What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

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IndyFringe: ‘Canvas’

By John Lyle Belden

Standard disclaimer: I’ve known Casey Ross for years and love everything she does. So I can’t help but recommend this show, with a small caveat (see below).

“Canvas” is the third chapter of Ross’s trilogy that began with “Gallery” and continued with “Portraits” – both past Fringe shows. If you haven’t seen them, this play is still easy to follow, and a quick synopsis of the first two is in the program.

The story again focuses on two artists, best friends Jackson (Davey Pelsue) and Frank (Dave Ruark). In the past, free-spirit Jackson leaned on solid academic Frank, but now their situation is reversed as Jackson, a successful painter, cares for Frank, who has partial amnesia after an “accidental” drug overdose.

Once again, they struggle to define their relationship as each deeply loves the other, but the fact that one is straight and the other gay further complicates their feelings and actions. Their friends try to help, but have been burned by dysfunctional relationships with these two and can only do so much.

There is dark humor, raw emotion, and – my one caution – a frank examination of suicide. No easy answers are given, though this play does draw the trilogy to a conclusion.

Between Ross’s knack for sharp dialogue and a solid job by the actors, this play has earned its place as one of the hottest tickets at the Fringe. Get them if you can for performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26 ,at Theatre on the Square’s second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.

TOTS hosts a play for the masses (literally)

By John Lyle Belden

“Well, of all things!” A 1959 French play by a celebrated Romanian absurdist about the destructive but seductive effects of mass conformity finds resonance in Indianapolis, U.S.A., in 2017.

No Holds Bard and Catalyst Repertory present Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” on the Second Stage of Theatre on the Square through Aug. 13. The play is set in a near future in which most animals are extinct and most color is gone – frowned upon, even – but the people deal with it in a very orderly black-and-white world in which logic can be argued to the point that facts can mean anything.

Slovenly, drunken Berenger (Zachariah Stonerock) doesn’t fit in. And worse, he has gotten into an argument with his only friend, proud, self-sure Jean (Tristan Ross). But suddenly, a rhinoceros comes charging up the street. Did everyone see what they just saw? Of course not. There are no zoos, there are no circuses, there are no rhinoceroses. Then, a rhinoceros comes charging down the street in the other direction. Thus the question becomes: Is it the same rhinoceros? And are one or both African or Asian? This latter point, and the counting of horns, naturally becomes the most vital issue.

The next day, Berenger comes in late to work, but Daisy (Abbie Wright), who he is sweet on, covers for him with the boss, Mr. Papillon (Josh Ramsey), who, in turn, is upset with Duduard (Tim Fox) and Botard (John Mortell) not getting to work as they argue whether the rhinoceros sighting was real. Duduard has seen the beasts and is more accepting of events; while Botard did not, assumes its a hoax, and if anything did happen, it was part of a grand conspiracy by dark forces. Then Mrs. Beof (Denise Jaeckel) arrives, saying she can’t find her husband, and she’s being pursued by a rhino – when the animal destroys part of the building, she discovers the beast is her husband, somehow transformed.

After this, nearly everyone starts changing into rhinoceroses. As you do.

Stonerock garners our sympathies as the individualist everyman – misunderstood, put down and unsure of what he wants and how to get it. He, and we through him, are never on solid ground as the more sober he gets, the more mad the world becomes.

His castmates deal well with the play’s broadly-drawn characters. Wright embodies the contradicting impulses of dependence and independence women have dealt with in the nearly 50 years of this play’s existence, showing her own strength regardless. Fox is appropriately glib, Mortell brightly brusque. Jaeckel throws herself into her role. Ross, who also directs, takes charge on stage as well; and Ramsey is sharp as ever, including his turn as a “professional logician” who tortures language into submission. The cast is ably rounded out by David Mosedale and Sarah Holland Froehlke – who extracts a lot of laughs from a dead cat.

The script’s length, adapted from three acts to two, and pacing can drag at times, but it’s all worth seeing the eventual “rhinoceros parade.” While this a comedy, with plenty of hilarious situations and comic turns of phrase, beneath the mirth is the hint of something strong and violent that can trample to ruin anything in its path.

Good thing it’s only a play, eh?

Join the herd at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., call 317-685-8687 or get info and tickets at tots.org/rhinoceros/.

Indy companies expertly flesh out Richard III’s twisted skeleton

By John Lyle Belden

In 2012 came the stunning news of a human skeleton discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. It was the twisted body of what history and legend regard as a twisted soul, King Richard III. This setting opens the Catalyst Repertory/First Folio production of William Shakespeare’s play about the infamous monarch at the IndyFringe Theatre.

In what would be the last years of England’s Wars of the Roses between contesting royal families, King Edward IV is sick and dying. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, is reviled for his crippled body, which brings on his sour attitude. The clever Duke decides if he can’t look like a hero to gain the crown, he’ll be the villian. But between him and the throne are George, Duke of Clarence; nobles faithful to Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth; and the child heir, Edward, Prince of Wales.

Some people are going to have to die.

Matt Anderson completely transforms into Richard, with the help of costume artist Linda Schornhorst (whose excellent work adorns the whole cast). This, coupled with Anderson’s complete control of his body and expressions, keeps him the focus of every scene. He leers towards the audience, proudly revealing to us his schemes. He lurks like a menacing vulture as his plans unfold. He contorts himself into whatever ingratiating pose will fool those around him as he continues grasping to take, then desperately hold power.

Carey Shea anchors the play as doomed Clarence, heroic Richmond and the archaeologist who bridges the gap between history and today. Jay Hemphill is charming as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s cousin and co-conspirator until he becomes cursed with a conscience.

Also notable are the women of the play, Allison Clark Reddick as Elizabeth; Christina Howard as Lady Anne, Richard’s unwilling bride (and a few scenes as Lord Grey); Nan Macy as the Duchess of York, Richard’s disappointed mother; and Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of a previous monarch and bitter prophet.

The children – Dalyn Stewart as Prince Edward and Lex Lumpkin as his cousin, the Duke of York – are both sharp.

And kudos to Doug Powers, Matthew Socey, Ryan Reddick, Kevin Caraher, Matthew Walls, Mark Cashwell and John Mortell in various roles. Thanks to Glenn L. Dobbs’ direction and the play being adapted to two hours, in two acts, by Dobbs, Ross and Ben Power, it’s not hard to follow the sprawling cast of characters. (Richard has many of them killed, anyway.)

Plays like this are always apropos in an era of political turmoil, and performances this good are worth seeing at any time.

“Richard III” runs through July 9 at the IndyFringe Basile stage, 719 E. St. Clair (by the intersection of St. Clair, College and Massachusetts Ave.). See indyfringe.org for info and tickets.

Putting the ‘Cat’ in Catalyst

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Corbett (Pat Mullen), right, converses with local cats (from left) Orangey (Dane Rogers), Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and Striper (Matt Anderson) in Bennett Ayres’ “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at Wheeler Arts Community near Indy’s Fountain Square.

By John Lyle Belden*

We’ve likely all seen that internet meme along the lines of “I don’t want to adult today; I want to cat.” Local playwright Bennett Ayres took that idea to its bizarre conclusion in the new drama, “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory on the LongShot Theater stage at Wheeler Arts through May 28.

Corbett (played by Pat Mullen) has graduated college and is expected to take his next step in life. But is it truly his? He excelled in classes, became president of a fraternity, made friends with his bros and had sex with the right girls. Next comes internships and an internet marketing career to make his upper-class parents proud.

But after his roomates (Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney) depart, he starts to see the world through his own eyes – the fish tank in the neighbor’s (Dennis Forkel) window; the cute townie, Betsy (Patty Blanchfield), who works at the nearby convenience store; and especially all the neighborhood’s feral cats.

One night, a feline neighbor, Orangey (Dane Rogers), speaks to him. From then on Corbett draws himself further into their world, meeting gentle Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and their alpha, Striper (Matt Anderson). With the help of Wikipedia’s data on cat behavior, Corbett makes joining their ranks his mission.

The cats are represented by Patrick Weigland’s puppets – elegant slender alley-cat forms with expressive movement provided by their three actors, as well as lurking projected shadows. The portrayals nimbly display their cautious grace and suspicious attitudes expressed in different ways: Rogers’ Orangey blustery and paranoid, Stonerock’s Calico wary but trusting, and Anderson’s Striper cool and controlling.

Mullen excellently guides us through his journey from “imaginary” human to something he sees as more “real.” What appears to others as a man coming apart and abandoning responsibilities, he embraces as a necessary transformation. Blanchfield also shines as the woman caught up in his madness, seeing Corbett as her means of escape – but she can’t follow where he’s going.

The cast also features Sarah Holland Froehlke as Corbett’s mother, and the voices of Jim Tillett, Jolene Moffat and Ayres.

The play itself is an absorbing story, embracing its absurdity – reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) – without any tongue-in-cheek. Is Corbett delusional? (The cats never speak to anyone else or when he’s around others.) It hardly matters when considering the play’s allegory and questions raised about identity, expectations and how we decide a life’s path. Taken together, director Zach Stonerock and his cast and crew have woven a darkly beautiful drama.

Wheeler Arts Community is located at 1035 Sanders St. in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood. For information and tickets, visit uncannycasey.wixsite.com/catalystrepertory or Catalyst Repertory’s Facebook page.

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*Full disclosure: Wendy and I are good friends with Catalyst founder and artistic director Casey Ross, and I helped the production by designing the play program booklet – and making a few copies. But it really IS a good show, just ask Lisa G!

Old lore gets modern makeover in Catalyst’s ‘Slaying the Dragon’

By John Lyle Belden

I got so much more than I expected when I saw “Slaying the Dragon,” and I have high expectations from a play written by Casey Ross.

Ross’ plays are character-driven with great dialogue, flavored with enough of the absurd to make them entertaining without stretching credulity. And with her latest comedy production – presented by her Catalyst Repertory at Theater at the Fort, directed by Carey Shea – Ross enters the realm of fairy tales and conjures a thought-provoking fable.

Mythical kingdoms have reluctantly come into the 21st century, and the castle of King Farenwide (Dan Flahive) is now a condo. His Queen (Nan Macy) is happy as long as she has a place to garden, but Princess Maleena (Abby Gilster) is frustrated that her parents neither embrace New World ways nor accept that she has. To the King’s delight, a Knight has moved nearby – and being the only handy noble, a good prospect for his daughter (she’s not pleased with that prospect). But upon visiting Sir Alexander Meander (Matt Walls), they meet his roommate, Flameson (Tristan Ross), a dragon.

The inevitable conflict of old prejudices (that dragons are beasts worthy of little more than slaying) and outdated loyalties (a knight must obey orders and kill such beasts) with more modern attitudes can’t help but raise comparisons to events in the offstage world. True to the style of Casey Ross (no relation to Tristan, though they are good friends), the issues are handled with great humor and humanity. While it’s easy to make “Shrek” comparisons, the inspiration here seems more like the Disney short “The Reluctant Dragon” and the stage/film/TV classic “The Odd Couple.”

Gilster is great as the sane center of the swirling silliness. Flahive is fun, and makes riding a mobility chair look as noble as an actual royal steed. Macy tackles yet another maternal role with soothing ease (and a fantastic hat). And Josh Weaver adds to the laugh factor as obliviously mellow Page Jon, the castle servant.

It’s easy to see which is the “Felix” and which is the “Oscar” with Walls and Tristan Ross. Meander makes his best effort at being noble in tarnished armor, while Flameson is an excellent housekeeper and cook (who can light the stove by breathing on it). The actors’ performances are totally up to snuff, especially in Tristan’s talent for not going over-the-top with a fantasy character, aided by excellent makeup effects.

This is definitely a new work that is worthy of seeking out – and a little seeking might be in order. Theater at the Fort is located on the grounds of former Fort Benjamin Harrison (technically in Lawrence) at 8920 Otis Ave.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 16-19. Get info at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory or follow Catalyst Repertory on Facebook; get tickets here.

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

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.