IRT: Join the ‘Club’

By Wendy Carson

Book clubs are meant to be a gathering place where friends, both new and old, can commune together over literature – but are they, really? Many devolve into socially-acceptable drinking parties in which wine and gossip are far more important than some silly book.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) is determined to have her Book Club – begun prior to Oprah’s, she notes – to be the gold standard to which all others should be measured. In fact, her group has been selected by a notable Dutch documentary director to be the subject of his newest work, captured by an all-seeing-eye camera installed in their living room.

This is “The Book Club Play,” by Karen Zacarias, directed by Benjamin Hanna and playing on the main stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, its first production before live audiences in over a year.

Ana’s group is comprised of her best friend, club co-creator Will (Will Mobley); faithful gal-pal Jen (Emily Berman); oh-so-perfect husband Rob (Sean Davis); and new (black) co-worker Lily (Cassia Thompson).

Will and Ana are literary elitists who insist that even though book choices rotate, they MUST be considered classic literature. Jen is doing her best to just get each book read (and find her keys), while Rob is only here because it’s at his house and he likes the snacks.

Lily appears to be the only member who is actually participating and gaining something from the group. Therefore, it’s no surprise that she disrupts the dynamic by not only choosing a recently popular novel as her selection, but also by inviting her neighbor Alex (Adam Poss) to the group.

Each of our actors also play short cameos of other people interviewed in the documetary.

Davis is spectacular as the jock husband who gains amazing insight into his being when he actually reads one of the books they choose. Berman plays Jen’s socially awkward bestie perfectly, embodying the comic timing of the role. Mobley does an excellent job of keeping the neurosis of his character in check with the desperate need for validation to bring out the empathy within. San Miguel brings Ana to life as controlling and haughty, while keeping her vulnerable. Thompson’s subtle turn at Lily keeps her part of the action without overtly betraying her role as instigator of the drama that unfolds. Poss is brilliant as the agent provocateur, questioning the club’s motives, choices, and inherent prejudices (both literary and social).

Aside from brilliant comedy, with moments of slapstick, this production is impressive for the simple yet elegant living room set coming alive between scenes with the words of various books projected on the walls, the work of scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.

While a quote from the show describes it as “Lord of the Flies with Wine and Dip,” I think it’s better described as “A coed version of The Talk that you’d actually want to watch.” Oh, and please don’t exit the theater quickly as there is one final joke at the end of the credits.

Performances run through Oct. 31 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at irtlive.com.

IRT ‘Tuesdays’ provides lesson for any day

By John Lyle Belden

Morrie Schwartz wrote his own epitaph: “A Teacher to the Last.” But the lesson hasn’t ended; he’s still teaching us about life today.

The old college professor’s wisdom was captured by friend and former student Mitch Albom in his bestselling book, “Tuesdays With Morrie.” The stage play, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 21. The production, directed by Benjamin Hanna with Ryan Artzberger as Mitch and Henry Woronicz as Morrie, was recorded on the IRT mainstage earlier this month by local Public Television station WFYI for viewing online.

Mitch had treasured his time with Morrie at Brandeis University, taking every one of the old man’s Sociology classes. They inspired him to follow his dream of becoming a jazz pianist after college. But life has a way of killing one’s dreams, so Mitch turned to his other talent, writing, and became a successful sportswriter and columnist. He left Morrie’s gentle guidance in the past, embracing the hard-hitting world of chasing the next deadline.

Until the night he happened to watch an episode of “Nightline.”

Morrie’s life had changed as well. His spry energy – he loved to dance – was failing him, and it was discovered he had ALS (popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and, at most, months to live. His decision to confront dying head-on, ironically enriching his life, got the attention of local media, and eventually Ted Koppel.

Upon learning of Morrie’s condition, Mitch took a brief moment from his frantic schedule to pay him a visit. It was only going to be one Tuesday afternoon, but he eventually went back, and kept returning to Morrie’s Massachusetts home every week until the professor was gone. Ever the journalist, Mitch asked questions, which his mentor gladly answered, re-cementing a bond that not even death could break.

The script by Albom and Hatcher is loaded with refreshing drops of wisdom by Schwartz – a welcome relief from the spiritual drought of this last year – delivered with sincere joy by Woronicz, who also contemplated life’s final chapters in his previous IRT role in “Morning After Grace.” Artzberger, a familiar face to local audiences, also played Mitch at the IRT about a decade ago, and comfortably still fits Albom’s shoes.

Like real life (which this is based on), there are many sad and heart-touching moments, but there is also an abundance of humor natural to the exchange of quips between a wise teacher and the student who doesn’t realize he has so much to learn, or between two souls who truly love one another. The overall arc is uplifting, something we all need right now.

To take this master class in life, visit irtlive.com. A $30 virtual ticket gives access to those gathered around the screen, perhaps the IRT’s best value (though your friends should consider hitting that “donate” button).

For young audiences, IRT presents the power of positive playacting

By Wendy Carson

Our new friends, Devan (Mathias), Isaiah (Moore), and Frankie (Bolda) have decided to put on a play for us.

Devan has drawn a picture of a train and wants to deliver it to her other friends who live a long way away on the other side of the big, big hill. So it is decided that Devan will be a train engine, Isaiah wants to be everything but finally settles on being a doggie passenger on the train, and Frankie will help out by making all the proper sounds throughout.

This is “The Little Choo-Choo That Thinks She Can,” the return engagement of a play for very young patrons at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, a familiar story made new by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still.

Once the train is all loaded up with passengers, Devan begins the trip up the big, big hill. However, the hill is just too big for her to make it over. She tries to enlist the assistance of various other engines but they all can’t, or won’t, help her out. 

She keeps trying, and each attempt gets her a little farther up the big, big hill — but quite not over it. We, her friends in the audience, offer encouragement to assist her in believing she has the ability to actually make it up the big, big hill by herself.

Will she make it? Will her special delivery get through to her friends? What sound does a giraffe make? These questions and others will be answered in terms that preschoolers, special-needs kids, and even the grown-ups who brought them will understand..

This show is a wonderful introduction to live theater shows for young children. It never talks down to them and encourages them to have fun, be themselves and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The room is divided into three seating areas. Each actor takes one section and gets to know their new friends (the individual kids in the audience) prior to the show. We are all asked to participate in the show, but only to our levels of comfort. 

This was especially evident in the performance I attended, one of their “Sensory Friendly Performances:” The lights are kept brighter; there are fidget spinners, headphones, and other toys available to use during the show; and it is acceptable to leave and return as the need requires. There is also a guide for parents to assist with knowing when loud or potentially off-putting things will occur. This allows all attendees to enjoy the show as much as possible. In fact, I hardly would have known it was not a regular performance if they had not brought it up beforehand.

The play was a delight for myself and my companions, especially the precocious little 4-year old for whom this was her first live show. She liked meeting Isaiah, both as an actor with skin like hers, as well as the purple puppy. She told me and her mother she can’t wait to see a play again.

This IRT Exploring Stages production (targeted to ages 3-8) is directed by Benjamin Hanna. Performances are held in the “cabaret” space, which isn’t too big and allows for easy interaction, through March 1. Tickets start at just $8 for a child to sit on the floor near the action, $17 for an adult to join them. The IRT is at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis, close to Circle Centre. For more information, call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT gives mouse-eye view of stage magic

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents an excellent introduction to the world of live theatre for the smallest patrons – preschool to the early school grades – with “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The show is immersive, encouraging audience participation in a gentle manner. Children take their seats on the floor right next to the “stage” area, which includes two paths running through the audience (parents or guardians can sit with them, or to the back in regular chairs). There is an opening introduction led by an IRT staffer, such as actor/educator Beverly Roche or play director Benjamin Hanna, to let everyone know what to expect and get them in the proper mood.

Everyone in the excellent cast play mice — with humans, hazards and a pesky cat (giant from our perspective) portrayed by light and sound effects to aid young imaginations. Claire Wilcher is Granny, matriarch of the Boot family, who resides in an old work shoe in a barn in The Country with grandson William (Grant Somkiet O’Meara, the lone kid actor). They are visited by Town cousin Montmorency De Vere Boot (Paeton Chavis), who informs them that William has inherited a nice piece of luxury footwear in an attic closet in a house in the heart of the city. When Monty brings William to Town to claim his new home, they come across the “tame twins,” white mice who escaped their pen to roam free about the house. Snowey (Carlos Medina Maldonado) is friendly and welcoming, while Silver (Brianna Milan) is mean and mistrusting, trying to trick William into dangerous situations.

While I would find it problematic if the theme emphasized the danger of exploring new places and that one is better off where they “belong,” the lesson emphasis here is on being brave – both in confronting new things and in stepping up to help someone else. The play program has an easy activity worksheet that includes questions on the topic of bravery, and the cast returns after the play to help lead a discussion on being brave.

The play is by British playwright Vicky Ireland, based on the traditional Aesop fable. A bit of the Queen’s English slips in – like “ready, steady, go” – but not in unfamiliar accents.

All the children present at my showing (emceed charmingly by Roche) appeared to enjoy the play, even smaller ones who were fussy at first. Be prepared for learning new dance steps, like the mouse “greeting” and the hot-pipe crossing – bits of physical storytelling that helped keep the young audience engaged. It also helped that the star is a bit closer to the age of the playgoers. When one kid asked during the talkback if he could give a high five, he headed straight to O’Meara. While Chavis being a small woman helped her to connect, Wilcher was nicely maternal and Maldonado and Milan were like oversized children (think Big Bird, but with fur).

Some parents noted after the show that there aren’t many opportunities for small children to experience live theatre like this. For information and tickets to this play, running through March 25 on the Cabaret floor of the IRT – 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis – visit www.irtlive.com.