IndyFringe: ‘Arcade Fire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

(*With bonus hot sauce review!)

To be clear, this is not about Arcade Fire, the band, but about redemption, and a proud man who doesn’t want to be known just for awesome hot sauce (see below) but also for being the King of Kong, able to best any game in the arcade.

Quirky playwright and Fringe regular Casey Ross got the idea not long ago to take the story of Billy Mitchell, whose record high score on Donkey Kong was unquestioned until a popular documentary alleged that he somehow cheated, and make it into a musical. This brought out Billy himself — not to stop her, but to give his hearty trademark thumbs-up. If you come to the show today (Sunday, Aug. 19), he will be there in the audience and available for your admiration after.

The musical, written by Ross with clever rousing songs by Christopher McNeely, is based on true events and people, including the frustrated middle-school teacher who challenged Mitchell’s record. Our Billy is selling his sauce at his pizza joint in Florida, when he discovers that the Internet is dissing him. He fights fire with fire by going on a podcast and challenging his detractors to a Kong-Off. Who will smash through the barrels and climb to the top, and who will fall?

A cast of fine local actors bring the story to life, including Luke McConnell as Mitchell (an excellent likeness), Anthony Nathan as rival Steve Wiebe, Jim Banta as Donkey Kong’s “Number Two” Brian Kuh, Ryan Powell as arcade referee Walter Day, and Kayla Lee as Steve’s lonsuffering wife Nicole. As to their singing and dancing — well, did I mention they are fine actors? Still the moves they bust just add to the fun as we all take so seriously what is literally a two-bit hobby (at least before games cost more than a quarter to play).

Full disclosure: We’re very good friends with Ross, but when you experience “ArcadeFire!” presented by her Catalyst Repertory at the Firehouse union hall, third floor, you’ll want to be her pals, too.

*Among the Billy Mitchell swag is his signature hot sauce (which he will sign if you ask). Wendy and I tried it on some roast beef, and it is excellent, with rich flavors reminiscent of Cholula, but with a little more kick. It has sweet with the heat, so is fine for moderate spice users — though it might disappoint those who want something that sets their heads on fire (what’s up with you people?!). Later at the beer tent I saw some Fringers shaking a little into their beer, and they said it was good that way. To each their own.

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Catalyst raises ‘Hell’ again

By John Lyle Belden

*What if the term “soul-sucking job” could be taken literally?

* What if the dying American institution of the shopping mall resorted to desperate measures to keep itself alive?

* What if a couple of highly talented but potty-mouthed theatre people decided to make a twisted comedy musical about this?

Welcome to “Hell’s 4th Ring: The Mall Musical,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at the IndyFringe building through Feb. 25.

This is not our first visit to Hell’s Gate Mall. A 50-minute version premiered as part of the 2015 Fringe Festival. A lot of people loved it; Wendy even noted (in her review) that the show should be expanded into a full-length musical. Now at last, creators Casey Ross and Davey Pelsue bring us a full two-act version, expanded but not padded-out.

According to Dante, the Fourth Ring of Hell is occupied by sinners damned by greed. So, what better place to erect a temple to consumerism? Whether this Twilight Zone-ish place is in this world or the next is never clear, but this is the place to pick up some great bargains, and where job security takes on new meaning. Just obey the rules: No running; No leaning on the railing; and, No intimate “mingling” between employees.

Brian (Christian Condra), who is this close to selling the massaging chair, wants desperately to mingle with Sofie (Afton Shepard), who refolds clothes far more than she sells them. She believes she is only there for the summer, but Brian knows better; she will soon be full-time, forever. Meanwhile, Eric (Pelsue) doesn’t care as much for working at his Goth-accessories shop as he does trying to hook up with bodacious curvaceous Chelsea (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Then there’s Lee (Pat Mullen), who used to work at a computer game store but now offers bourbon chicken samples in the food court. The mall’s denizens also include a trio of Mall Rats (Jim Banta, Donovan Whitney and Sara Gable) who follow/idolize Eric and never seem to buy anything over a dollar. And then there’s Bart (David Molloy) the security guy, a cross between Doctor Strangelove and the Terminator.

Though Ross directs, the musical shows its flexibility in that the only actors from the Fringe version are Pelsue, Molloy, and Zoe Molloy as the mall’s public address voice. Yet the cast seems right at home, giving this tragic farce their all. Condra handsomely perseveres like Brad from “Rocky Horror.” Shepard smiles through the confusion like a Disney princess trapped in the wrong movie. Pelsue is the perfect mix of charm and attitude, while looking like the opening act for Spinal Tap. And as she did in Bardfest’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Boswell’s moxie and vocal skill blew. me. away. As for Mullen, let’s just say he wields a mean sample tray. The cast also includes Preston Dildine as the ghost of “terminated” coworker Dylan.

From the rockin’ tunes to the odd plot, the show balances suspense and romance with a healthy dose of silly for an entertaining experience. The mature content is mainly multiple F-bombs and some rude gestures in the choreography, so this show is for teens and up (eventually, this will only be for adults, as we’d have to explain to kids what a mall was).

Find Hell’s Gate at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 East St. Clair St. (just east of the College/Mass Ave./St. Clair intersection). Get tickets at www.indyfringe.org and info from Catalyst’s website or Facebook.

Bardfest: The wild woman vs. the wacky womanizer — with music

By Wendy Carson

The biggest complaint I have heard from people, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, is trouble following the plot due to the antiquated language. In her Bardfest production of “Taming of the Shrew,” Catalyst Repertory founder and play director/adapter Casey Ross has tackled this issue with the periodic inclusion of pop songs to assist the viewer in comprehending the message of the narrative. Being that the story is fairly well known, this style just makes a fun show even more enjoyable.

For those of you who don’t know the plot: Younger sister Bianca can’t marry until older sister Katherine does. Katherine has no intention to marry anyone. Their father is wealthy and offers a large dowry to whomever can take Katherine off his hands. Cash-strapped playboy Petruchio takes the challenge and not only ends up changing Katherine’s ways, but they both fall in love in the process. There’s also the sub-plot of various suitors trying to secure Bianca’s love.

The setting of this interpretation is a Vegas-style resort casino in the 1970s, with the daughters being cocktail waitresses, their father the owner, and Petruchio a traveling singer looking for a place to earn some money before his debt collectors catch up with him.

Hannah Elizabeth Boswell as the fiery Katherine (or Kate) is a sassy bundle of empowerment, while Davey Pelsue’s Petruchio boldly becomes every bit the hilariously lusty womanizer that the character suggests.

Abby Gilster’s delicate take on Bianca shows the character’s sly knowledge of her situation that is often overlooked in many productions. Bradford Reilly and Robert Webster Jr. as her two suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio), in disguise as tutors, bring a delightful comic desperation in their attempts to secure time with their desired.

Audrey Stonerock adds to the fun as the hottest “Widow” in the club, and Donovan Whitney is at his scene-stealing best as Tranio, a servant pretending to be the rich man while his master plays a humble tutor (see above). The proud – and relieved, when Kate is wed – papa is a charming Godfather-light performance by Tony Armstrong.

All in all, this is a rollickingly great production of a hilarious show. One note though, as we have mentioned previously, this show is not for all ages. Consider it PG-13 at least, though worldly kids might learn a new appreciation for Shakespeare if they see it. Also, bring a few dollars to tip your waitresses and maybe tuck into the clothes of some of the performers.

Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 27-29) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair. Find more information at www.indyfringe.org.

Bardfest: And now for something completely different

By John Lyle Belden

Yes, the title here is stolen from Monty Python, which has nothing to do with the third annual BardFest, now in Indianapolis – in the IndyFringe building – after a couple of years in Carmel. However, we are dealing with things that are British and unusual.

Shakespeare’s plays – aside from being public domain – tell such good stories that they lend themselves to numerous times and places. Thus the Bard’s three plays in this year’s festival get reinvented in interesting ways.

Thus BardFest 2017 presents:

* “Cymbeline,” presented by Garfield Shakespeare Company, a play with elements of both the Comedies and the Tragedies. Originally based on the legend of a British king during the Roman Empire, this version is in a parallel world right after the American Civil War – as though West Virginia had declared itself a separate kingdom, and the Republic was cool with it, as long as the taxes are paid. Adapted and directed by Anthony Johnson, it stars John Mortell as the title king, Ashley Chase Elliott as his Queen, Elisabeth Speckman as our heroine, Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, and Chris Burton as heroic Posthumous (yes, his actual name in the play).

* “MacBeth,” presented by First Folio Productions, the familiar cursed tragedy adapted to a tense 90 minutes by director Carey Shea. Medieval Scotland is transformed into a modern urban wasteland, where King Duncan (Ryan Ruckman) keeps order like a local sheriff or police chief. He awards a title to faithful MacBeth (Adam Tran), who had just had that promotion prophesied to him by a trio of weird women (Nan Macy, Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson) – didn’t they also say he would become king? Lady MacBeth (Devan Mathias) is just happy her husband is finally in line with her murderous plans to seize the crown. However, Duncan’s lieutenants Macduff (Chelsea Anderson) and Malcolm (Nathan Thomas) quickly become suspicious of the ambitious couple when the king is killed.

* “The Taming of the Shrew,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, freely adapted by Catalyst founder Casey Ross. The famous Shakespeare comedy finds its misogyny mutated into a sassy, outrageous sort of musical, using modern pop songs to help tell the story – this is not “Kiss Me Kate.” At a late-20th-century tropical resort, bawdy innuendoes fly as lusty lounge singer Petruchio (Davey Pelsue) seeks to tame curvy, catty Katherina (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Meanwhile, noble Lucentio (Bradford Reilly) slyly wins the heart of Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Abby Gilster). Will boss Baptista (Tony Armstrong) see his daughters married off in birth order? Did you ever think a rockin’ anthem by The Darkness could be made into a heartfelt ballad?

* And for purists… well, as close as you could get was a manic production of the comedy, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company during the festival’s first weekend. The Reduced Shakespeare hit by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield was taken on by local thespians Ron Richards, Ryan T. Shelton and Adam Workman, under the direction of Christy Clinton with occasional necessary assistance from stage manager Tamara Rulon.

Remaining performances are on both IndyFringe stages at 719 E. St. Clair, Thursday through Sunday (Oct. 26-29). “Cymbeline” is the more family-friendly (though its length could test the patience of younger patrons), while “MacBeth” is very violent and “Shrew” is very not-for-kids. For information and tickets, visit www.indyfringe.org/bard-fest.

Wendy and I will try to get more in-depth reviews of the individual shows up tomorrow, and will link back to here.

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.

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/.