Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop, making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Kruze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel, at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: The constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.

Bardfest: The wild woman vs. the wacky womanizer — with music

By Wendy Carson

The biggest complaint I have heard from people, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, is trouble following the plot due to the antiquated language. In her Bardfest production of “Taming of the Shrew,” Catalyst Repertory founder and play director/adapter Casey Ross has tackled this issue with the periodic inclusion of pop songs to assist the viewer in comprehending the message of the narrative. Being that the story is fairly well known, this style just makes a fun show even more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know the plot: Younger sister Bianca can’t marry until older sister Katherine does. Katherine has no intention to marry anyone. Their father is wealthy and offers a large dowry to whomever can take Katherine off his hands. Cash-strapped playboy Petruchio takes the challenge and not only ends up changing Katherine’s ways, but they both fall in love in the process. There’s also the sub-plot of various suitors trying to secure Bianca’s love.

The setting of this interpretation is a Vegas-style resort casino in the 1970s, with the daughters being cocktail waitresses, their father the owner, and Petruchio a traveling singer looking for a place to earn some money before his debt collectors catch up with him.

Hannah Elizabeth Boswell as the fiery Katherine (or Kate) is a sassy bundle of empowerment, while Davey Pelsue’s Petruchio boldly becomes every bit the hilariously lusty womanizer that the character suggests.

Abby Gilster’s delicate take on Bianca shows the character’s sly knowledge of her situation that is often overlooked in many productions. Bradford Reilly and Robert Webster Jr. as her two suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio), in disguise as tutors, bring a delightful comic desperation in their attempts to secure time with their desired.

Audrey Stonerock adds to the fun as the hottest “Widow” in the club, and Donovan Whitney is at his scene-stealing best as Tranio, a servant pretending to be the rich man while his master plays a humble tutor (see above). The proud – and relieved, when Kate is wed – papa is a charming Godfather-light performance by Tony Armstrong.

All in all, this is a rollickingly great production of a hilarious show. One note though, as we have mentioned previously, this show is not for all ages. Consider it PG-13 at least, though worldly kids might learn a new appreciation for Shakespeare if they see it. Also, bring a few dollars to tip your waitresses and maybe tuck into the clothes of some of the performers.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 27-29) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Find more information at www.indyfringe.org.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

Review: ‘Lobby Channel’ something to see

CRP Lobby Channel

By John Lyle Belden

Casey Ross Productions’ latest show is a perfect conversation starter for this age in which humanity has never been so connected, yet individuals still find themselves so lonely.

In “Lobby Channel,” a new musical written and directed by Ross’s friend (and local actress) Paige Scott, based on a story once told on NPR’s “This American Life,” a pair of morning radio jocks are trading insults as usual when one tells of something extraordinary – his home VCR managed to pull from the cable system a closed-circuit feed from an unfamiliar building somewhere in the city.

With only one view and no sound, Ted (Bradford Reilly) watches an empty hallway for hours, waiting for the brief appearances of a beautiful woman in a pillbox hat. She approaches, alone, often dropping her keys as she reaches her door, and hours later she departs for destinations unknown.

As the story unfolds, the woman in the black dress and hat (Miranda Nehrig) appears, ghost-like, expressing Ted’s wonder at who she could be. His partner Brian (Evan Wallace), unsure what to think of his story, throws another barb at Ted, saying the woman must be a stripper. In response, her next song takes a seductive turn, almost too much for Ted to bear.

Is Ted a sort of stalker? Is this the beginning of an unconventional love story? The play concludes in a logical manner, but still leaves those questions hanging for us to wonder – as good theatre should.

Reilly ably expresses the frustration of someone trapped in an incomplete puzzle, unsure of what to do with the pieces he has been given. Wallace easily portrays the friend who gives you a hard time, but still has your back. And Nehrig’s beauty and voice are a perfect fit for our mystery woman. Scott’s haunting music and lyrics suit the mood perfectly, providing the right tension to hold this simple-yet-complex story together.

It’s one act, clocking in at just under an hour, yet this show packs a lot into its frame. It echoes both a time not long ago when personal privacy was a sacred thing and today with social media like open books that we all show each other. We all get to know perfect strangers, imperfectly. Do you really understand this person, or are you only watching their “Lobby Channel”?

The musical’s performances are Friday through Sunday, through May 22, at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook Ave. near Indy’s Fountain Square. See uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions/ or Casey Ross Productions on Facebook for info and tickets.

Review: The price of defying godlike power

By John Lyle Belden

In the hands of Eclectic Pond Theatre Company, one of Western civilization’s oldest surviving plays truly becomes timeless.

“Prometheus Bound,” attributed to ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, was based on the myth of the Titan who defied the ruling god Zeus and brought fire – and with it, civilizing knowledge – to humankind. For his “crime,” Prometheus was chained to a rock and subjected to daily torture. In the play, he is visited by characters who ask him why he committed the act and to beg for forgiveness.

In the ETC production, playing Friday through Sunday at Wheeler Arts Community Center, Prometheus is the online name of a hacker (played by Bradford Reilly) who worked for the NSA and its director – nicknamed “Zeus,” of course – to develop the all-knowing Firenet. Acting similarly to real-world fugitive Edward Snowden, the online titan makes the secret program public – giving “Fire” to mankind.

He is shackled by Hephaestus (Tristan Ross) and Kratos (Taylor Cox), now represented by the prison warden and guard. The Chorus who questions Prometheus and listens to his soliloquies is a TV reporter played by Ann Marie Elliott. Oceanus, the fellow Titan who begs the prisoner to reconcile with Zeus, is in 2016 his attorney, played by Ross. Cox also takes a second role as Hermes, Zeus’ messenger.

Prometheus also encounters Io (Elysia Rohm), a woman whom Zeus lusted after. In mythology, she was turned into a cow, today she is only called one as an epithet, and is disappeared to a neighboring prison cell.

The classic translation of the Greek drama is kept intact, so to be understandable we must take myth as metaphor, but Reilly manages to communicate well his disdain for a tyrant of any era. Ross, Cox and Elliott, all experienced with Shakespearean dialogue in a modern setting, have no trouble with this material either. I first thought that Elliott in her role smiled a bit much for such serious subject matter, but it works as a portrayal of the cynical nature of today’s media – addressing world-changing news with an incredulous grin. Rohm is effective in making us feel Io’s plight – whether as the maiden pursued by an amorous god, or an inconvenient affair that a man in power can’t let walk free.

To better understand the story and put it in a relatable context, there are several well-produced broadcast news breaks shown on a screen to the side of the simple set of Prometheus’s cell. These were helpful and fit right in with the whole concept of the play.

Director Carey Shea and company have produced an excellent fresh take on an old story, a commentary on the “gods” we may all find ourselves answering to. Find Wheeler Arts at 1035 Sanders St., Indianapolis, near Fountain Square. For information and tickets, see eclecticpond.org.

(Also posted at The Word)

Review: Time for ‘Timon’

Timon (Brian Hartz, center) is finally losing patience with the artist (Bradford Reilly, left) and poet (Taylor Cox) who had been so eager to take his money in Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens," presented by Casey Ross Productions at the 2015 Bard Fest in Carmel, Ind.
Timon (Brian Hartz, center) is finally losing patience with the artist (Bradford Reilly, left) and poet (Taylor Cox) who had been so eager to take his money in Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” presented by Casey Ross Productions at the 2015 Bard Fest in Carmel, Ind. — CRP photo

By John Lyle Belden

You’ve heard the phrase, “generous to a fault” – now see the consequences play out in Casey Ross Production’s “Timon of Athens” during the Bard Fest Shakespeare Festival in downtown Carmel.

In Shakespeare’s least-produced play, which, having elements of both his comedies and tragedies, Ross considers a black comedy, Athenian nobleman Timon (played by Brian G. Hartz) lavishes his wealth on friends and hangers-on, overpaying for art and giving to all who ask – or even don’t ask, but are there to receive it.

Only his steward, Flavius (Colin McCord), sees the danger of Timon’s dwindling fortunes. And only the self-denying philosopher Apemantus (Carey Shea) refuses to accept any gifts, making him the only one Timon is suspicious of, rather than the leeches at his banquet.

When Flavius finally gets through to Timon, the nobleman is broke – even his lands are forfeit. The “friends” who received so generously will give him nothing, so a disgusted Timon leaves the city to live in the wilderness. Even the discovery of a cache of gold does not make Timon happy, other than his mad glee to use the found fortune to curse Athens while keeping nothing for himself.

Hartz is in his element with this complex character, keeping him easy to root for as both the generous noble of the first act and the wild man in the woods of the second. Shea is a worthy foil; McCord is sharp as the faithful servant; and Tristan Ross takes on yet another Shakespeare role with ease as the exiled Athenian general Alcibiades. Notable are Bradford Reilly and Taylor Cox as the painter and poet who seek Timon’s patronage for a life of leisure, but all are well cast, including Tom Weingartner, David Mosedale, Allyson Womack and Minnie Ryder.

As both parable and intriguing drama, “Timon” is worth making the effort to see, and kudos to Ross for tackling the difficult job of polishing this rare gem. Upcoming performances are 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15; and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

The festival also hosts performances of the comedy “As You Like It” by First Folio and the tragedy of “Othello” by Garfield Shakespeare Company. In addition, Ross hosts Shakespeare trivia contests during the festival, as well as a performance of her latest Fringe play, “Hell’s 4th Ring: The Mall Musical” at 11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17.

The stage is located at 15 First Ave. NE in the Carmel downtown Arts and Design District (former location of Carmel Community Players). For information and tickets, visit the the Carmel Theatre Company website.