CCP adds more girl power to ‘Pageant’

By Wendy Carson

I remember in high school we had a huge problem picking out shows because 80 percent of our auditioners were female, up for only about a third of the roles. It seems that this gender disparity has not changed, because when Carmel Community Players held auditions for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” most of the actors who turned up were female. So, in a brilliant casting twist, Director Lori Raffel decided to change the genders of several of the roles, mainly affecting the dreaded “Herdman clan” — it worked out beautifully.

The Herdman children, a grubby, ill-mannered, bunch of bullies, end up taking over all of the major roles in the church Christmas Pageant, much to everyone’s dismay.

Beth Bradley (Dana Hackney), our narrator, relates that her brother Charlie (Sam Vrtismarsh), whose favorite part of church is the fact that it is the one place without torture at the hands of the Herdmans, inadvertently causes this catastrophe to occur.

Stuck in the hospital from an accident, the pageant’s usual director, Mrs. Slocum (Lee Meyers) gives directing duties to Charlie’s mother, Grace (Deb Underwood), including constant phone calls “reassuring and advising” her.

Enter the Herdmans: Ruby (Jayda Glynn in the former “Ralph” role) takes the part of Joseph. Imogene (Maya Davis) usurps the role of Mary, which had always been played by Alice Wendleken (Avery Pierce) and relegating poor Alice to the Angel Choir. Loretta (Delaney Soper in “Leroy” role), Ellie (Ellianna Miles in “Ollie” role) and Claude (Austin Helm) grab the roles of the Wise Men. Rounding out their family unit, little Gladys (Abigail Smith) plays the Angel of the Lord bringing the good news to the shepherds – “Shazam!”

Add to these characters a couple of gossipy church women, Mrs. Armstrong (Ginger Home) and Mrs. McCarthy (Nikki Vrtis); the Pastor (Joe Meyers); and the petulant rest of the pageant cast – Maxine (Sophia McCoskey), Elma (Christina Whisman), and Hallie (Megan Holliday); not to mention Charlie’s ever-suffering Father (Steve Marsh), who keeps trying to get out of attending the pageant in the first place.

How this whole mess turns out, and changes those in attendance, is a Christmas miracle that has warmed audience hearts for years all over the country. It just looks a little different here.

While the cast on the whole does an admirable job, a few standouts that must be mentioned: Holliday’s dance solo was a delightful display of budding talent. Hackney did a nice job shifting her focus between telling the story and trying to survive the insanity all around her. Pierce excellently portrays her character’s “Holier than Thou” attitude throughout. Davis adds depth as Imogene finds connection with The Virgin’s plight. However, it is Smith’s turn as the fiercely indomitable Gladys Herdman that shines the brightest. I expect we will be seeing a lot more of her talents in the future.

There is one weekend left of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” through Dec. 9. So, gather the whole family, scoot over to the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St. in Fishers, and enjoy a fun Christmas show. Get info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Also, make sure you bring a few extra dollars to purchase one of the lovely pasta angels handcrafted by the troupe. They are quite lovely and will make a wonderful accent to your tree for years to come.

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Mud Creek hosts hilarious holiday hostage hijinks

By John Lyle Belden

Christmas should not be this funny, should it?

From the beginning scene, Mud Creek Players’ “In-Laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should Be Shot)” starts firing off the zingers, as holiday host Thomas Douglas (Ronan Marra) and teen daughter Beth (Audrey Duprey) discuss frankly the odd behavior of the relatives who will gather for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

There will be redneck Bud (Tom Riddle), his wife Bunny (Jennifer Poynter), a Jersey girl with no sense of personal space, and their super-achiever daughter Tracy (Alaina Moore); as well as elderly New Yorkers Aunt Rose (Kerry Mitchell) and Uncle Leo (Robert C. Boston Jr.) who never stop talking — either to bicker at each other or to name-drop and reminisce from days gone by. Tom’s wife Janet (Margie Worrell) is also expected, but her business flight from Vermont is late.

The Douglas home is caught in an unexpected snowstorm, but that doesn’t stop neighbor and local busybody Mrs. Draper (Veronique Duprey) from coming over to complain that Tom hasn’t turned on his holiday lights. Soon, they have bigger problems — unexpected guests Tony (Brock Francis) and Vinny (Connor Phelan), a pair of robbers hiding from police patrols. At gunpoint, Tony insists that everyone have a normal evening meal, but he soon finds that “normal” has no place in this house.

The home becomes more crowded with hostages as neighbor kid Paul (who is sweet on Beth) shows up, followed later by his sister Emily (Rylee Odle), then their mother (Jennifer Kaufmann). The robbers try to contain the situation by putting men and women in separate rooms, but that only spreads out the madness. Also, good-natured Vinny seems to be succumbing to a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

Add Aniqua ShaCole’ as the inevitable visiting police officer, and you have a situation ripe with comedy.  Yes, being a Christmas play, the Steve Franco script does include a bit of heart — and maybe a happy ending — but I also found a lot of moments of laughing until I nearly passed out. Francis, Phelan and Moore especially get to stretch their comic muscles, as this whole ensemble shines in an uproarious good time. You may even see a little of your own relatives in this bunch, or at least have something to compare to when holidays at home get extreme.

Find this farce at the Mud Creek Players Barn, 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton and Geist), through Dec. 15. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.

 

Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Zach&Zack ‘Rocky Horror’ at Athenaeum – ’nuff said

By John Lyle Belden

I could probably skip the synopsis on this one – Anybody here know how to Madison?

“The Rocky Horror Show” (note the omission of “Picture,” this is the live stage version) has returned to Indianapolis like a Halloween tradition, gracing the haunted stage of the Athenaeum,

Presented by Zach&Zack – produced by Zach Rosing, directed by Zack Neiditch – the play greatly resembles the movie scenes and songs, with a few differences (no dinner scene, for instance). The opening theme is a brilliant tribute to the film, complete with cast credits. But the actors here have made these characters their own: Dave Ruark plays sassy “Sweet Transvestite” Frank N. Furter, not an impression of Tim Curry in the role.

Adam Tran and Andrea Heiden are fun as Brad and Janet – the pair of squares thrust into a night of “absolute pleasure,” and Joe Doyel has stage presence to match his pecs and flex as muscular Rocky (the Creature). But the scenes are not stolen but outright owned by Davey Pelsue as Riff-Raff, combining his considerable acting chops with his rock-star charisma. Also wonderful are Anna Lee as Magenta, Alexandria Warfiel as Columbia, and Josiah McCruiston as Eddie and Dr. Scott.

But is it fair that while Adam Crowe is excellent as the no-neck Narrator, his scenes are pre-recorded so that he can actually see this great show from the audience, while the rest of the cast can’t? And where did his neck go? I blame aliens.

Kudos also to Erin Becker for her “big mouth.”

Perhaps I’m not taking this review seriously enough, but then consider what I’m supposed to be critiquing here. For crying out loud, the best lines are typically shouted by the audience! (And yes, you can do that – just no props allowed, by theater policy.) The bottom line is that this is not just a “play” or even your typical musical, it is an experience. And with this competent crew, you are assured a very good time. (Like a – everybody now – “Science fiction, double feature…”)

Of course, tickets are selling fast. Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 1-3 at the “A,” 401 E. Michigan in downtown Indy. Get info at ZachAndZack.com (or their Facebook page) and tickets here.

Harry’s ‘Monsters’ haunting Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

The movie “Halloween” is in theaters, the Dodgers are in the World Series, and there are concerns about the impact of personal video on films and television.

Yes, it’s 1978 in Los Angeles, and the magazine Popular Monsters is about to put out what may be its last issue — a tribute to horror B-movie star Ephraim Knight. Publisher Elsa Creighton is honestly no fan of scary movies — or Knight — but she works to honor her dying father, the magazine’s owner. On the other hand, staff writer Greg is a superfan of all the bumps in the night, a passion he shares with girlfriend Shawna, who through her family is no stranger to the ways of Hollywood.

This sets the scene for “Popular Monsters,” the fully-staged premiere of a comedy-drama script by Lou Harry, produced by another Indy playwright, Casey Ross and her Catalyst Repertory company, at the Irvington Lodge, directed by Zachariah Stonerock.

Jamie McNulty is super suave as Knight, the man who played a beast on the silver screen, whose urbane patter disguises the beast he was when the cameras weren’t rolling. Tom Weingartner as Greg flies in the other direction: manic, uncertain and painfully naive. Alexandria Miles as Shawna faces the world with razor-sharp wit and BS-detector turned to 11. And Miranda Nehrig musters her talent for complex characters by making Elsa bitchy, yet likable; and by lending humor to the scenes when she is extremely drunk without devolving into slapstick.

These bold performances with gentle humor help illuminate the play’s examination of these different characters. Appropriate to a story set in Hollywood, there are themes of what is real and what isn’t — is something a lie, or just “acting”? — the stories we tell and the truths we avoid. As Knight states, “There is always a story.”

The setting of a cultural turning point, with references to old black-and-white monster movies alongside the dawn of the slasher films and the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fits so neatly, especially with Michael Myers chasing Jamie Lee Curtis in theaters again. But this is also a clever vehicle for Harry, through Stonerock’s vision, to show the ever-present “monsters” within us all.

Remaining performances are Nov. 1-3 at the historic Irvington Lodge (No. 666 — really!), 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. Info at www.facebook.com/catalystrepertory.

Civic: Sail on with Porter’s songs

By John Lyle Belden

“The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…”

Makes you wonder what year Cole Porter was writing about, doesn’t it?

But that’s what makes it a great idea to escape from today’s madness on a timeless voyage with “Anything Goes,” the classic musical featuring Porter’s songs, presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, in partnership with The Great American Songbook Foundation.

The wacky romantic comedy plot is mainly a means to launch several Porter favorites, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and, of course, the title song.

As for the story: All aboard the ocean liner S.S. American, where lovesick Billy Crocker (Juddson Updike) has stowed away, hoping to persuade his socialite girlfriend Hope Harcourt (Kari Baker) not to wed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Matt Bays) in a marriage arranged by her mother (Teresa F. Jordan). Billy has to avoid contact with the ship’s crew, as well as his boss, Elisha Whitney (W. Michael Davidson), who had ordered him to stay in New York. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that America’s Most Wanted criminal is on board – but we know for sure that the Thirteenth Most Wanted, Moonface Martin (Parrish Williams) is on the liner, accompanied by his best moll, Erma (Nathalie Cruz). And at the center of it all is a friend to all, headlining showgirl Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff), with her band of Angels and a song for every occasion.

Despite some difficulty, and wacky situations, love will triumph in the end as it always does. What’s important is how entertaining this shipload of actors and dancers are on the way. With the help of Michael J. Lasley’s direction, Brent Marty’s musical touch and splendid choreography by Anne Beck, this is a pleasing production.

As for our feature performers, Williams is in top comic form, and Harloff has sass and attitude to match her great voice. Baker’s singing is breathtakingly good, Updike keeps up his everyman charm perfectly, and Cruz handily steals the scenes (along with several sailors’ uniforms). I wasn’t sure at first about Bays’ Lord Oakleigh, but he is something special when he cuts loose in the second act.

We’re having such a good time, we can forgive the almost cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes that end up necessary to the plot. Isaac Becker and especially Karen Woods Hurt make the most of their roles as naughty Chinese Christian converts, adding to the humor rather than being an outdated distraction.

“Anything Goes” runs through Oct. 27 at The Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.