Serving up something darkly unique in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

“It’s fun to cook with someone else.”

That quip by our host Terry becomes an incredibly loaded statement in “Taste,” a co-production of Monument Theatre Company and Theatre Unchained at Arts For Lawrence’s Theater at the Fort.

Based on a bizarre true story, this play by TV writer Benjamin Brand presents a “unique” two-person dinner party. Terry (Austin Hauptstueck) has arranged for Vic (Bradley Allan Lowe) to come to his apartment, where he will kill and eat his guest. This is no ambush; in fact, Vic is eager to be consumed, and even joins Terry in tasting the first piece that is chopped off and cooked.

Needless to say, this is for mature audiences only, and not for anyone squeamish about the subject matter. The stage is a working kitchen, with a bit of (simulated) flesh put on the plate. Discussions are frank, and there is even some audio from adult films.

As director Megan Ann Jacobs notes, this is an opportunity to not only look into the mind of someone who would consume another human, but also into that of one who would agree to be eaten. Once you get past the true-crime premise, seeing this as absurdist metaphor, we get at the relatable issues of loneliness and feelings of self that make a person this desperate for intimacy in any form. Thoughts of sex (in which “eat” is a common euphemism) lie just below the surface. The desire for a “real” experience overrides all other considerations. Issues of trust become vital: Did Vic really tie up loose ends to vanish from his past life? Will Terry keep his word and eat all of Vic, and not discard him like garbage? Who are the recorded videos for?

One mark of how absorbed we get in this weirdness is how much we find ourselves laughing at this dark comedy.

To engage us in the audience, no doubt the actors had to dig deep into perspectives we presume they wouldn’t normally hold, into the darkest aspects of humanity. Hauptstueck presents as an eccentric epicure, not entirely detached like a Hannibal Lecter sociopath. He relishes this experience in his own way, the foodie wanting to get not just the recipe but the whole culinary experience just right. Lowe portrays a lost soul seeking a sort of salvation, a bizarre “communion” in which he can be integrated completely – giving himself to nourish another. Fascinated by anyone’s life but his own, he sees this as his way out of an empty existence.

What less-desperate things have we all done to feel connection, belonging? There may be a place for more of us at this table than we’re willing to admit.

“Taste” is served Friday through Sunday, Sept. 29-30 and Oct. 1 at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, visit artsforlawrence.org, monumenttheatrecompany.org, or theatreunchained.org.

Footlite gets truly ‘Wild’

By John Lyle Belden

In 1928, Joseph Moncure March published his narrative poem, “The Wild Party,” a tale of Prohibition Era excess that was shocking at the time, and still quite racy. Taking the notion of living well as the best revenge to its debauched extreme, the story has been made into a film and at least two stage shows. The musical with book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa premiered in New York in 2000.

Now, “Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party” has taken over the stage of Footlite Musicals, directed by Bradley Allan Lowe. 

Queenie (Nina Stilabower) “was a blonde” with extreme sexual appettes. She would find them sated by fellow vaudeville performer Burrs (Joseph David Massingale). But she gets jaded, and he takes things too far. Thus, hoping for both excitement and a chance to embarrass her lover, Queenie proposes they throw a party. And with a guest list familiar with a wide range of sin, things are bound to get very, very wild.

Among those who show up for a long night of loud phonograph jazz, cocaine, and bathtub gin are Madeline (Miranda Nehrig) the lesbian, Eddie (Daniel Draves) the pugilist, Mae (Karen Hurt) Eddie’s gal, Jackie (Cameron Hicks) the dancer, Brothers D’Armano (Connor Chamberlin and Isaac Becker) the lovers and musical producers, Dolores (Aprille Goodman) the hooker, and Nadine (Lauren Frank) the minor. Fashionably late comes vivacious Kate (Logan Hill) with her date, Mr. Black (Allen Sledge).

Also occupying the stage for much of the show are Ervin Gainer, Logan Laflin, Claire Slaven, DeSean McLucas, Grant Craig, Jacoba White, Job Victor Willman, Anna Lee, Reno Moore and Tessa Gibbons. True to the title, the cast create a visual cacophony throughout most of the scenes, with some appropriate freezes when the action focuses on a solo or duo. Prior to the party, many stand by (and sing and dance) as a chorus mostly unseen by Queenie and Burrs. When the party gets going, there is a lot happening.

Lippa putting his own spin on the text, creating a mostly sung-through musical, didn’t seem to do the original verse any favors. Since March gave various characters the spotlight in the poem, it translated to Queenie and Burrs’ songs mostly advancing the plot, while the most memorable numbers are asides with supporting characters. Nehrig puts in the best performance with Madeline’s comic sapphic lament “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.” Draves and Hurt charm with Eddie and Mae’s “Two of a Kind.” The D’Armanos give us a fun digression, with Queenie and Burrs, presenting part of their saucy Biblical musical.

Stilabower and Massingale do very well as the leads, while Sledge adds surprising depth as Black develops feelings for Queenie, who surprises herself by reciprocating. Hill is dynamite, channeling the greatest redheaded comics in her portrayal of Kate. 

A note must be made of the show’s content. It goes beyond the swear words and the drunken fight (At this party? Who would have guessed?). This is the most mature content I’ve seen in a Footlite show – two words: choreographed rape. In movie terms, consider this a hard “R”. 

If you are familiar with the source material, or feel you are up for this kind of entertainment, check out the Wild Party through March 20 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.

Catch the spirit of Civic’s ‘Color Purple’

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is helping bring live audiences back in a big way with the Tony-winning musical “The Color Purple.”

For those unfamiliar with the acclaimed Alice Walker novel, or the Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg film (starring Whoopi Goldberg), this complex and dark coming-of-age story is difficult to justly describe. From a book by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – directed for the Civic by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Teneh B.C. Karimu – “The Color Purple” is challenging and disturbing, yet uplifting and life-affirming. This is one of those musicals where it’s best to just go and see for yourself the pain and triumph, and have the soulful voices wash over you. Whether or not God is in this place, or even with our heroine Celie, his Spirit has no doubt taken notice.

A lot happens in the story, so the musical keeps the characters, their motivations and actions mostly sung-through, up front with some handy chairs the only necessary props. Early 20th-century rural Georgia is more evoked than shown. The chorus starts out singing to the Lord, while Celie (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow) essentially asks if the Creator has forsaken her. Life with her abusive father (Bradley Alan Lowe) is so bad, that marriage to whip-toting Mister (Troy T. Thomas) is marginally better.

Though descended from slaves, Mister considers every person on his land his property, even his children. He frequently reminds Celie she is “ugly” and berates young son Harpo (Brenton Anderson) for being kind-hearted. At least Celie’s sister Nettie (Kendra Randle) manages to escape, promising to write to her from wherever she goes – but Mister intercepts the letters, letting Celie think she is alone in the world.

A strong-woman example comes into Celie’s life in Harpo’s bride Sofia (Rachel Bibbs), who will herself find the limits of standing up to authority in that era. We also meet the magnetic Shug Avery (Ashlee Baskin), the singer who is Mister’s one weakness, and who shakes things up even more than expected by befriending Celie. The large cast also features Miata McMichael as sweet Squeak, and Rayanna Bibbs, Tiffany Gilliam and Alexandria Warfield as the Church Ladies – this culture’s equivilant of a Greek Chorus.

Performances are solid, including Ludlow’s perseverance, Baskin’s complexity, Anderson’s charm, Rachel Bibbs’s full-throated attitude, and Thomas’s complete character arc.

Though bad times come frequently, there are genuine moments of joy and laughter, music in the juke-joint, colorful fabrics, and without spoiling, I’ll note that a measure of justice is meted out.

See – and feel – “The Color Purple” through Oct. 23 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

CCP returns with ‘Last Five Years’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Last Five Years” sounds like the experience of the last five months, but it is the title of the musical bringing live theatre back to Carmel.

Presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat downtown, the Off-Broadway hit by Jason Robert Brown is an examination of a relationship, a doomed marriage, blending the individual perspectives of the husband and wife – one experiencing it from beginning to end, the other reflecting from the end to the beginning. At mid-performance (it is presented as a 90-minute single act) the two “cross paths” at the wedding. It is an interesting dramatic device overall, and it works.

Bradley Allan Lowe, who fell in love with the songs when gifted a CD of the cast recording in his youth, directs Nina Stilabower and Daniel Draves as Cathy and Jamie, an ill-fated couple who started with joyous promise. He, an ordinary-looking guy, is an up-and-coming novelist. She, a beautiful woman, is a struggling actress. They encourage each others’ careers at first, but especially as his keeps him with literary socialites in New York, while hers has her in obscurity in Ohio, the cracks in their relationship widen until the break becomes unavoidable.

Stilabower is excellent in character and voice, showing what a loss it is for Broadway not to notice Cathy. Draves, presenting a likable mensch, carries himself well while showing Jamie’s full range of feeling. The two occupy a nicely designed stage, by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth, with the juxtaposition of simple furnishings with the visual metaphor of a whirlwind of papers that could be his novel drafts, or pages of musicals she tries out for.

There are also interesting costume choices – credited to Lowe, Draves, Stilabower, and Cathie Morgan. Note that the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Hanukkah pajamas were real, found online. (Ask Lowe where to order them.)

While very entertaining, the show presents with safety in mind. CCP takes the ongoing health crisis seriously: Seating is spaced and limited to 50 percent capacity; temperatures are taken at the door; all patrons must wear masks, and are asked to buy tickets in advance.

“The Last Five Years” runs through Aug. 2 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way (just south of the Main Street Arts & Design district). Get details and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

TOTS: Bitter arguments in a ‘City of Conversation’

By John Lyle Belden

In today’s political climate, many wonder how and when America became so polarized, with right and left (Republican and Democrat) in separate camps, each fiercely partisan and bitter. In the days of a more traditional Washington “establishment,” was it truly both sides talking to each other, or merely D.C. elites talking among themselves?

These questions and their accompanying history are played out with members of one Washington family in the drama, “The City of Conversation,” playing through April 29 at Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass. Ave. in downtown Indy.

In the late 1970s, a country in recovery from Vietnam and Watergate is being led by a Georgia peanut farmer with few friends in the D.C. Establishment. And Colin Ferris (Carey Shea) returns home from college in London, bringing his fiance, Anna Fitzgerald (Emily Bohn), to the Georgetown home of his mother, Hester (Nan Macy), and Aunt Jean (Forba Shepherd). A longtime liberal firebrand, Hester shares her bed with Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Doug Powers), and the evening includes a dinner with fellow Sen. George Mallonee (David Mosedale) and his wife Carolyn (Anna Lee).

The ulterior motive of the gathering (and there always is in Georgetown dinners) is for the senators to discuss aiding Teddy Kennedy in his efforts to take the 1980 Democratic nomination and restore the glory days of liberalism to Washington.

But Anna, an economics student from Minnesota, gives her outsider view that the growing support for California Republican Ronald Reagan should be taken seriously – to Hester’s horror, Colin agrees.

A decade later, Colin and Anna are working for GOP officials, but their son, Ethan (Max Gallagher), is getting a different political point of view from his grandmother and great-aunt. As the hard-fought battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court wages downtown, in Georgetown, Anna demands that Hester no longer have contact with Ethan, forcing Colin to choose sides.

The last scene takes place on the day of Pres. Obama’s inauguration, when adult Ethan (Shea) brings his partner, Donald (Bradley Lowe), to meet his grandmother.

This play is a conversation of its own, a conversation with us with our 2017 point of view, and a conversation starter to be sure. Macy is glorious, like a more-grounded Auntie Mame – well-versed in what she understands, but blind to what she doesn’t. Shea ably plays the complexity of being the kind of young person whose means of rebellion against his parents is to become more conservative, even while refusing to cut his long hair. Bohn’s Anna is very much like Hester in that she has to be always certain and in control of her world, which sets up their inevitable clash. Powers’ smooth voice and manner makes him well suited to playing the kind of politician used to compromise in a world where that is starting to become difficult.

The intimate feeling of the family living room setting is completed by inhabiting the intimate TOTS Second Stage. This also means seating is limited, so contact 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.