbrook), has secrets of its own – including the possibility of hidden stolen diamonds! It appears that the housekeeper, Jenny (Savannah Jay), is in cahoots with local thug Randolph (Eric Matters) to recover those jewels, wherever they are.

Meanwhile, Lillian introduces her new husband, Lyle (Tim Long), but because of trouble with the old husband, she tells people that he is actually Crane’s husband, Richard (Joe Forestal – he’ll show up eventually). For local flavor, we have handyman/taxi driver/sheriff Vernon (Kevin Shadle). And for the titular Body, we have Phillip Smith (Tom Riddle), who could be anybody.

The hilarious slamming-door antics are helped along by a closet at the center of the set (designed by Jay Ganz) that opens into both the living room and the backstage library. The script and cast make full use of its comic and spooky (the body was there, now it’s gone!) possibilities. Though a mystery, this show delivers more laughs than chills, much like a Scooby-Doo episode for grown-ups.

Ellerbrook has Crane dealing with being in the plot rather than writing it, with McGroarty’s Lillian welcoming the diversion and Weaver’s Kate chewing the scenery with biting sarcasm. Long has Lyle just taking it all in stride. Generating the most laughs are Shadle – with a style reminiscent of a Carol Burnett cast member, keeping his character at the edge of absurdity – and Jay, whose airhead Jenny manages to charm while squeezing all the corn out of a Southern accent.

“Exit the Body” runs through Sept. 29 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn” at 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton area and Geist Reservoir). Call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.