Catalyst’s ‘ArcadeFire’ strikes Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

Readers might recall that I reviewed the Catalyst Repertory musical “ArcadeFire! The Redemption of Billy Mitchell” when it was part of the IndyFringe festival last August. Now a full two-act show has returned to the stage, produced in collaboration with Carmel Theatre Company, playing at the Irvington Lodge in Indy’s Eastside.

For those new to this, the title is not a reference to a band, but to actual “arcades” that used to take our lives one quarter at a time back in the 1980s. Playwright and Catalyst founder Casey Ross recently became interested in the story of Mitchell, who was a master of various video games, most notably Donkey Kong (the original low-res game with “Jumpman” [later named Mario] making his way up ramps and ladders while a giant ape throws barrels down at him, in a quest to rescue the damsel that Kong kidnapped). Mitchell had the official all-time high score and was known as “King of Kong” until a documentary by that name came out not long ago, accusing him of cheating. The internet pounced, as it likes to do, and records were officially stripped.

Ross wrote a musical play, with songs by Christopher McNeely and D. Bane, portraying Mitchell as an egotistical, yet basically decent guy who seeks to restore his reputation by challenging his competitors – especially DK-obsessed middle-school teacher Steve Wiebe – to a “Kong Off” to determine the true King. But one has to be careful when writing about actual people, so Ross made contact with Mitchell (this is even referenced briefly in the play) to beg him not to sue or block her from producing the show. On the contrary, Mitchell jumped in as a producer, making personal appearances and providing his signature hot sauce (which is delicious, by the way) with show labels at the Fringe performances.

Life has imitated the art imitating life. Mitchell and Ross work together to aid his “redemption” through this musical, as well as events at video game establishments featuring past star arcade players. Thus, when Billy steps up to a console in Indianapolis that he had never seen before and racks up a literal million points, it’s harder to believe the haters who say he cheated. While performances of “ArcadeFire!” are playing in the upper chambers of the Irvington Lodge, recently opened video venue Level Up Lounge hosts gaming on the first floor. Other sponsors include One Up Arcade Bar in Broad Ripple, Video Game Palooza in Westfield, Comics Cubed of Kokomo, and Team Scorechasers.

In all, this is an awesome spectacle, especially for Gen-X geeks like myself who spent a fair amount of time on arcade joysticks back in the day. But when we get to the show itself, the concept is much better than the execution. Even accounting for only seeing a very rough dress rehearsal, it appears the added material magnifies the musical’s flaws as well as its assets.

Fortunately, the main cast do make this somewhat work. Luke McConnell returns as a dead ringer for Mitchell (though Billy admits Luke is the better singer), calmly portraying all the unflagging confidence of a man who wears an American flag tie like a superhero’s shield. Anthony Nathan is at his perfectly-campy best reprising Mitchell’s “nemesis” Wiebe – his scenes are by far the most fun to watch. Kayla Lee also returns as longsuffering wife Nicole Wiebe (she also plays “Dave,” the podcaster that airs Mitchell’s “Kong Off” challenge); she convincingly gives the “I don’t know why, but I love him” look, several times. New to the cast are Andy Sturm ably taking the role of Brian “Killscreen” Kuh, Mitchell’s coach and “professional number two;” and Craig Kemp solidly embodies arcade manager and competition judge Walter Day.

A more functional backstage screen is up this time – and yes, all the video game consoles you see are genuine. Hopefully the show’s flow will be tightened up with each performance, as well as the dance steps.

Script-wise, Ross has written much better. For instance, we get little insight into why all the red, white and blue, aside from a reference to a Canadian player dissing Mitchell – also, I theorize using USA as your three-letter high-score ID (initials were all those machines’ memory could handle back then) looks a lot better than BM. But with an opportunity for more detailed background in a full-length play, we get precious little more than we had in the 45-minute Fringe edition. Fortunately, Ross’s skills at crafting conversation make what is revealed sound natural.

This is a fun show, especially if you keep your expectations low and go with the cheesiness of it, as well as its stranger-than-fiction real-world aspects. And pick up some sauce!

One weekend of performances remain, Feb. 15-17, at the Irvington Lodge, 5515 East Washington St., Indianapolis. Get info and ticket link on Catalyst’s Facebook page (fb.com/CatalystRepertory).

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Harry’s ‘Monsters’ haunting Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

The movie “Halloween” is in theaters, the Dodgers are in the World Series, and there are concerns about the impact of personal video on films and television.

Yes, it’s 1978 in Los Angeles, and the magazine Popular Monsters is about to put out what may be its last issue — a tribute to horror B-movie star Ephraim Knight. Publisher Elsa Creighton is honestly no fan of scary movies — or Knight — but she works to honor her dying father, the magazine’s owner. On the other hand, staff writer Greg is a superfan of all the bumps in the night, a passion he shares with girlfriend Shawna, who through her family is no stranger to the ways of Hollywood.

This sets the scene for “Popular Monsters,” the fully-staged premiere of a comedy-drama script by Lou Harry, produced by another Indy playwright, Casey Ross and her Catalyst Repertory company, at the Irvington Lodge, directed by Zachariah Stonerock.

Jamie McNulty is super suave as Knight, the man who played a beast on the silver screen, whose urbane patter disguises the beast he was when the cameras weren’t rolling. Tom Weingartner as Greg flies in the other direction: manic, uncertain and painfully naive. Alexandria Miles as Shawna faces the world with razor-sharp wit and BS-detector turned to 11. And Miranda Nehrig musters her talent for complex characters by making Elsa bitchy, yet likable; and by lending humor to the scenes when she is extremely drunk without devolving into slapstick.

These bold performances with gentle humor help illuminate the play’s examination of these different characters. Appropriate to a story set in Hollywood, there are themes of what is real and what isn’t — is something a lie, or just “acting”? — the stories we tell and the truths we avoid. As Knight states, “There is always a story.”

The setting of a cultural turning point, with references to old black-and-white monster movies alongside the dawn of the slasher films and the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fits so neatly, especially with Michael Myers chasing Jamie Lee Curtis in theaters again. But this is also a clever vehicle for Harry, through Stonerock’s vision, to show the ever-present “monsters” within us all.

Remaining performances are Nov. 1-3 at the historic Irvington Lodge (No. 666 — really!), 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. Info at www.facebook.com/catalystrepertory.

Bard Fest: The essential ‘R&J’

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By John Lyle Belden

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the one line that stands out for me is near the end: “All are punished.” And as the opening narration famously indicates, the purpose of this tragic play is to show how all involved came to that end.

In the Catalyst Repertory production at Bard Fest, director Zach Stonerock has in his adaptation stripped it to its essence. No elaborate sets; costumes are simple black and white apparel; there are few props, or even weapons beyond a simple knife. The setting is “fair Verona,” but not fixed to any place or era. The focus is solely on the characters, their quirks and quarrels (especially the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud).

The famous “balcony scene,” for instance, is presented in two spotlights, like independent soliloquies. We are reminded that Juliet thinks she is alone, that in longingly asking “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she doesn’t expect an answer. But when he comes to her, we are so focused on their words and feelings that we hardly notice there was no balcony.

The play’s opening speech, by the way, is delivered by a Chorus who is a blind man – done with subtle brilliance by Tristan Ross. In this way he reminds me of blind Justice, who oversees these foolish men and women coming to their inevitable end.

Elijah Robinson is our impulsive, melancholy Romeo. He is too ruled by his emotions, but this is seen as wonderful to young Juliet, sweetly delivered by Kayla Lee. Her life is strictly ruled by others, but in this boy she sees hope of liberty, away from the constraints of their family names. Thus, despite her showing the dawning of wisdom, the young teen becomes a cult of one to her foolish husband-to-be.

Critical supporting roles are in excellent hands with Kelsey Leigh Miller as Friar Laurence, who tries in vain to make love triumphant; and Beverly Roche as Juliet’s Nurse, a far better maternal figure than her actual mom (Lisa Marie Smith).

Justin Klein is Paris, the young man from out of town caught in the middle of Verona’s passions. Klein is right at home in the Bard’s worlds, but should try to avoid pointy objects.

And to lighten the mood (making the darkness more contrasting) we get excellent comic relief from Audrey Stonerock as the put-upon Capulet servant Peter; and the awesome Kelsey VanVoorst as brash, boastful Mercutio, Romeo’s best bud. (Note to parents: Shakespeare included bawdy innuendo to entertain his audiences; you’ll get quite a bit here.)

With the right editing, “less is more” fully applies – especially here, as Stonerock delivers a fresh perspective on well-known material. The end is the same, thus we understand that “Romeo and Juliet” is not a love story, but a “tale of woe.” Woe to those who miss it.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

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.

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.