Discover the beauty of ‘Violet’

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Violet” touches on many themes: blind faith, being blinded by faith, the importance of our appearance to ourselves and others, and the necessity to forgive — both others and ourselves. Eclipse productions, a program of Summer Stock Stage, brings all these aspects beautifully into focus in its production of “Violet” at the Phoenix Theatre, through June 15.

In 1964, Violet, a young woman from rural Spruce Pine, North Carolina., travels by bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to find a television preacher who conducts televised faith healings. She hopes to finally be rid of a disfiguring facial scar she got from an accident with a wayward ax blade. On the way, she rides with two soldiers on their way to Ft. Smith, Arkansas (nearby Fort Chaffee, to be accurate, but this isn’t mentioned), the last stop before Tulsa.

Along the way, Violet (Elizabeth Hutson) gets to know Flick (Mark Maxwell), a black Sargeant, and Monty (John Collins), a white Corporal, as they get a measure of her and appreciate the woman behind the face. She also meets characters such as a well-meaning old lady (Amanda Boldt) and the driver (Carlos Medina Maldonado), as well Almeta (Chase Infiniti), who runs a boarding house in Memphis, and isn’t comfortable with white folks in her rooms. During this journey, we can see in her memory a younger Violet (Leah Broderick) and her father (Eric J. Olson), who as a widower tries to do as well as he can for his daughter, while enduring a river of deep regrets.

The cast also includes Terrence Lambert, Lily Wessel, and Gabriel Herzog in various roles. At the Tulsa church studio, we meet Maldonado as the preacher with a choir led by Infiniti as featured singer, Lula.

Most of the ensemble are Summer Stock Stage alumni, young adults given an opportunity to show the skills they attained through years in the youth program as well as high school and university; thus we have fresh faces performing like old pros alongside veteran actors Olson and Maldonado.

Hutson is exceptional, her star shining through the plain hair and clothes, helping us to see the scar burned into her psyche even though (as is commonly done in this production) it is not visible on her face. Maxwell and Collins flesh out their characters solidly, and Infiniti gets to show off her powerful voice.

The simple set suggesting an old country church, by designer Geoffrey Ehrendreich, is adorned with mirrors hanging high above it, the shadow of the center one looming in the background as a metaphorical tombstone. Music direction and costumes are by Jeanne Bowling, with a backstage band conducted by pianist Nathan Perry. Eclipse Artistic Director and show producer Emily Ristine Holloway directs.

This beautiful work is playing on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at www.SummerStockStage.com or PhoenixTheatre.org.

IRT revisits the radical notion of doing what makes you happy

By John Lyle Belden

As for the appropriateness of bringing out the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You,” I’m tempted to say “in times like these” – but really, there will always be distress and drama around us, thus it is always a good time to see this funny, heartfelt show.

So here we are, with the Indiana Repertory Theatre giving us its finely crafted production. While the Great Depression continues outside their beautiful house, “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Robert Elliott) and his brood are feeling quite fine, thank you.

Penelope Sycamore (Millicent Wright) taps away at a typewriter that was accidentally left at their doorstep years ago, while her husband Paul (James Leaming) works on innovating large-display fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Ansley Valentine), a delivery man who never got around to leaving. Daughter Essie (Mehry Eslaminia) pursues ballet dancing, without quite catching it, under Russian ex-pat Boris Kolenkhov (Joey Collins), with her husband Ed (Carlos Medina Maldonado) accompanying on xylophone while printing whatever phrase sounds clever on his little press. Maid Rheba (Brianna Milan) happily prepares whatever meals the family’s whims dictate, from corn flakes to canned salmon, while wooed by handsome Donald (Adam Tran) who is helpful, but no too much as he’s “on relief.” Speaking of romance, the Sycamores’ other daughter, Alice (Janyce Caraballo), is about to marry her boss, Tony Kirby (Aaron Kirby, coincidentally), but she frets at the prospect of his parents (David Lively and Carmen Roman) meeting her not-quite-“normal” family. And on an evening when everyone is just being themselves, joined by friend and tipsy actress Gay Wellington (Molly Garner), they do.

In addition, we get visits from characters played by Scott Greenwell, Michael Hosp and Zachariah Stonerock, as well Jan Lucas as the Archduchess Olga.

For the unfamiliar, I can’t help but describe this play as “The Addams Family,” but without the creepy aspects – partly because the recent Addams Broadway show borrowed a lot of the same plot points. At the core of it all is the notion that there shouldn’t be something wrong or embarrassing with doing what feels right, along with the gentle lesson that one needn’t be doing what makes them miserable, either.

All performances are spot on and appropriately hilarious. It would be a crime not to have someone as talented as Wright in the lead, and her being in an interracial couple in the 1930s only underlines the exceptionally open and accepting nature of the central family. Also, Maldonado gets to show off his musical side.

Being the IRT, the whole look and feel is perfect, including scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s busy-yet-orderly set decoration. Peter Amster directs.

Do something that makes you happy – like check out this show. Performances are through May 19 on the IRT mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT gives mouse-eye view of stage magic

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents an excellent introduction to the world of live theatre for the smallest patrons – preschool to the early school grades – with “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The show is immersive, encouraging audience participation in a gentle manner. Children take their seats on the floor right next to the “stage” area, which includes two paths running through the audience (parents or guardians can sit with them, or to the back in regular chairs). There is an opening introduction led by an IRT staffer, such as actor/educator Beverly Roche or play director Benjamin Hanna, to let everyone know what to expect and get them in the proper mood.

Everyone in the excellent cast play mice — with humans, hazards and a pesky cat (giant from our perspective) portrayed by light and sound effects to aid young imaginations. Claire Wilcher is Granny, matriarch of the Boot family, who resides in an old work shoe in a barn in The Country with grandson William (Grant Somkiet O’Meara, the lone kid actor). They are visited by Town cousin Montmorency De Vere Boot (Paeton Chavis), who informs them that William has inherited a nice piece of luxury footwear in an attic closet in a house in the heart of the city. When Monty brings William to Town to claim his new home, they come across the “tame twins,” white mice who escaped their pen to roam free about the house. Snowey (Carlos Medina Maldonado) is friendly and welcoming, while Silver (Brianna Milan) is mean and mistrusting, trying to trick William into dangerous situations.

While I would find it problematic if the theme emphasized the danger of exploring new places and that one is better off where they “belong,” the lesson emphasis here is on being brave – both in confronting new things and in stepping up to help someone else. The play program has an easy activity worksheet that includes questions on the topic of bravery, and the cast returns after the play to help lead a discussion on being brave.

The play is by British playwright Vicky Ireland, based on the traditional Aesop fable. A bit of the Queen’s English slips in – like “ready, steady, go” – but not in unfamiliar accents.

All the children present at my showing (emceed charmingly by Roche) appeared to enjoy the play, even smaller ones who were fussy at first. Be prepared for learning new dance steps, like the mouse “greeting” and the hot-pipe crossing – bits of physical storytelling that helped keep the young audience engaged. It also helped that the star is a bit closer to the age of the playgoers. When one kid asked during the talkback if he could give a high five, he headed straight to O’Meara. While Chavis being a small woman helped her to connect, Wilcher was nicely maternal and Maldonado and Milan were like oversized children (think Big Bird, but with fur).

Some parents noted after the show that there aren’t many opportunities for small children to experience live theatre like this. For information and tickets to this play, running through March 25 on the Cabaret floor of the IRT – 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis – visit www.irtlive.com.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

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

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.