Phoenix: Try this ‘reality’ programming

By John Lyle Belden

“Cry It Out,” the drama finishing the Phoenix Theatre’s eventful 2017-18 season, impacts you with just how real it feels.

As I’m sure playwright Molly Smith Metzler and this show’s director, Chelsey Stauffer, are aware, this is an effective “issue” play in that the focus is more on the people going through the issue than the thing itself. In this case, it’s what’s considered a universal experience – becoming parents to your first child, focusing on doing so in today’s world, and the psychological toll we are only beginning to understand.

Metzler has found the perfect setting: a Long Island neighborhood where Jessie (Lauren Briggeman), an upper-middle class professional, lives right across her back yard from Lena (Sally Scharbrough), who is struggling working-class, while on a cliff just hundreds of feet away are the very rich, of whom we meet Mitchell (Michael Hosp) and Adrienne (Andrea Heiden).

Feeling alone in her new-mommy experience, Jessie reaches out to Lena, who is grateful to have a likely friend so close at hand. In their perfectly crafted and acted conversations, we see the psychological walls they hit when their social and financial differences are made clear, followed by the earnest efforts to bridge their gap – for the sake of their own sanity as well as the benefit of their babies – forming a bond that seems so natural, like that friend you just “click” with.

Seeing this from his lofty view, Mitchell decides to ask them if his wife can join them for one of their “coffee meetings” – in one of the most uncomfortably comedic scenes I’ve seen lately. But when Adrienne arrives, she is not happy to be there. Clearly, these people have issues.

The sense of reality goes beyond the fact that it’s easy to forget Briggeman and Scharbrough are not actually moms with sleeping babies just offstage. This drama plays with your expectations in a clever way, by taking your “oh, I know how this is going to go” we’ve been conditioned to by TV, films and wishful thinking, and bringing a twist that is just like what happens to people you actually know. Being largely told from Jessie’s perspective, the story also confronts her and us with our assumptions. And in the process, we get some situational laughs – like real life.

This is one of those plays (thanks again, Phoenix!) that I can’t say you’ll “enjoy” in the fun sense, more like the fact that you’ll savor first-class acting and come away with some great food for thought. Come hungry.

“Cry It Out” plays through Aug. 26 in the “black box” Basile stage – seating surrounds most of the stage area – at the Phoenix’s new permanent home, 705 N. Illinois St. Note showtimes are a half-hour different than the mainstage. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Finding secrets among the clutter

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

The Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy presents a new approach to the haunted house story with “Static” by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

The setting is a cluttered home laden with a collection of collections, gathered over time and rendering the space forever a place belonging to the past. Time and space blend with past scenes of aging couple Walter and Millie (Rich Rand and Jolene Mentink Moffatt) and present scenes of young couple Emma and Owen (Chelsey Stauffer and Ben Schuetz) occurring in the same space and, occasionally, at the same time.

Walter was a compulsive collector, constantly bringing things home for Millie, who used to appreciate them, but she became haunted – frightened mute and locked in a pattern of searching by a loss no object can make up for. Walter also collected sounds, putting them on dozens of cassette tapes. He eventually also started collecting thoughts, including his worries for Millie and concerns that he might have recorded ghosts.

Emma compulsively bought this old house in her home town, planning to renovate and resell it. But she finds the old tape recorder and cassettes, and, listening to them, realizes this is the home from a tragic local legend. She is amused by Walter’s collection of noises around the house, until she hears his worried entries and realizes she must know the whole story – but one of the tapes is missing.

Rand tugs our heartstrings as a man whose creed is, “I can fix it,” but struggles with things he can’t seem to make right. Moffatt displays a different aspect of her immense talent. In contrast to recent brash and funny roles, she excellently delivers a sad, disturbed soul. She almost never speaks, yet communicates volumes. Stauffer believably portrays the transition from simple enjoyment of a project to unshakable obsession, while Schuetz wrestles with growing impatience with the woman he loves. Eliot Simmons completes the cast as a younger version of Emma, in a scene that hints at deeper connections.

The play is more suspense than horror, with supernatural elements – lights flickering and locks rattling, etc. – but the full nature of the haunting stays elusive. I don’t want to elaborate for fear of spoiling the plot’s surprises, but while it’s appropriate that some aspects of the mystery stay with you long after viewing the show, the resolution of this story felt incomplete. Still, Horan’s drama is an interesting examination of loss and to what degree we own our possessions or they own us.

“Static” plays through Nov. 20 at the Phoenix, 749 N. Park Ave. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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

Review: “Silence!” raw but raucous

By Wendy Carson

What can you say about a farcical musical based on “Silence of the Lambs” other than: Be prepared to be shocked and surprised.

In “Silence! The Musical,” now at the Phoenix Theatre, from the opening, in which the “Sheep” begin telling Clarice’s backstory, you know that the author of this production had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

While the plot of the story remains mostly intact, there are a few changes to mainstream the narrative in favor of song breaks. The aforementioned Sheep portray not only a Greek chorus but also slip into and out of the guises of various supporting characters in the play.

The songs and dialogue in general are not only outlandish but somewhat offensive. The fact that the biggest production number of the show is based on an obscene line should be a warning. However, the cast is thoroughly game for it all and their level of commitment makes it all bearable.

Chelsey Stauffer, as Clarice Starling, highlights the character’s overwhelming drive to prove herself to the FBI and avenge her father, as well as her gentle naivete of what she has to deal with to accomplish this. Of course, her exaggerated accent just adds to the whimsy of her character.

Paul David Nicely showcases his broad range of talent as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Singing, dancing and threateningly looming over everything, he pulls out all the stops in embracing the character.

Scot Greenwell is sublime in the role of the deranged serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whom the FBI is desperately trying to hunt down and stop. He fully embraces the campiness of the character in every way possible.

While the irreverence of the production has the potential to be a hot mess, under the skillful hands of director Bryan Fonseca and choreographer Kenny Shepard, it transcends into delightful silliness.

Again, I warn you that due to the content and language, this is a show that should be enjoyed by a mature and not-easily-offended audience. However, if you’re up for some laughs and a wonderfully satirical take on the film, get your tickets now. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.