BCP hosts the original version of ‘Dolly’

By John Lyle Belden

Buck Creek Players presents, “The Matchmaker,” the Thornton Wilder farce that inspired the hit musical, “Hello Dolly” – and it’s easy to see how, as there were several moments in this non-musical comedy that I found myself thinking, “a song would go nice here.”

Set in the 1880s, this satire of society and attitudes of the era has a Yonkers, N.Y., merchant, Horace Vandegelder (C. Leroy Delph), hiring matchmaker Dolly Levi (Gloria Bray) to find him a wife, while denying his daughter Ermengarde (Sami Burr) permission to marry her true love, artist Ambrose Kemper (Manny Casillas). Meanwhile, Horace’s top clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Ben Jones) and his bumbling assistant Barnaby (Evan Vernon), fed up with a lack of respect at their jobs, decide to spend a day in nearby New York City – where, of course, everyone else will end up. The adventure begins at the hat shop of Irene Malloy (Brigette McCleary-Short), who Horace had sought to woo, but Dolly has someone else in mind for the rich man’s bride.

Bray holds the center well as the title character, never holding back on the clever charm and wit. McCleary-Short is also impressive in a character who would feel right at home among the independent women of today’s New York. Otherwise, Wilder apparently had trouble writing for the women, as Ermengarde has few lines, and Irene’s shy assistant Minnie Fay (Katie Thompson) practically none – though she makes up for it with effective physical comedy.

Jones truly shines, making his supporting role feel like a lead, his excellent comic timing and delivery aided by the slapstick skills of Vernon, as they play well off of McCleary-Short and Thompson’s characters.

I must also commend stage first-timer Nickie Cornett for her charming moments as the Cook for Flora Van Huyson (Kassy Cayer, a study in melodrama), Ermengarde’s aunt, at whose home the farcical situations reach their climax.

The play includes the device of various characters, notably Dolly, speaking directly to the audience. It’s hard to say whether that, or a lot of the humor, has aged well. (There was, however, a bit of unexpected amusement by younger audience members, associating Ermengarde’s name with the “Ehrmagerd” internet meme.) The show also features clever stage design by Dan Denniston, with setpieces for a number of locales easily moved in and out of the scene.

One weekend remains of “The Matchmaker” at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

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Fat Turtle hilariously handles impossible quest to dramatize Don Quixote

By Wendy Carson

Don Quixote. We all know the story – or do we?

It turns out that the storyline we are so familiar with is actually less than 20 percent of the thousand-page tome. The beautiful Dulcinea, for whom Quixote pines, is merely referred to and not actually a character in the book. The vast majority of the saga involves the deranged “knight” and his faithful squire just riding through the countryside getting beaten up frequently.

So why does this epic novel continue to inspire numerous attempts to adapt it for stage or screen only to be defeated by the effort? That is the focus of Mark Brown’s whimsical play, “The Quest for Don Quixote,” produced by Fat Turtle Theatre Company through Sunday at Theater at the Fort.

Jason Page portrays Ben, our intrepid playwright, whose passion for the text is only eclipsed by the despair of his inability to write anything at all. His agent Jeffry (Dan Flahive) has tracked him down to a coffeehouse in order to retrieve Ben’s script – after all, rehearsals begin tomorrow. Flahive shines through his desperation and terror at discovering the situation, especially as he relentlessly tries to kick-start Ben’s writing.

As they deliriously brainstorm throughout the night, the story comes alive with the coffeehouse staff and patrons joining them to act out their efforts. The results are wacky and bizarre, yet tenderly true to the intentions of the original story.

Nan Macy and Savannah Jay embody a myriad of characters each, yet manage to bring each one fully to life in such a manner as to make you forget that they are just two people.

Justin Lyon’s portrayal of the buffoonish “squire” Sancho Panza brings out the heroic heart of the character.

Of course, the story could not work without our hero, Don Quixote. Jeff Maess deftly brings the deluded, yet inspired, mania of the character fully to light.

While not actually playing one of the various actors in the story, Chris McNeely uses his guitar as a driving force in the narrative by setting the tone for each scene. In fact, you might recognize a bar or two of some more contemporary songs that punctuate a few plot lines.

In adapting the unadaptable, this hilarious play about a play about a immortal character that transcends his literature bends the rules enough to blend medieval chivalry with Pinkie Pie from “My Little Pony.” Yet the soul of the story of the man who showed us the folly of fighting windmills – no matter what form they take, such as a difficult script – remains as pure as a noble knight’s heart. Director Aaron Cleveland acquits himself well in taking up the lance against this mill.

Find Theater at the Fort on the former grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison, just west of Post Road just north of 56th Street in Lawrence. For info and tickets, visit www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Milicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

Catalyst raises ‘Hell’ again

By John Lyle Belden

*What if the term “soul-sucking job” could be taken literally?

* What if the dying American institution of the shopping mall resorted to desperate measures to keep itself alive?

* What if a couple of highly talented but potty-mouthed theatre people decided to make a twisted comedy musical about this?

Welcome to “Hell’s 4th Ring: The Mall Musical,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at the IndyFringe building through Feb. 25.

This is not our first visit to Hell’s Gate Mall. A 50-minute version premiered as part of the 2015 Fringe Festival. A lot of people loved it; Wendy even noted (in her review) that the show should be expanded into a full-length musical. Now at last, creators Casey Ross and Davey Pelsue bring us a full two-act version, expanded but not padded-out.

According to Dante, the Fourth Ring of Hell is occupied by sinners damned by greed. So, what better place to erect a temple to consumerism? Whether this Twilight Zone-ish place is in this world or the next is never clear, but this is the place to pick up some great bargains, and where job security takes on new meaning. Just obey the rules: No running; No leaning on the railing; and, No intimate “mingling” between employees.

Brian (Christian Condra), who is this close to selling the massaging chair, wants desperately to mingle with Sofie (Afton Shepard), who refolds clothes far more than she sells them. She believes she is only there for the summer, but Brian knows better; she will soon be full-time, forever. Meanwhile, Eric (Pelsue) doesn’t care as much for working at his Goth-accessories shop as he does trying to hook up with bodacious curvaceous Chelsea (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Then there’s Lee (Pat Mullen), who used to work at a computer game store but now offers bourbon chicken samples in the food court. The mall’s denizens also include a trio of Mall Rats (Jim Banta, Donovan Whitney and Sara Gable) who follow/idolize Eric and never seem to buy anything over a dollar. And then there’s Bart (David Molloy) the security guy, a cross between Doctor Strangelove and the Terminator.

Though Ross directs, the musical shows its flexibility in that the only actors from the Fringe version are Pelsue, Molloy, and Zoe Molloy as the mall’s public address voice. Yet the cast seems right at home, giving this tragic farce their all. Condra handsomely perseveres like Brad from “Rocky Horror.” Shepard smiles through the confusion like a Disney princess trapped in the wrong movie. Pelsue is the perfect mix of charm and attitude, while looking like the opening act for Spinal Tap. And as she did in Bardfest’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Boswell’s moxie and vocal skill blew. me. away. As for Mullen, let’s just say he wields a mean sample tray. The cast also includes Preston Dildine as the ghost of “terminated” coworker Dylan.

From the rockin’ tunes to the odd plot, the show balances suspense and romance with a healthy dose of silly for an entertaining experience. The mature content is mainly multiple F-bombs and some rude gestures in the choreography, so this show is for teens and up (eventually, this will only be for adults, as we’d have to explain to kids what a mall was).

Find Hell’s Gate at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 East St. Clair St. (just east of the College/Mass Ave./St. Clair intersection). Get tickets at www.indyfringe.org and info from Catalyst’s website or Facebook.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Angry Inch’ measures up

By John Lyle Belden

Once again, internationally ignored superstar Hedwig Robinson takes the stage in Indianapolis, fronting “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The German glam goddess tells her story while shadowing former partner Johnny Gnosis, who is on another stage, reaping the benefits of scandal.

“Hedwig,” the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical, is a transcendent sensory experience when done right — and Zach (Rosing) & Zack (Neiditch) may have succeeded with this month’s production on the Epilogue Players stage.

That’s right, this punk youthquake is in the little corner theatre that typically showcases older actors. But on the other hand, given her Cold War backstory, the character of Hedwig isn’t so young anymore. The show was originally performed and set around the year 2000, so to keep the story fresh this play blurs the last 20 years into a spacetime setting of its own — not hard to reconcile for folks like me for whom the 20th century feels like yesterday, but might require some don’t-think-about-it for younger viewers.

Tim Hunt is Hedwig, with face, voice and attitude much like the show’s creator and original star, John Cameron Mitchell. Her look is made complete by exquisite costumes and headpieces by costumer Beck Jones, especially during “Wig in a Box.”

Hedwig’s present husband, Yitzhak, is portrayed perfectly by Kate Homan, from his sulking resentment and grudging fidelity to an outstanding transformation at the end.

They are backed by a solid onstage band of Jacob Stensberg, Matt Day, Steven Byroad and Andrew McAfee. They perform on a punk-aesthetic stage complete with cleverly used discarded-but-functional televisions.

As fans know, the “Angry Inch” refers to more than the band; it’s the result of the botched sex-change operation in East Berlin when young Hansel Schmidt became Hedwig. So, needless to say, there is mature content in this show (but no nudity). And as the historical context slips further into the past, and it being less unusual to see a Trans entertainer on stage, we are confronted with the other, larger, more universal theme of the play — the personal search for completion.

This world’s foundational myth (in the “Origin of Love”) is that humanity was only content when each “person” was a complete set of two individuals fused together. But in the longing for finding one’s other half, they ironically lose or give away parts of themselves. This is Hedwig’s journey — losing her “parts” to gain a man, yielding her creativity in the attempt to hold another, then denying Yitzhak his own completion for as long as her own soul is fragmented.

As the many puzzles presented come together, we all share in the completion of a beautiful experience, a feeling no one can tear down.

Performances are Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 11-14) at 1849 N. Alabama St. Click here for info and tickets.

The lighter side of a heavy topic

By Wendy Carson*

Kate Huffman hates her body. I hate my body. In fact, all of the women (and many of the men) reading this hate their bodies. We are taught to do so from the moment we are able to understand the concept of beauty and acceptance. Our society’s definition of female beauty is unattainable, unhealthy and potentially deadly.

“I’m Too Fat For This Show” is a large step in one woman’s journey to come to terms with her OCD, control issues, eating disorder and general neurosis.

She presents both her struggle and unusual outlook by opening with scenes from the video for “No Rain” by Blind Melon (a band, like Huffman, with Indiana roots).

Growing up as a chubby dancing girl, she was often compared to the little “Bee Girl” at the center of the video’s storyline. While she put on a brave face and tried to shake off all of the teasing about her weight, it was a grade-school field trip to Eli Lilly that changed her fate.

She learned about nutrition and how much fat she was actually putting in her body. She vowed to change her habits and began to lose weight. This lead to praise, which reinforced her drive and once her mom introduced her to the concept of counting calories, her fate was sealed.

Her days are filled with logs of calorie intakes, exercise reps, and more data that she and her eating disorder (introduced as her “Best Friend”) use to process her OCD and control her world.

Her Bestie even pops up on the video screen (played by Huffman) to encourage her to “hit her numbers” and remind her she is the only entity that truly cares about her.

This show is a comedy – and quite funny – but obviously also quite dark. It doesn’t hold back on language, or the facts of dealing with multiple disorders and conditions, mental and physical. To give us a perspective on what living with her issues would be like, she plays a scene as her long-time ex-boyfriend. In fact, her talents as an actress and improv performer are on excellent display in the various characters she puts on, including some half-and-half costume work.

Some praise is also due to her director Scout Durwood, and videographers Kenneth and Mariana Lui, for their parts in putting the pieces of this otherwise one-person show together.

It’s a cruel irony that Huffman is actually quite slender, and beautiful, yet only she (and the cruel standards of Hollywood, an issue she also addresses) sees herself as “fat.” But that is the nature of the disorder she and far too many others live with: Irrational impulses are irrational.

Kate Huffman bravely entertains us by sharing her pain, allowing us to admit that, in some ways, we all feel it too.

“I’m Too Fat for this Show” might still have some tickets left for Sunday, Dec. 10, at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre – see www.indyfringe.org – before she takes the show to Ireland the next week, then to New England stages. See www.KateHuffman.com for more information on the show and future performances.

*(John also contributed to this review. Considering the personal nature of the show, there was a lot of discussion and collaboration, but this is mostly me.)