IRT opens ‘Angry’

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a hot summer night, and what will happen in this room will have life and death consequences for someone you’ve never met.

Welcome to “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic American drama by Reginald Rose opening the 2019-2020 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in 1957, this play is both very much of its time, and timeless. The struggles and society these dozen characters deal with are every bit as real today as they were then.

Our 12-man jury is tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder. If the verdict is guilty, the death penalty will be applied. The men are all from different backgrounds, working class to rich. Though all white, they have roots in different ethnicities. 

The jury foreman (Seth Andrew Bridges) calls for a preliminary vote. Since the result seemed so obvious during the trial, all vote “Guilty” — except for one (Chris Amos). Why? He doesn’t want a rush to judgement, he says, and besides, he has some questions.

For the next hour-plus (the play is a single movie-length act) we hear the details of the case, presenting the murder mystery in nearly enough detail to give the audience a vote. 

The men arguing are all sharply acted, under the direction of James Still, giving dimension to their archetypes: Scott Greenwell as mousey, yet wanting to see justice done; Craig Spidle as one easily convinced of the evil “kids these days” can do; Henry Woronicz as a rich broker who wants to see the facts as plain and ordered as the newspaper he reads; Demetrios Troy as a man with more in common with the defendant than he’d like to admit; Casey Hoekstra as a laborer whose work ethic informs his judgement; Michael Stewart Allen as a loud Yankees fan (he wants the deliberations done in time to go to a game) who sounds more certain than he actually is; Mark Goetzinger as an older gentleman struggling to bring perspective to the proceedings; Robert Jerardi as a bigot determined to see “one of them” condemned; Patrick Clear as an immigrant excited to exercise his new citizenship; Charles Goad as an ad man who can’t help playing both sides; Bridges’ foreman, whose skills as a high school coach come into play; and Amos’ holdout, the conscience of the play and principal driver of the “reasonable doubt” that can turn the verdict around. Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard stationed outside the jury room door. 

Most people know, or can easily guess, the outcome of this drama. What is important, and makes this engrossingly entertaining, is how they get there. The knife, the steps, the glasses, all the clues and what they suggest, making for an intense 100 minutes. And the title is apt: these men get plenty angry — including at each other.

The stage set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a masterwork, including a washroom to the side that can be made to be seen through screens when needed, as some juror discussions take place privately. The custom-made long wooden jurors’ table sits upon a turntable that slowly moves at times to aid our perspective of the deliberations. And at moments an actor might step away from the churning motion to demonstrate his seeking clarity. 

While the idea seemed gimmicky, the turning table is not constant, and thus works to great effect. Still notes this aspect of the stage was discussed early on in the production. “You mostly just have 12 men sitting around a table,” he said. “We needed something dynamic.”

The deliberations continue through Sept. 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, by Circle Centre. Info and tickets at http://www.irtlive.com.

Phoenix: Thinking of ‘The Children’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Children,” the title of a recent Broadway drama by Lucy Kirkwood, now at the Phoenix Theatre, doesn’t seem to tell us much. There are no youngsters on the stage — in fact, the trio we meet are all in their 60s. But this play understands that when we are grown, if we’re not thinking of our children and what we would do for them, we often indulge in that child still within each of us.

On the English coast, at a time that could be now, we are in the aftermath of a disaster much like the one that occurred several years ago in Japan: the triple-shock of earthquake, tidal wave and a crippled nuclear power plant.

Hazel and Robin (Donna Steele and Charles Goad) were among the scientists who engineered the reactor, now they live on the very edge of the irradiated zone. They are visited by past friend and colleague (as well Robin’s lover) Rose (Diane Kondrat). Old memories and issues are brought up, leading to moments of friction. But even more devastating is the issue of what happens next.

Directed by Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons, this veteran cast give excellent, layered performances. In Hazel, Steele presents a fastidious character who prides herself on her maturity, while staying young as possible through healthy eating and yoga. Goad’s Robin seems fondly attached to the farm he is having to give up, but his daily trips to the barn have a darker purpose. Kondrat, once again a woman of many facets, gives us a Rose who has come a long way from her impulsive youth to a woman who has faced her mortality and must finally think outside herself. Their interactions throughout the play crackle with energy that rivals the broken facility on their horizon.

The larger questions surrounding nuclear energy and the environment stay in the background, as the issues at play here are more personal — dealing with reconciling out pasts, facing our ends, considering the next generation, and what we all must do to make our actions and lives meaningful. Sometimes it takes a disaster to make us truly think of The Children, and to force us to finally grow up.

Performances run through May 19 on the smaller Basile stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

– – –

One last note (this did come up with an audience member at the preview performance): Though she is in the promotional photo, actor Jolene Mentink Moffatt does not appear in the play. The publicity picture was taken long before casting decisions were made, and aside from being not quite old enough for the roles, she was busy with her recent run on the Phoenix’s “Hotel Nepenthe.”

Phoenix: Faith, belief, and relationships tested in ‘The Christians’

By John Lyle Belden

On my own spiritual path, I have found there are generally two kinds of people in regards to faith: Those who find comfort in certainty — some things are always true and must be believed — and those who find comfort in doubt, that there are things we’ll never fully know, and we can question them and change our minds.

But, can both points of view get along in the same body of believers? That is the central dilemma of “The Christians,” the Lucas Hnath play now on stage at the Phoenix Theatre.

An American megachurch has everything going its way. It is growing and thriving with a joyful congregation and popular ministers, and it has just paid off the debts on its huge building. During the celebration, its leader, Pastor Paul (Grant Goodman) delivers a sermon that shocks his Evangelical staff and members: He no longer believes in Hell as a place of eternal punishment.

He even backs this idea up with scripture (this is an actual subject of debate in progressive churches). He is then challenged by his Associate Pastor (Ray Hutchins), who leaves and starts his own church.

The “cracks” that Paul had hoped to fix with his hopeful message instead widen as church members start an exodus to the rival congregation. This worries the megachurch board, represented by Elder Jay (Charles Goad). The congregants have their own questions, especially choir member Jenny (Kelsey Leigh Miller). And Paul’s wife, Elisabeth (Jen Johansen) has her own views on the subject.

The two types of believers find it nearly impossible to communicate, with those of certainty speaking of what is “right and wrong,” and the pastor, feeling free to doubt, speaking of what is just and merciful.

The narrative is much like a recollection by Pastor Paul — with “and then this happened”-style notes — done in the overall style of a church service with the audience as congregation (hymn lyrics are projected so we can sing along) and a choir that includes Miller, Bambi Alridge, Aaniyah Anderson, MaryBeth Walker Bailey, Adam Blevins, Caryn Flowers, Abby Gilster, Bridgette Ludlow, Marlana Haig and Dave Pelsue. Thus this show relates the hard lessons for Paul and those around him, and a parable for us all.

Goodman, Hutchins and Johansen deliver convincing performances of where each character stands on the Word. Miller and Goad ably portray people caught in the middle, each in their own way.

There is a lot to unpack when one comes away from this play, questions of faith and doctrine, of how much one should be willing to compromise, and of what happens when it’s revealed your perfect organization was too good to be true. It delivers the message without preaching, just a look at fallible humans wrestling with the answers — kinda like a Bible story.

Amen.

“The Christians” runs through April 14 on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

 

Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop, making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Kruze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.

Generosity of ‘The Open Hand’ and its consequences on Phoenix stage

By John Lyle Belden

While most of us like to think of ourselves as generous people, we forget how deeply ingrained our capitalist culture is in our psyches. We give to get. When we receive, there is a price, even if it’s “free.”

The notion of something-for-something, and making sure two parties are “even” need not apply just to events that are deep or life-changing. What do you do when someone gives something to you, truly expecting absolutely nothing in return?

This is question drives the plot of “The Open Hand,” a play by Robert Caisley at the Phoenix Theatre through May 14.

Allison (Leah Brenner) seriously wants no presents, or even acknowledgment, of her upcoming birthday. We are unsure of her vocation, as may be she, admitting, “I majored in indecision.” But her fiance Jack (Jay Hemphill) is a talented chef and aspiring restaurateur. Her friends Todd (Jeremy Fisher) and Freya (Julie Mauro) are at crucial points in their careers – he is a car salesman who hates his job and she is a wine expert about to potentially win a highly-lucrative position. All four are full of potential, but their hopes for a lucky break are overshadowed by fear that they haven’t earned it.

One day, after Allison is accidentally left at a restaurant with the check and no money, a curiously friendly man, David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), steps in and pays the bill. As it had started to rain, he also gives her his umbrella, then exits.

Allison is so stunned by this generosity that she can’t bring herself to tell Jack about it, until later, giving the impression that she had done something wrong. When she, by chance, comes across David again, she offers to do something to repay him, but he sees no need. She finally invites him to a gathering that is “coincidentally” on her birthday. But when he arrives, his generosity becomes even more casually extravagant. This does not sit well with anyone.

This drama, with lots of comic elements, has surprising depth as we see each character’s relationship with giving, receiving and obligation (real or imagined), including hints into David’s mysterious backstory. It is also an interesting look at the different perspectives between the haves and the have-nots – or in this case, the wish-to-haves.

Goad is in his element, bringing gentle gravitas to a character that is all subtlety. Brenner, too, embodies the complexity of her role. Fisher, Hemphill and Mauro all ably portray explosive personalities with fuses of varying shortness.

Whether it is better to give than receive, this play suggests it might also be easier. The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Civic presents fabulous farce

By John Lyle Belden

A man is shot. A woman is missing. Reputations and political careers are on the line. A doctor is called. The police are on their way.

Believe it or not, that is the setting for a hilarious comedy: Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 18 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Ken and Chris Gorman (Kim Ruse and Clay Mabbitt) are first to arrive at the anniversary party of their friend Charlie, the Deputy Mayor of New York. But the servants are gone, leaving uncooked food in the kitchen, Charlie’s wife is missing and their host has a hole in his earlobe from trying to shoot himself. Ken, as the man’s attorney, is trying desperately to keep the potential scandal under wraps, which isn’t easy when other friends arrive: Leonard and Claire Ganz (Parrish Williams and Carrie Schlatter), Ernie and Cookie Cusack (Trevor Fanning and Marni Lemmons), and finally Glenn Cooper (Steve Kruze) with his own political ambitions to consider, as well as neurotic wife Cassie (Christine Kruze, yes they’re married in real life, too).

Excuses for what is going on get more bizarre as events unfold, but eventually all are informed. But then, the police (Joanne Kehoe and Joe Aiello) arrive. What story to tell them?

This American farce in the Moliere mold has gag after well-written wacky gag, excellently played by a cast well-suited and experienced in stage comedies, directed by Charles Goad, no stranger to delivering a punchline himself. Ruse and Schlatter have such chemistry that when one woman delivers a zinger, just a glance between them sets off even more laughter. Mabbitt and Williams also sell the jokes with their knack for physical shtick, especially when Ken is deafened by the second gunshot, and when Leonard has to pretend to be Charlie – and convincingly explain what’s been going on the whole time.

This show is a welcome escape from today’s constant stresses (political and otherwise). Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org. Tickets also available at thecenterpresents.org.

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