For young audiences, IRT presents the power of positive playacting

By Wendy Carson

Our new friends, Devan (Mathias), Isaiah (Moore), and Frankie (Bolda) have decided to put on a play for us.

Devan has drawn a picture of a train and wants to deliver it to her other friends who live a long way away on the other side of the big, big hill. So it is decided that Devan will be a train engine, Isaiah wants to be everything but finally settles on being a doggie passenger on the train, and Frankie will help out by making all the proper sounds throughout.

This is “The Little Choo-Choo That Thinks She Can,” the return engagement of a play for very young patrons at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, a familiar story made new by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still.

Once the train is all loaded up with passengers, Devan begins the trip up the big, big hill. However, the hill is just too big for her to make it over. She tries to enlist the assistance of various other engines but they all can’t, or won’t, help her out. 

She keeps trying, and each attempt gets her a little farther up the big, big hill — but quite not over it. We, her friends in the audience, offer encouragement to assist her in believing she has the ability to actually make it up the big, big hill by herself.

Will she make it? Will her special delivery get through to her friends? What sound does a giraffe make? These questions and others will be answered in terms that preschoolers, special-needs kids, and even the grown-ups who brought them will understand..

This show is a wonderful introduction to live theater shows for young children. It never talks down to them and encourages them to have fun, be themselves and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The room is divided into three seating areas. Each actor takes one section and gets to know their new friends (the individual kids in the audience) prior to the show. We are all asked to participate in the show, but only to our levels of comfort. 

This was especially evident in the performance I attended, one of their “Sensory Friendly Performances:” The lights are kept brighter; there are fidget spinners, headphones, and other toys available to use during the show; and it is acceptable to leave and return as the need requires. There is also a guide for parents to assist with knowing when loud or potentially off-putting things will occur. This allows all attendees to enjoy the show as much as possible. In fact, I hardly would have known it was not a regular performance if they had not brought it up beforehand.

The play was a delight for myself and my companions, especially the precocious little 4-year old for whom this was her first live show. She liked meeting Isaiah, both as an actor with skin like hers, as well as the purple puppy. She told me and her mother she can’t wait to see a play again.

This IRT Exploring Stages production (targeted to ages 3-8) is directed by Benjamin Hanna. Performances are held in the “cabaret” space, which isn’t too big and allows for easy interaction, through March 1. Tickets start at just $8 for a child to sit on the floor near the action, $17 for an adult to join them. The IRT is at 140 W. Washington in downtown Indianapolis, close to Circle Centre. For more information, call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IndyFringe: The Madwomen’s Late-Nite Cabaret

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 Wendy Carson

From the moment that Lizzie Borden (Cody Ricks) dashes across stage to take her seat at the piano, you know that this show is anything but serious.

We then welcome our beloved hostess Ethel Merman (Dave Ruark hamming it up at his best) straight from her triumphant turn as “Annie”.

Throughout the night we are privy to songs revealing aspects of these historical icons who are more misunderstood than evil.

Shawnte Gaston has a quick turn as Medusa but spends most of the show co-hosting as Eve, the embodiment of maternal energy and possibly the most misrepresented of them all. She belts out her sentiments in both “What’s the Matter With Kids Today” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Julie Lyn Barber embodies women as diverse as Typhoid Mary, Amelia Earhart, and Mary Stuart but she really stands out as Sybil singing “I Am My Own Best Friend”.

Georgeanna Smith Wade gives us a hilarious look into the mindset of Procne (most people know her as Medea) but it is her sultry version of Mata Hari performing “Bang, Bang” that really shines.

Add to this Jaddy Ciucci (although on the performance I saw this role was played by Devan Mathias), portraying not only Joan of Arc, Philomela, and Ann Boleyn, but a “Physical Embodiment of a Controlled Substance” (Mary Jane) and pleadingly insisting “I’d Be Good For You”

Needless to say, these women (and characters) deserve to be seen and heard and who knows when you will get another chance to do so. Presented by Main Street Artists, remaining performances are 9 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 Sunday at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

‘Poppins’ returns, live on stage, to Civic Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has displayed a “practically perfect” sense of timing by presenting the Disney Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” just as the sequel hits the movie theaters. Before watching the follow-up on the screen, see the story of the original Banks family and the magical nanny who changed their lives for the better, delivering serious lessons in her “spoonful of sugar” style.

Jeremy Shivers-Brimm is Bert — narrator and everyone’s friend — who was once told to learn a trade, “so I learned ‘em all” (including, famously, a chimney sweep). He nimbly embraces all the character’s likable aspects, helping it step out of the shadow of Dick Van Dyke’s film persona. Devan Mathias is our Mary (she also took the role in Civic’s previous “Poppins” production), sharply confident — both actor and character — seizing and holding our trust and affection every moment she’s on the stage.

The various supporting roles all have a touch of whimsy, from pleasantly blustery Admiral Boom (Rory Shivers-Brimm), neighbor Miss Lark (Katie Stark), the Policeman (Ben Angelo) on the street, to the efficiently-choreographed staff of the bank, making the central family feel comparatively normal and relatable. Father George Banks (J. Stuart Mill) has a good heart, but keeps it restrained by a drive for precision and order; mother Winifred (Mikayla Koharchik) has made her sacrifices as well. Son and daughter Michael (Ben Kistner) and Jane (Sydney Pinchouck) resist their parents’ desire for discipline, requesting a nanny on their terms. What surprises await when they get precisely what they asked for!

While the children meet interesting characters including Bert, the Bird Woman (Mary Margaret Montgomery), word merchant Mrs. Corry (Kendra Randle) and friendly statue Neleus (Alex Smith), it’s hardly a surprise that even Queen Victoria (Susan Smith) shows up. But if the lessons don’t sink in, an alternative nanny, the cruel Miss Andrew (Smith), could be called.

All performances are “spit-spot” polished, including the gentle antics of house servants Mrs. Brill (Ragen Sanner) and Robertson Ay (David Cunningham). Young performers Kistner and Pinchouck have a natural ease on stage that belies their age.  

Wonderful steps-in-time were arranged by director Anne Beck, providing the big singing and dancing spectacle one would expect, including a bit of flight and other wire work. For fans of the P.L. Travers books, note there are aspects of them not in the original Disney film (such as Neleus and Miss Andrew) and a little different order of events — you hardly notice the penguins are missing.

Performances are through Dec. 29 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The war for Scotland’s crown has two distinct factions; this is their story — BONG BONG! (Bardfest review)

By John Lyle Belden

The action is already under way, with gunfire, sirens, heavily-armed soldiers. When the hurly-burly is done, the winning officer meets three strange women who greet him with titles he doesn’t have and aren’t likely to get. But when he meets the leader, one of those unlikely titles is granted to him – could he be fated for more? It doesn’t help that the boss named someone else his chief lieutenant. That puts two people between our man and the top of the power structure; but his persuasive and sexy wife has ideas on how to fix the situation – though there will be blood. Lots of blood.

This action movie playing out live at Bard Fest is Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” It’s tightly scripted (about 90 minutes in one act) by First Folio Productions director Carey Shea, and set in an urban battle zone, more Syria than Scotland, with characters from your favorite cop shows (“Law and Order: Inverness” perhaps?).

The story is familiar – death, more witches, death, “out damned spot,” death – and the Bard’s tragedies get the use-guns-for-swords treatment from time to time, but this production also has what Indy’s theatre scene truly needs: more Nan Macy.

Macy, along with Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson play the Wyrd Sisters, who seem to pop up everywhere. Or are we just looking through the eyes of MacBeth (Adam Tran), seeing reassurance that his dark deeds to gain the crown are inevitable and right? Or maybe it’s just a clever, efficient use of talented actors.

Devan Mathias is a hot, nasty Lady MacBeth, Ryan Ruckman a noble doomed king Duncan, and Chelsea Anderson and Nathan Thomas are both worthy of their badges as good-cops Macduff and Malcolm. Craig Kemp as Columbo-esque detective Ross strives to put the clues together. Justin Klein as tragic Banquo is our most sympathetic character – next to Jilayne Kistner as his hard-luck daughter Fleance.

The end result is engaging and entertaining. One can just take it at face value – wild action as an ambitious couple slay their way to the top, then face the consequences – or as a high-caliber examination of the lust for power and the dangers of unaddressed and untreated mental illness, never mind when it’s suffered by people in positions of authority.

Don’t be concerned by the legendary curse (that’s for the cast and crew to contend with), the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe theater, 719 E. St. Clair, still stands. Remaining performances are tonight and Sunday (Oct. 28-29).

For information, see www.indyfringe.org.

ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.

Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.