‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Storefront’s ‘Pilgrims’ carrying some heavy baggage across the stars

By John Lyle Belden

In the future, a ship’s cabin still looks like a comfortable hotel room, it’s just that the ship is sailing through space. A man enters, eyeing the layout and smoothing the bed like one conditioned by military service. Everything is in order for the long journey. Suddenly, an annoyingly perky teen girl bursts in and makes herself at home. Something is amiss here.

“Pilgrims,” the drama by Claire Kiechel, directed by Chelsea Anderson on the new Broad Ripple stage of Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is in the tradition of the best science-fiction stories, using a distant fantasy situation to probe questions about our present humanity.

Aboard the aptly named starliner, “Destiny,” Ryan Ruckman portrays a soldier returning as a migrant to the planet where he once fought its natives. Struggling with PTSD, he is haunted by what happened there, but feels compelled to return. Ruckman often gets cast in this kind of rugged role, so is a natural fit, and has honed the skill of showing the human under the he-man facade.

Kelsey Leigh Miller, as the teen roommate, puts her inner child on full display to excellent effect, then lets the girl’s more mature aspects creep in as their journey continues. We easily see her as whatever she presents herself to be at every moment.

Our other character is Jasmine, a 2600B model AI android and the cabin’s personal valet. She appears when called upon to dispense food or supplies — but not much in the way of news, except to say that a quarantine remains in effect, keeping our two humans in close quarters for possibly the entire three-month voyage. Carrie Schlatter is excellent in this difficult role, managing speech that is artificially friendly without robotic cliché flatness, and economy of movement that reflects someone who is programmed rather than engaging in natural human action.

We are along for the long ride, as the play is a single movie-length act. Numerous scenes and little revelations track the passing of time, as the couple’s interactions – and perhaps something else – slowly change them, drawing them closer in unexpected yet inevitable ways.

Apparently among the beings of the “new world” (which the girl naively calls “aliens”) there is no word for the concept of “regret;” yet that is the biggest thing our Pilgrims bring with them. See how they unpack it in the play’s remaining weekend, Thursday through Sunday evenings (Sept. 19-22) at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

The war for Scotland’s crown has two distinct factions; this is their story — BONG BONG! (Bardfest review)

By John Lyle Belden

The action is already under way, with gunfire, sirens, heavily-armed soldiers. When the hurly-burly is done, the winning officer meets three strange women who greet him with titles he doesn’t have and aren’t likely to get. But when he meets the leader, one of those unlikely titles is granted to him – could he be fated for more? It doesn’t help that the boss named someone else his chief lieutenant. That puts two people between our man and the top of the power structure; but his persuasive and sexy wife has ideas on how to fix the situation – though there will be blood. Lots of blood.

This action movie playing out live at Bard Fest is Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” It’s tightly scripted (about 90 minutes in one act) by First Folio Productions director Carey Shea, and set in an urban battle zone, more Syria than Scotland, with characters from your favorite cop shows (“Law and Order: Inverness” perhaps?).

The story is familiar – death, more witches, death, “out damned spot,” death – and the Bard’s tragedies get the use-guns-for-swords treatment from time to time, but this production also has what Indy’s theatre scene truly needs: more Nan Macy.

Macy, along with Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson play the Wyrd Sisters, who seem to pop up everywhere. Or are we just looking through the eyes of MacBeth (Adam Tran), seeing reassurance that his dark deeds to gain the crown are inevitable and right? Or maybe it’s just a clever, efficient use of talented actors.

Devan Mathias is a hot, nasty Lady MacBeth, Ryan Ruckman a noble doomed king Duncan, and Chelsea Anderson and Nathan Thomas are both worthy of their badges as good-cops Macduff and Malcolm. Craig Kemp as Columbo-esque detective Ross strives to put the clues together. Justin Klein as tragic Banquo is our most sympathetic character – next to Jilayne Kistner as his hard-luck daughter Fleance.

The end result is engaging and entertaining. One can just take it at face value – wild action as an ambitious couple slay their way to the top, then face the consequences – or as a high-caliber examination of the lust for power and the dangers of unaddressed and untreated mental illness, never mind when it’s suffered by people in positions of authority.

Don’t be concerned by the legendary curse (that’s for the cast and crew to contend with), the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe theater, 719 E. St. Clair, still stands. Remaining performances are tonight and Sunday (Oct. 28-29).

For information, see www.indyfringe.org.

TOTS dramas the hell out of this ‘MF’

By John Lyle Belden

If you’re like me, you don’t know much about the play “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, aside from the provocative title and perhaps that it was Chris Rock’s dramatic stage debut in its Broadway run.

Now,  know that it is a gritty solid drama with comic elements, playing through May 13 at Theatre on the Square.

Granted, the language is not clean; it reflects the everyday talk of the working-class New Yorkers we are presented with, trying to live day to day with the struggles of addiction and recovery, and the consequences of bad choices, including incarceration. The laughs are mainly situational from the dark humor of living with your demons. Still, it’s not preachy to the audience, though upbeat AA sponsor Ralph D (Ben Rose) does dish out life-lessons to any who will hear.

We open with a deceptively happy scene. Jackie (Eric Reiberg) comes home to Veronica (Carrie Schlatter), his sweetheart since eighth grade, to announce he has found a job. They mention the fact that he is on parole, but that only makes the victory sound sweeter.

But then, he sees The Hat.

It’s a nice fedora-style hat, sitting on the coffee table (next to Veronica’s cocaine mirror), which he doesn’t recognize and she claims to know nothing about. With this, Jackie’s unraveling begins. His pursuit of the titular character and increasing realization that his addict girlfriend has not been faithful triggers his desire to use drugs and alcohol, and make other unwise decisions including acquiring a gun.

We then meet Ralph and his wife, Victoria (Chelsea Anderson), both in recovery as well as a very rocky relationship. There is also Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Ian Cruz), who has his own quirks, but compared to the others is the voice of reason.

In this production, a talented cast sharply execute a complex drama about the tangled feelings and impulses that come with taking that next step: whether it’s the numbered one in the program’s “big book;” to walk out the door; or to – against all your frantic brain’s desires – just not-do what comes next. And in the process, we learn the importance of the Commodores, Van Damme and the theory that dinosaurs invented waterfalls.

As the show is just opening, I’ll avoid further spoilers, deliver a tip of my MF’ing hat to director Gari L. Williams, and just encourage you to see this great MF’ing show. TOTS is at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

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

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.

A difficult ‘Winter’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Being a caregiver for a parent with Alzheimers or a similar condition is one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. With every struggle, you tell yourself, “It’s not about me!” yet you are in your own kind of pain.

In “Blackberry Winter,” playing through Nov. 19 at Theatre on the Square, Vivienne (Gari Williams) speaks to the audience about her caring for a mother who once made the world’s best coconut cake, but in these days would hardly recognize the kitchen.

The play is by Steve Yockey, whose dramas “Octopus” and “Wolves” have played on Indy stages. Those works dealt with stresses of fear and distrust in regards to intimate relationships. In this show, relationship struggles involve memories, objects and beloved family members.

Yockey’s style of including fantasy elements with animal metaphors also comes into play here, as Vivienne occupies her mind by coming up with a “creation myth” for Alzheimers. As the disease has no happy ending, she warns, don’t expect one to her story.

To embody the myth/fable, two of the main animals of the forest come to the stage: Gray Mole (Dan Flahive), who finds happiness simply by digging in the dirt, and optimistic, idealistic White Egret (Chelsea Anderson) who is sure she has found a way to make life better for all the denizens of the woods – at least the ones she sees above ground.

Their story is told in three parts, as Vivienne weaves in more of her monologue. She speaks of how in the mental clouds of this disease, what is real and true becomes blurred by confabulation and “comforting fictions.” We learn the significance of the scarves, the iron, the horse and the trowel, and why Vivienne is “a terrible person” – it’s not just because she fills the swear-bank.

And we see how White Egret’s wonderful idea goes horribly wrong.

This play is thought-provoking and challenging, especially if a relative with dementia is in your life. But in that case, this can also be comforting from shared experience as the spotlight is firmly on the caregiver’s role. Directed by Lori Raffel, this is an excellent glimpse into a difficult subject, with great performances delivered with gentle humor by the on-stage trio.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

A merry time with Bard’s ‘Wives’

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve found that a play is much more entertaining if the actors involved seem to be enjoying themselves, especially with a comedy. And I get the impression that the players in Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” are having a blast.

Centering on the popular character of bawdy, naughty Sir John Falstaff, this is one of the easier Shakespeare comedy plots to follow. Though we start with the typical multitude of characters thrown at us in the opening scenes, the groupings and motivations are fairly easy to sort out.

Falstaff (Adam Crowe) sets his wandering eye on two noble women, played by Amy Hayes and Claire Wilcher, the wives, respectively, of Ford (Rob Johansen) and Page (Josh Ramsey). The ladies, already annoyed by being wooed by the fat drunkard, discover they have been sent the exact same love letter and conspire their revenge. Meanwhile, Ford, learning of Falstaff’s advances, disguises himself as lecherous “Brook,” who approaches Falstaff and offers to pay him to have Mistress Ford after he’s done with her.

And in the other main plot, which will lead to the traditional wedding at the end, Page’s daughter Anne (Chelsea Anderson) is asked to choose between crass French Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and shy Slender (Kelsey VanVoorst) – she wants neither, choosing Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz), who her parents do not like.

Another key character is Mistress Quickly (Carrie Schlatter), who acts as a fixer in these situations for anyone willing to pay her cash. Michael Hosp plays a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, and other supporting characters are played by Frankie Bolda as Rugby, Zach Joyce as Shallow and Adam Tran as Pistol.

In an interesting casting twist, the character of Simple, who more than lives up to the name as he is sent in various directions on multiple errands, is played by one of the other actors not involved in the moment’s particular scene, and never the same one twice. Wisdom Tooth and director Bill Simmons also made a gentle parody of the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female roles by having some male roles played by women (perhaps a nod to British slapstick “panto” tradition?).

The setting has been transported from Olde England to mid-twentieth-century America – around 1954, when the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” was a hit – at The Windsor Hotel & Resort in a mythical Miami or Palm Beach with a Thames River nearby. The art-deco look and ’50s summer wear add to the light atmosphere of the play.

The Elizabethan language, however, is kept intact. But with spirited delivery, including occasional abuse of the fourth wall, this cast brings out the belly-laughs from the audience and play off each other so animatedly that the best word for this experience is simply “fun.”

The play is often criticized for its relative simplicity, but it has its own depth – and how much profundity does one need in a farce? Presented to us in our sitcom-fueled culture, this show comes off like a classic “I Love Lucy.” Hayes and Wilcher definitely give Mistresses Ford and Page a Lucy-and-Ethel chemistry. And like those ladies, they manage to stay one step ahead of the bumbling men to wind up on top.

Performances are May 20-22 and 27-28 at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets see indyfringe.org or wisdomtooththeatreproject.org.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)