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.

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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.)

BCP: It’s a wonderful show

By John Lyle Belden

It’s Christmas Eve, 1945, and we’ve gotten in out of the cold to sit in the studio audience at WBFR Radio, New York City. Freddie Fillmore, who is as handsome as he sounds, comes out to greet us commoners, along with fellow stars of the airwaves, Jake Laurents, Sally Applewhite, Lana Sherwood and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood. Sound-effects expert Art Foley teases us with an earful of a common kitchen utensil, challenging us to guess what that sound will represent on air – none of us can!

Soon they settle in on stage, and present a new holiday story, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is the trip to the past delivered by Buck Creek Players, a parallel world where the Frank Capra film is just a rumor, and we get the Christmas legend of George Bailey and Clarence the Angel as a live radio play (adapted by Joe Landry). The cast does work the crowd a little before the show, while stage manager Nicole Droeger, in period costume, helps set things up as a WBFR staffer. There are “APPLAUSE” signs to cue us (though they often weren’t needed) as well as the “ON AIR” light to let us know the show is under way.

Jeff Wilson plays Fillmore, the established star who hosts the event and provides numerous character voices, including complete opposites Mr. Potter and Uncle Billy. Tiffany Wilson is Applewhite, who portrays the major women characters, including George’s wife, Mary. Sami Burr is Sherwood, who does the minor women’s roles. Ben Rockey is Jazzbo, who can’t help providing visual gags when not voicing Clarence, or George’s brother Harry or friend Sam. Christian Condra is up-and-coming star Laurents, tasked with the voice of George himself. And Christopher Brown is Foley, who works with a table of noisemakers a lot like those used in the Golden Age of Radio.

The result is an brilliant rendition of the now-familiar story. If you close your eyes, it’s exactly like the show would have been as a radio drama, or you could even fill in the film visuals with your mind’s eye as only a little was changed, and all major plot points are intact. Of course, if you’re not watching, you don’t get to see the method of Foley’s clever effects, Jazzbo hamming it up, or a bit of shenanigans that happen in the studio, including some sneaking around during intermission.

The cast, under the direction of Cathy Cutshall, are all in fine form. The Wilsons, Burr and Rockey nimbly shift from one distinct character voice to another. Condra delivers an excellent, genuine George Bailey without slipping into a James Stewart impersonation.

It’s worth the trip out to the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through Dec. 17.

Also, this being the BCP holiday show, there is the annual cookie sale during intermission. They accept cash, cards or checks, so pick up a bag or tin of fine baked goods and help support local theatre.

Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270, or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Footlite’s offering not your typical ‘holiday’ show

By John Lyle Belden

Some of the most interesting movies and plays are based on real events, especially those with can-you-believe-it novelty. That was especially the case with the legend of the Texas “Chicken Ranch” – a brothel that was an open secret for most of a century, named from its willingness to take poultry in payment during the Great Depression. It inspired the ZZ Top hit, “La Grange,” as well as the Broadway musical and 1982 film, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

And now, Indy has “Whorehouse” in it! (“Lord have mercy on our souls!”) A home-grown production is playing through Dec. 10 at Footlite Musicals.

This seems an odd choice for the season – though everyone else has all the classics covered, so this does stand out. However, the play is set around Thanksgiving-to-Christmas time, sometime in the 1970s.

The Chicken Ranch has been running smoothly for generations, now under the watchful eye of Miss Mona (Julie Powers), with a friendly relationship with local Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Mike Bauerle). The house attracts young women who want something different from life, including Angel (Abby Okerson), who wants stability and away from violent pimps, and appropriately-named Shy (Molly Campbell).

But anti-crime and consumer-watch crusader Melvin P. Thorpe (Todd Hammer) has made exposing and closing the Chicken Ranch his next mission – pursuing fame and high TV ratings as well as a moral cause. Thanks to media exposure on televisions across Texas, the Best Little Whorehouse’s days are numbered.

Powers commands the stage well, along with Eryn Bowser as Mona’s assistant, Jewel. Hammer mentions in his program bio that Thorpe is a bucket-list role, and he certainly has fun with it – making him enjoyable to watch as well. Jim Nelms cuts a sweet “Sidestep” as the Texas Governor.

Needless to say, there is mature content (though no nudity) so this show is only for teens and older. It looks good,with a nicely designed and furnished set with the musical’s band visible playing in the parlor. The costumes appropriately range from sassy to classy.

As for the performance, overall it’s entertaining, and an alternative to all the Scrooges and Nutcrackers elsewhere, but what we saw left us feeling it could have been a lot better. Fortunately, off-key notes and missed dance steps can be fixed between shows, so we don’t want to come off as too critical (and others in the audience did enjoy it), just honest. Considering the high quality of previous productions at Footlite this year, perhaps we had set our expectations a bit high.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., or online at footlite.org.

KidsPlay has a story to tell

By John Lyle Belden

One of the nice things about working at the Daily Reporter in Greenfield (until 2015) was getting to know Christine Schaefer and her work with KidsPlay Inc., her children’s theatre company for youth in grades 3-8, in and around Hancock County. It casts as many young auditioners as possible and gives them a good start as they progress toward high school plays, or to taking whatever stage life brings.

The players put on two shows a year, comedies, because they are a fun challenge and always entertaining. They learn skills such as thinking on your feet – once you’re off-book, you’re off-book – and deliver their lines without microphones. The parents get involved as well, as KidsPlay is 100 percent volunteer run, with family members helping backstage with props, costumes, sets, etc.

I tell you that to tell you this: KidPlay presents its latest show, “Sahara Nights,” this weekend.

The play, a twist on the “Arabian Nights” legend, is silly fun. A spoiled Sultan (Luke McCartney) isn’t entertained enough by putting people in his dungeon for petty offenses and demands a better diversion. Sahara (Brynn Elliott), hoping to free her friend Aladdin (Wesley Olin) from being jailed for late library books, becomes the royal storyteller. But when the Sultan whines “I’ve heard that one before!” she modifies the story – Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves becomes “Ali Baba and the 49ers.” As the stories come alive on the stage before them, traditional tales mix with appearances by the Star Trek crew, Elvis (Corbin Elliott) and the Beatles.

McCartney and Brynn Elliott, the company’s eighth-graders, are great leads, and other young thespians get to show a lot of their potential, especially Heaven Keesling as the smart and dutiful royal advisor, Olivia Greer as puppeteer of impulsive and irascible Mr. Moo-Cow, and Ashley Pipkin as a magically charming Genie.

Football, sci-fi, flying carpets, “Nowhere Man” jokes, mimes, and even appearances by the fabulous Tom Jones (Corbin, again) – this show has it all.

Curtain is 7:30 Friday and Saturday, 2:30 Sunday, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, the beautifully renovated theater in downtown Greenfield (on US 40/Main St., just west of Ind. 9/State St.). Tickets are just $5 at the door — that’s right, for less than a movie ticket, you can see some of the next generation of local actors (several KidsPlay alums have been active on stages all around Indy).

For info, and to show your support, follow “KidsPlay Inc children’s theatre” on Facebook.