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.

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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.

At KCT: A crazy time with a couple of gods

By John Lyle Belden

I understand it’s a bit of a risk, going to see a new play in a small community theatre. But it would be lunacy to miss the full-length premiere of “Lunacy: A Play for Our Times” at Khaos Company Theatre.

In this play by Joe Reese, winner of KCT’s 2016 Dionysia New Play Competition, Anthony Logan Nathan and Kayla Lee play a modern mortal couple, as well as the gods Jupiter and Diana. They switch between roles from scene to scene, as lustful Jupiter seduces the mortal woman with plans to place a new star, “Susan,” in the night sky, while Diana sees in the forlorn man a partner in her hunt (stalking the wild Toyota). But Jupiter’s wife is about to catch him fooling around, so he must distract her – and what better distraction than a nuclear war?

Describing this in a single sentence: Imagine “American Gods” as a romantic situation comedy.

I won’t say this is perfect, but there is a lot of wit, hilarity and fun interplay among the characters. Perhaps the play could use some more work on smoothing the exposition at the beginning and message at the end – perhaps Reese and future productions could consider trying it with a cast of four, to smooth some of the transitions covered by frantic quick-changes. But this production does live up to most of its potential (and it’s already won one award!).

Two performances remain: Friday, April 28, is pay-what-you-can admission; and final curtain is Saturday, April 29. The play is at KCT’s new building at 1775 N. Sherman Drive, Suite A, on Indy’s East Side.

By the way, the 2017 Dionysia New Play Competition is May 19, 20, 26 and 27 at KCT.

Get details and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

TOTS: Bitter arguments in a ‘City of Conversation’

By John Lyle Belden

In today’s political climate, many wonder how and when America became so polarized, with right and left (Republican and Democrat) in separate camps, each fiercely partisan and bitter. In the days of a more traditional Washington “establishment,” was it truly both sides talking to each other, or merely D.C. elites talking among themselves?

These questions and their accompanying history are played out with members of one Washington family in the drama, “The City of Conversation,” playing through April 29 at Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass. Ave. in downtown Indy.

In the late 1970s, a country in recovery from Vietnam and Watergate is being led by a Georgia peanut farmer with few friends in the D.C. Establishment. And Colin Ferris (Carey Shea) returns home from college in London, bringing his fiance, Anna Fitzgerald (Emily Bohn), to the Georgetown home of his mother, Hester (Nan Macy), and Aunt Jean (Forba Shepherd). A longtime liberal firebrand, Hester shares her bed with Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Doug Powers), and the evening includes a dinner with fellow Sen. George Mallonee (David Mosedale) and his wife Carolyn (Anna Lee).

The ulterior motive of the gathering (and there always is in Georgetown dinners) is for the senators to discuss aiding Teddy Kennedy in his efforts to take the 1980 Democratic nomination and restore the glory days of liberalism to Washington.

But Anna, an economics student from Minnesota, gives her outsider view that the growing support for California Republican Ronald Reagan should be taken seriously – to Hester’s horror, Colin agrees.

A decade later, Colin and Anna are working for GOP officials, but their son, Ethan (Max Gallagher), is getting a different political point of view from his grandmother and great-aunt. As the hard-fought battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court wages downtown, in Georgetown, Anna demands that Hester no longer have contact with Ethan, forcing Colin to choose sides.

The last scene takes place on the day of Pres. Obama’s inauguration, when adult Ethan (Shea) brings his partner, Donald (Bradley Lowe), to meet his grandmother.

This play is a conversation of its own, a conversation with us with our 2017 point of view, and a conversation starter to be sure. Macy is glorious, like a more-grounded Auntie Mame – well-versed in what she understands, but blind to what she doesn’t. Shea ably plays the complexity of being the kind of young person whose means of rebellion against his parents is to become more conservative, even while refusing to cut his long hair. Bohn’s Anna is very much like Hester in that she has to be always certain and in control of her world, which sets up their inevitable clash. Powers’ smooth voice and manner makes him well suited to playing the kind of politician used to compromise in a world where that is starting to become difficult.

The intimate feeling of the family living room setting is completed by inhabiting the intimate TOTS Second Stage. This also means seating is limited, so contact 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

Tensions of modern espionage play out in IRT’s ‘Miranda’

By John Lyle Belden

Meet Susanna Jones, known to some as Dana Sanders, and to her mother as “Miranda,” in the spy thriller by that name by Indiana Repertory Theatre playwright in residence James Still on the IRT upper stage through April 23.

An offstage character in Still’s “The House that Jack Built” (which it is not necessary to have seen), Miranda was said to be working overseas for IKEA. But actually, the appropriate letters are CIA.

As Susanna, Miranda (played by Jennifer Coombs) has as her cover an international program teaching Shakespeare to kids in Adan, Yemen. The ancient city actually sits in a dormant volcano, an excellent symbol of the growing tension of the play.

She works with and reports to John (Torrey Hanson), an old hand brought out of retirement for this very sensitive mission. No agent can get close to the men plotting local, regional and global terrorism, but Susanna can talk to one of the few female doctors, Dr. Al-Aghari (Arya Daire), as by religious law only women can touch women, and thus she treats local wives – who whisper secrets to her.

Meanwhile, only one young student, Shahid (Ninos Baba) has shown up to learn “Othello” (with his own ideas about which character is more Yemeni, which one more American). And a supervisor (Mary Beth Fisher) is not pleased that Miranda was inadvertently contacted by someone as her “Dana” alias the year before in Jordan.

This sets up a web of who-can-trust-who that draws the audience in, as our only reliable narrator is the title character (or is she?). A chance meeting at a café suddenly has broader meaning and context. Why do lights dim when they do? Where do characters go when they leave our sight? The Bard’s words, “I am not what I am,” haunt every scene.

Miranda, through Coombs performance, gives us far more of herself than she shows to the other characters. We see her addicted to the spy game, but also how it has affected her – “Bin Laden still shows up in my dreams,” she laments to her partner.

Daire garners our sympathy as a woman in a harsh but familiar world, torn between conflicting loyalties and cultures, while concerned for her own family’s survival. “Certainty is an American luxury,” the doctor tells Susanna.

Hanson and Fisher are also solid. Baba as Shahid gives us a unique perspective, reminding us that this is more than an American story.

The play is set in 2014, near a recent turning point in Yemen’s ongoing conflicts, giving the narrative freshness and urgency. Still did extensive research and interviews with people in the know, so that he could – as one character put it – “lie truthfully.”

No cloak and dagger are needed for you to find “Miranda” – the IRT is at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source, which ran a story on this play in the April 1 edition, and will have an edited version of this review in the April 15 edition.

New Phoenix play cuts to the bone

By John Lyle Belden

A simmering stock of ethnic tensions and personal demons, seasoned by today’s political attitudes, steams on the surface of a downtown Manhattan restaurant kitchen. But add an ingredient of the dark side of recent history, and everything could boil over.

That is the recipe for “How To Use A Knife,” the new drama by Will Snider, produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere under the direction of Bryan Fonseca at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Michael (Rob Johansen) is a total euphemism-for-anal-sphincter, but he is true to his friends, especially George (Ryan Artzberger), whose addictions helped destroy his career as a world-class chef. But Michael has a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, and hires George to take charge of its kitchen.

Fortunately, the food preparation already goes smoothly, thanks to a pair of Guatemalan cooks (which Michael blithely calls “Mexicans”), Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda*). Jack (Tommy Lewey), the “runner” who takes the dishes out to customers, is marginally competent, and dreams of being a writer without having penned a single word. Steve (Ansley Valentine), an African immigrant, quietly mans the dishwashing station.

Of course, things start to change. George berates Jack at first, but then mentors him. We discover Steve speaks English quite well, and he meets with George after hours to learn how to cook. Steve reveals to the chef that he is Rwandan, but his involvement in the 1994 genocide was to help stop it. But soon, an Immigration officer (Chelsea Anderson) visits the restaurant with a disturbing revelation.

While an intense, thought-provoking drama, the show is leavened with workplace humor, especially in interactions with the Guatemalans. Miguel is the type of person who deflects stress with humor, and despite the fact that he speaks almost entirely in Spanish, Castaneda’s expressions and delivery help bring on much-needed levity. Carlos easily weaves from joker to deadpan serious, revealing surprising complexity in a supporting character.

Artzberger and Valentine, being at the center of the story, deliver exceptional performances. Each character embodies deep contradictions: George is barely-contained chaos with a noble, potentially heroic, soul; while Steve has mastered a form of inner peace and is able to share that gift, despite his horrific history. Each has dealt with their past in their own way; they find themselves tested, with consequences that go far beyond themselves.

Don’t be surprised if – as with Phoenix’s previous show, “Dogs of Rwanda” – after seeing this you find yourself thinking more about the pain of people in faraway lands, maybe even Googling what happened, and realizing how that comes home to connect to us as fellow members of the human family. For this reason, it might be good to see “How To Use A Knife” at the Sunday, Jan. 29 performance, which is followed by a talkback discussion with the cast and crew.

The play runs through Feb. 12 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass Ave. downtown); call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The Phoenix is also accepting donations of unopened spices at the box office, which will be given to the Second Helpings anti-hunger organization, during the run of the play.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

*EDIT: Person playing this role was misidentified in earlier version of this story.