Ludwig ‘Holmes’ comedy a holiday treat at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

One of the interesting things about Ken Ludwig’s comedy mystery, “The Game’s Afoot, or, Holmes for the Holidays,” on stage at Buck Creek Players, is that the lead role is a fictionalized version of actual early-20th century actor William Gillette, who not only helped set the traditional look for Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, but also starred in a Holmes play that he wrote with the blessing of Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While, as portrayed here, Gillette did make fame and fortune as the legendary detective, tinkered with inventions to aid his stagecraft, and had a castle built for him on his Connecticut estate, Ludwig also plays up the man’s Holmes obsession to the point that he seeks to solve the mystery of an attempt on his life.

Hilarity, and apparently a murdered body or two, ensues.

Joshua C. Ramsey excels at rock-chinned steadfast leading man, even when played for laughs, and delivers Gillette’s stoic sense of purpose so well that flummoxed moments come off all the funnier. His family and friends (a/k/a, the suspects) are played by Cathie Morgan as Gillette’s mother, Martha; Tony Brazelton as Felix, his past best friend and present on-stage Moriarty; Tiffany Wilson as Marian, Felix’s wife; Hannah Partridge as recently widowed ingenue Aggie; and Josh Rooks as ambitious young actor Simon. They are joined at what they thought was an end-of-the run holiday party by ruthless newspaper columnist Daria Chase (Sarah Powell), and the evening’s activities will bring around an actual detective, Inspector Goring (Renee Lopez Whiten). In addition, Cyrena Knight, Breanna Helms, and Julie Gilpin play the house staff, and can step in as understudies.

Under the direction of Brian Noffke, no stranger to wild comedy, the cast all hit the farcical beats with professional precision. The exquisite stage set, designed by Ed Trout, includes an infamous rotating bookshelf used to full comic effect.

Even though I saw a production of this years back, I had forgotten “who done it” (yes, there is a mystery to solve amidst this madness) but even if you aren’t surprised at the end, you’ll assuredly be delighted by this unconventional “holiday” play.

“The Game’s Afoot” for two more weekends, through Dec. 18 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

A toast to Belfry’s convent comedy

By John Lyle Belden

It seems nuns are an easy target for entertaining and eccentric characters who also have the noblest of intentions. We get another fun take on this trope in “Drinking Habits” by Tom Smith, presented by The Belfry Theatre in Noblesville.

The Sisters of Perpetual Sewing are a small but important order in the Catholic Church. If the Pope pops a button, the garment gets sent to the little convent somewhere in the U.S.A. to get fixed right up. But the sacred stitches don’t raise quite enough funds to keep the lights on, so Sisters Augusta and Philamena (Jennifer Poynter and Cathie Morgan) have let the grape juice ferment and are selling the wine in town. This is kept secret from Mother Superior (Barb Weaver), who is so anti-alcohol, she won’t even allow the words for such beverages to be said aloud.

Thus we get some interesting euphemisms: Devil’s Delight, Satan’s Mouthwash, Lucifer’s Libations, etc.

Fortunately, the secretive Sisters have always-helpful second-generation groundskeeper George (Bryan Gallet) to help.

But local newshounds Sally (Sarah Powell) and Paul (Jeff Haber) have gotten a tip about the secret vineyard and are infiltrating the convent to investigate. It happens that the Order is expecting the arrival of a new member, so Sally becomes Sister Mary Mary, while Paul becomes Father Paul, her brother. Then the actual nun, Sister Mary Catherine (Sarah Eberhardt), arrives, and things start to get confusing. Add to the mix the neighboring priest and amateur magician Father Chenille (Chris Taylor) and word that the Vatican has sent spies to ensure all its facilities are worth keeping open, and confusion, mistaken identities, multi-layered lies, and other farcical elements rule the day.

Aside from quick entrances and exits from multiple doors, the cast also mines comedy gold from the Order’s ritual of keeping silent at random points during the day. (Apparently, wild gesturing and miming is not a sin.) The goofy goings-on crescendo to a wild ending of revelations (and matrimony!) that would make Shakespeare’s head spin.

Direction is by Belfry board president Nancy Lafferty.

Poynter and Morgan are wonderful in a study of opposites – quick-thinking, fast-talking Augusta, and nervous Philamena, who literally can’t tell a lie. Gallet is handed a challenge in keeping George easy-going and kind without coming across as too simple-minded – he’s the average-sharpness knife in the drawer. Powell and Haber ably portray two people in a situation way over their heads, while also working through unresolved feelings. Weaver has Mother Superior cool and in control, but isn’t too sharply stern, and manages to be out of the loop of what’s going on without looking foolish. Taylor makes Chenille charming in a way that gives the Father “dad” vibes. Eberhardt is so much fun to watch as situations, and Mary Catherine’s growing guilt, put her continually on-edge.

This show is very funny and well worth the drive up to Noblesville, playing through Sunday, July 3, at Ivy Tech Auditorium, 300 N. 17th, St. Get information and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com.

And, just a thought for a future season: Smith also wrote a “Drinking Habits 2.”

CCP: Explore ‘Curious Incident’ with unique mind

By Wendy Carson and John Lyle Belden

Christopher John Francis Boone is 15, a mathematical genius who finds all social and physical interactions terrifying. This is because Christopher is autistic. He lives alone with his father in Swindon, UK, having lost his mother two years earlier.

His love of animals brings him out one night to visit the neighbor’s poodle, Wellington, only to find it killed. Since he’s found kneeling with the dog, he is initially accused of its death. When the responding policeman tries to calm him down, his touch causes Christopher to lash out and be arrested. The misunderstanding is cleared up, but Christopher is left with a warning on his permanent record.

Discovering the murder of a dog is too irrelevant to be investigated, he decides, against his father’s strong wishes, to do it himself. This results in him having to talk to his neighbors, who to him are strangers, but he is determined to overcome his fears and solve this mystery, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” This 2015 Tony-winning play by Simon Stephens, based on the acclaimed novel by Mark Haddon, is on stage at the Cat Theater through March 6, presented by Carmel Community Players. 

While he does eventually find the killer’s identity, the path to that information has Christopher discover a huge family secret and embark on a journey that tests his resolve and the very limits of his abilities.

The staging, like the novel, is from Christopher’s point of view. Director Larry Adams and his crew (assistant Karissa Monson, lighting and video design by Eric Matters, set by David Muse, and sound design by Lori Raffel) excellently deliver the technical aspects of his world with all its abrupt stimuli, cacophonous sounds, and tangled language. 

Being on stage the whole time, the role of Christopher is demanding to start with – add to this a British accent, various physical tics and almost constant movement and it turns into a Herculean challenge. In his first leading role, Noah Ebeyer is spectacular in embodying the part. He never seems to act; we only see the troubled genius trying to make sense of his world, get the answers he feels he deserves, and get to school in time to take his Maths A-Levels exams. Adams agrees with the talk of the performance being award-worthy, marveling at how Ebeyer took naturally to the role. And while the boy he plays may be put off by us strangers, he makes us feel something special for him.

Christopher’s teacher Siobahn (Lori Colcord) provides support and reads to us much of his inner dialogue from a notebook he had kept. Earl Campbell is sharp as his father Ed, struggling to do what’s best for Christopher and learning the hard way the consequences of keeping facts from one whose mind relies on them for his whole life’s structure. Nikki Lynch plays Christopher’s loving but overstressed mother Judy.

The rest of the cast – Tanya Haas, Kelly Keller, Cathie Morgan, Gus Pearcy, Ryan Shelton, Barb Weaver – morphs from one character to another (people as well as inanimate objects) while also voicing Christopher’s self-doubts and thoughts. No actual dogs were killed in the making of this show – including Bob Adams in a touching canine cameo.

Also, you will cheer for a mathematical solution! (Stay through the curtain call.)

The Cat is at 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Find information and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

CCP returns with ‘Last Five Years’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Last Five Years” sounds like the experience of the last five months, but it is the title of the musical bringing live theatre back to Carmel.

Presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat downtown, the Off-Broadway hit by Jason Robert Brown is an examination of a relationship, a doomed marriage, blending the individual perspectives of the husband and wife – one experiencing it from beginning to end, the other reflecting from the end to the beginning. At mid-performance (it is presented as a 90-minute single act) the two “cross paths” at the wedding. It is an interesting dramatic device overall, and it works.

Bradley Allan Lowe, who fell in love with the songs when gifted a CD of the cast recording in his youth, directs Nina Stilabower and Daniel Draves as Cathy and Jamie, an ill-fated couple who started with joyous promise. He, an ordinary-looking guy, is an up-and-coming novelist. She, a beautiful woman, is a struggling actress. They encourage each others’ careers at first, but especially as his keeps him with literary socialites in New York, while hers has her in obscurity in Ohio, the cracks in their relationship widen until the break becomes unavoidable.

Stilabower is excellent in character and voice, showing what a loss it is for Broadway not to notice Cathy. Draves, presenting a likable mensch, carries himself well while showing Jamie’s full range of feeling. The two occupy a nicely designed stage, by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth, with the juxtaposition of simple furnishings with the visual metaphor of a whirlwind of papers that could be his novel drafts, or pages of musicals she tries out for.

There are also interesting costume choices – credited to Lowe, Draves, Stilabower, and Cathie Morgan. Note that the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Hanukkah pajamas were real, found online. (Ask Lowe where to order them.)

While very entertaining, the show presents with safety in mind. CCP takes the ongoing health crisis seriously: Seating is spaced and limited to 50 percent capacity; temperatures are taken at the door; all patrons must wear masks, and are asked to buy tickets in advance.

“The Last Five Years” runs through Aug. 2 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way (just south of the Main Street Arts & Design district). Get details and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

‘Old Broads’ up to new tricks at Buck Creek

By John Lyle Belden

Something’s not right at Magnolia Place senior assisted living facility.

Imogene (Gari Williams) is having “episodes” with memory lapses; Maude (Wendy Brown) has stopped bathing and obsessively plans her own funeral; and best friends Beatrice (Jan White) and Eaddy Mae (Cathie Morgan) need to get to the bottom of why, soon, so they’ll be on time for their planned cruise vacation.

Meet “Four Old Broads,” the comedy by Leslie Kimbell at Buck Creek Players. 

Feisty Beatrice and churchy Eaddy Mae suspect the problem is the hostile new facility director, Nurse Pat (Lauren Johnson), who is keeping all the residents’ medicine and doling it out to them. Since this started, a lot of folks have crossed over to the “dark side” ward with swiftly declining conditions. The ladies are offered help from aging Elvis impersonator Sam (David Mears), who still feels like a hunka-hunka burnin’ love.  At least new nurse Ruby Sue (Ruth Shirley) seems nice, if she can get her nose out of that trashy romance book.

A comedy, mystery, and maybe sly commentary on how we treat our elders, this show is full of laughs and surprises, directed by Tracy Friddle.

White as Beatrice is a force of nature, sporting a wild attitude with clothes to match. Morgan as Eaddy Mae is more a force of nurture, sweet and sensible, with frequent prayer breaks — acting as Beatrice’s conscience as well as her own. Williams as Imogene gets the most complex role, entertaining even when in an apparent coma. Brown’s Maude exasperates all on stage, especially with her attachment to her TV “stories,” further adding to the laugh factor. Mears as Sam seems like a bit much at first, but wins his way into our hearts, as well as one of the ladies. Shirley as Ruby Sue does a lot with what deceptively looks like a little role, and Johnson’s Pat is appropriately despicable. 

“I’m not trying to get into anyone’s personal business,” as Eaddy would say, but I’d advise getting up to stretch and take a break during intermission, as the play does run long. When the mystery is solved, there is still a scene to tie up other loose ends.

One weekend remains with the “Four Old Broads,” Friday through Sunday, Feb. 7-9, at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.