Fonseca’s debut drama shows what we are capable of building

By Wendy Carson*

I honestly don’t know what is more horrifying about Robert Shenkkan’s play, “Building the Wall,” the details of atrocities committed or the sheer fact that I can see all of it happening in the real world, pretty much the exact way it does in the script.

The story revolves around a college professor conducting an interview with a reluctant prison inmate. Throughout their dialogue, you discover why Rick has been incarcerated – and his truth of the situation that led him here.

Clay Mabbitt does an amazing job at weaving Rick’s story without forcing a biased slant on the situation. This is a man who sees himself as inherently good but also acknowledges he allowed much of the inhumane treatment to continue, climaxing with their inevitable final solution to the situation.

Millicent Wright as the academic, Gloria, deftly leads him through his tale. Since his lawyer prevented him from defending himself or even speaking at his trial, she wants to help him get his story out in his own words so that he can finally be heard.

Again, the story presented here is fictional, but it contains so many references to actual historical events and situations that it feels just a bit too real. In fact, we found it hard to believe it was written in 2016, and not this year.

This is the first play for the newly-founded Fonseca Theatre Company, established by a group of central Indiana artistic people led by the company’s namesake – and this play’s director – Bryan Fonseca. Like his past work establishing the Phoenix Theatre, this is the first of a planned season (and seasons to come) of thought-provoking, important theatre on West Michigan Street.

Aside from helping create an enduring arts scene in the near-westside of Indy, FTC’s mission is to embrace and celebrate diversity in all its diverse forms. As one can guess from the present-day setting and the play’s title, its inspiration comes from the President’s promise, and the continued heated debate, regarding immigration and immigrants. What does a play with a black woman and a white man have to do with this? In “Building the Wall,” it is not Latinx people who have to justify what they’re doing or explain how they got where they are.

In the end, this is everybody’s problem.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays, through Oct. 7, at FTC’s temporary home, Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. See www.fonsecatheatre.org for details and tickets.

(John Lyle Belden also contributed to this review.)

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IndyFringe: ‘Aphrodite’s Refugees’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

It’s hard to not hear the word “refugees” in the news today. It’s bandied about on an almost daily basis. This tends to numb us to the meaning and situations that cause people to succumb to this status.

When show creator Monica Dionysiou witnessed an exhibit by Doctors Without Borders in her hometown of Boulder, Col., she felt inspired to revisit her family’s stories of their own struggles during the many battles for dominance on their home island of Cypress, and how they came to America in the first place.

You can now witness the beauty, tragedy, and resilience of these people in her stunning offering, “Aphrodite’s Refugees.”

She artfully weaves the history of the island as well as its struggles for independence from the various countries warring over it. (Cypress is located in the Mediterranean near Greece and Turkey, which both have claims.) The stories begin with recordings of her family in their own words which are then interpreted by her and her partner to show the changes in the landscape of the island throughout the years.

Dionysiou’s partner, Aaron Young, literally illustrates the struggle by painting the backdrop of the ever-changing landscape of her homeland. He also illuminates important points of the story with further drawings and animations to enhance the drama. Plus, the finished landscape is available for sale at the end of each performance so you can acquire a spectacular original piece of artwork to help you remember these bittersweet tales for long afterward.

We also find out the connection to the Greek goddess of the title. She is the deity of love — but, alas, her brother is Aries, God of War, and in their immortal games he’s holding the cards.

Performances are today and tomorrow (Aug. 25-26) at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 St. Clair St. (just east of the College and Mass Ave intersection).

IndyFringe: ‘Intrusion’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In an America where one of the horrors of civilization is believed to be long vanquished, an insomniac looks across the street at the nearby hospital to see an injured woman enter. Curious, she goes closer and hears a word that chills her — Rape!

In the utopia of “Intrusion,” (now also an Off-Broadway show) written and performed by Qurrat Ann Kadwani, there has been no report of sexual assault in 20 years. This first person — a bystander who becomes an activist — is one of eight characters Kadwani presents coming to terms with this new world that is starting to feel like the old one — a/k/a the one we unfortunately live in now. Among them, a reporter feels the chill of getting the story of a generation, a prosecutor worries the rape trial will be a career killer, a psychologist tries to address such an emotionally fraught topic with clinical detachment, a politician laments that this is coming up during an election year, and a third-grader just wants to be told what’s going on.

Can something so insidiously imbedded in our culture be “cured, like polio”? Kadwani easily slips from one persona to another, as the mood gets more and more uneasy. A lone “outlier” rape accusation inspires more women speaking up. Many more. While some are concerned for public safety, still others don’t like these events upsetting — perhaps negating — the status quo they invested so much in. The fragile nature of our social construction is revealed in a popular game.

Kadwani brings us an excellently written and executed one-woman show. My more critical inner voice couldn’t help but consider that this was just one more “issue play” — the stories of personal pain, the stark statistics of the pervasiveness of sexual assault in America and worldwide, I’ve heard them all before, so many times. But to our horror and shame, that fact is very much the point.

Make this New Yorker feel welcome; performances are in the first floor of the Firehouse union hall, 748 Mass Ave.

NoExit literally surrounds you with scenes of people barely getting by

By John Lyle Belden

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing “Nickel and Dimed” – which is appropriate for a NoExit Performance show.

The play, by Joan Holden, is based on the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who spent months at a time taking low-paying jobs to find out first-hand how the working poor in America get by. She hustles for tips as a waitress, risks injury cleaning houses, puts in long hours at a nursing home, and deals with the workplace culture of a big-box store.

But what is shocking and eye-opening for her is old news to many of us in the audience. Friends of the theatre tend to take in shows (or perform in them) between shifts as a barista; or perhaps we have a good career going, but only after some lean years. Still, there are two aspects to this that should give us some pause: First, Barbara’s adventures took place in the late 1990s (the book published in 2001), yet, except for the fact that the minimum wage is marginally higher, the play’s events could be happening today – and for a lot of people, they are.

Secondly, we who have had some college and a few breaks must remember that for many – such as Barbara’s coworkers portrayed – this is as good as it gets. This made me feel a little uncomfortable with the writer just pretending to be a broke divorcee with no prospects – acting like an anthropologist hanging out with the natives until she’s gathered enough data to leave them and return to her comfortable life (to the play’s credit, Barbara’s boyfriend does point this out to her). This seems cruel to those she leaves behind, especially after she tries to run interference in their lives – it is these with no fall-back position who deal with the consequences. One still lives in her vehicle; another still struggles with single motherhood while keeping the terms of her probation; still another trades one unhealthy workplace for another, but the new job pays a little more.

So, while Barbara, played earnestly by Bridget Haight, is the focus of the play, more important are the various people she works with – portrayed excellently by Lynn Burger, Carrie Bennett, Kallen Ruston, Tracy Herring, Latoya Moore, Elysia Rohn and Ryan Ruckman (who also plays the boyfriend). Their stories and struggles should resonate with us, and help us to take notice of all the “invisible” people in our day to day lives – busboys, shelf stockers, cleaning staff, etc.

Director Callie Burk Hartz and set designer Lizz Krull took an inventive approach to “theatre in the round,” placing all the sets around the edge of the large room while the audience sits in the middle in swivel rolling desk chairs. Thus, as the actors and light cues (credit to Christian McKinney) send us around the room, we constantly turn to face them. Little need for crew to move set pieces, and the chairs are kinda fun.

Aside from inventive staging and thought-provoking subject matter, this is also a NoExit show in the fact that the site isn’t one of the city’s theatre spaces, but a vacant office building at 3633 E. Raymond St., Indianapolis, near the intersection of Raymond and Sherman (south of Edwards’ Drive-In, turn in behind the McDonald’s). It works as a roomy space for the play’s set-up, and symbolically as a location where an office temp might toil for whatever she can get before the assignment ends and the job search resumes. However, being on Indy’s Eastside could make it difficult to bring in the folks from the more affluent areas of town who really need to see this show.

So, grab an upper-middle-class friend and see this production that helps put faces and names to the people we only hear vaguely about in government policy debates. After all, we’re all closer to that economic bottom than we think.

Performances are through May 19. Get tickets and info at noexitperformance.org.

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.

Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix’s ‘Human Rites’ challenges

By John Lyle Belden

Indy’s Phoenix Theatre has embraced the edgy and controversial since its founding. Still, the new drama, “Human Rites,” by Seth Rozin, under renowned Chicago director Lavina Jadwhani, hits particularly sensitive subjects in today’s global culture – including how truly “global” a perspective can be.

The three-person cast of Rob Johansen, Milicent Wright and Paeton Chavis are total professionals putting in some of their best work. They help to humanize what turns out to be a contentious, eye-opening and challenging argument.

On an American university campus, Michaela (Wright), the college Dean, calls Alan (Johansen), one of her professors, into her office for a meeting. Through their conversation, we find that they once had a sexual affair, but the topic at hand regards complaints about an academic paper that Alan had one of his classes read – a paper, based on his years of research in Africa, that calls into question assumptions regarding female “circumcision” (also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation).

Being an African-American woman, Michaela is appalled at what she reads and challenges the paper’s findings. She also invites a native African graduate student, Lydia (Chavis), with the intent of having her conduct her own study on the topic. The young woman from Sierra Leone is surprised at this and reluctant for reasons of her own. She has much to say, challenging both American academics in the room, as well as all of us watching.

Rozin, who was present for the opening night reception, said the play’s assertions are based on actual research findings. But just as important in this drama is how we as Westerners react to, accept or challenge the data and opinions presented. Lydia’s own perspective calls into question how “civilized” we assume American cultural norms to be.

Since humans are complex creatures, the strong emotions sparked by the characters’ exchange include humor, with quite a few nervous and raucous laughs extracted from their situation. Though you might find yourself with a lot to think about and maybe a bit uncomfortable with those thoughts, this play is worth the challenge – and entertaining in its unconventional way.

Performances continue through Aug. 14 at the 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.); call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.