TOTS hosts a play for the masses (literally)

By John Lyle Belden

“Well, of all things!” A 1959 French play by a celebrated Romanian absurdist about the destructive but seductive effects of mass conformity finds resonance in Indianapolis, U.S.A., in 2017.

No Holds Bard and Catalyst Repertory present Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” on the Second Stage of Theatre on the Square through Aug. 13. The play is set in a near future in which most animals are extinct and most color is gone – frowned upon, even – but the people deal with it in a very orderly black-and-white world in which logic can be argued to the point that facts can mean anything.

Slovenly, drunken Berenger (Zachariah Stonerock) doesn’t fit in. And worse, he has gotten into an argument with his only friend, proud, self-sure Jean (Tristan Ross). But suddenly, a rhinoceros comes charging up the street. Did everyone see what they just saw? Of course not. There are no zoos, there are no circuses, there are no rhinoceroses. Then, a rhinoceros comes charging down the street in the other direction. Thus the question becomes: Is it the same rhinoceros? And are one or both African or Asian? This latter point, and the counting of horns, naturally becomes the most vital issue.

The next day, Berenger comes in late to work, but Daisy (Abbie Wright), who he is sweet on, covers for him with the boss, Mr. Papillon (Josh Ramsey), who, in turn, is upset with Duduard (Tim Fox) and Botard (John Mortell) not getting to work as they argue whether the rhinoceros sighting was real. Duduard has seen the beasts and is more accepting of events; while Botard did not, assumes its a hoax, and if anything did happen, it was part of a grand conspiracy by dark forces. Then Mrs. Beof (Denise Jaeckel) arrives, saying she can’t find her husband, and she’s being pursued by a rhino – when the animal destroys part of the building, she discovers the beast is her husband, somehow transformed.

After this, nearly everyone starts changing into rhinoceroses. As you do.

Stonerock garners our sympathies as the individualist everyman – misunderstood, put down and unsure of what he wants and how to get it. He, and we through him, are never on solid ground as the more sober he gets, the more mad the world becomes.

His castmates deal well with the play’s broadly-drawn characters. Wright embodies the contradicting impulses of dependence and independence women have dealt with in the nearly 50 years of this play’s existence, showing her own strength regardless. Fox is appropriately glib, Mortell brightly brusque. Jaeckel throws herself into her role. Ross, who also directs, takes charge on stage as well; and Ramsey is sharp as ever, including his turn as a “professional logician” who tortures language into submission. The cast is ably rounded out by David Mosedale and Sarah Holland Froehlke – who extracts a lot of laughs from a dead cat.

The script’s length, adapted from three acts to two, and pacing can drag at times, but it’s all worth seeing the eventual “rhinoceros parade.” While this a comedy, with plenty of hilarious situations and comic turns of phrase, beneath the mirth is the hint of something strong and violent that can trample to ruin anything in its path.

Good thing it’s only a play, eh?

Join the herd at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., call 317-685-8687 or get info and tickets at tots.org/rhinoceros/.

CrazyLake’s ‘Chaperone’ shines

By John Lyle Belden

CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield has tackled musicals and comedies, so naturally, it now stages “The Drowsy Chaperone: A Musical Within a Comedy.” And it is worth the drive out to the heart of Hancock County.

(Full disclosure: John & Wendy are long-time friends and supporters of CrazyLake director Christine Schaefer [who also directs KidsPlay Inc. children’s theatre], and John used to work with one of this show’s stars, Noelle Steele, editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. Still – this is a good show!)

A “Man in Chair” (Trever Brown) speaks to us enthusiastically about his love of musical theater, and especially his recording of the mythical 1928 classic, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As he plays the record, the musical comes to life in his apartment. He picks up the needle from time to time to explain to us the context and what became of the original actors.

The plot of the show within the show deals with a wedding to be hosted at the lavish home of Mrs. Tottendale (Carie McMichael), who is attended by faithful Underling (Ross McMichael). The groom is handsome oil heir Robert Martin (Austin Fisher), accompanied by Best Man, George (Matt Little); the bride is popular “Follies” star Janet Van De Graaff (Elisabeth Orr), whose Chaperone (Steele) gets “drowsy” from the contents of her flask. Show producer Feldzeig (Jake Hobbs) – shadowed by ditzy chorine Kitty (Alexandra Kern) – has to get Janet out of the wedding and back on the stage or gangster enforcers (Corey Yeaman and Jim Vetters), disguised as chefs, will pound him into their next pastry. Also in attendance is famous Latin lover, Adolpho (Luke Agee), to advance the plot. Deus ex machina duty goes to Trix the Aviatrix (Jamie McDowell).

From the start and throughout there is an atmosphere of silly fun, making the story within enjoyable. Brown easily fits the Man’s sweater; he helps us feel his devotion to and obsession with this stage gem, giving even the most odd moments and trite old lyrics weight as we see the musical through one who has studied it intensely.

For their part, the musical’s cast pull off the show excellently. While I note that this is an all-volunteer community theatre, Shaefer’s work sets a high standard – and, with the help of musical director and choreographer Amy Studabaker, they achieve it.

Steele, Orr, Fisher, Little, the McMichaels and Hobbs aquit themselves like pros. Agee goes big without being over-the-top, and if there were awards CrazyLake could qualify for, I’d nominate Kern for Best Supporting in making Kitty’s moments stand out.

For the fun, the laughs, the old-time stage nostalgia, fly on down to Greenfield – at the Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. – and see “The Drowsy Chaperone” in one of its remaining performances, Friday and Saturday (July 21-22). Tickets are $10 each at crazylake.com.

Make note of nutty ‘Nothing’

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare’s comedy now produced by Indy’s Khaos Company Theatre, makes it sound like an Olde English version of “Seinfeld.” While its plot is as easy to follow as a sitcom, the title is more of a pun – “noting” in Shakespeare’s time was to overhear gossip, which happens here with “much ado” indeed. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

In a modernish Italy that can only exist on stage, Leonato (James Mannan), owner of the estate where the play is set, will give his daughter Hero (Kyrsten Lyster) to Claudio (Ben Rockey), a soldier in the company of Don Pedro (Donovan Whitney), who has arranged the match.

Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Kayla Lee), has nothing nice to say about men and marriage – I checked, this was written after “Taming of the Shrew,” so consider her a more-refined “Kate” – and the main target of her venom is boisterous braggart Benedick (Daniel Dale Clymer). Sensing that these two would be suited for a different kind of sparks between them, Leonato, Pedro and Claudio, along with Hero and her companions Margaret (Kathleen Cox) and Ursula (Kaylee Spivey-Good), conspire to get them thinking each is loved by the other.

Also meanwhile, Don Pedro’s brother, Don John (James Crawley), our villain, sets out to ruin everything with the help of drunken Borachio (Jake Peacock). The main thing standing in their way is Dogberry (Linda Grant) – the Barney Fife of Shakespearean Italy – her lieutenant Verges (Nikki Sayer) and faithful Watchmen (Aidan and Addison Lucas).

And “mark that I am an ass” if I don’t mention other cast members Bradley Good, Case Jacobus and Steven C. Rose, as well as that felt Comrade on Peacock’s left arm.

The jokes and barbs hold up, even with the original text. Hero, being a teenager, does blurt out “hashtag” at moments of stress, and you get latter-day clothes with sword scabbards, but it all works. Crawley should be commended for the best evil grin this side of the Grinch, and Rockey is great at playing goofy and clumsy, yet lovable. Clymer is as sharp as the blade at his side, and Lee is simultaneously beautiful and a force to contend with.

Also, Grant and Sayer totally make the corset-and-riding-crop look work.

Under the direction of KCT’s Anthony Nathan, this classic romp is truly something to make “much ado” about. Remaining performances are Friday (pay-what-you-want night) and Saturday, July 21-22, at 1775 N. Sherman Drive. Get info and tickets at kctindy.com.

KCT ‘Slingbacks’ about more than perils of being gay in high school

By John Lyle Belden

I had the good fortune to not only see the new comedy, “Another Man’s Slingbacks,” presented by Khaos Company Theatre through June 24, but also to see it with playwright Andrew Black.

In this play – set in fictional Lincoln High School, Anderson County, U.S.A. – the very masculine star quarterback Killer Kerrigan (Donovan Whitney) leads fellow jocks Romeo (David Alfonzo) and Meatwad (Josh Weaver) as they hit on the girls, Barbra (Sabrina Lang) and Lana (Gorgi Parks Fulper); pick on the New Kid, Devon (Kyle Dorsch); and torture gay classmate Ricky Malone (Andre Guimaraes).

Fed up with the abuse, Ricky wishes that Killer could be made to feel what it’s like to be homosexual. This brings the attention of a Fairy Godmother (David Malloy), complete with fabulous wings, glitter and a smoker’s voice, who presents Ricky a lengthy contract for a Standard Transformation Spell. Disregarding all the small print, the desperate boy signs.

Suddenly, Killer understands fashion and Broadway, and feels aroused by his teammates. Will he still be Big Man on Campus?

Gay playwright Black, who had been working on this play since 2010 (some references were updated to set it in this year), didn’t settle for just indulging in queer stereotypes. The resulting story explores the fact that to come of age, all teens need to “come out” of the expectations and roles set for them by the social constraints of high school.

“What could a straight person learn?” from being gay, Black said he asked himself. “When you discover you are attracted to your own gender, you have to rewrite the rules for yourself. You have to make strong choices.”

Killer is forced to adapt to a new mindset, but he’s not the only person who needs to change and grow, as Ricky finds when simply wishing revenge on his tormentor doesn’t make his own life better.

Whitney bravely takes on all aspects of Killer’s character. Lang is also excellent, as Barbra tries to adjust to Killer’s changes making him more attractive, yet more distant. Weaver as “the Meat Man” turns his simpleton into a scene-stealer. Molloy solidly commits to his no-nonsense magical persona, yet it is Dorsch who looks natural in high heels. Guimaraes, having just graduated high school in real life, is familiar with its uncertainties. Alfonzo ably embodies a go-along-to-get-along character. Fulper surprises with her devious role. And kudos to James Mannan for playing various grown-ups.

Direction was provided by KCT artistic director Kaylee Spivey Good, in one of her last jobs before going overseas later this summer to earn her Masters in theatre.

There are two more performances scheduled, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at KCT’s new stage 1775 N. Sherman Drive on Indy’s east side. Get info and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Great Bike Race’ returns to TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve heard friends in Fringe shows say it’s hard to constrain a whole play to 40 minutes, so it must have been a relief for writer-director Zack Neiditch to let “The Great Bike Race.” his 2014 IndyFringe comedy hit, play out a full 70 minutes on the stage of Theatre on the Square, weekends through June 24.

The Race of the title is the 1904 Tour de France. After the success of the inaugural Tour the previous year, the ’04 bicycle race attracted a lot of attention and opportunistic riders. It became infamous for its widespread sabotage and cheating – including a competitor using a train as a “shortcut.”

Bringing that action to today’s audiences, Neiditch and Zach Rosing present a “cleverly anachronistic” (their characters told me to write that) play with the aid of antic actors, pantomime bicycles and a big projection screen.

Much of the Fringe cast returns, including Frankie Bolda as noble teen Henri Cornet. Paige Scott and Ben Asaykwee are the race front-runners and bitter rivals, Hippolyte Acoutrier and Maurice Garin. Carrie Bennett Fedor and Evan Wallace are Jean-Baptiste DuFortunac and Llucien Portier, two men who like each other very, very much. Sonia Goldberg is the only woman playing a woman, Alois Catteau, but she’s pretending to be a man. John Kern and Craig Kemp play other riders, while Josh Ramsey plays three from three different countries, whom at one point all get in an argument while trying to beat each other to the front of the pack.

For those who’ve seen it before, this version doesn’t feel padded-out at all. It’s still manic fun throughout its course, complete with contested Victory Dance.

Who wins? You do, by getting to see this hilarious show (whether again, or for the first time). Call 317-685-8687 or visit tots.org for tickets.

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.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.