Twisty ‘Trap’ in Bloomington

By John Lyle Belden

A young playwright has possibly written the perfect thriller – could this lead to a perfect crime?

The less you know about the 1978 play “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin, presented by Constellation Stage and Screen in Bloomington, the more vague I should stay in describing it, as it twists and turns like country road switchbacks. This is a sharply written two-act five-person one-room thriller complete with scares and laughs, about a sharply written two-act five-person one-room thriller… Yes, it does get a bit meta, but in a masterful way, fascinating as it is dizzying.

Directed by Chad Rabinovitz, who couldn’t help adding a little appropriate entertainment of his own during the curtain speech, our talented five persons are:

  • Mark Andrew Coffin as aging playwright Sidney Bruhl, who would practically kill for another Broadway hit, and keeps an awful lot of old weapons around his study.
  • Greta Lind as Sidney’s wife, Myra, who doesn’t mind supporting him with her wealth, yet is afraid of what he might do.
  • John Drea as Clifford Anderson, the aspiring writer who has sent perhaps the only copy of his first play, “Deathtrap,” to Sidney for his perusal.
  • Mary Carol Reardon as Helga ten Dorp, likely the world’s most authentic psychic – though the visions do get fuzzy at times.
  • And, Steve Scott as attorney Porter Milgrim, who comes in during the second act for necessary business, and to advance the plot with clever insights.

Coffin and Drea each give us characters who are simultaneously charming and a little suspicious, and good at dark physical comedy. Reardon relishes her work as a wacky medium, while adding suspense as the audience realizes that all her predictions come true – eventually.

In the intimate confines of the Ted Jones Playhouse, the characters can almost sense that audience witnessing them (none were harmed at our performance, and Constellation staff were standing by), adding to the spooky atmosphere provided by designer Seth Howard’s rustic/Medieval set.

For a February chill, step into “Deathtrap,” playing through Feb. 19 at 107 W. 9th St. in downtown Bloomington (formerly home of Bloomington Playwrights Project, now part of Constellation). Get info and tickets at SeeConstellation.org.

Healthy dose of love and laughter in Lawrence

By John Lyle Belden

Could love be considered a disorder? Think about it: The irrational behavior, the mood swings, the heart racing, the feeling in the pit of your stomach – nothing about being in love seems healthy!

Consider our case study of several infected individuals in and around the SuperCenter shopping experience in the comedy “Love/Sick,” by John Cariani, presented by Theatre Unchained at Theater at the Fort in Lawrence, directed by Kaya Dorsch.

The highly talented cast of Lucy Fields, Aaron Henze, Kyrsten Lyster, Brittany Magee, and Joe Wagner bring these afflicted souls to life as various characters in nine scenes in this charming hour-plus one-act.

The performance bar is set high by the first scene, in which – due to their disorder – Fields and Wagner have to deliver their exact same lines, with the same energy, at the exact same time. Add in a bit of intimate physical comedy, and they succeed to hilarious effect.

Fields then takes on the role of delivering a most awkward message to Lyster. We also have, among other bits, Henze discovering how literal “deadly boredom” can be, and Magee on a search to “find herself” that many of us can relate to.

The result is a mix of laughter and heartache that any physician would agree are a sure sign of a love outbreak, and for us in the audience the feelings are contagious.

Dorsch took a lot of TLC in growing this specimen, and if it leads to a pandemic of uncertain joy – know there’s no cure.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 19-21, at 8920 Otis Ave. Get info at TheatreUnchained.org and tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Fulgham ‘Christmas’ comes to Carmel

By John Lyle Belden

Poinsettias are immortal.

Also, treasures and saints come in unexpected forms; cherished traditions can include a bad pageant or enthusiastic bell-ringer; there’s nothing like a well-stocked fridge; and love can bring anyone together. These lessons and more are brought to us by Robert Fulgham, author of the best-seller about life-lessons from kindergarten, in “Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas!” presented by Carmel Community Players, directed by Kate Hinman.

Aptly-named Joy Ried joins new and familiar faces Tonya Rave, Tom Riddle, Kevin Shadle, and Matt Trgovac as they work through 14 scenes and skits – including a recurring bit about a certain red-leafed plant. The audience, in turn, gets a full-body workout, focused on both the heartstrings and funny bone.

Fulghum’s simple yet deep essays come alive in able hands – with an extra shout-out to assistant stagehand Mitchell Ried – for a must-see holiday treat.

The crew also includes stage manager and assistant director Jeremy Ried, stagehand Chrysa Keenon, and Lori Raffel on lights and sound.

Four performances remain: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (Dec. 15-18) at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (just south of the Main Street arts district). Get info and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

The Elf may not enjoy this, but you will

By John Lyle Belden

For an Elf, labor at the Toy Workshop is like a factory job anywhere in the world, with lunch hour your one respite from the constant grind. Being in the desolate dark zone above the Arctic Circle, when one of your workers – who has issues, to say the least – requests to entertain the crew with a “celebration of truth and pure being” during the break, it’s a good idea to let him ramble his weird poetry or whatever.

But as we see reenacted at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, when “ProZack the Sad Elf” gets an unused storage room to put on his show, things get weirder than usual. Apparently, this year we get “The ProZack Holiday Musical (No, it’s not!)” starring Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, and a demented Tree.

ProZack provides profound spoken verse with titles like “Nothingness,” and “Untitled.” Tinsel plays and sings holiday songs, even after he’s killed. Videographer Snowflake is up to some visual trickery. Tinkle tries to bring “levity” but has problems with his puppet, Mr. Tree, whose anger is growing, and growing. Meanwhile Glister, the industrial death metal Elf, has caught a worrying case of sentimentality.

With so much going wrong, ProZack has to frequently go backstage, where Snowflake also set up cameras. We see the elves interact and try to find their way through this madness that includes odd holiday movie references and the secret of what’s stored away in that “empty” room.

Not to mention the literal “Star” of the show…

With the help of multimedia and other effects, Asaykwee delivers a fun and surprisingly action-packed one-person show, masterfully juggling the various personae throughout the two-act “lunch hour.” There was much laughter, some finger-snapping (how you applaud poetry), and a bit of innuendo – so this is for humans of double-digit age (or relative equivalent for elves or other mythical beings).

“ProZack The Sad Elf,” also created, written, and directed by Asaykwee, runs through Dec. 23 on the Basile Theatre stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Ludwig ‘Holmes’ comedy a holiday treat at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

One of the interesting things about Ken Ludwig’s comedy mystery, “The Game’s Afoot, or, Holmes for the Holidays,” on stage at Buck Creek Players, is that the lead role is a fictionalized version of actual early-20th century actor William Gillette, who not only helped set the traditional look for Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, but also starred in a Holmes play that he wrote with the blessing of Sherlock creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While, as portrayed here, Gillette did make fame and fortune as the legendary detective, tinkered with inventions to aid his stagecraft, and had a castle built for him on his Connecticut estate, Ludwig also plays up the man’s Holmes obsession to the point that he seeks to solve the mystery of an attempt on his life.

Hilarity, and apparently a murdered body or two, ensues.

Joshua C. Ramsey excels at rock-chinned steadfast leading man, even when played for laughs, and delivers Gillette’s stoic sense of purpose so well that flummoxed moments come off all the funnier. His family and friends (a/k/a, the suspects) are played by Cathie Morgan as Gillette’s mother, Martha; Tony Brazelton as Felix, his past best friend and present on-stage Moriarty; Tiffany Wilson as Marian, Felix’s wife; Hannah Partridge as recently widowed ingenue Aggie; and Josh Rooks as ambitious young actor Simon. They are joined at what they thought was an end-of-the run holiday party by ruthless newspaper columnist Daria Chase (Sarah Powell), and the evening’s activities will bring around an actual detective, Inspector Goring (Renee Lopez Whiten). In addition, Cyrena Knight, Breanna Helms, and Julie Gilpin play the house staff, and can step in as understudies.

Under the direction of Brian Noffke, no stranger to wild comedy, the cast all hit the farcical beats with professional precision. The exquisite stage set, designed by Ed Trout, includes an infamous rotating bookshelf used to full comic effect.

Even though I saw a production of this years back, I had forgotten “who done it” (yes, there is a mystery to solve amidst this madness) but even if you aren’t surprised at the end, you’ll assuredly be delighted by this unconventional “holiday” play.

“The Game’s Afoot” for two more weekends, through Dec. 18 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

Unique ‘Holiday’ story seeks to heal family

By Wendy Carson

As bright and sparkly as they appear to be, for a large number of us the Holidays ramp up our depression and sorrow. Such is the situation with the Abrams clan in “A (Happy) Holiday,” presented by Theatre Unchained.

Grandmother Bunny (Wendy Brown), mother Busy (Jenni White) and daughter Leigh (Wilhelmena Dreyer) are not only dealing with the death of son-in-law/husband/father Owen (Bradley Lowe), but also their lack of connection with each other. Into this mess enters the gloriously anthropomorphized chemical compound, Sarah Tonin (Ariel Laukins) along with the ever-perky duo of Elf 1 (Anja Willis) and Elf 2 (Thomas Sebald) to deliver a present to make their Christmakkah (being a blended family, they have a blended holiday) complete.

Reluctantly the ladies work their way through a giant magical book with 12 chapters of Holiday memories, forcing them to face their past – no matter how good, bad, or ugly. Leigh just wants to move forward and find her true self regardless of what her mom or society demand of her. Busy wants Owen back and will settle for nothing else. Bunny, who just wants everyone to be happy and get along, seems to down a lot of “holiday cheer” to keep her distracted.

This show has numerous parodies of holiday movies and TV shows as well as other pop culture touchstones to keep the laughs coming. However, the story pulls no punches in showing the sadness and sorrow of these women. Each comes to terms with pivotal moments of their past that damaged them, yet taught them to grow and carry on, to be their true selves.

This show is a true ensemble piece, executed with sheer perfection. Each performer being great on their own, together they will move you to tears of sorrow and joy. Speaking of ensemble, this play is a special project of Theatre Unchained, co-written by Karina Cochran, Kaya Dorsch, J.E. Hibbard, and director Max McCreary. They initially set out create a series of distinct holiday scenes, but found they fit together in a single theme, focused on this relatable yet unique family.

As you can tell, this show is not a typical Holiday story. Still, it is moving, touching, endearing, and entirely affirming for all. This should be at the top of your list of shows to see this month, especially since there are only three performances left, this Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 8-10, hosted by Arts for Lawrence at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave.

Good for teens and older, grab up those members of your family and come together for an uplifting story – maybe start an important dialogue to help make your own holiday complete. Get tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Executive dysfunction in holiday parody

By John Lyle Belden

As we settled in for a long winter’s viewing of “The North Wing,” an original Christmas musical presented by Defiance Comedy at the IndyFringe theatre, Molly North, assistant to the show’s writer and director, Matt Kramer, said this is like if “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin had (presumably under the influence of something) decided to write about the Santa Claus Workshop at the North Pole, and add music.

Well… there is a “walk-and-talk” scene, so we’ll go with that.

Since Burl Ives is dead and Josh Gad costs too much, we have the lovely Paige Scott as our narrator, Jeff the Snowman, ironically with a warmer heart than her other role, Mrs. Claus. The former is charming, literally disarming, and proud to be “a waste of resources.” The latter seems to take pleasure in being naughty – which could be a problem in this setting.

Clay Mabbitt is Thomas the Human (not the one shipped off to New York, that’s another musical), the leading assistant to retiring Head Elf, Mr. Hinkle-Twinkle (Ben Rockey, one of a number of Elfin roles) who apparently learned to speak English by watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After another Christmas Eve in which holiday spirit is down, the old man steps down and, before Thomas can be promoted, Mrs. Claus announces an outside hire: Janet (Meg McLane) the human former executive of a Toy Corporation, who has lots of ideas for improving things at The North Wing.

Imminent changes with only 364 Days Until Christmas have elf executive assistant Beatrice (Shelby Myers), Phil the Elf (Austin Hookfin), and random Elves (Rockey and Robin Kildall) very worried. It doesn’t help that Judy Sparkles of North Pole News (Kelsey VanVoorst) reports that disaster is inevitable. It’s enough to drive one to drink – with libations served by Blumpkin the reindeer bartender (VanVoorst in antlers and red nose).

As befits a story inspired by real-world political intrigue, this all gets really silly, really fast. And there are songs. And dancing (choreography by Emily Bohannon). And romance. And, of course, the traditional plots to destroy/save Christmas.

To rescue the holiday, there is a quest for the next must-have toy, which brings – at 164 days to Christmas – the arrival of Binky the Toy Tester (Kildall). Will the thingamajig pass muster? Will it matter?

This cast works together smoothly, and I was particularly impressed with Myers’ performance. The more dramatically inclined Mabbitt makes a great straight man to set up fellow goofballs. Scott’s ability to switch between clown and villain is fun to watch.

As we’ve come to expect from Defiance, this show is full of gut-splitting hilarity and features a number of improv veterans, so expect anything. Also as usual, there’s a bit of ribald innuendo, but aside from the “Naughty” edition 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, there is a “Nice” more all-ages version at 3 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 9-11).

See their style of wacky comedy that sells out Fringe festival shows, now in two full acts, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org.

Phoenix ‘Fudge’ sweet and salty

By John Lyle Belden

2020 seemed to ruin everything, and in “The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge” at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s messing with Christmas as well.

Carol (Milicent Wright) lives for the Yuletide, and her holiday Holly Fudge (named after her daughter, as well as its festive décor) has been the Number One Blue Ribbon winner in town for eight years. Friend and neighbor Chris (Emily Ristine), a fitness trainer who now Zumba’s over Zoom, has taken an interest during the year’s shutdown in making confections herself. They look forward to Holly (Terra Mcfarland) coming home from Seattle for the holiday, and learn she is bringing her new love interest, Jordan (Jaddy Ciucci).

This play by Trista Baldwin is not just a new twist on a holiday story, but on the “coming out” play as well, as, while Carol is accepting of Holly choosing to go from a past with boyfriends to living with a woman, it throws the Gen-X mom that rather than tagging herself a lesbian, Holly opts for “queer.” As events progress, the LGBTQ issue becomes trivial as more typical intergenerational strife comes to the fore.

Carol just wishes things could be as they were, for at least one more Christmas – the fact that the noise on the street outside isn’t carolers but Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t help.

This sophisticated comedy, in a style much like cable shows or situations in “Modern Family,” brings a lot of laughs even as tensions build to the breaking point – which occurs in a fitting, hilariously dramatic (dramatically hilarious?) fashion. Director Daniella Wheelock said this play resonates with her, especially when going from her home in Chicago to relatives in Connecticut. Mcfarland and Ciucci both commented after opening night that it reflected their own memories of holiday homecomings and letting folks know their true selves.

Mcfarland makes an impressive debut in her first professional-level role. She admitted there was some pressure in having not only a lead but also the title character, but noted she learned a lot working with theatrical veterans, especially Wright. On stage, any nerves were channeled through her apprehensive character, a woman finding herself judged against the girl her mother wanted her to be, wanting to be seen for the person she is becoming and respected for her work as a journalist.

Ciucci and Ristine both nimbly play characters who mean well yet happen to say or do the right thing to make it feel wrong for Carol. As for Wright, typically playing the rock of an ensemble, this time she masterfully portrays a soul adrift, working to get her bearings on something familiar in a very unusual time.

Everyone join in: “Fa-la-la-la-la, No Justice, No Peace!” Performances run through Dec. 23 at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Guys and Dolls and Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

At last, Footlite Musicals said “can do” to their latest show, with “Luck being a Lady” after some “persons developed a cough” but these people all say “sit down” and enjoy for one more week.

If you are familiar with those references then you know that, after its initial delay, the popular classic musical “Guys & Dolls” is on stage a the Hedback through Dec. 4. Written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows with songs by Frank Loesser, this 1950 Broadway hit is based on short stories by Damon Runyon about various characters on the streets of Depression-era New York City.

Some gamblers seek a high-stakes dice game and look to popular cohort Nathan Detroit (Thom Brown) to set it up, in spite of the NYPD’s Lt. Brannigan (David Johnson) keeping close tabs on the most likely locations. Local high-roller Harry the Horse (Jack London) has even brought in Big Jule (Lot Turner) out of Chicago. Nathan’s companions Nicely-Nicely (Scott McFadden) and Benny (Jeffry J. Weber) assure all that craps will occur, but Detroit must first come up with some quick cash to pay off Joey Biltmore (Leo Goffinet).

Seeing a sure-fire bet, Nathan Detroit wagers smooth-talking gambler Sky Masterson (Christopher Vojtko), who just returned from Las Vegas loaded with cash, that he can’t persuade Save-A-Soul Mission “Sergeant” Sarah Brown (Natalie Marchal) to travel to Havana with him. Sky takes that action, and odds are this will lead to one wild, funny, and romantic adventure.

The cast also includes Marie Beason as the Mission’s Gen. Cartwright, who arrives for a surprise inspection; Steve Demuth as Mission drummer Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s uncle and father figure; and most wonderfully, Jonna Kauffman as Miss Adelaide, showgirl and Nathan’s long-long-long-time fiancé.

Indeed, while the Guys hold their own, it is the “Dolls” who truly shine in this production, with Marchal giving an exceptional performance in her Footlite debut, while Kauffman charms as the girl who’s a bit more smart and savvy than she lets on. And you can tell Beason is having fun as the evangelist just pleased to see sinners come in the door, whatever the pretext.

Unlike the floating craps game, this action will be easy to find: 1847 N. Alabama in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at footlite.org.