New telling of old stories at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals presents the biblical musical “Children of Eden,” which tells stories from the early chapters of Genesis in a loose, storytelling style similar to “Godspell.”

In the Beginning, Father (played by Allen Sledge) commands Creation into being, setting aside a garden he calls Eden for his prize creations, Adam (Mitchell Hammersley) and Eve (Nina Stilabower), where they spend their days in perfect splendor, while Adam names all the animals, and Eve grows increasingly curious about the one tree they are not to eat from.

The familiar story goes from there — but with some variation from the exact wording of scripture. After the Fall, Adam and Eve give birth to Cain and Abel (Katherine Sabens and Amelie Zirnheld as children, later Keane Maddock and Jonathan Krouse). In this telling, Adam believes he can win his way back into the Garden, and forbids his family to wander. But Cain has his sights on the horizon, and in the fight that ensues, tragedy sends him into exile, cursed along with his progeny by Father.

The second act quickly goes through the “begats” and gives a version of the story of The Flood with Hammersley and Stilabower as Noah and his wife, Todd Jackson II as Shem, Krouse as Ham, and Maddock again the nonconformist as Japeth, who chooses servant girl Yonah (Yasmin Schancer), who has the Mark of Cain, as his bride.

The cast also includes about 20 “Storytellers” who help relate the narrative, and portray all manner of animals, as well as wind and water. The Serpent in the Garden takes five of them (Schancer, Shelley Young, Donamarie Kelley, Presley Hewitt and Maggie Lengerich) sharing their sung and spoken lines to mesmerizing effect. The best scene is the “Return of the Animals” to the Ark, with practically everyone getting into the act, miming all sorts of creatures, with the aid of colorful costumes by Chris Grady. Lauren Johnson directs.

This musical by John Caird and Stephen Schwartz is a unique experience, retelling the old stories in a manner that emphasizes our connectedness and yearning for redemption when those connections are broken. It’s a true ensemble effort, but Stilabower and Maddock do stand out, as well as — appropriately — Sledge, as the loving, stern and mysterious paternal figure.

“Children of Eden” runs through May 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

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‘The Lord’ commands center stage in divine comedy at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Scot Greenwell – the talented and popular gay Hoosier character actor and star of plays including “Santaland Diaries” and “Buyer and Cellar” – has not been himself lately.

In fact, it appears that the spirit of The Lord Almighty, in his “mysterious ways,” has taken over Greenwell’s body to bring audiences His divine message in “An Act of God,” through March 12 at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

And God must have a sense of humor, as He has angels Michael and Gabriel take the forms of local actors Joshua Coomer and Michael Hosp, respectively. Michael is intermediary with the audience members, finding and relaying their questions, while Gabriel takes care of handling holy scripture, which includes the Lord’s new and updated Ten Commandments.

Those commands include a couple of old classics, plus some directives that just might surprise you. As He works his way through the list, He recalls the events of the Bible from His perspective, including his dealings with son Jesus Christ and the boy’s crazy idea of going to earth to die for humankind. He reveals that since we were made in His image, and we humans have deep issues, imagine how deep His go?

Needless to say, this show is thought provoking, while fortunately very laugh-provoking, thanks to its original Broadway inspiration through the pen of Emmy-winning Daily Show/Colbert Report writer David Javerbaum. God-as-Greenwell reflects back to us common beliefs on issues such as Creation and Old Testament justice in such a way that one feels challenged, no matter what you believe, letting us decide whether the divine tongue was in cheek. For instance, He relates that the universe is truly only thousands of years old and He faked the dinosaurs, but on the other hand, in the beginning the first people were actually Adam and Steve.

In all, this single 90-minute Act is highly entertaining, and even leaves you with an uplifting message at the end. To get your opportunity to be in this show’s divine presence, call 317-635-2381 or see www.phoenixtheatre.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Fringe review: Interrupting the Sermon

By John Lyle Belden

“Interrupting the Sermon,” presented by First Hand Theatrical at Musician’s Union Hall, commemorates the late Wayne C. Olson, a minister who had congregations in New York state and Indianapolis, portrayed by his son Kevin Olson as well as John Kohan and Perry Hunt.

The show combines poetry, true stories and a sermon, all written by the elder Olson. The message, “My Bible: Then and Now,” is set up with “interruptions” of recollections from his life or verses of his poems. He tells of being awed by a dying girl’s enthusiasm for her faith, and appalled by the treatment others give an AIDS patient who seeks his help. And he relates how his dealings with others always have lessons for him, especially in how he relates to the scriptures on which, as a minister, he is expected to be an expert.

“Sometimes there is more grace and forgiveness outside the church than within it,” Olson muses, as he grapples with what that means in the bigger picture of his sacred mission.

This celebration of life and faith inspires and challenges us – as a good sermon should. Yet it’s not too “preachy” – no fire-and-brimstone or altar call. Kevin Olson does his father proud, and Kohan and Hunt smoothly stitch the show together into a satisfying whole.

Fringe review: The Secret Book of Jesus

By John Lyle Belden

The apocryphal gospels that didn’t make the cut for the canonical Bible can still intrigue and enlighten, as Maximum Verbosity’s “The Secret Book of Jesus” at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre shows.

Phillip Low presents, without comment, readings from little-known sources including the Protoevangalium of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, History of Joseph the Carpenter, Gospel of Nicodemus, Gospel of Peter, Apocryphon of James, Gospel of Judas and The Questions of Bartholomew, as well as Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathea (which ties into a certain British legend).

Low’s delivery is crisp and entertaining, and contains no judgment of the texts. With virgin birth and Christ’s miracles accepted as truth, why balk at the infant Jesus confronting a dragon? Especially intriguing is the story of little boy Jesus learning the consequences of losing his temper.

For anyone who is interested in these ancient works, whether you regard them as heresy or just intriguing tales, this is definitely a show to include on your Fringe schedule.