Phoenix uncorks wine that makes you spill

By John Lyle Belden

“In Vino Veritas” means “in wine, there is truth,” referring to the way social beverages can loosen tongues so that unintended honesty spills out.

In the play, “Vino Veritas,” by David MacGregor, at the Phoenix Theatre, the central device is a vintage with a special ingredient (not grapes) that makes it a truth serum. After our characters imbibe, like Jim Carrey in the film “Liar, Liar,” they can’t not tell the truth. And for us in the audience watching the revelations unfold, it is fascinating, thought-provoking, and incredibly hilarious.

Lauren (Carrie Schlatter) and Phil (Wolf J. Sherrill) have a good life as professional photographers, having settled down from globetrotting to running a portrait studio while they raise their family. Lauren, who longs for adventure, resents what they’ve become, while Phil is quite happy. No longer risking his neck, he tracks how he outlives the lifespan of various animals, part of the endless useless trivia he knows — a trait that further irks Lauren. But she has brought home the rare and mysterious wine from their recent vacation in South America, and is eager to share it with their neighbors and best friends — Ridley (Michael Hosp) and Claire (Sarah Hund) — when they visit on Halloween prior to going to a neighborhood costume party.

The other couple arrives. While Claire, the reigning costume champion, has an intricate gown she worked on for months, Ridley, a doctor, takes advantage of the fact he is still technically on duty for a few hours to dress “ironically” as a doctor. 

Despite the obvious stress they all ignore, they agree to try the wine. After all, they have known each other for years, living next door to each other, attend the same church, and their children play with each other. What dark secrets could they possibly have? As it turns out, plenty.

The plot is in a similar vein to plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “God of Carnage” wherein situations get more and more out of hand with each revelation, and alliances constantly shift among the foursome. While some serious issues of trust, intimacy and truly understanding one another are addressed, it all comes packaged in wacky exchanges that leave you gasping from laughter. Hosp, a great physical comedian, actually plays it kind of easy, getting big laughs from small moments. Schlatter gets a lot of mileage from playing a personality who loves to stir the pot, while Hund is at turns masterfully manic and silly. Sherrill mainly displays an aw-shucks demeanor that meshes perfectly with the various neuroses on display. Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons directs.

It’s said that the truth will set you free — will that be the case here? Find out at the Phoenix’s smaller Basile stage; in performances through Nov. 24. Note Saturday times are 2:30 p.m. matinees instead of evening shows. Find the Phoenix Theatre at 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: Thinking of ‘The Children’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Children,” the title of a recent Broadway drama by Lucy Kirkwood, now at the Phoenix Theatre, doesn’t seem to tell us much. There are no youngsters on the stage — in fact, the trio we meet are all in their 60s. But this play understands that when we are grown, if we’re not thinking of our children and what we would do for them, we often indulge in that child still within each of us.

On the English coast, at a time that could be now, we are in the aftermath of a disaster much like the one that occurred several years ago in Japan: the triple-shock of earthquake, tidal wave and a crippled nuclear power plant.

Hazel and Robin (Donna Steele and Charles Goad) were among the scientists who engineered the reactor, now they live on the very edge of the irradiated zone. They are visited by past friend and colleague (as well Robin’s lover) Rose (Diane Kondrat). Old memories and issues are brought up, leading to moments of friction. But even more devastating is the issue of what happens next.

Directed by Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons, this veteran cast give excellent, layered performances. In Hazel, Steele presents a fastidious character who prides herself on her maturity, while staying young as possible through healthy eating and yoga. Goad’s Robin seems fondly attached to the farm he is having to give up, but his daily trips to the barn have a darker purpose. Kondrat, once again a woman of many facets, gives us a Rose who has come a long way from her impulsive youth to a woman who has faced her mortality and must finally think outside herself. Their interactions throughout the play crackle with energy that rivals the broken facility on their horizon.

The larger questions surrounding nuclear energy and the environment stay in the background, as the issues at play here are more personal — dealing with reconciling out pasts, facing our ends, considering the next generation, and what we all must do to make our actions and lives meaningful. Sometimes it takes a disaster to make us truly think of The Children, and to force us to finally grow up.

Performances run through May 19 on the smaller Basile stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

– – –

One last note (this did come up with an audience member at the preview performance): Though she is in the promotional photo, actor Jolene Mentink Moffatt does not appear in the play. The publicity picture was taken long before casting decisions were made, and aside from being not quite old enough for the roles, she was busy with her recent run on the Phoenix’s “Hotel Nepenthe.”

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.

Asch’s work rises anew in Phoenix production of Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

 

Indecent kiss
The infamous kiss — Abby Lee (left) and Courtney Spivak in ‘Indecent’ at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre.  (Provided photo by Zach Rosing)

By John Lyle Belden

 

The Phoenix Theatre has never shied from – in fact it embraces – controversial stage works. With its present production of the Tony-winning drama, “Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, it goes another layer by showing how a popular play shocked Broadway nearly a century ago.

Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch wrote just one play, but it became a sensation throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, and even found fame in translation throughout Europe. But when an Americanized “God of Vengeance” went on Broadway (even after playing in New York’s Yiddish theatres with no controversy), the cast and producer were quickly arrested and charged with indecency. Not only was this a Jewish play by a Jew (a troublesome thing in 1923), but it is set in a brothel and features two women falling in love, kissing passionately on stage.

According to program notes, when Vogel was approached about writing this play, she said she immediately pictured a ragged troupe of actors in an attic. That’s who we meet as the lights come up: Lemml the stage manager (played by Nick Jenkins) and his troupe portrayed by Mark Goetzinger, John Goodson, Abby Lee, Jolene Moffatt, Bill Simmons and Courtney Spivak.

Goodson spends most of the narrative as Asch, bringing his surprising new work to a Warsaw writer’s salon, taking it – with Lemml’s help – to the stage, and dealing with the fallout of the indecency trial. He embodies the role well, in all stages from an eager genius to a bitter man focused on the next phase of his writing.

Lee and Spivak are wonderful, portraying women who fall in love both within the play and offstage. Under the direction of Martha Jacobs, their sublime affections bloom beautifully. Phoenix regulars Goetzinger, Moffatt and Simmons are solid, as usual. As for Jenkins, his work is astounding, especially as we come to why we encounter the troupe as they were in the opening scene.

Indecent Lemml-Asch small
Nick Jenkins (left) as tailor-turned-stage manager Lemml and John Goodson as celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. (provided photo by Zach Rosing)

 

The multiple languages involved in telling the story are portrayed in part by easy-to-read projected captions. Often the dialogue is in English but the projected cue will say something like “In Yiddish” to maximize understanding and dramatic flow while keeping everything in context.

In the end, it’s like we’ve seen two great plays – we get a Cliff’s-notes understanding of “God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome)” as well as the full measure of Vogel’s work. But you only need to get one ticket. Performances are through July 8 at the Phoenix, now located at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jen Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White), a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsey VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)