Catalyst’s ‘Tooth’ gives us much to chew on

By John Lyle Belden

When you enter the Grove Haus theater to experience “Tooth of Crime,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, you enter another world.

It’s a dystopian potential America of the 2080s, a Mad-Max atmosphere in which the battles aren’t over oil but fame – and your place on the rock ‘n’ roll charts. Those on top find themselves “marked,” with life and death consequences.

Hoss (Davey Pelsue) is an aging Marker at the top of The Game. He respects the Code, as well as the country and blues musicians that inform his down-and-dirty rock style. He doesn’t test the wrath of the Keepers, but is not too happy that other performers are bending the rules, especially Gypsies who don’t abide by the Code at all.

Vexed and paranoid, Hoss fires his stargazer, Mirra (Ryan Powell), for advising him to be cautious. A Deejay, Rudio Ran (Jay Hemphill), reassures him he’s still on top, but he suspects it’s flattery. His manager and girlfriend, Becky Lou (Sarah Hoffman) is worried, and the drugs Doc (Nan Macy) give him make him even more unmanageable. Then, right-hand man Chaser (Zach Stonerock) informs Hoss that a rival has marked him, and a Gypsy by the name of Crow (Adam Tran) is on his way to do battle. Chaser finds an impartial Ref (David Molloy) to adjudicate.

The culture of this play has its own dialect – though after a while you can “suss” it out – and the duel is mainly psychic, through words spoken and sung. Though they brandish guns and knives, Hoss and Crow strive to break each other’s mind and soul before fatally attacking the body.

For the audience, this requires paying close attention as much as possible, but not getting too concerned that you can’t tell exactly what’s said or even going on. This drama with music was written by Sam Shepard in 1972 and rewritten in 1997, which helps explain its vibe being somewhere between “Easy Rider” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” filtered through Greek tragedy.

This show isn’t for everyone, but if you go with it, you can witness a stylish indictment of the corrosive nature of celebrity, and experience the passion that Pelsue and his castmates put into their performance. Hoss practically sweats every word and lyric he utters. Crow is like a preening bird, but with a dangerous edge even when knocked off-balance.

An on-stage band provides excellent accompaniment to the show’s proceedings. The music was provided by Shepard, with additions by T Bone Burnett in the 1990s, and director Casey Ross found a more recent hit to finish the play.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays through Feb. 26 at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. Get info and tickets at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory.

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

Three great plays at Bardfest

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

Bardfest had a great opening weekend, and has two more – Oct. 20-23 and 27-30 – at the little Carmel Theatre Company stage, 15 First Ave NE in Carmel’s downtown Arts District (former home to Carmel Community Players).

It was noted in the curtain speech of one show I attended that Indianapolis is about the only major metropolitan area without a Shakespeare Festival. Fortunately, Willie’s plays do reach the boards a few times a year in individual productions around Indy, including a free summer production in White River State Park. But having three shows by the Immortal Bard – only one of which you would likely name off the top of your head if asked to list his plays – is a wonderfully unique experience.

‘KING LEAR’

I confess to missing the First Folio production of “King Lear.” Fortunately, I was familiar with the play and I trust First Folio Productions to pull this classic off more than competently. The title character is played by David Mosedale, and the role of her eldest daughter Cordelia (and a turn as the Fool) by Ann Marie Elloitt, two of the best speakers of iambic pentameter I’ve seen in central Indiana. Sarah Froehlke and Beth Clark as Lear’s devious other daughters are no slouches, either, and excellence is reflected throughout the cast and crew list, including the incredible Tristan Ross.

For those unfamiliar, “Lear” is about a British king who decides to give his kingdom to his three daughters. When the eldest refuses to flatter him, he misunderstands her actions as an insult and banishes her. She ends up in France, and leads an invasion to save her father’s kingdom from the machinations of her sisters. Mix in more madness and intrigue, and end it all tragically, and you have an excellent evening of drama. Which I didn’t have to see, but I highly recommend you do if you can.

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’

I did get a look at Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” It runs down the Bard comedy checklist: Shipwreck? Check. Siblings in distress? Check. Thinly made, but still effective, disguises? Check. Misunderstandings? Check. Wild wooing, leading to unlikely marriage? Check and check!

Perhaps understanding this, Garfield Shakespeare Company and directors Chris Burton and Sam Brandys made this a highly entertaining production by blending conventional pop songs into the narrative – one in particular, you’d swear was written for the play – as well as having instrumentation performed live on stage, especially by Feste, the minstrel Fool, played with perfect charm by Ashley Chase Elliott.

Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian (fraternal, yet perceived by other characters as identical in appearance, performed by Abby Gilster and Spencer Elliott) have washed up on different shores of Illyria after their shipwreck, each presuming the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for the local Duke Orsino (Benjamin Mathis), a single man pursuing the one woman who doesn’t want him, Lady Olivia (Audrey Stonerock). Orsino sends his new servant to deliver his messages of love, but Olivia instead falls for Viola-in-disguise – compounding the “boy”s confusion as s/he is smitten with Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s brother, the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Jay Brubaker) and his dim-witted companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Monica Verdouw) are carousing with Feste, an apparently freelance Fool working in both the Duke and Lady’s households. They and Olivia’s servant Maria (Kate Ghormley), play a cruel but hilarious prank on the prideful fellow court member Malvolio (Anthony Johnson), which only adds to the wild goings on – made even wilder when Sebastian makes his way to Olivia’s house.

Confused yet? It’s a Shakespeare comedy; a lot of various characters doing silly things to one another is part of the standard formula. Just relax, let the major groupings and who-loves-who sort themselves out, and just enjoy the ensuing mayhem. And nobody dies – that’s his other plays.

I must heap high praise not only upon every cast name listed above, but also Burton, who takes on various character roles on top of his other duties – he was even fixing the lights before the show.

‘CORIOLANUS’

As for “Coriolanus,” regarding the odd name, if we must get to the bottom (sorry!) of the story it is simply an unfortunate (for modern audiences, though Shakespeare did enjoy a bawdy pun) honorific bestowed on the main character, Caius Marcius (Taylor Cox) to celebrate his victory in battle at Corioli, where pre-Empire Rome defeated the rival Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidious (Ryan Ruckman).

Back in Rome, Marcius is not quiet about his elitist attitude, which doesn’t sit well with the commoners who already blame him (falsely) for a grain shortage. Fortunately, his smooth-talking friend Menenius (Matt Anderson) calms things down, but two Tribunes, Brutus and Velutus (Matt Walls and Paige Scott) observe this and stir up the citizens to oppose Coriolanus’s inevitable ascension to Consul.

Marcius himself doesn’t want the office, but his ambitious domineering mother Volumnia (Nan Macy) insists he take power, while his wife Virgilia (Abby Gilster) agrees, hoping it will keep the lifelong soldier home. But despite his friends and family insisting he stay calm, Marcius verbally explodes, giving the Tribunes the excuse to banish him.

In the second act, the exiled Coriolanus turns to his blood enemy Aufidious, who sets him in charge of the Volscian invasion of Rome. Being the era’s greatest general, Marcius practically brings troops to the gates of the capitol. Desperate to save Rome and win back his friend, Menenius tries to reason with Coriolanus. Finally, his mother, wife and son make their desperate plea. I’m not giving any further spoilers, but it all doesn’t end well.

Cox, who is proving himself to be one of the best actors in Indy, is excellent as his frustratingly complex character. You may not like this Caius Marcius Coriolanus, but you have to respect him. Davey Pelsue applies his matching talent as fellow Roman officer Titus Lartius, a dutiful soldier of inevitably conflicting loyalties. Macy’s is the top performance, a force of nature like a mother wolf who wants to be pack Alpha. You might not want her for a Mom, but you want her on your side. Anderson imbues his glib character with genuine feeling, fearful yet hopeful that his smooth tongue can cure any roughness he encounters. As for Walls and Scott, their villainous portrayal has them practically twirling old-time movie mustaches.

The other “bad guy” of the piece, Ruckman’s Aufidious, stays true to his character and principles, and carries a confident air throughout. Were the audience made of Volscians, he would be the easy hero. This adds to the many gray areas this play works in – not all virtuous win, not all villainous are punished, few are completely noble or evil – which might explain why it so rarely produced.

Unafraid, director Casey Ross gives this story a chance to show us all its complexities. The era portrayed is unspecified, the costumes mildly punk without being distracting, leaving us only with these characters and the drama that plays out among them. Occasional music is modern, but works with the timeless narrative. If you are a fan of great theatre, seeing this “Coriolanus” should be a priority.

For information and tickets to Bardfest, see http://uncannycasey.wixsite.com/bardfestindy.

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

Review: Ecce ‘Equus’

By John Lyle Belden

The Peter Shaffer play “Equus” is famous for not only its dark subject matter (intertwining themes of bestiality and religion, horse mutilations, etc.) but also for its nudity.

But in the Casey Ross production playing through July 24 at the Grove Haus, though there is a scene with characters fully naked, more striking are the souls laid bare in this drama. Never going beyond loosening his tie, Dr. Dysart (Brian G. Hartz) finds his profession of psychiatry, his personal relationships, and his very life raw and exposed to the audience as well as the probings of his own mind. Frank Strang (Doug Powers), father to disturbed teen Alan (Taylor Cox), tightly bound in vested suit and his own convictions, finds himself exposed and convicted in his son’s eyes. Alan’s mother Dora (Ericka Barker) finds her faith shaken and her own facade sliding away. And young Jill (Sarah McGrath), fascinated by the sight of bare skin, exposes herself to Alan completely, never suspecting the devastation that would follow.

As for Cox, who has admitted to struggling with his role as a boy who comes to deify horses, confusing religious and sexual ecstacy, his dedication to conveying Alan’s pain to the audience – which are seated around the central stage area, the front row inches from the action – has paid off immensely. You can’t help but feel empathy for the plight of Alan, the people in contact with him, and even the steeds he adores, then hurts when his passioned delusion turns violent. Hartz provides a brilliant counterpoint with his compassionate yet driven Dysart.

Excellent support is provided by other members of the cast: Allison Clark Reddick as magistrate Hester Solomon, Tony Armstrong as stablemaster Dalton, Nan Macy as the Nurse, and the horses played by Bowie Foote, Christopher Bell, Beth Clark and Johnny Mullens as Nugget, Alan’s favorite. Ross, who directs with the assistance of David Mosedale, provides an excellent minimalist stage design, and kudos to Davey Pelsue for composing the haunting original score.

Shaffer wrote the play after being inspired by a brief news story of a 17-year-old blinding six horses with a sharpened tool. With this fact, he spun a fictional drama that strikes at the truth of faith and devotion, and our definitions of sanity and normalcy. I couldn’t help but notice that when Alan has nightmares of his equestrian gods judging him, he cries out “Eck!” which is revealed to be the obvious, “Equus,” the word for his godhead and savior. Still, it echoes to me of “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the Man,” Latin for the words of Pilate presenting a broken Jesus to the public.

In “Equus,” we are presented with a broken boy, exposing the cracks in everyone around him until all are shattered. It is truly something to behold.

Find the Grove Haus at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square just southeast of downtown Indy. Find info and tickets at http://uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or the Casey Ross Productions Facebook page.

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

Review: Hoosier play brings out actors’ best

By John Lyle Belden

Jim Leonard Jr.’s “The Diviners,” a snapshot of Depression-era Indiana with supernatural overtones, is presented through Sunday by Casey Ross Productions at Carmel Theatre Company (former CCP stage), 15 1st Ave. in downtown Carmel.

The story centers on Buddy Layman (played by Pat Mullen), a youth rendered simple-minded years ago by his near-drowning in the local river, an incident that took his mother’s life. Now a teen, he never bathes and is so afraid of water that he can sense rain hours before anyone even sees clouds, as well as feel it below the ground, allowing him to “divine” locations for wells.

He is cared for by his older sister Jennie Mae (Allyson Womack) and father Ferris (Zach Stonerock), the local engine and bicycle mechanic. Neighboring farmers Basil and Luella Bennett (David Mosedale and Kathryn Comer Paton) see Buddy’s abilities as an asset, as their lives are so tied to the land. In the play’s first scenes, Bennett’s farmhands, Dewey and Melvin (Johnny Mullins and Tyler Gordon) witness Buddy’s “divining” first-hand.

Into this world comes a young drifter, C.C. Showers (Davey Pelsue), looking for work. Ferris hires him, even though the man’s only job experience had been as a preacher, a job he had taken more out of family obligation than spiritual calling, and thus felt no motivation to continue. Showers also takes an interest in Buddy, seeing him more as a troubled person than a human water-detector. In town, they (and we) meet the remaining members of the cast, Bible-thumping shopkeeper Norma Henshaw and her headstrong daughter Darlene (Paige Scott and Heather R. Owens) as well as Goldie Short (Audrey Stauffer Stonerock), who runs the local diner; her bottled soda is about the only liquid Buddy will touch.

Norma’s desire to see the local long-destroyed church rebuilt has her see Showers’ every word and deed as a sign that the man will return to the ministry for their town. His actions to help Buddy with a persistent skin condition become much larger in her eyes, leading to tragic circumstances.

The cast, under the direction of Casey Ross, bring their dramatic A-game. Mullen earns praise for not overselling Buddy’s condition, earnestly delivering the boy’s frustratingly third-person speech and making him feel real. We can see Pelsue’s tattoos peeking out of his shirt sleeves, yet still believe he is a 1930s Kentucky preacher; this is his best performance yet. Mr. Stonerock is convincingly paternal; you can see the zeal gleaming in Scott’s eyes; and Mosedale is rock solid.

To be honest, there are no weak performances at all, which helps keep this play above its potential for cliché or caricature. For comparison, consider the best “Waltons” episode you ever saw, and add water.

For info and tickets, see uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or “caseyrossproductions” on Facebook.

(Also posted at The Word.)

Review: Corny cornchip mystery by CRP

By John Lyle Belden

Years ago, I worked on a production line of a manufacturer of tortilla products. Though not too bad if you don’t mind smelling like a corn chip after work, the shifts were as long and monotonous as you’d imagine. And I guess that for those working in the executive offices, things were about as dull.

Until they’re not.

Casey Ross’ “Tortillo” imagines such a scenario, in which a corporate drone at a corn chip company could use some excitement in his life – and with a mysterious phone call, he gets it in spades.

Dave (Robert Webster Jr.) could care less about the new ranch flavor of Tortillo stacked chips (like if Pringles made Doritos) but would rather pine for hot co-worker Juniper (Lisa Marie Smith). Steve (Matt Anderson) is all to eager to help Dave score, giving him an excuse to offload all his work on shy but faithful intern Patrick (Davey Pelsue). But during an evening of watching Steve’s 15 seconds of fame on TV, he and Dave get a call from a malevolent voice, telling them to “mind your own masa.”

Naturally, they freak out over the vague threat, but not enough to do anything. The next day, after overeager employee-of-the-month Ted (Tristan Ross) drops off a sample of the new-flavored chips, they make a discovery that will make you think twice before popping open your next can of Tortillos.

What ensues is a bizarre mystery of corruption and revenge with odd and shady characters – and just who is that “John” guy (Brian Kennedy) anyway? He looks familiar – all flavored with dark hilarity like only Casey Ross’ pen can deliver.

Under the expert direction of Tristan Ross (no relation to Casey) this madness flows excellently through two acts. This was originally a 50-minute Fringe show, and hits the same plot beats, but the two Rosses have ensured that it doesn’t feel “padded out.”

The fun and snacks end Sunday at the IndyFringe building’s Indy Eleven stage. See IndyFringe.org or the Casey Ross Productions website or Facebook page for details and tickets.

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.