Epilogue presents inspiring ‘Tribute’

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes a man can be a friend or even hero to the people he meets and works with in a career, but still be distant to his own family. This theme is at the heart of “Tribute,” the 1970s comic drama by Bernard Slade (writer of the hit “Same Time Next Year,” who also helped bring “The Flying Nun” and “Partridge Family” to TV), presented through Nov. 19 at Epilogue Players.

Scottie Templeton (played by Greg Howard) has had a varied career – writing plays, producing in Hollywood – while taking none of it seriously. This attitude has made him a friend to everyone, giving him connections that he can link as a consummate man behind the scenes. But he is also long estranged from his ex-wife and a stranger to the grown son who had worshiped him as a child – before the divorce.

Circumstances bring his ex, Maggie (Laura Baltz), and son, Jud (Joshua Brunsting), to his New York apartment. Scottie tries desperately to reconnect – especially with the young man who is as humorlessly serious as he is carefree – because he has discovered he has leukemia and might have only months to live. His close friend and business partner Lou (Dennis Forkel) and doctor, Gladys (Wendy Brown), try to do what’s best for him. Meanwhile, Scottie sets up his young friend, Sally (Lauren McDaniel), with Jud in an attempt to loosen him up. Melissa Cleaver completes the cast as Hillary, a woman who received much-needed aid from unjudgemental Scottie, and returns to town to repay a little of his kindness.

We get the full measure of the man both from these scenes and in testimonials at the “Tribute” thrown in his honor, the dramatic device that enrobes the play. And we get a good measure of the style and charisma of Howard, who never lets up on the charm, yet often allows Scottie to betray the seriousness of the situation.

The women are each charming in their own way – Baltz as a caring realist who has come to terms with the quirks of the men in his life; McDaniel as a pillar of confidence who will not be taken lightly; Brown as a caring soul, both the healer wanting to help and the friend not wanting so see someone she cares for die; and Cleaver as one wacky nurse.

Brunsting’s Jud is such a stick in the mud, but he’s not unlikable. As we, and Scottie, come to understand the lifetime of pain and estrangement, we see through the layers to the boy inside who once enjoyed cracking corny jokes with his dad.

Directed by Catherine Mobley, “Tribute” fits excellently into Epilogue’s mission of finding great roles for young-at-heart actors, including strong woman characters.

In seeing this play, we can’t help but think of the people we need to better connect with, as well as consider how much what we do to help others’ success is really appreciated. The laughs far outnumber the tears here, but there is a heart to this show, worthy of being honored by a full applauding theatre.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 17-19, at 1849 N. Alabama Street (corner of 19th and Alabama) in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.

What’s so funny about peace, love and misunderstanding?

By John Lyle Belden

Anton Chekhov called his 1895 play, “The Seagull,” a “comedy in four acts” – which makes one wonder about Russians’ sense of humor.

But the play, adapted and directed by Casey Ross and presented by her Catalyst Repertory company – shaved down to two acts (one-two / intermission / three-four) – does have some light moments. Good drama always has its share of humor, and its “comic” elements are further reflected in an almost Shakespearean level of unrequited love among the characters.

The setting is a peaceful rural Russian estate, with its nice house belonging to aging civil servant Pyotr Sorin (Dennis Forkel) and a lake, near which his nephew Konstantin Treplev (Taylor Cox) presents a play he has written, starring his girlfriend, local girl Nina (Ann Marie Elliott).

Treplev sees himself in the shadow of his famous actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Nan Macy), and her popular friends. “I have no discernible talent,” he laments. But to prove himself, he is determined to write a “new form” of theatre, simultaneously rebelling against and surpassing the great Arkadina. Before an audience of locals, family and his mother’s guest, famous writer Boris Trigorn (Thomas Cardwell), the premiere flounders thanks to Treplev’s abstract symbolism – inspiring heckling from Arkadina – and Nina’s amateurish acting.

Later Trigorn flatters Nina, encouraging her dream of becoming a professional actor, and winning her away from Treplev. Meanwhile, beautiful-in-black Masha (Emily Bohn) is in love with Treplev, while poor schoolmaster Medivenko (Bradford Reilly) is in love with Masha. Paulina (Kyrsten Lyster) is in an affair with Yevgeny Dorn (Craig Kemp), a kindly doctor with a song in his heart, but she is married to very unromantic estate caretaker Ilya Shamrayeff (Anthony Nathan).

While good acting is essential to any play, the presentation of these characters is all Chekhov has given us – no wild action or deep mystery. Fortunately, Ross knows some very talented actors.

Cox is great at playing the tortured soul, and he has plenty to work with here. A hundred-twenty years later, even in Russia, Treplev would have medication and perhaps a therapist to aid his issues. In this world, he must wade through on his own with little help from his mother – she brushes off his suicide attempt as a silly phase, afraid to leave the limelight world that is the only place she feels happy. Macy turns on the charm, while showing the depth of her character’s shallowness.

Elliott is brilliant as usual, mastering not only all the subtle facets of Nina, but managing to act “bad” in an entertaining way. Cardwell reveals a man wrestling with the life his genius has given him – “I have no rest from myself” – but still subject to base desires. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, he presents the idea of “destroying” the young woman, saying it directly to her. But blinded by her pursuit of fame, Nina allows it to happen, not realizing until it is too late what she has become.

And a shout out to Nathan for nearly stealing scenes with Shamreyeff’s socially clumsy moments, and for making the death of the title bird more funny than it should be.

So: When you get what you’ve been chasing after – or what you settled for – is it worth it? That would be the thematic question at work here, and while the answers aren’t definitive, they do feel honest to the harsh world we live in, wherever we are in time or on the globe. And when the circumstances permit, we can get in a laugh or two.

“The Seagull” has performances Sept. 15-17 and 22-24 at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square. For info and tickets, visit Facebook.com/CatalystRepertory or the company’s website.

Putting the ‘Cat’ in Catalyst

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Corbett (Pat Mullen), right, converses with local cats (from left) Orangey (Dane Rogers), Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and Striper (Matt Anderson) in Bennett Ayres’ “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory at Wheeler Arts Community near Indy’s Fountain Square.

By John Lyle Belden*

We’ve likely all seen that internet meme along the lines of “I don’t want to adult today; I want to cat.” Local playwright Bennett Ayres took that idea to its bizarre conclusion in the new drama, “Feral Boy,” presented by Catalyst Repertory on the LongShot Theater stage at Wheeler Arts through May 28.

Corbett (played by Pat Mullen) has graduated college and is expected to take his next step in life. But is it truly his? He excelled in classes, became president of a fraternity, made friends with his bros and had sex with the right girls. Next comes internships and an internet marketing career to make his upper-class parents proud.

But after his roomates (Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney) depart, he starts to see the world through his own eyes – the fish tank in the neighbor’s (Dennis Forkel) window; the cute townie, Betsy (Patty Blanchfield), who works at the nearby convenience store; and especially all the neighborhood’s feral cats.

One night, a feline neighbor, Orangey (Dane Rogers), speaks to him. From then on Corbett draws himself further into their world, meeting gentle Calico (Audrey Stonerock) and their alpha, Striper (Matt Anderson). With the help of Wikipedia’s data on cat behavior, Corbett makes joining their ranks his mission.

The cats are represented by Patrick Weigland’s puppets – elegant slender alley-cat forms with expressive movement provided by their three actors, as well as lurking projected shadows. The portrayals nimbly display their cautious grace and suspicious attitudes expressed in different ways: Rogers’ Orangey blustery and paranoid, Stonerock’s Calico wary but trusting, and Anderson’s Striper cool and controlling.

Mullen excellently guides us through his journey from “imaginary” human to something he sees as more “real.” What appears to others as a man coming apart and abandoning responsibilities, he embraces as a necessary transformation. Blanchfield also shines as the woman caught up in his madness, seeing Corbett as her means of escape – but she can’t follow where he’s going.

The cast also features Sarah Holland Froehlke as Corbett’s mother, and the voices of Jim Tillett, Jolene Moffat and Ayres.

The play itself is an absorbing story, embracing its absurdity – reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”) – without any tongue-in-cheek. Is Corbett delusional? (The cats never speak to anyone else or when he’s around others.) It hardly matters when considering the play’s allegory and questions raised about identity, expectations and how we decide a life’s path. Taken together, director Zach Stonerock and his cast and crew have woven a darkly beautiful drama.

Wheeler Arts Community is located at 1035 Sanders St. in Indy’s Fountain Square neighborhood. For information and tickets, visit uncannycasey.wixsite.com/catalystrepertory or Catalyst Repertory’s Facebook page.

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*Full disclosure: Wendy and I are good friends with Catalyst founder and artistic director Casey Ross, and I helped the production by designing the play program booklet – and making a few copies. But it really IS a good show, just ask Lisa G!