Catalyst’s ‘Class’ in session

By John Lyle Belden

Nan Macy is a master of portraying strong mature women, and shows this to brilliant effect in the current production of Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” presented by Catalyst Repertory in association with the Indianapolis Opera Company and The Switch Theatre.

Macy portrays legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, who, late in her career, is giving the titular class for young vocal students. Callas’s career was notable not only for her exceptional voice, but also tabloid-style scandals including rivalries with other singers and her affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis. Here we see this brash, blunt diva with a well-established chip on her shoulder from having been looked down upon for her Greek heritage and her weight (she underwent drastic weight loss at the peak of her career, a boon to her casting but possibly hurting her voice). She is far too proud to acknowledge her declining vocal ability, living the adage of “those who can’t do, teach.” Regardless, she gives her charges a lot to learn about presentation and passion.  

With such serious subject matter, and her lapses into troubled memory, it’s easy to forget until you see this how incredibly funny this show is. For instance, Macy’s timing is perfect in saying “let me stop you there,” the moment a poor student opens her mouth.

As for her “victims,” we get some nice vocals from Abigail Johnson, Shederick Whipple, and Rachelle Woolston. And we see, as they do with Callas, that there is more to great opera than just knowing the words. Sean Manterfield is Manny, the piano accompanist. Thomas Smith is a stagehand badgered by Callas, but also turns the tables portraying Onasis in her recollections. Director Tony Johnson also has other cast members drift in and out of her memory as figures from her past.

This is a “class” you won’t want to skip, as hilarity and tragic depth occupy the stage in equal measure, wielded by a master, portraying a master. Brava!

“Master Class” performances are Friday through Sunday at 10029 E. 126th St., Fishers. Get tickets at theswitch.yapsody.com.

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At the District: Travel from Waukegan to Mars on a bicycle

By John Lyle Belden

When one has access to an age-altering carousel, why let a little thing like death stop you? After all, Mr. Electrico told him he would “Live forever!”

To understand what I mean by this, see the Midwest premiere of “Ray Bradbury Live (Forever)” at The District Theater, presented by IndyFringe – in just two more performances, today and tomorrow (May 4-5), before continuing its national tour.

Bradbury wheels onto the stage, played by lifelong fan and Emmy-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. He then removes a tarp from a lecture stand, places it on his bicycle, and proceeds to talk to us about his life, career and feelings on topics such as writing and the importance of libraries. We get a glimpse of his growing up in Waukegan, Ill. (“it’s not ugly to a child”), and Los Angeles (near Hollywood, which he often visited). We even meet his charming wife, Maggie (played locally by Jenni White).

The “science fiction writer who never drove a car” also engages us with mesmerizing dramatic excerpts from “A Sound of Thunder” (from whence we get the term “butterfly effect”), “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Martian Chronicles.” Oberst’s skill makes Bradbury’s words come alive, helping us feel the greatness imbedded in these stories, and what they say about being human and the human desire to mess with forces they barely understand.

In fact, Oberst crafted the entire show from the words of Ray Bradbury — from his texts, to letters and interviews. The script was vetted by the Ray Bradbury Estate, as well as Dr. Jonathan Eller, Director of IUPUI’s Center For Ray Bradbury Studies, who attended the opening performance. We hear such nuggets as, “I don’t predict the future, I try to prevent it;” “I write fantasy because I believe in fantasy;” and from a poem: “Give book, Give smile.”

Oberst said after the show that he tried for years to get friends who more resembled Bradbury to portray him on stage before finally deciding to take on the role himself. Wearing a comfortable suit, appropriate hairstyle, trademark black-frame glasses, and a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor, he does just fine. Behind the sparse stage is a large screen that shows facts and trivia about Bradbury prior to the show (come early, none of the slides repeat), and supporting scenes and illustrations during the performance. Note there are some strobe-effects during the telling of “Sound of Thunder.”

This excellent premiere – first performances since opening in Los Angeles – came about in part with the help of IndyFringe CEO Pauline Moffatt, who said she saw Oberst in a previous Fringe and encouraged him to return, aided by the perfect synergy with the Bradbury Center here in Indianapolis.

For devoted fans, casual fans, or anyone interested in discovering this American literary master, you have two more chances in Indy: 8 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Sunday at The District (former location of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave. downtown. Call 317-308-9800 or visit IndyDistrictTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

For those who can’t make it, or are reading this on or after May 6, find info and future performances at raybradburyliveforever.com.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

Doesn’t seem so “Dirty” these days, does it?

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

By John Lyle Belden

It seems few people give a thought towards Mae West these days. After all, she was a star of the black-and-white film era, a Vaudeville player. She was curvy when ample curves were cool, but sexy when the mere hint of sex – let alone making “Sex” the name of your play – could get you in trouble.

But she deserves a closer look, not only for how she confronted those troubles and withstood them, but for how she was an advocate not only for sexual freedom but for LGBT rights.

This life is explored in the play “Dirty Blonde,” which has one more weekend (today through Sunday) at Buck Creek Players just southeast of Indy.

We meet not only West (played by Sonja Distefano) and the men in her life (portrayed by Jay Hemphill and Michael Patrick Smiley), but also Jo and Charlie (Distefano and Hemphill), two West fans who meet in the years following West’s 1980 death at her tomb. Charlie had actually met the siren in her later years, an encounter that deeply affected him.

We see the progression of West’s career: from Vaudeville struggles; to controversy with Broadway plays “Sex,” its follow-up “The Drag” – centered on homosexuality – and her hit “Diamond Lil;” to success in film; and finally her stubbornness in insisting on staying in the spotlight and doing things her way to the very end. The scenes are interspersed with the growing relationship of Jo and Charlie, as the line between wanting to know Mae and wanting to be her blurs.

Distefano has the voice and gestures down, but struggles with the charisma of her larger-than-life role; she is far more appealing as Jo. Hemphill and Smiley do great work, but the pacing and overall feel of the show gave a sense that something was lacking. Still, it is a good effort and an enlightening look at an American icon.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or www.buckcreekplayers.com.

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

Review: Buck Creek’s ‘Garland’ charms

By John Lyle Belden

NOTE: Review also appears online with The Word (www.theygayword.com).

“Hi, I’m Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli’s mother.”

BCP Garland
Georgeanna Teipen as Judy Garland in “The Property Known as Garland” at Buck Creek Players through Sunday (BCP photo)

This is how the star, occupying the body of Georgeanna Teipen at Indy’s Buck Creek Playhouse, introduces herself to Ed (Steve Jerk) in the dressing room of Copenhagen’s Falconer Centre as they await what would be her final public concert, March 25, 1969. She then sends Ed on a fool’s errand so that she can be alone for the next hour to talk to us – across space, time and the fourth wall – about her life.

“The Property Known as Garland” was crafted by Billy Van Zandt from Garland’s actual words in interviews and dictations for a never-published memoir. Director D. Scott Robinson said a minimum of dramatic license was employed in the script. While he can’t say Judy’s stories were all true, because “she was a story-teller,” he said. “What you hear is what she actually said.” Robinson added that most aspects of her narrative, including her scandalous first pregnancy, are independently verifiable.

Robinson also said that while he was thrilled to get the rights to this show, he wouldn’t do it without Teipen as Garland. Fortunately, she was quick to say yes, he said. And indeed, from the short dark wig to the sassy attitude that sways from playful and wistful to maudlin and angry, she does – for 90 minutes, no intermission – become Judy Garland.

I must note that for those who are either eager for or cringing at the thought of her belting out full renditions of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” or “Over the Rainbow,” it won’t happen. Teipen is spared inevitable comparisons to the legendary voice, as Judy saves it for her Danish audience.

Still, to hear her story, from little Frances Gumm and her sisters in vaudeville, through her time with MGM and Oz (including backlot Munchkin tales), up through her more recent triumphs (Oscar-nominated for “A Star is Born”) and trials (getting booed off the stage in Australia), is fascinating enough without song breaks. And in Teipen’s performance, we feel those highs and lows with her.

She touches on her appeal to LGBT audiences, including encounters with drag impersonators.

There is also a touch of irony, as she remarks on how each of her peers and rivals are “drunks” while waving her ever-refilling glass of Blue Nun dismissively. She has no problem with it, she says, except for having to switch from wine after being told, after liver surgery, that she could no longer consume hard liquor. And she laments how Marilyn Monroe was careless enough to overdose on pills, just months before she would die from a day of constant consumption of barbiturates.

There is just one weekend of performances left before the Garland glamour leaves us again. Find Buck Creek Players at 11150 Southeastern Ave., Acton Road exit off I-74; call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.

IndyFringe 2015 Wrap-Up

We had a great time at this year’s IndyFringe. Though we didn’t see all the shows, we saw quite a few, so, here in one place are the links to all our reviews, for anyone wanting to look one up:

4.48 Psychosis” by Savage at Last

4Square” by AV Productions

Acting My Age” by Matt Holt

The Adventures of Les Kurkendaal” by Les Kurkendaal

Auditioning for Swan Lake” by Lou Ann Homan

The Best of Indy Magic Monthly” by Magic Taylor’d for You (Taylor Martin)

Breakneck Hamlet” by Tim Mooney

Bromance” by Farewell Tour Productions

Cabaret of Puppetry” by Peewinkle Studios

Ca-Ching” by Nomads Collective

Camp Summer Camp” by Defiance Comedy

Cocooned in Kazan” by Royal Kung Foolery

The Comedy Magic of Oscar Munoz” by Oscar Munoz

Dancing in the Mist” by RibbetRepublic

Drosselmeyer’s Magical Bedtime Story” by No Exit Performance

The Eulogy” by Michael Burgos

Fruit Flies Like a Banana” by Fourth Wall

Ghost Story” by Peter-John Byrnes

Growing Up All Over Myself” by Mat Alanso-Martin

Hannibal: LIAR!” by Chris Hannibal

Hell’s Fourth Ring: The Mall Musical” by Casey Ross Productions

Home Grown Originals” by Band O’ Leers

An Indian Comedian: How Not To Fit In” by Krish Mohan

I’m Not Gay” by Submatter Press

Interrupting the Sermon” by First Hand Theatrical

The Invisible Man” by What’s in a Name? Company

Jason Adams is a God Damn Mind Reader” by Jason Adams

Kill the Column” by MamaProductions

Laughing Sober” by Rick Garrett

A Little Business at the BIG TOP” by David Gaines

Men’s Room” by MayDay Productions

Mom?” by Box of Clowns

Mr. Boniface, the Wise” by KT Peterson

My Sister Diane” by Jim May

Not My Baby!” by Dreadmelon Productions

The Not So Secret Origin of Captain Ambivalent” by Captain Ambivalent

ODDyssey” by Blair Godshall

Orange is the New Black Keys” by ComedySportz Indianapolis

Sarge” by Clifton Performance Theatre

The Secret Book of Jesus” by Maximum Verbosity

Shakespeare’s Ear” by Early Music in Motion

The Shout” by In the Mix

The Sibling Staircase” by Sally Perkins

Speedthru” by Eclectic Pond

Threads” by Tonya Jone Miller

Tipped and Tipsy” by Jill Vice

Top Shelf: Our Last American Tour – Again” by Betty Rage

The Traveling Tap Dance Super Show” by TapMan Productions with Circle City Tap Company

Ulysses Grant: A Fluxkit Opera” by Stephen Rush

Up Yours, Indianapolis” by The Fleece Academy

VELOUR” by Schedule C Productions

Whisper in My Good Ear” by Vintage Players

Who Run The World: A Madwomen’s Cabaret” by Main Street Artists

The Wizer of Odd” by Gift of Gab

Working Titles” by Jeremy Schaefer

The Yellow Wallpaper” by Earlham Theatre Department

Fringe review: Threads

By John Lyle Belden

Tonya Jone Miller presents “Threads,” the story of her mother, Donna Jean Miller, whose life took her from Indiana to Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s.

Donna married a sailor, which meant traveling, including to Hawaii, where she studied at the University to become a teacher in the Far East. While her marriage collapsed, she found love with a fellow student, a Vietnamese man. This leads to a teaching job in Saigon in 1968.

While the war raged elsewhere, the effects were often felt in the South Vietnamese capital. She deals with teaching while shells crash outside the building, and helping care for orphans who have little hope of survival. Years after her return to the States, with the fall of Saigon imminent, she goes back to make a desperate attempt to go help her boyfriend’s family, in spite of being nine months pregnant (with Tonya).

Miller tells of the threads, figurative and literal, that bind people and lives together, and how we affect one another. We get a fascinating look into a war-torn city, and through Donna’s brother, a glimpse of how war changes those who fight it. The story is non-linear, but easy to follow, as we trace the threads of time back and forth across two decades. Every tale is well told, fascinating and revelatory. We feel through Miller the love for her mother and what she went through and gratitude for the little events that led up to her own creation.

“Threads” unspools at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre.