CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.

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Old theater tradition done afresh under Indy’s sky

By John Lyle Belden

Something interesting is happening on Indy’s westside. A commedia dell’arte troupe, wandering from the Renaissance to modern day, has found its truck broken down on the campus of Marian University. So, in order to raise the funds to continue their journey home, A Company of Wayward Saints will perform for us – after all, a rich Duke may be in the audience!

In this instance, life is imitating art, as local actor Adam Tran and friends have been conducting a GoFundMe online campaign (still ongoing) to finance this production of “A Company of Wayward Saints,” the 1963 play by George Herman.

Tran leads the troupe as Harlequin. The others also play character archetypes: the boastful Capitano (Davey Pelsue), wisecracking know-it-all Dottore (Ronn Johnstone), the unfortunate Pantalone (Zach Stonerock), misunderstood youth Scapino (Josh Maldonado), the beautiful Columbine (Kelsey Leigh Miller), grasping Ruffiana (Miranda Nehrig), and the Lovers, Isabella (Nina DeWitt) and Aurelia (Andrea Heiden).

To perform what they call commedia la improvviso, they need a prompt from the audience. Harlequin reveals the mysterious Duke has asked for “The History of Man.” A tall order. “I will play God,” the Captain bellows, and the play is on. But as members of the company lament, “As actors, temperament is our original sin,” and dissension builds in the ranks.

This performance is a wonderfully unique experience, though you should bring lawn chairs to sit by the busted flatbed truck that is the stage. The actors give their all for the art, as though they don’t worry about getting paid (or is this like hustling for tips?). Johnstone can land a cheesy punchline in the first act, and bring surprising tenderness to an unexpectedly dramatic scene with the Lovers in the second. Maldonado displays tumbling skill along with his acting chops, and shares a charming and touching scene with Nehrig. Miller nicely turns the Odysseus legend on its ear, and has a fun look at love and marriage with Stonerock. Tran shows his depth with the final scene – a scene of finality – opposite Pelsue.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday, May 18-20, by the Amphitheater at Marian University, 3200 Cold Spring Road. Get info at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/acompanyofwaywardsaintsindy/.

Get on board ‘Priscilla’ with Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

To my gay friends reading this, I have just two words to say about “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (based on the film “The Adventures of Priscilla…”), at Footlite Musicals through May 20:

FABULOUS! GO!

Need more details? OK. This spectacle is the journey of three Sydney, Australia, drag queens: Tick a/k/a Mitzi (Michael Howard), who wants to connect with the son he barely knows; Bernadette (John Phillips), a widow and aging diva needing to find her next chapter; and Adam a/k/a Felicia (Chris Jones), an impetuous lass in search of fun and adventure.

Tick’s very understanding wife, Marion (Carolyn Lynch), needs an act for her casino in Alice Springs (located in the center of the Australian continent, far from coastal Sydney) and his traveling there would fulfill Tick’s promise to visit his boy, Benji (Rocco Meo). Bernadette provides the showbiz know-how, and Adam provides the transportation – a fabulous RV that is the Priscilla of the title. While the wildlife ignore our trio, the treacherous part of the journey is the human denizens as they travel through Australia’s equivalent of Kentucky (Broken Hill, Woop Woop) and West Virginia (Coober Pedy). Along the way, they do meet one helpful soul, Bob (Dan Flahive), who ends up along for the ride.

Howard presents Tick with charm, charisma and rugged good looks reminiscent of Hugh Jackman. Phillips exudes authority appropriate to a, at turns, regal and maternal personality. Jones goes from carefree to careless and back with aplomb, like the younger sibling you just want to slap sometimes, but love anyway. And Flahive is sweet in his portrayal of what was my favorite character in the film.

Also notable are Sarah Marone as Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia, of the infamous “ping pong scene,” and Dennis Jones as Sydney diva Miss Understanding.

The story is embellished with more than 20 pop and disco hits from the 1970s and ’80s, including “It’s Raining Men,” “Go West,” “I Will Survive,” and “True Colors.” For those who can’t resist singing along, a special matinee this Saturday (May 12 at 2:30 p.m.) will let you do just that, complete with lyric sheets.

Another spectacular feature of this show is the costumes – the genuine Tony and Oscar-winning outfits sent to Indy from Broadway. The headdresses must be seen to be believed, as well as the visual effect of the big “gumby” pants.

All this, for a story with a little pain, a lot of heart, and a sense of fun as big as the Outback. Footlite is at 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

IRT puts on ‘Noises Off’

By John Lyle Belden

We know how the workplace can be the site of ridiculous interpersonal drama, so imagine how it can get when you have a group of temperamental artistic folks in the same space for hours on end – you get something like “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce on stage through May 20 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

On a January day in a forgettable English town, the cast of the comedy “Nothing On” – which explores the humor inherent in multiple platters of sardines – are rehearsing less than 24 hours before the play opens, with director Lloyd Dallas (IRT mainstay Ryan Artzberger) at his wits’ end. Dotty (Hollis Resnik) struggles with where to place the sardines, while Frederick (Robert Neal) struggles with his character’s motivation. Brooke (Ashley Dillard) only seems to have room in her brain for her lines, while Garry (Jerry Richardson) and Belinda (Heidi Kettenring) scramble to be in the right spots for them to make sense. It’s hoped that aging thespian Selsdon (Bob Riley) will be sober and on time, so stage manager Tim (Will Allan) is on standby as understudy. Meanwhile, assistant stage manager Poppy (Mehry Eslaminia) jumps to Dallas’s every demand.

The eventful run-through of the first act gives us an idea of what’s supposed to happen on stage. Next, midway through the tour of “Nothing On,” we see what’s happening backstage. Nerves and relationships are frayed as Brooke threatens to walk out, Selsdon keeps finding the whiskey, and Dallas ends up in a very prickly situation. Finally, the third act brings us to the memorable final performance of the tour, during which some improvisation becomes necessary.

The genius of this play is the perfectly timed “bad” timing, everything going “wrong” in just the right way. As is the standard at IRT, this cast has it down, making slamming doors and slipping on sardines an art and moving props such as a bottle, an axe or a cactus like a ballet. Praise must also go to scenic designer Bill Clarke for the two perfectly arranged coordinated sets, as well as director David Bradley for containing the chaos for a thoroughly entertaining show.

Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre in downtown Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at irtlive.com or call 317-635-5252.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic has big fun with ‘Hairspray’

By John Lyle Belden

In the hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” based on the classic John Waters comedy, Wilbur Turnblad – father of Tracy and husband of Edna, our heroines – says, “You gotta go big to be big!”

That was the apparent credo of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre production of the musical, playing through May 12 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

As befits this spectacular – with a “wow” factor especially necessary for an audience who likely already saw a stage or film version, or the live television broadcast – everything about Civic’s “Hairspray” is big, big, BIG! – the staging, the light displays, the beautiful flying setpieces, the chorus sets with singers in silhouettes, the dance numbers, Edna’s bra…

And this all-volunteer local cast more than rises to the occasion. Evan Wallace is “divine” as Edna, while Nina Stilabower is perfect in song and steps as Tracy, an eager teen with a heart as big as her dress size and her desire to dance on the Corny Collins TV show – the place to be seen in early-1960s Baltimore.

While show producer, strict stage-mom and former Miss Baltimore Crabs, Velma Von Tussle (Mikayla Koharchik), wants nothing to do with the girl, Corny (Justin Klein) lets Tracy join the cast “student council,” where she starts to steal the attentions of lead heartthrob Link Larkin (Zachary Hoover) away from Velma’s spoiled daughter, Amber (Emily Hollowel). This, plus Tracy’s unapologetic love of “race music” and desire that “every day be Negro Day,” can only spell trouble.

Yes, there’s even a big social-conscious message, delivered with power and a sense of fun with the help of R&B deejay Motormouth Maybelle (Joyce Licorish) and her smooth-dancing son Seaweed (Michael Hassel).

Also notable are J. Stuart Mill as Wilbur, the coolest dad ever, and Jenny Reber as Tracy’s best friend, Penny.

And it’s all done bigger than life, as big as Broadway – including the infamous giant can of Ultra Clutch. Under the direction of Executive Artistic Director Michal J. Lasley, Civic concludes its 2017-18 season with a joyous triumph. “You just can’t stop the beat” – and who’d want to?

For tickets and info visit www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

Foreign affairs are hilarious with Mud Creek’s brilliant ‘Amorous Ambassador’

By Wendy Carson

Mud Creek Players are sending their 2017-18 season out on a very high note with their production of Michael Parker’s hilarious farce, “The Amorous Ambassador.” While the show is a continuation of the saga of “The Sensuous Senator” (which Mud Creek staged in 2016), you need not have seen the previous production to enjoy this play.

The story centers on “Hormone Harry” Douglas, who, after losing his bid for the Presidency, was appointed as Ambassador to England. He and his family have now set up household in a nice little cottage in the countryside, complete with a butler. As we join the family unit, they have each decided to take off in separate ways for the weekend. Prior to leaving, though, each of them confirms that Perkins, the butler, will be “the soul of discretion” should anything occur. So daughter Debbie is off to make memories with her girlfriends; Lois, his doting wife, is off to the spa; and Harry plans to play golf in Scotland.

Once the wife and daughter have left, Harry and sexy neighbor, Marian, begin their tryst, including costumes to fulfil their fantasies: Marian’s is a French maid. But as soon as they exit the stage, Debbie reappears with her boyfriend, Joe, for their own little weekend of togetherness. Add to this, a bomb threat at the embassy suddenly brings security chief Captain South and Harry’s ditzy secretary, Faye, on site to turn the cottage into a temporary Embassy – complete with a total lockdown of the perimeter. Now Marian has to pretend to be a real servant, while Debbie adds a wig and dress to her friend, “Josephine.” The result is a sidesplitting evening of confusion and overall silliness.

Ronan Marra does a great job at keeping Harry’s lustful advances going while appearing to be in charge. Colin Landberg is masterful through the trio of characters he is given to embody – Joe, Josephine and “Marc Anthony.” Sara Castillo Dandurand handily keeps Debbie believing in her father’s virtue even while seemingly compromising her own. Katie Carter’s portrayal of “Maid Marian” shows that she is certainly up for anything. Tom Riddle brings all of the pomp and ruggedness that Captain South’s character demands, with a delightful slapstick turn. While Sherry Compton’s character of Lois is not on the stage for very long, she shines brightly in those moments that she is performing.

While everyone does a wonderful job of playing their roles for all that they are worth, I would like to highlight two exceptional performances:

  • Ann Ellerbrook’s take on the hot, blonde, airhead secretary, Faye, shows the amazing range that a seemingly one-note character can become under the correct actor’s interpretation of a role. She truly brought her character to life in a way that really made me wish I could see more of that character’s story.
  • Craig Kemp is likewise amazing for keeping his character of Perkins, the properly stogy English butler, from going too far into camp mode. While making sure that his character’s upper lip stayed as stiff as one would expect it to be and a slightly raised eyebrow could cause you to wither, he managed to keep Perkins a warmly accessible grandfatherly figure. That sort of depth in what, again, should have been a simple one-note character shows great range and depth of talent.

With everything happening right now, we can all use a spot of silliness and a good laugh, and this show presents it in spades.

Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn,” 9740 E. 86th St. (near Geist). Get tickets and info at www.mudcreekplayers.org.