Brave men step out from anonymity to share AA’s story

By John Lyle Belden

“My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

This opening would be rather routine — for certain well-known but private meetings, or in shows and films about them — except that this is Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, relating his story not only for mutual support, but also so we can understand the struggle that brought about the whole program.

In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, presented by Stage Door Productions at the District Theatre, Bill (played by Kevin Caraher) is joined by Bob (Dan Flahive) as they each relate the paths their lives took them down, leading to their fateful 1935 meeting in Akron, Ohio.

Bill didn’t suddenly decide not to drink anymore, then sit down and create a 12-step system all on his own. It was a messy evolution, during which he started out feeling he didn’t need help, or didn’t deserve it. But eventually he was persuaded by an on-the-wagon friend, Ebby (Robert Webster Jr., who plays all other male roles), to get involved in the Oxford Group, a sobriety program that introduced him to reliance on a “higher power” (which doesn’t have to be the Christian God). Bill becomes an evangelist for the Oxford Group, but can’t get the drunks he rounds up for it to stay. When it’s pointed out to him that the only person he seems to be keeping sober is himself, he comes up with a radical idea. 

This play is not just about the men who started a movement; it is about the women in their lives, and their struggles, too. Bill’s wife, Lois (Afton Shepard), deals not only with being married to a drunkard, but also with financial burdens intensified by the Great Depression (Bill was a stock-market wizard, directly affected by the crash) and made no better by his sobriety as he spends all his time in unpaid charity work. Bob’s wife, Anne (Adrienne Reiswerg), is too devoted to leave him, but still driven to the edge of her tolerance by his refusal to accept help. Once the two men find each other — with the help of Akron socialite Henrietta (Karen Webster, playing all other female roles) — Anne wisely asks for Lois to join them so that the women can find support in each other as well. 

Directed by Dan Scharbrough, in this story we see the trial-and-error process, as the establishment of the organization seems to mirror the individual highs and lows of the addict on the way to sustained sobriety. Bill is easily frustrated, but Bob points out that even in the setbacks there is progress. 

The play resonated well with the packed audience at our performance, many indicating by their responses that they are familiar with the program. But this is also enlightening  — as well as entertaining and heart-warming — for those who never had the need to attend a “meeting.”

(And if you feel that something about their stories hits too close to home, you don’t have to look far for help.)

This production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is presented in conjunction with The International Women’s Conference, which will be held Feb. 20-23 in Indianapolis, a four-day AA fellowship for women only. For more information, visit internationalwomensconference.org.  

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday (Feb. 14-16) at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. (former TOTS site, now managed by IndyFringe). For tickets, go to www.indyfringe.org, and for company info visit “stage-door-productions” on Facebook. Out of respect for the subject matter, concessions will not offer beer or wine, but there is plenty of excellent coffee, provided by Sober Joe (www.soberjoe.com) of Bloomington.

Switch delivers deep drama of ‘Diviners’ 

By John Lyle Belden

The drama “The Diviners,” by Jim Leonard Jr., is a thoroughly Hoosier story, with Indiana setting and characters, and it premiered at Hanover College in 1980. But it plumbs deep into all of us, and it makes an excellent start for The Switch Theatre in Fishers.

In the last days of the Hoover presidency, with the nation sunk into the Great Depression, we meet a rather extraordinary boy. Buddy (Colin McCabe) is 14 but hasn’t had a bath in at least a decade, ever since nearly drowning in the river, losing his mother to the current as well as a degree of his mental capacity. His fear of water gives him such sensitivity to its presence that he became a natural “diviner,” capable of finding underground streams for wells, and feeling approaching rain even while the sky is clear. 

His father Ferris Layman (Larry Adams) and 16-year-old sister Jennie Mae (Lauren Hall) take care of him, dealing with his impulsive behavior and understanding his odd speech pattern that constantly has him talking in third person. Fellow citizens of the small town of Zion, Indiana, largely accept him as he is, including Goldie (Jean Adams) who runs the local diner and keeps plenty of root beer on hand for Buddy, and Norma Henshaw (Debbie Underwood), who runs the local dry-goods store with her daughter, Darlene (Gloria Merrell).

The neighbors, farmer Basil Bennett and his wife Luella (Dan Flahive and Ginger Home) see Buddy’s abilities as a blessing, Daniel Shock and Mason Tudor play their farmhands, Melvin and Dewey (who is sweet on Darlene). 

Into this world comes C.C. Showers (Earl Campbell), a former preacher from Kentucky who gave up his vocation to be a common laborer. He takes a job at Ferris’s mechanic shop, and takes an interest in helping Buddy. In town, Norma, being deeply religious, sees the man’s arrival as a sign that the local church will be rebuilt, and true to her steel-trap mind, will accept no other explanation.

Directed by Lori Raffel, the performances flesh out the characters well, but the focus is mainly on Buddy. McCabe embodies the role with the skill of someone much older — he is an eighth-grader, but his parents said he has been performing for years. Hall, Merrell, and Tudor also acquit themselves well. The veteran performers wear their roles like comfortable clothes. Campbell does well in spite of a script that leaves many questions about Showers unanswered — this is not his story, but it feels like there is one to be told. 

This play has gentle humor and a Waltons-like folksiness, but its still waters run deep in what is ultimately a tragic story. Performances run through Oct. 6 at The Switch, located inside the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers. Get information and tickets at theswitchtheatre.com.

 

IndyFringe: Is Your Brain Still Cooking?

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

How much do you remember from your “good old days”? As people grow older, being able to retain memory is vital — and now it can win valuable prizes!

In this game show, presented by a local channel that has given up on appealing to the younger demographics, a going-nowhere actor (played by Jim Banta) is host to the titular contest, which features contestants Edmund (Dan Flahive), a retiree who keeps conversational topics on Post-it notes attached to his jacket; and Ruby Flo (Case Jacobus), a silver sinner whose hobby is being a blue-hair in blue films. She makes the most of her character’s license to say outrageous things, providing some of the biggest laughs of the show, ever frustrating the show’s producer (MaryAnne Mathews).

This is the latest by frequent IndyFringe contributor and retired Evansville journalist Garret Mathews. It is not one of his stronger scripts — at times things felt in disarray, testing Banta’s improv skills. Flahive being a talented and patient soul helps keep things anchored in his own way. Thus, this comedy is a fine example of Fringe’s function to test new material and aid the development process. Weaknesses are more than compensated by the air of nostalgia, as our contestants reach back through time and memory to tell of past places visited, things done and people loved. 

Don’t expect Tony material, but feel free to laugh, and remember — and consider for yourself: “Is Your Brain Still Cooking?” Performances are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the District Theatre Cabaret (formerly TOTS), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

Fat Turtle @ the Fort: Go see ‘Joan’

By John Lyle Belden

Something precious has been stuck in a house for a long time.

Joan Wright was once an “author, traveler and businesswoman,” but in the three years since her husband died she has just been Joanie, a lonely woman spending her days in a bathrobe, knitting and watching the world out her back window.

But changes are coming. Her adult daughters are planning to move halfway across the country, and suddenly an old friend is in her living room, inviting her to a gathering of “the old gang” to celebrate her upcoming birthday. It’s exciting, and a bit frightening, but does it feel right?

This is the essence of the new drama, “Go Be Joan,” by Nathaniel Adams, a premiere by Fat Turtle Theatre at Theater at the Fort.

Kathy Bauchle plays Joan as a strong woman throughout – sometimes channeling that strength into her stubborn insistence on “not being a burden” by getting into nice clothes and out of the house to be among others.

Her girls each have their own issues, especially with the changes that life cast their way. Elder daughter Katherine (Afton Shepard) wears her constant nervous smile like a shield as she tries to maintain control of every situation she’s in. Her little sister Lindsie (Audrey Stonerock) has been taking care of Joan the past few years and really, really, wants their mother to move to St. Louis with them. Shepard and Stonerock swing from comaraderie to conflict and back like real siblings, as the deeper layers of the plot are revealed.

Katherine’s daughter Cara (Natalie Marchal) adds another generation to the mix, with her own quirks and concerns. She seems a bit two-dimensional and cliché at first, a selfish child preoccupied with the digital world in her smartphone, until Joan’s insistence on communicating yields to us a nice insight into Cara and her post-Millennial perspective. In return, we see the girl help her grandmother into the 21st century – which in the context of Joan’s shutting herself off from the world in recent years takes on special relevance.

Dan Flahive is neighbor and old friend John Patty, who delivers the invitation – and a mysterious wrapped gift – to Joan. He, too, lost a spouse years ago, so has a special insight into their situation. Flahive’s knack for playing a best friend you feel you’ve known and loved all your life is in full effect here. He plays it coy enough to balance the chemistry between his and Bauchle’s character deftly between platonic/agape friend and possible love-interest.

Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood directs.

This is a good start for a promising play, and an excellent opportunity for local audiences to support local art. The characters and their story touch our hearts with gentle humor and an insightful look at how we grieve and learn to go on living.

Oh, and my opening statement above refers to more than just the title character.

Performances of “Go Be Joan” run through July 28 at 8920 Otis Ave., on the grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence. Get information and tickets at www.fatturtletheatre.com.

NoExit: Spend a holiday with some damaged people

By John Lyle Belden

If you never thought you’d see No Exit, the local company known for unusual and avant garde performances, and Tennessee Williams, notable for brilliant standard dramas, in the same sentence, have I got a surprise for you.

“The Mutilated,” originally written and staged as a one-act in 1965, is one of Williams’ later, more artistically adventurous plays. Though an initial failure, a New York revival with John Waters acolyte Mink Stole in a lead role five years ago earned praise. So yes, Tennessee, it is a No Exit play. And with the company’s Drosselmeyer taking the holidays off (he had a cabaret in July), this counts as their “Christmas” show.

Most of the cast also act as chorus — not just in the “Greek” sense, but more literally as holiday carolers. The focus is on our leads, Celeste Delacroix Griffin (Beverly Roche) and Trinket Dugan (Gigi Jennewein).

On Christmas Eve, 1938, Celeste has been released from the House of Detention where she had been held for shoplifting — one of her many, many vices. She makes her way back to the Silver Dollar Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter where Trinket lives fairly comfortably, but alone, off the proceeds of a single oil well. The two had been each other’s only friend, but a fight prior to Celeste’s arrest has left Trinket too wounded to forgive.

But Trinket also carries a deeper scar, “mutilated” by the loss of a breast both physically and mentally, in perpetual shame and paranoia of the stigma from anyone finding out. Sadly, Celeste exploits this in her selfish, immature efforts to keep Trinket in her life. Thus the night is mostly a battle of wills between the women. Celeste leaves clues to Trinket’s secrets and calls her by her former, less colorful name. Meanwhile, desperate for company, Trinket takes home a sailor (Matthew Walls) so drunk he wavers between dull confusion and violent agitation. All the while, hotel manager Bernie (Zachariah Stonerock) sits by, eyes on his comic book, exasperated like he’s seen these scenes play out between the women many times before.

Roche and Jennewein give award-worthy performances: Celeste prowls the two-level stage like a predator, while Trinket works her corner like a wounded deer. In fact, all the cast are superb, including Walls, Stonerock, Mark Cashwell, Dan Flahive, Abby Gilster, Elysia Rohn and Doug Powers.

While costumes and sets are standard for a Depression-era drama, there are a number of artsy, edgy touches, including the arresting manner in which the “carols” are sung (words by Williams, music adapted by Ben Asaykwee), and the way so much is left unsaid, including the full story of Trinket’s “mutilation.” Then there is the bewildering ending — a “miracle” is promised, and seems to be delivered, but it is up to you after the lights go up to work out what it all means.

As other commenters on the play have noted, the characters here are all “mutilated” in some way: physically, mentally, spiritually. We see the pains of addiction, whether it be to wine or a person. Yet like any holiday show, even in Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans, anything is possible on Christmas day.

No Exit has located “The Mutilated” in the Carriage House of the Indianapolis Propylaeum, 1410 N. Delaware downtown (a couple of blocks north of the President Benjamin Harrison home). Performances are through Sunday; see noexitperformance.org for information and tickets.

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 one who is, at turns, a 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.

Fat Turtle hilariously handles impossible quest to dramatize Don Quixote

By Wendy Carson

Don Quixote. We all know the story – or do we?

It turns out that the storyline we are so familiar with is actually less than 20 percent of the thousand-page tome. The beautiful Dulcinea, for whom Quixote pines, is merely referred to and not actually a character in the book. The vast majority of the saga involves the deranged “knight” and his faithful squire just riding through the countryside getting beaten up frequently.

So why does this epic novel continue to inspire numerous attempts to adapt it for stage or screen, only to be defeated by the effort? That is the focus of Mark Brown’s whimsical play, “The Quest for Don Quixote,” produced by Fat Turtle Theatre Company through Sunday at Theater at the Fort.

Jason Page portrays Ben, our intrepid playwright, whose passion for the text is only eclipsed by the despair of his inability to write anything at all. His agent Jeffry (Dan Flahive) has tracked him down to a coffeehouse in order to retrieve Ben’s script – after all, rehearsals begin tomorrow. Flahive shines through his desperation and terror at discovering the situation, especially as he relentlessly tries to kick-start Ben’s writing.

As they deliriously brainstorm throughout the night, the story comes alive with the coffeehouse staff and patrons joining them to act out their efforts. The results are wacky and bizarre, yet tenderly true to the intentions of the original story.

Nan Macy and Savannah Jay embody a myriad of characters each, yet manage to bring each one fully to life in such a manner as to make you forget that they are just two people.

Justin Lyon’s portrayal of the buffoonish “squire” Sancho Panza brings out the heroic heart of the character.

Of course, the story could not work without our hero, Don Quixote. Jeff Maess deftly brings the deluded, yet inspired, mania of the character fully to light.

While not actually playing one of the various actors in the story, Chris McNeely uses his guitar as a driving force in the narrative by setting the tone for each scene. In fact, you might recognize a bar or two of some more contemporary songs that punctuate a few plot lines.

In adapting the unadaptable, this hilarious play about a play about a immortal character that transcends his literature bends the rules enough to blend medieval chivalry with Pinkie Pie from “My Little Pony.” Yet the soul of the story of the man who showed us the folly of fighting windmills – no matter what form they take – remains as pure as a noble knight’s heart. Director Aaron Cleveland acquits himself well in taking up the lance against this mill.

Find Theater at the Fort on the former grounds of Fort Benjamin Harrison, just west of Post Road just north of 56th Street in Lawrence. For info and tickets, visit www.fatturtletheatre.com.

Old lore gets modern makeover in Catalyst’s ‘Slaying the Dragon’

By John Lyle Belden

I got so much more than I expected when I saw “Slaying the Dragon,” and I have high expectations from a play written by Casey Ross.

Ross’ plays are character-driven with great dialogue, flavored with enough of the absurd to make them entertaining without stretching credulity. And with her latest comedy production – presented by her Catalyst Repertory at Theater at the Fort, directed by Carey Shea – Ross enters the realm of fairy tales and conjures a thought-provoking fable.

Mythical kingdoms have reluctantly come into the 21st century, and the castle of King Farenwide (Dan Flahive) is now a condo. His Queen (Nan Macy) is happy as long as she has a place to garden, but Princess Maleena (Abby Gilster) is frustrated that her parents neither embrace New World ways nor accept that she has. To the King’s delight, a Knight has moved nearby – and being the only handy noble, a good prospect for his daughter (she’s not pleased with that prospect). But upon visiting Sir Alexander Meander (Matt Walls), they meet his roommate, Flameson (Tristan Ross), a dragon.

The inevitable conflict of old prejudices (that dragons are beasts worthy of little more than slaying) and outdated loyalties (a knight must obey orders and kill such beasts) with more modern attitudes can’t help but raise comparisons to events in the offstage world. True to the style of Casey Ross (no relation to Tristan, though they are good friends), the issues are handled with great humor and humanity. While it’s easy to make “Shrek” comparisons, the inspiration here seems more like the Disney short “The Reluctant Dragon” and the stage/film/TV classic “The Odd Couple.”

Gilster is great as the sane center of the swirling silliness. Flahive is fun, and makes riding a mobility chair look as noble as an actual royal steed. Macy tackles yet another maternal role with soothing ease (and a fantastic hat). And Josh Weaver adds to the laugh factor as obliviously mellow Page Jon, the castle servant.

It’s easy to see which is the “Felix” and which is the “Oscar” with Walls and Tristan Ross. Meander makes his best effort at being noble in tarnished armor, while Flameson is an excellent housekeeper and cook (who can light the stove by breathing on it). The actors’ performances are totally up to snuff, especially in Tristan’s talent for not going over-the-top with a fantasy character, aided by excellent makeup effects.

This is definitely a new work that is worthy of seeking out – and a little seeking might be in order. Theater at the Fort is located on the grounds of former Fort Benjamin Harrison (technically in Lawrence) at 8920 Otis Ave.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 16-19. Get info at uncannycasey.wix.com/catalystrepertory or follow Catalyst Repertory on Facebook; get tickets here.

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

A difficult ‘Winter’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

Being a caregiver for a parent with Alzheimers or a similar condition is one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. With every struggle, you tell yourself, “It’s not about me!” yet you are in your own kind of pain.

In “Blackberry Winter,” playing through Nov. 19 at Theatre on the Square, Vivienne (Gari Williams) speaks to the audience about her caring for a mother who once made the world’s best coconut cake, but in these days would hardly recognize the kitchen.

The play is by Steve Yockey, whose dramas “Octopus” and “Wolves” have played on Indy stages. Those works dealt with stresses of fear and distrust in regards to intimate relationships. In this show, relationship struggles involve memories, objects and beloved family members.

Yockey’s style of including fantasy elements with animal metaphors also comes into play here, as Vivienne occupies her mind by coming up with a “creation myth” for Alzheimers. As the disease has no happy ending, she warns, don’t expect one to her story.

To embody the myth/fable, two of the main animals of the forest come to the stage: Gray Mole (Dan Flahive), who finds happiness simply by digging in the dirt, and optimistic, idealistic White Egret (Chelsea Anderson) who is sure she has found a way to make life better for all the denizens of the woods – at least the ones she sees above ground.

Their story is told in three parts, as Vivienne weaves in more of her monologue. She speaks of how in the mental clouds of this disease, what is real and true becomes blurred by confabulation and “comforting fictions.” We learn the significance of the scarves, the iron, the horse and the trowel, and why Vivienne is “a terrible person” – it’s not just because she fills the swear-bank.

And we see how White Egret’s wonderful idea goes horribly wrong.

This play is thought-provoking and challenging, especially if a relative with dementia is in your life. But in that case, this can also be comforting from shared experience as the spotlight is firmly on the caregiver’s role. Directed by Lori Raffel, this is an excellent glimpse into a difficult subject, with great performances delivered with gentle humor by the on-stage trio.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Locally-sourced ‘Toyland’

By John Lyle Belden

The Footlite Musicals production of “Babes in Toyland” is both old and fresh, as the classic songs by Victor Herbert a century ago are set in a new book by the show’s director Bob Harbin (of Bibdirex fame) and comic megatalent Claire Wilcher (who, unfortunately, isn’t in the show). Harbin notes in the program that the original script is public domain, allowing him to put his and Claire’s own spin on the play.

The first act is practically a play in itself, set mostly in Mother Gooseland. Jack and Jill (Thomas Whitcomb and Breanna Jaffe) have taken a tumble, and Bo Peep (Samantha Shelton) has lost her sheep, but the biggest drama is that Mary Contrary (Claire Cassidy) wants to marry Tom Piper (Jonathan Krouse), but wicked landlord Barnaby (Jeff Fuller) demands to wed her instead. Neither Mary’s mother (Susan Smith) nor Mother Goose herself (Miki Mathioudakis) like the deal, but what hope is there for a happy ending – especially when Tom disappears? Fortunately some Gypsies (“We are Gypsies!” is a running gag) come in to help save the day.

Barnaby suffers a setback, but is not finished. The plot takes our characters in the second act to Toyland, home of a toymaker (Dan Flahive) who has given up on his craft. Time to work up another dramatic showdown towards a happy ending.

This show is very much geared towards the children and kids-at-heart, tykes who don’t mind if the beak of Mother Goose’s Gander (voiced by Curtis Peters) gets a little out of synch or if some of the joke lines fall flat. Another giggle-worthy moment or song-and-dance spectacle from this large all-ages cast is coming right up. Kudos to Fuller for playing his “boo-hiss” villain for all it’s worth. And best scene-stealer goes to Keilyn Bryant as Little BB (as in “Boy Blue”). Harbin does a great job wrangling all of the various elements that go into this show, providing an experience that feels like a holiday tradition, yet is a good alternative to the other traditional holiday shows around town you saw last year (and the year before, and the year before…).

“Toyland,” at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy, closes on Dec. 13, so get your reservation now at 317-923-6630 or www.footlite.org.