Like a 1980s ‘Hamlet,’ a play to catch a killer

By John Lyle Belden

On a quiet evening in an empty Broadway theater, a playwright sets up a very special reading of his new drama. It is exactly one year since, on opening night of his latest show, his fiancé died. It appeared to be suicide, but before this night is done, he will reveal who killed her.

This is “Rehearsal for Murder,” a clever early-80s TV movie (by Richard Levinson and William Link) adapted for the stage by D.D. Brooke and presented now by the Belfry Theatre of Hamilton County, directed by Diane Wilson.

Alex Dennison (Kelly Keller) has rented this house for the night, and explains to his young assistant, Sally (Anna E. Blower) what had happened the year before. It was an ill-fated opening night from the start. Monica Welles (Ameetha Widdershins), a B-movie actress seeking fame on the stage, had stirred controversy by missing a preview performance, and an article in that day’s Variety revealed she is secretly engaged to Alex. Still, director Lloyd Andrews (Alex Dantin) and producer Bella Lamb (Kim O’Mara) hope for the best, as Monica shares the stage with promising ingenue Karen Daniels (Olivia Carrier), popular comic Leo Gibbs (Eric Bowman) and handsome lead David Mathews (Gideon Roark).

Opening Night is a hit with the audience, but with the critics – not so much. This puts a damper on the after-party at Monica’s apartment, and as the guests leave, she also sends Alex home. But an hour or so later, she calls him at his apartment, insisting he return – then the phone goes dead. He arrives at her place to find she has apparently jumped from her upper-story window.

Concluding this convenient recap, Alex has Sally set things up, sends stagehand Ernie (Molly Kraus) home, and welcomes a mysterious man (Chris Taylor) who is to stay in the shadows to watch and ensure no one leaves. Then, the “suspects” make their way in for a play reading no one will forget.

Our cast also includes Diane Reed as a caterer; Mason Cordell Hardiman, Tanya Keller, and Richard Wilson as police; and Cindy Duncan as Ms. Santoro, who brings a truck loaded with a special stage set.

Can you guess how Alex knows it’s murder, and who the killer is?

This family-friendly whodunit is one of those shows that is both entertaining to watch and you can tell is fun for the actors to play. Portraying showbiz people, especially when suggesting they killed someone, allows for a lot of interesting scene-chewing but director Wilson and the cast don’t let it go to camp. Kelly Keller keeps a firm hold on proceedings as our host, with each of his cohorts believably portraying their Broadway archetypes. The pages from the reading play out like flashbacks, with Widdershins ghosting in to perform the script’s doomed leading lady.

Kudos to costumers Tanya Keller and Molly Kraus for finding the Barbara Mandrell-style wig for Monica, as well as Sally’s outfit, which helps solidify the ‘80s look. Best-dressed honors, however, go to Variety columnist Meg Jones, though she may be hard to spot.

I’m not good at mysteries, but if you haven’t seen this, it could have you guessing for a while, as well. Regardless, it’s fun to watch it all play out.  Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, at Ivy Tech Auditorium in Noblesville. Get tickets and info at thebelfrytheatre.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.”

Wacky ‘Idiots’ in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

“Flaming Idiots” is not Shakespeare, but the Bard does get a shout-out. This farce by Tom Rooney, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield through Sunday (April 10) is the kind of laugh-out-loud escapist fare that comes in handy in ever-troubled times. 

The cast features many kinds of fools: 

  • Phil (Ethan Romba) is really good at jumping into things and not thinking them through, while convinced he has a fool-proof plan. So he accepts a local mobster’s offer to take over a failing restaurant, though Phil knows next to nothing about the business (which is apparently more than enough, in his mind). 
  • Phil’s partner Carl (Austin Uebelhor) is the kind of general dunce who is randomly curious about everything and understands nothing. His one stroke of genius is creating the eatery’s signature cocktail, the Flaming Idiot (“One drink makes you silly,” he explains.) 
  • Local police Officer Task (Jeffrey Haber) has an IQ somewhere between that of his horse and his last donut (so, of course he’s studying to become Detective) but at least he’s friendly and helpful.
  • Eugene (Austin Hookfin) is a waiter and aspiring ACTOR! who is really invested in his method and eager for his chance to shine.
  • Ernesto Santiago (Chris Taylor), a busboy from the barrios of Norway(?), seems to have some sense about him, as well as a mysterious briefcase, though he does lose his cool when anyone mentions “laundry.”
  • Bernadette (Wendy Brown) is the most sensible of the bunch, and the best vegetarian chef in town, but also completely deaf from a recent accident. (Will this be exploited for comic misunderstandings? Note the word “farce” above.)
  • Jayne Fryman (Ashley Engstrom) seems to do everything for the hometown newspaper – advertising, food critic, crime beat – which, having been a small-paper writer myself, I find the most believable character. However, she is plagued with a “wardrobe malfunction” that is the cause of a lot of cheeky laughs.
  • The play’s plot includes the idea to fake a mob murder to give Phil’s Restaurant the buzz of noteriety; enter Louie (Eric Bowman), the past-his-prime hitman who needs a diagram to make sure he goes through the correct door.
  • Aside from Bernadette, the smartest character by far is a random Body that, when shaved, somehow resembles a famous stage producer. He gives a truly moving performance (in a wheeled office chair).

Actually, it takes a lot of smarts to make an “idiotic” performance funny, and this crew delivers a MENSA-level effort under the genius direction of Brian Nichols. And for an all-ages show, you end up seeing a lot of underwear!

It’s all in good fun, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get information and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.