Summit: Finding life’s meaning in unlikely ways

By John Lyle Belden

Summit Performance explores connections, being in the moment, and the fears that affect both, in the comic drama “Be Here Now,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Amy Lynn Budd.

Bari (Carrie Ann Schlatter) is an aspiring professor of philosophy, specializing in nihilism, who needs to finish her dissertation. Being in a process that requires a lot of work to argue that nothing at all matters, she’s stuck. Also, her headaches aren’t helping.

Patty (Cynthia Collins) and Luanne (Zariya Butler), coworkers at her other job, a distribution center for knicknacks of various faiths, dislike Bari’s “smug gloom” and seek to somehow make her happy. Desperate, Patty sets up a date with her cousin Mike (Ryan Ruckman), who has issues of his own.

Suddenly, Bari collapses. After a brief seizure, she awakens to unheard music, experiencing fantastic visions — and the realization that absolutely everything is awesome.

While this play is Bari’s story, Mike is a complex presence as well, with a tragic past and an eccentric present life of gathering cast-off items and building them into little houses. And he has a pet crow. Ruckman is solid, maintaining an easy charm that makes his oddities quaint rather than disturbing.

The setting, a little town just a couple of hours away from New York City, is sort of a metaphorical character of its own: Cooperville, where nearly everyone has the last name of Cooper, including Patty. She believes in astrology and fate, and easily justifies her fear of ever leaving town by citing the dangers of the Big City. Collins plays her a little curmudgeonly, but with a big heart. By contrast, her niece Louanne blithely walks the thin line between optimistic and naive. Butler serves up a perfect dose of sweetness.

As for Bari, Schlatter expertly carries her philosophical load, expounding on questions that would give Hamlet a stroke, at times seeming to babble like one who is high (which technically the character is “tripping” at times) yet thanks to Laufer’s script, giving profound insights. This being modern times in enlightened society, she (and the others) understand there is likely a serious medical explanation for what is happening to her. But realizing that even if it’s endangering her life, it does seem to make her feel happy for perhaps the first time, does she really want to give that up?

When all is said and done, you might find yourself looking for the “garbage house” in your own backyard. See for yourself to understand what I mean. “Be Here Now” runs through Feb. 2 on the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

IndyFringe: Vinny the Pooh

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

While waiting for the show to begin, you are serenaded by lounge singer Richard Cheese — and if you know who that is, then you have a good idea of what you are in for with this show.

Apparently, after Christa MaBobbin left the 50 Hectare Forest to marry Toad and take a wild ride in neighboring Frogswallow, things changed. Now these beloved characters have been forced into a life of crime in order to remain a “family.”

Steve Kruze gives Vinny the hopefulness and love of honey that you might remember but he also brings a little street-smarts to the role as well. Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet gives us a new interpretation of the original’s worried indecisiveness.

Clay Mabbitt is hilarious as Eyesore, with his gloomy outlook and eyepatch(es). Joshua C. Ramsey channels all of the pompousness of Jowl, speaking in Latin throughout.

Carrie Ann Schlatter’s portrayal of Franga (and puppet child Shmoo) brings all of the fierceness that wild kangaroos are known for.

Rounding out the “Family” is John Kern as Stagger. His energy levels are amazing as he bounds through each scene bringing out the self-centered side of his character.

Morgan Morton, as MaBobbin, deftly maneuvers her character from innocent victim to devious plotter without batting an eyelash.

So come out and see how the corruption and intrigue work out. Just know that in this story, while there are snacks, there will also be blood.

An Approxima Productions joint, remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.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.

TOTS dramas the hell out of this ‘MF’

By John Lyle Belden

If you’re like me, you don’t know much about the play “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, aside from the provocative title and perhaps that it was Chris Rock’s dramatic stage debut in its Broadway run.

Now,  know that it is a gritty solid drama with comic elements, playing through May 13 at Theatre on the Square.

Granted, the language is not clean; it reflects the everyday talk of the working-class New Yorkers we are presented with, trying to live day to day with the struggles of addiction and recovery, and the consequences of bad choices, including incarceration. The laughs are mainly situational from the dark humor of living with your demons. Still, it’s not preachy to the audience, though upbeat AA sponsor Ralph D (Ben Rose) does dish out life-lessons to any who will hear.

We open with a deceptively happy scene. Jackie (Eric Reiberg) comes home to Veronica (Carrie Schlatter), his sweetheart since eighth grade, to announce he has found a job. They mention the fact that he is on parole, but that only makes the victory sound sweeter.

But then, he sees The Hat.

It’s a nice fedora-style hat, sitting on the coffee table (next to Veronica’s cocaine mirror), which he doesn’t recognize and she claims to know nothing about. With this, Jackie’s unraveling begins. His pursuit of the titular character and increasing realization that his addict girlfriend has not been faithful triggers his desire to use drugs and alcohol, and make other unwise decisions including acquiring a gun.

We then meet Ralph and his wife, Victoria (Chelsea Anderson), both in recovery as well as a very rocky relationship. There is also Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Ian Cruz), who has his own quirks, but compared to the others is the voice of reason.

In this production, a talented cast sharply execute a complex drama about the tangled feelings and impulses that come with taking that next step: whether it’s the numbered one in the program’s “big book;” to walk out the door; or to – against all your frantic brain’s desires – just not-do what comes next. And in the process, we learn the importance of the Commodores, Van Damme and the theory that dinosaurs invented waterfalls.

As the show is just opening, I’ll avoid further spoilers, deliver a tip of my MF’ing hat to director Gari L. Williams, and just encourage you to see this great MF’ing show. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

Civic presents fabulous farce

By John Lyle Belden

A man is shot. A woman is missing. Reputations and political careers are on the line. A doctor is called. The police are on their way.

Believe it or not, that is the setting for a hilarious comedy: Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 18 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Ken and Chris Gorman (Kim Ruse and Clay Mabbitt) are first to arrive at the anniversary party of their friend Charlie, the Deputy Mayor of New York. But the servants are gone, leaving uncooked food in the kitchen, Charlie’s wife is missing and their host has a hole in his earlobe from trying to shoot himself. Ken, as the man’s attorney, is trying desperately to keep the potential scandal under wraps, which isn’t easy when other friends arrive: Leonard and Claire Ganz (Parrish Williams and Carrie Schlatter), Ernie and Cookie Cusack (Trevor Fanning and Marni Lemmons), and finally Glenn Cooper (Steve Kruze) with his own political ambitions to consider, as well as neurotic wife Cassie (Christine Kruze, yes they’re married in real life, too).

Excuses for what is going on get more bizarre as events unfold, but eventually all are informed. But then, the police (Joanne Kehoe and Joe Aiello) arrive. What story to tell them?

This American farce in the Moliere mold has gag after well-written wacky gag, excellently played by a cast well-suited and experienced in stage comedies, directed by Charles Goad, no stranger to delivering a punchline himself. Ruse and Schlatter have such chemistry that when one woman delivers a zinger, just a glance between them sets off even more laughter. Mabbitt and Williams also sell the jokes with their knack for physical shtick, especially when Ken is deafened by the second gunshot, and when Leonard has to pretend to be Charlie – and convincingly explain what’s been going on the whole time.

This show is a welcome escape from today’s constant stresses (political and otherwise). Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org. Tickets also available at thecenterpresents.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.

Review: Quirky ‘Crumble’ holds up

By John Lyle Belden

Theatre on the Square presents the tragic comedy – or comic tragedy – “Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake),” through June 18.

This is one of those stories with characters so quirky, in so many ways, that they somehow feel like someone you know. Even, in this case, entities that are not even technically alive.

In this play, we meet a house (Clay Mabbitt) that used to be considered a mansion, but has been falling into disrepair. He feels so lonely at the neglect by and indifference of his human occupants that he might have to kill them in hopes of getting better people to move in. The residents are neurotic mother Clara (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and hyper daughter Janice (Paeton Chavis). The husband/father Gary (Joshua C. Ramsay), dead for about a year at Christmas, is a shadowy ghost.

Ramsay is also the vision of Justin Timberlake that comes alive from the poster on Janice’s bedroom wall to advise and confess his love to her before flying away. As she sings macabre songs and deconstructs a doll, Janice works on her holiday surprise.

Meanwhile, Clara tries to keep her sanity while making four-star gourmet meals like she prepares at work for herself and her daughter. She speaks in poetry, and her only friends are her crazy-cat-lady sister, Barbara (Amy Hayes), and a phantom celebrity of her own.

The presentation as a single 80-minute act helps builds tension towards something frightening and dangerous, but with moments of surprising dark humor on the way. The five veteran actors are each excellent in their own way. Chavis convincingly plays a disturbed tween struggling to understand what has happened, while convinced that some part of it is her fault and only she can make it right. Schlatter easily carries us along on her mental roller coaster, so desperate to connect with her daughter that she buys all seven unusual items on Janice’s gift wish list. Hayes is endearing as the ever-helpful sis who stays willfully blind to her own issues. Ramsey turns on the charm, adding humor and emotional depth to his moments as helpful hallucinations.

And aided by the clever script by Sheila Callaghan and direction by Rob Johansen, Mabbitt makes the house a fully-realized character, perhaps the most “real” person in this drama.

Overall, this is the kind of story that only works as a stage play, and an example of why an active theatre scene like Indianapolis enjoys is so important. There are mature topics, and Janice expresses herself very colorfully, so this show is for teens and older.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave. Get info and tickets at www.tots.org or 317-685-8687.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)

Review: A farcical mystery, or mystery farce?

By John Lyle Belden

Up at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents “The Game’s Afoot,” a Sherlock Holmes-inspired comedy by Ken Ludwig, through Nov. 7.

Actor William Gillette (Josh Ramsey) is so comfortable playing Holmes that when a hated theater critic (Christine Kruze) is stabbed in his home during a dinner party – an affair set up to find out who had shot and wounded him during his last performance – he puts on the deerstalker hat and seeks to unravel the mystery, much to the consternation of the police detective (Carrie Ann Schlatter). Theatre friends (and suspects) played by Bill Book, Jean Childers Arnold, Alex Ray and Emily Howell, with Wendy Brown as Gillette’s mother, all add to the chaos and physical comedy Ludwig farces are famous for.

The gorgeous set is complete with the necessary doors to slam, a stairwell for entrances and even a hidden room with its comical moments. And the manner(s) in which our victim is dispatched does point out the real-world fact that if you’re not practiced at it, killing someone can be a lot harder than you think.

The play’s run ends Saturday. Get info and tickets at 317-843-3800 or http://www.civictheatre.org.