Phoenix: Check out this quirky ‘Hotel’

By John Lyle Belden

What do a hat box, the song “Afternoon Delight,” the television show “Bewitched,” and a toy giraffe have in common? As you find out, you’ll discover that the taxi driver is not Carl, the dispatcher is not an astronaut, and wait until you meet the human pincushion in purple!

This is all part of your stay at “The Hotel Nepenthe,” a surreal comedy by John Kuntz (and not by Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch on mushrooms as I’d suspected) now playing at the Phoenix Theatre.

Kuntz embraces the term “schizophrenic noir” for his web of intersecting plots. Ben Asaykwee, Jolene Mintink Moffatt, Betsy Norton, and Scott Van Wye play multiple characters in and around the titular hotel — including Van Wye as the busy bellhop. There has been a murder, and others may die. Things are lost and found. And then there’s the mystery of who, when, where, what and why is Tabitha Davis? We get a provocative look at celebrity stardom, as well as lessons on possibility and parallel universes. All this, delivered with moments of both exquisite tension and gut-busting hilarity.

In the end, it will all seem to make a sort of sense. Or not. Either way, this foursome deliver outstanding performances, slipping in and out of various characters, sometimes right before our eyes. The atmosphere breathes with an impressive soundscape masterfully woven by Brian G. Hartz. Kudos also to scenic designer Daniel Uhde, and costume and props designer Danielle Buckel, for the walls of curiosities that add another layer of depth to the intimate confines of the Basile “black box” stage. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

For anyone open to the unusual, you will find something to enjoy at “The Hotel Nepenthe.” Make your reservation by calling 317-635-7529 or visiting phoenixtheatre.org. The Phoenix is located at 705 N. Illinois downtown.

Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

NoExit: Spend a holiday with some damaged people

By John Lyle Belden

If you never thought you’d see No Exit, the local company known for unusual and avant garde performances, and Tennessee Williams, notable for brilliant standard dramas, in the same sentence, have I got a surprise for you.

“The Mutilated,” originally written and staged as a one-act in 1965, is one of Williams’ later, more artistically adventurous plays. Though an initial failure, a New York revival with John Waters acolyte Mink Stole in a lead role five years ago earned praise. So yes, Tennessee, it is a No Exit play. And with the company’s Drosselmeyer taking the holidays off (he had a cabaret in July), this counts as their “Christmas” show.

Most of the cast also act as chorus — not just in the “Greek” sense, but more literally as holiday carolers. The focus is on our leads, Celeste Delacroix Griffin (Beverly Roche) and Trinket Dugan (Gigi Jennewein).

On Christmas Eve, 1938, Celeste has been released from the House of Detention where she had been held for shoplifting — one of her many, many vices. She makes her way back to the Silver Dollar Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter where Trinket lives fairly comfortably, but alone, off the proceeds of a single oil well. The two had been each other’s only friend, but a fight prior to Celeste’s arrest has left Trinket too wounded to forgive.

But Trinket also carries a deeper scar, “mutilated” by the loss of a breast both physically and mentally, in perpetual shame and paranoia of the stigma from anyone finding out. Sadly, Celeste exploits this in her selfish, immature efforts to keep Trinket in her life. Thus the night is mostly a battle of wills between the women. Celeste leaves clues to Trinket’s secrets and calls her by her former, less colorful name. Meanwhile, desperate for company, Trinket takes home a sailor (Matthew Walls) so drunk he wavers between dull confusion and violent agitation. All the while, hotel manager Bernie (Zachariah Stonerock) sits by, eyes on his comic book, exasperated like he’s seen these scenes play out between the women many times before.

Roche and Jennewein give award-worthy performances: Celeste prowls the two-level stage like a predator, while Trinket works her corner like a wounded deer. In fact, all the cast are superb, including Walls, Stonerock, Mark Cashwell, Dan Flahive, Abby Gilster, Elysia Rohn and Doug Powers.

While costumes and sets are standard for a Depression-era drama, there are a number of artsy, edgy touches, including the arresting manner in which the “carols” are sung (words by Williams, music adapted by Ben Asaykwee), and the way so much is left unsaid, including the full story of Trinket’s “mutilation.” Then there is the bewildering ending — a “miracle” is promised, and seems to be delivered, but it is up to you after the lights go up to work out what it all means.

As other commenters on the play have noted, the characters here are all “mutilated” in some way: physically, mentally, spiritually. We see the pains of addiction, whether it be to wine or a person. Yet like any holiday show, even in Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans, anything is possible on Christmas day.

No Exit has located “The Mutilated” in the Carriage House of the Indianapolis Propylaeum, 1410 N. Delaware downtown (a couple of blocks north of the President Benjamin Harrison home). Performances are through Sunday; see noexitperformance.org for information and tickets.

‘Cabaret Poe’ right at home on yet another stage

By John Lyle Belden

For those who know of “Cabaret Poe,” the musical exploration of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems by Ben Asaykwee and presented by his Q Artistry productions, know that it has returned for its 10th year with its premiere with the Phoenix Theatre on its black-box Basile stage — complete with a couple of tweaks to adapt to its space and keep it fresh.

For those who have not yet seen it, this is a perfect opportunity to experience what is becoming a local fall tradition. It started a decade ago in haunted Irvington, and has since moved to Mass. Ave. and even Circle Centre Mall. Now, in partnership with the Phoenix, it and other Q Artistry works have a new home.

Asaykwee is Zolius, the gaunt acerbic leader of his little band, including fair ladies Morella and Berenice, and a mysterious Shadow that haunts the proceedings. He also has a small four-piece orchestra to provide music and much of the atmosphere. Our women are dual-cast; depending on the performance, you may see original performers Renae Stone as Morella and Julie Lyn Barber as Berenice, or Georgeanna Smith Wade and Jaddy Ciucci respectively.

They prefer you experience the suspense of not knowing what comes next, so there is no set published program, and I won’t spoil that here. Just know that many favorites will be recited and acted out, including “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and, of course, “The Raven.”

Rebekah Taylor slinks her way around the stage as the silent Shadow, and even gets to interpret one piece in a featured dance.

There are a few moments of audience interaction, so it truly is a little different at each performance. Changes to the set include lights embedded in the crypt-stage, used to good effect. Asaykwee’s style and his contributions to Poe’s words add clever dark humor, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening. There are no major scares, just a spooky atmosphere, and TV-PG language so this show is good for tweens and older.

Tickets have been selling briskly, so act fast. The show runs through Nov. 4 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

‘Cabaret Poe’ returns with new site, fresh look and familiar chills

By John L. Belden and Wendy Carson

Quoth Wendy:

You always know that Halloween is approaching when Q Artistry launches its annual production of “Cabaret Poe.” This is not to disparage the show in any way – even after almost 10 years of shows, the audiences are still enthralled by it. In fact, a patron behind me was proudly seeing the show for the sixth time and still loved it just as much as the first.

This year’s show does mark another change of venue, this time in a small alcove on the fourth floor of Circle Centre Mall (in the heart of downtown Indy). Upon first entering the space, it seems very cramped and awkward. However, the company has turned this on its ear with inventive staging.

No longer do cast members leave the stage when not actively performing; instead they seat themselves throughout the crowd and become part of the audience, observing the spectacle themselves. By utilizing the whole space as their stage, and with the addition of projection screens, they assure that there is not a bad seat in the house.

I was also quite impressed by the unique lighting effects utilized by designer Brent Wunderlich. From innovatively turning their black and grey hues to purples, to bathing the audience in a rainbow of colors during “Masque of the Red Death.”

Quoth John:

Oops, sorry Ben!  — Show creator Ben Asaykwee likes keeping it a surprise which of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems he has adapted for the evening’s Cabaret, and in which order. But it won’t give too much away to say that some pieces can be expected to appear, like the one about a heart that tells tales, or the quest for a rare cask of Spanish wine, or a certain obnoxious black bird…

Asaykwee presents it all with his catchy inventive songs, infused with dark humor, such as “Buried Alive,” “Dark (The Pit and the Pendulum),” and the recurring title theme. He also stars as one of three performer/narrators, the smugly sour Zoilus. His accomplices are two women, Morella and Berenice. On opening night, they were played by Julie Lyn Barber, a Cabaret Poe player since its first year, and Georgeanna Smith Wade, a first-timer in this revue, but no stranger to the strange as a major player in the NoExit troupe. Some performances feature Q Artistry veterans Renae Stone and Jaddy Ciucci in the ladies’ roles. In addition, a ghostly dancing shadow is perfectly silently executed by Rebekah Taylor – she even gets a solo scene.

The lighting effects, projections, and shadow puppetry are new for this year, fitting seamlessly into the narratives and reducing the need for physical props. But then, the players do have us, the audience, to play with.

Quoth Wendy:

With the changes made, this was my favorite version of the show. “Cabaret” implies an intimacy different from other kinds of productions, and this presented it more effectively that in past shows.

Concludeth John:

So, it’s both old and new, familiar and surprising – like a 21st-century musical based on a nineteenth century writer. Performances run through Oct. 29. Get info and tickets at qartistry.org.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Great Bike Race’ returns to TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve heard friends in Fringe shows say it’s hard to constrain a whole play to 40 minutes, so it must have been a relief for writer-director Zack Neiditch to let “The Great Bike Race.” his 2014 IndyFringe comedy hit, play out a full 70 minutes on the stage of Theatre on the Square, weekends through June 24.

The Race of the title is the 1904 Tour de France. After the success of the inaugural Tour the previous year, the ’04 bicycle race attracted a lot of attention and opportunistic riders. It became infamous for its widespread sabotage and cheating – including a competitor using a train as a “shortcut.”

Bringing that action to today’s audiences, Neiditch and Zach Rosing present a “cleverly anachronistic” (their characters told me to write that) play with the aid of antic actors, pantomime bicycles and a big projection screen.

Much of the Fringe cast returns, including Frankie Bolda as noble teen Henri Cornet. Paige Scott and Ben Asaykwee are the race front-runners and bitter rivals, Hippolyte Acoutrier and Maurice Garin. Carrie Bennett Fedor and Evan Wallace are Jean-Baptiste DuFortunac and Llucien Portier, two men who like each other very, very much. Sonia Goldberg is the only woman playing a woman, Alois Catteau, but she’s pretending to be a man. John Kern and Craig Kemp play other riders, while Josh Ramsey plays three from three different countries, whom at one point all get in an argument while trying to beat each other to the front of the pack.

For those who’ve seen it before, this version doesn’t feel padded-out at all. It’s still manic fun throughout its course, complete with contested Victory Dance.

Who wins? You do, by getting to see this hilarious show (whether again, or for the first time). Call 317-685-8687 or visit tots.org for tickets.

Incredible ‘Cabaret’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is still putting his reviews here.

By John Lyle Belden

The Actors Theatre of Indiana production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” is one of those “even if you’ve seen it before” shows that you absolutely should see.

And if you are only familiar with the Joel Gray/Liza Minnelli movie version of the musical, you haven’t seen it like this – as ATI and director Billy Kimmel opt for the “revival” version of the production. This perfectly suits the brilliant Ben Asaykwee as the randy Emcee (in the Tony-winning style of Alan Cumming).

Asaykwee struts and coos his way through the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Eric J. Olson) and wayward English singer Sally Bowles (ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins) in Berlin just as the Nazis are seizing power. Collins is appropriately brash and charismatic and in great voice. Olson tackles an everyman role (though gay, or at least bisexual) with the perfect touch, our proxy to events that are at first unbelievable in a fun and entertaining sense, then chilled with approaching calamity.

Patrick Vaughn is smooth as the deceptively charming Ernst Ludwig, Debra Babich is strong yet sweet as landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Darrin Murrell as Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz makes you ache to know that such a wonderful man is unwilling to see the growing danger around him. Also notable are Judy Fitzgerald as working-girl Fraulein Kost, Nicholas Roman and Kenny Shepard as sensuous bookends Bobby and Victor (and other roles as needed), the BEAUTIFUL Kit Kat girls Nicole Bridgens, Jenee Michelle, Ashley Saunders and Carol Worcel (who also choreographed) and the BEAUTIFUL orchestra.

As history lesson, allegory, love story and brilliant entertainment, this show works on all levels. See it through Nov. 20 at the Studio Theatre (next to the Tarkington) in The Center for the Performing Arts, 4 Center Green, Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or see www.atistage.org. Note there are a few table seats right next to the stage; inquire with the box office as to availability.

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

Reiew: Duo puts on killer show

By John Lyle Belden

To use the language of its era, “White City Murder,” by and starring Ben Asaykwee and Claire Wilcher, is a marvel and a spectacle, well worthy of your dime – well, many of them; it is 2016, after all.

But in a room of the Irvington Lodge, it’s 1893 in Chicago at the Worlds Fair, the setting for much of this musical drama by Q Artistry in which Asaykwee and Wilcher are more than 30 characters and, thanks to a keyboard and vocal loopers, the musical instruments as well.

The plot is familiar to readers of the bestselling book, “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson (not cited as a source, but likely an influence on Asaykwee’s writing of the show). An impressive complex of buildings, known as the White City for its monochrome style, hosts the Fair while just a couple of miles away, a man known at the time as H.H. Holmes was running his hotel – popularly known as his “murder castle” for its various rooms designed for killing people and processing and disposing of their bodies. Aside from his psychopathy, Holmes killed for profit, selling skeletons to colleges and cashing in on insurance policies. This show delves into his past, and continues after the Fair closes to portray Holmes’ actions to stay ahead of Pinkerton detectives (investigating insurance fraud, not murder), ending not long after his brief stay in Irvington (just blocks away from where the musical is staged).

The story of the person regarded as America’s first serial killer (and one of the most prolific) is told in a fascinating, eccentric manner with old-time pizzazz, drawing a gasp one moment, nervous laughter the next. In the hands of these two master comic actors, it is a performance not to be missed.

And, if I must stop gushing and be a critic for a moment, that’s the show’s main flaw: It feels like a show only these two pros can do. As a musical that can be picked up, re-staged and performed by others – say, in Chicago or even off-Broadway – “White City Murder” has a lot of rough edges. Fortunately, Asaykwee is such a great showman and Wilcher an improv goddess that any goofs, flubs, lulls or moments of this-isn’t-quite-working are easily smoothed over – likely easily forgotten by most of the audience by the end. The musical interludes could use some work, and reliance on electronics does invite technical glitches. There is clever use of what look like large cardboard cutouts that stops for no reason and could be useful in more parts of the plot. I could nitpick further, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Asaykwee and Wilcher are already making tweaks for the show’s second weekend.

Still, as a sort of “beta test” of a show that’s good enough to perform but not quite perfected, this is an excellent first edition.

Remaining performances are Saturday (March 26), and Thursday through Saturday, March 31 to April 2, at 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. See qartistry.org for tickets.

(Review also posted at The Word)

After TOTS triumph, Asaykwee continues dark path

By John Lyle Belden

If you missed the recent run of the Tracy Letts drama “Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square, it’s understandable. Sellouts were common, even with an additional performance added.

Still, you would have missed one heck of a show. The raw impact of the story of a redneck Texas family hiring a hitman to kill one of its members, with the titular character agreeing to take the young woman of the family as a “security deposit,” was enforced by a top-shelf cast – including local stage veterans Dan Scharbrough, Nate Walden, Lisa Marie Smith and Jaddy Ciucci.

But the most triumphant performance was by Ben Asaykwee as Joe. For those who only know his work with darkly comic characters – like the many he developed as founder of Q Artistry and shows like “Cabaret Poe” – his chilling transformation into the no-nonsense Texas hitman bordered on shocking. With surprisingly little effort, he projected menace and put us all on notice that his true range and depth is much greater than many ever suspected.

This weekend, TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis, opened the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, “Passion,” playing weekends through March 26. (See www.tots.org.)

Meanwhile, Asaykwee has left downtown and set his sights on entertaining us with the story of an actual killer.

Apparently unafraid of ghosts – working as he has for the past several years in former Masonic Lodge 666 in the haunted neighborhood of Irvington – Asaykwee, with megatalent Claire Wilcher, present “White City Murder,” a new musical based on the exploits of America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, performed just blocks away from where Holmes briefly lived and is believed to have killed at least one child, who is said to still haunt the home.

The musical runs March 18-20, March 26 and March 31-April 2 at the lodge, 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. It’s plot concerns the “murder hotel” where dozens of young women disappeared during the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. The events are recounted in the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, which tells of Holmes’ many murders to collect on victims’ insurance and the building he had constructed to make the process of killing and disposal more efficient.

If anyone can set such a macabre topic to music in an entertaining fashion, it’s Asaykwee – who has already succeeded with the works of Edgar Alan Poe and writing an opera about the tragic Donner Party. And if anyone can help make such an odd show work, it’s Wilcher, who just helped co-write “Babes in Toyland,” is a comic legend with 3-Dollar Bill and ComedySportz, and gave brilliant performances in musicals including “Cabaret” and “Man of LaMancha.”

Find ticket information at www.qartistry.org, or follow “Qartistry” on Facebook.

(This story also posted on The Word.)