CCP’s charming ‘Witches’ at Carmel’s CAT

By John Lyle Belden

We all have that one person we can’t stand – but then circumstances force you to work together. That is the hex put on the ladies in “Kitchen Witches,” the fun comedy that concludes the 2017-18 season for Carmel Community Players.

Dolly (Denise Fort) is wrapping up her cable-access cooking show due to lack of viewership. But when her old culinary rival, Isabel (Gina Atwood), crashes the finale, the ratings go through the roof. So, to stay on the air, the two women must work together – an obvious strain on producer Stephen (Tim Moore), who is also Dolly’s son. Along with slinging the hash (at each other) our “witches” rehash their past with the late Larry Biddle, Dolly’s husband and Isabel’s lover.

Meanwhile, keeping the cameras in focus is Robbi (Sydney Heller), a local punk who signals “one minute to air” with her middle finger.

The result is hilarious, of course, but Caroline Smith’s charming script has a surprising amount of heart, brought out nicely by the cast and director Courtnie Janikowski. Fort and Atwood play their besties-turned-beasties more infused with damaged pride than malicious anger, and Moore effectively portrays the put-upon son trying not to get another nervous ulcer. Even Heller wins our affections, excellently playing Robbi in “Silent Bob” style.

This show is CCP’s debut in the CAT, a performance space located just off the downtown Carmel Arts & Design District at 254 Veterans Way. This will also be home to much of the 2018-19 season as the company seeks a permanent home.

A good time was had by all at the packed opening night. Though, if I must nitpick, while I do understand the constraints of volunteer community theatre, this production could tighten up its scene transitions, or at least play a little music while we sit in the dark.

But overall, consider me charmed by these “Witches.” Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.carmelplayers.org.

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CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit 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.

Before CCP shuffles off: a bold ‘Buffalo’

By John Lyle Belden

A quick note for those who haven’t heard: Carmel Community Players has lost its lease at the Clay Terrace shopping center, where “American Buffalo” is their last play on that stage, and is in the process of finding a new home. The next production, the musical “Ragtime,” will be presented at the Ivy Tech theater in Noblesville in April. For more details see carmelplayers.org.

Famed stage and screen writer David Mamet once said that the key to writing drama is to present a character wanting something, then placing obstacles in the way of him getting it. (Apparently swearing a lot is important, too.)

In Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” on CCP’s Clay Terrace stage for one more weekend, Donny (Larry Adams) really wants a valuable coin. It was just another trinket at his junk shop, but some slick buyer came in and bought it from him at a surprisingly high price – now Donny is sure it was worth a lot more, and that this man has other priceless coins as well. Faithful but mentally challenged Bobby (Daniel Shock) is eager to do “the job” for Donny, and not just be the lookout, but Teach (Earl Campbell) insists that the burglary be entrusted to him. Donny agrees, but also wants another accomplice – but can you trust a man who possibly cheated you at cards the night before?

Under the direction of Lori Raffel, this production presents the Mamet formula as a study in complex and conflicted characters. Donny wrestles with his pain at feeling he was taken advantage of, his feelings of responsibility for Bobby, and the need to get one good high-dollar score – Adams works all these subtleties well. Campbell is sharp as a jerk who talks big, but is no fool. Bobby is a cypher, making one unsure what he does and doesn’t know, and does and doesn’t understand – and why is he always asking for money? – Shock is spot-on in his delivery.

It’s that simple, and that complex. Add in some F-words and you’ve got classic Mamet, ending this chapter of the CCP’s ongoing story on a very strong note. Get tickets while you can: call 317-815-9387 or visit the website.

CCP drama presents public family’s private truths

By Wendy Carson

In “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Carmel Community Players, the Wyeths aren’t an ordinary family.

The father, Lyman, is a retired Hollywood actor and staunchly Republican former politician and foreign ambassador. The mother, Polly, also a past actor, is a devoted political wife. Her sister, Silda Grauman, was writer and costar of their forgettable series of movies – their Tinseltown legacy. Silda is also a resentful recovering alcoholic whose circumstances force her to endure living with her sister’s family.

It’s Christmas time, and Lyman and Polly’s grown children have come home to Palm Springs, Calif., for the holidays. The son, Trip, lives nearby and works in the entertainment industry, producing a trashy, exploitative reality show. The daughter, Brooke, is a troubled novelist residing in New York. After a broken marriage, mental breakdown and institutionalization, a combination of effective therapy and completing another book has brought her out of her darkness and back to the desert.

The family has lived in the public eye, yet hides dark secrets. It turns out that Brooke’s book is a memoir focused on her older brother Henry, who committed suicide years ago after being implicated in a deadly bombing. Considering Henry a free-spirited hero and best friend, Brooke blames their conservative parents for his fate.

The resulting conflict drives the plot of this acclaimed drama by Jon Robin Baitz. Brooke (Shannon Samson in top form) wants her parents’ blessing before the book publishes, but their pushback, especially from Polly (Vickie Cornelius Phipps, a sharp performance with cutting edges) pushes everyone to the brink. Lyman (Ronn Johnstone, giving the impression this role was written for him) struggles to avoid the growing conflict, but secrets have their own inevitable weight. Trip (Jeremy Tuterow, delivering a lighter counterpoint) also wants to avoid drama, and doesn’t recognize the apparent monsters in Brooke’s book as their parents. Meanwhile, Silda (Miki Mathioudakis, excellent as usual) gives full reign to her bitterness in entertaining fashion.

To discover these fascinating secrets and lies, take the Clay Terrace exit to visit “Other Desert Cities,” through Feb. 11. Call 317-815-9687 or visit carmelplayers.org.

Soured friendship flavors ‘Suite’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

A Hollywood star-studded 1940s benefit for the war effort is the backdrop of the comedy “Suite Surrender,” on stage through Feb. 26 at Carmel Community Players.

Claudia McFadden (Gergeanna Teipen) headlines the big show at the Palm Beach Royale Hotel, but her former friend and hated rival, Athena Sinclair (Jill O’Malia) is on the bill as well. Fortunately, hotel manager Mr. Dunlap (Sydney Loomis) has them booked in suites on opposite sides of the building. Unfortunately, they both feel entitled to the Presidential Suite, and make themselves at home in its east and west bedrooms.

It is up to Dunlap, Claudia’s assistant Pippet (Thom Johnson) and Athena’s assistant Murphy (Addison D. Ahrendts) to keep the divas from even seeing one another, lest the sparks fly hotter than the fires started by rowdy shore-leave sailors in the downstairs lobby. Caught in the middle are hapless bellhops Otis (Colton Martin) and Francis (Steve Jerk), local socialite and event organizer Mrs. Osgood (Kate Hinman), and nosy journalist Dora Del Rio (Marjorie Worell).

Naturally, this all results in one hilarious farce, with goofy misunderstandings, frantic wild takes and lots of well-timed physical humor. Loomis is a master of manic mannerisms. Johnson’s minion-under-pressure shtick works perfectly. Teipen and O’Malia practically purr in their cattiness. Worell is literally whacked like a tennis ball to great effect. Hinmon hits the right comic notes, but don’t let her sing. Martin and Jerk recall the great pratfalling comics of the era. Ahrendts adds a touch of romance while getting in a few funny moments herself. And the biggest trooper of them all is little dog Sergio as Claudia’s Mr. Boodles.

As the hijinks work their way to the inevitable happy ending, watch for the twist, with its bit of wry commentary on show business.

Find CCP at 14299 Clay Terrace Boulevard, north of downtown Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source, which has a brief version of this and other theatre reviews.

CCP brings fun in the ‘Park’

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

Some days, all you need from a stage play is just an easy-going fun comedy. Maybe something by Neil Simon? Then head on up to the Carmel Community Players stage in Clay Terrace for its production of Simon’s first hit, “Barefoot in the Park,” playing weekends through Oct. 16.

In the winter of 1963 in New York, a free-spirited new bride, Corie (played by Lauren White Hall), has chosen an oddly-shaped fifth-floor walkup for a first apartment for her and her husband, Paul (Nicholas Barnes), a rather straight-laced young lawyer. It’s not what he would have wanted, but out of love for Corie, Paul tries to make do with the living arrangements – broken skylight and all. Making the situation even more interesting are visits by Corie’s mother Ethel (Bridget Schlebecker) and eccentric upstairs neighbor Victor (Will Pullins). A horizon-expanding evening with the four enjoying drinks and a dinner out proves fateful for all.

Hall is effervescent and charming, and Barnes ably plays the more reserved but still likeable half of the duo, making it believable that these two opposites did attract one another. Schlebecker and Pullins are natural scene-stealers in two of the more fun roles of the Simon repertoire. And Joe Meyers hits the right note as the telephone repair man whose timely advice helps fix more than a broken line.

Director Lori Raffel (also executive director at Theatre on the Square) found a fun solution to the problem of the set change between the first two scenes – a time-consuming transformation of the apartment from bare to fully-furnished. Under half-light, the cast brings out the bed, tables, couch, etc., to a dance routine. Raffel said she even got help from a member of Dance Kaleidoscope in arranging the actors’ steps with minimal improvisation. The result is almost as entertaining as the play itself.

As for the play, “funny,” “romantic” and “satisfying” are words too easy to throw around, but they fit so well here, to the greatest extent of their meaning.

Put on your shoes and head up to the top of Carmel. Info and tickets at 317-815-9387 or www.carmelplayers.org.

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