What a ‘Dream’!

By John Lyle Belden

There is a land of centuries-old mysteries, equal parts pagan celebration and reverent tradition working in unique harmony, where in shadowy woods the very air is sodden with magick – Louisiana.

It is in the bayou town of Athens that we find the familiar yet always fresh William Shakespeare rom-com “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by Bard Fest with Arts for Lawrence in the park amphitheater behind Theater at the Fort, a production called “Shakespeare at the Fort.”

As appropriate to a free public “in the park” Shakespeare play, this “Dream,” directed by Matthew Socey, is highly entertaining regardless of if you’ve practically memorized it, or you slept through high school Lit and have only heard the title in conversation. Wendy said to me afterward that this is not only one of the best “Midsummers” she has seen, but easiest version to follow.

For those who need it, here’s the silly and overall simple plot (Cajun version): The most respected man in the Parish, Duke Theseus (Jo Bennett) and his lovely amazon, Hippolyta (Afton Shepard) are to be married, but they are first asked to settle the engagement of Demetrius (Matthew Walls) to Hermia (Maggie Lengerich) at the insistence of her mama Egeus (Sarah Froehlke) because Hermia wants to marry Lysandra (Kristie Shuh). Fair Helena (Evangeline Bouw) wishes to wed Demetrius, who is repulsed by her playing so easy-to-get. The Duke puts it all off to the wedding celebration day, and everyone agrees to disagree.

Most of the action occurs out in the spooky forest outside town.

Is that a Tulane track star at home for summer break that we see? Naw, it’s Robin Goodfellow (Diane Tsao)! One of the bayou faerie folk, that trickster Puck only answers to the local voodoo king, Oberon (Bennett), who is having some words with his queen Titania (Shepard) over the custody of a little Indian girl becoming their half-fae Changeling (Beatrice Hartz). To aid in childcare are Titania’s faeries Cobweb (Jamie Devine), Moth (Samantha Kelly), and Mustardseed (Monica Hartz).

Then, trompin’ around these woods are common folk of the Mechanical trades who wish to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding, rehearsing in secret. Exceedingly patient director Petra Quill (Chynna Fry) is staging the old favorite “Pyramus and Thisbee” starring Flute (Justina Savage) as Thisbee, Starveling (Emily Hauer) as Moonshine, Snout (Beverly Roche) as Wall, Snug (Froehlke) as a Gator, and the colorful Bottom (Kelsey VanVoorst) as Pyramus. But then, stuff happens.

A lot of stuff happens – go see the play!

The vicinity of New Orleans is a perfect setting, and not just to try out some passable Southern accents. The environment is embraced in the music used, costuming, and just the otherworldly air of the whole show. More people have watched “True Blood” and other bayou-set stories than have visited Greece, so engaging the audience is easy. The change in what kind of beast chases Thisbee works perfectly and adds to the comedy. (Fear the Chomp!) It all contributes to a flavorful comic gumbo that goes down easy.

And finally, we have a place where the Elizabethan habit of English people always saying “adieu” makes sense.

The stage would be a bit small for most serious productions, but the intimate nature of it and the surrounding lawn allows for an immersive and interactive experience. Entrances and exits are literally from and to anywhere, fairies dance with kids in the audience, and in an ingenious move, the nobles viewing the Mechanicals’ play are seated in the exact center of the audience. Rather than divide our attention at one end of the stage, they are out of the corners of our eyes, allowing us to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of the play-within-the-play on the stage, while they comment and quip like posh robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The cross-gender casting, which has become more common across all stages in recent years, feels more natural here, and non-hetero feelings add to the stress of our four mortal lovers. In a great mockery of Shakespeare-era plays having boys play women, Savage shines as (pardon if I’m wrong on personal gender) a female actor playing a man who resents having to play a woman. Fry’s Petra aside, the other Mechanicals portray rough men in a gentle art (adding to comic potential).

The double-casting of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta is good as it always is in bringing a unity to the overall play, but largely stopping there avoids audience confusion. (Since we never see them in the same room, perhaps they are secretly the same entities? Voodoo works in mysterious ways.)

The whole cast, top to Bottom, are exceptional – which is praise I often heap on every one of these actors individually in practically everything they do. And to that I’ll add Guy Grubbs as Theseus’ servant Philostrate, whose every entry is a punchline.

The above aside, I’ll toss my text roses at the wonderful surprise that is 7-year-old Beatrice Hartz. Anyone who saw the advance photos of Shepard holding the Changeling as just promotional can be forgiven (if I can be) for thinking her just a dancing prop in the play. With the assurance of her mother in the cast (and her father and a best friend in the front row opening night), she flits her way into and out of her every scene and cue like a pro. Her confidence radiates, and feeds into her character as the fellow fae play along. In this world, she will be become a power to rival her sitters, so it adds meaning as she literally calls their dances at one point, and when she places her hand before a character in a “halt” gesture (which is obeyed) we almost feel the invisible door close. She even gets to speak a line.

Classic with a twist? A drug-induced fever-dream by Tennessee Williams? However you think of it, the price is right – free, but please “buy” $0 tickets online for headcount. While the content is family friendly and the site is easy to reach, do note a few things. The weather is Louisiana-like with high heat and humidity, so shading, sunscreen, and hydration are advised as the play starts before sundown. A couple of food trucks are nearby, and picnics are OK. Bring your own lawn chairs, or sit on a blanket. And in these intimate confines the company goes old-school with no microphones on actors. Fortunately, most lines seem to be uttered in an excited state, but a little audience noise discipline, extending to the nearby swings, would be appreciated.

Performances are just this one weekend: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22; Saturday, July 23; and Sunday, July 24; at the small park behind Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (far north end of Indy’s Post Road). Tickets and info at indybardfest.com and artsforlawrence.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.

Bard Fest: The essential ‘R&J’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the one line that stands out for me is near the end: “All are punished.” And as the opening narration famously indicates, the purpose of this tragic play is to show how all involved came to that end.

In the Catalyst Repertory production at Bard Fest, director Zach Stonerock has in his adaptation stripped it to its essence. No elaborate sets; costumes are simple black and white apparel; there are few props, or even weapons beyond a simple knife. The setting is “fair Verona,” but not fixed to any place or era. The focus is solely on the characters, their quirks and quarrels (especially the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud).

The famous “balcony scene,” for instance, is presented in two spotlights, like independent soliloquies. We are reminded that Juliet thinks she is alone, that in longingly asking “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she doesn’t expect an answer. But when he comes to her, we are so focused on their words and feelings that we hardly notice there was no balcony.

The play’s opening speech, by the way, is delivered by a Chorus who is a blind man – done with subtle brilliance by Tristan Ross. In this way he reminds me of blind Justice, who oversees these foolish men and women coming to their inevitable end.

Elijah Robinson is our impulsive, melancholy Romeo. He is too ruled by his emotions, but this is seen as wonderful to young Juliet, sweetly delivered by Kayla Lee. Her life is strictly ruled by others, but in this boy she sees hope of liberty, away from the constraints of their family names. Thus, despite her showing the dawning of wisdom, the young teen becomes a cult of one to her foolish husband-to-be.

Critical supporting roles are in excellent hands with Kelsey Leigh Miller as Friar Laurence, who tries in vain to make love triumphant; and Beverly Roche as Juliet’s Nurse, a far better maternal figure than her actual mom (Lisa Marie Smith).

Justin Klein is Paris, the young man from out of town caught in the middle of Verona’s passions. Klein is right at home in the Bard’s worlds, but should try to avoid pointy objects.

And to lighten the mood (making the darkness more contrasting) we get excellent comic relief from Audrey Stonerock as the put-upon Capulet servant Peter; and the awesome Kelsey VanVoorst as brash, boastful Mercutio, Romeo’s best bud. (Note to parents: Shakespeare included bawdy innuendo to entertain his audiences; you’ll get quite a bit here.)

With the right editing, “less is more” fully applies – especially here, as Stonerock delivers a fresh perspective on well-known material. The end is the same, thus we understand that “Romeo and Juliet” is not a love story, but a “tale of woe.” Woe to those who miss it.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

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.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.