District drama explores daunting ‘Place’

By Wendy Carson

By Wendy Carson

The District Theatre presents “What Is This Place? A Journey of Self in the Aftermath,” in which five souls ask the title question, while knowing on some level exactly where they are.

Welcome to their nightmare – where you, too, will likely go one day.

I first saw a version of this show in August of 2016, at IndyFringe. In the six years since, playwright Jan White has reshaped it into an even greater work of beauty and hope. If you go back to that first review, I didn’t say much about the show because I didn’t want to spoil the mystery for anyone. However, the current version allows more room to meditate on the performance.

The story begins with Darlene (Holly Hathaway) being flung in through a door which she cannot unlock to make her escape. She claims to know the place, because in her past she saw her mother inside it. She protests that she wants to leave, but is afraid of what lies beyond the door.

The other denizens of this place are: Maggie (Miki Mathioudakis), a wealthy widow, distantly connected to Darlene, who has transformed into a sloppy, hot mess; Sophia (Brittany Magee), a perky, meditating, goof who searches for peace she cannot find; Cindy (Bianca Black), who just wants to sleep, but no combination of drugs and alcohol are able to work; and finally, Jake (Chad Pirowski), the apparent caretaker, whose silence makes him appear creepy.

Periodically, each person will go to a space at the side of the stage to view pieces of their memories, which we are privy to by way of a video screen. It does not take us long to realize what this place actually is, but the point here is the characters’ journey to that same discovery. Once they fully acknowledge it, they must then decide whether to leave or stay (each option has its benefits).

As each woman comes to terms with that which landed them there, they must also deal with the fact that some questions never have answers, that perhaps “everything happens for a reason” is nonsense, whether you accept it or not. Eventually, they find the darkness they have in common, and how to wield it as a key to that door that perhaps was never really locked after all.

While this is a story about grief and loss, it also embodies the accomplishment and hope that lies at the end of that road.

Performances are truly remarkable, considering the gut-wrenching dramatic exercise this play puts the cast through, under the direction of Rosana Schutte. We get small bits of relief, in humorous moments with Cindy’s substances, Maggie’s endless Doritos bags, or Sophia’s attempts at serenity with bells and “tapping.” Still, the pain is never far from them, lurking just outside the windows. Our heart goes out to all five, even Jake, who has the darkest truth.

Remaining performances of “What Is This Place?” are Friday and Saturday, April 29-30, with ASL interpretation, at the District, 627 Mass. Ave., Indianapolis. For info and tickets, go to IndyDistrictTheatre.org.

Beautiful genius returns to Indy stage

By John Lyle Belden

A couple of things I learned about Hedy Lamarr: Her first name (derived from Hedwig) is supposed to be pronounced with a long “E” – “heedie.” Also, she was not amused at all by her name being used as a running gag in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”

Actually, the “Hedley” joke was all I knew of her growing up, as her classic films like “Samson and Delilah” weren’t in movie houses at the time. By then, the actress had retreated from Hollywood and the world in general. Later, I found out about her invention – “frequency hopping” technology meant to help the military in World War II that now serves everyone in our WiFi and cell phones. So, I always thought of her as a genius first, then a movie star.

For an earlier generation, she was “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” (a fitting title hung on her by movie mogul Louis B. Meyer), the sexy Austrian in the controversial film “Ecstasy,” and later numerous leading roles with stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, and as Delilah with Victor Mature. It also seemed there were nearly as many marriages as hit films.

So where did I learn the facts at the top of this story? From the lady herself – sorta.

“HEDY! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,” the one-woman show written and performed by Heather Massie, returned to Indianapolis recently for a brief engagement at The District Theatre on Mass. Ave. The original under-an-hour production was featured in the 2016 DivaFest and won the audience award at the 2017 IndyFringe. Massie also performed it to widespread acclaim across the U.S., Europe and Africa. Massie has since added more well-researched material to give us the 90-minute performance Indy audiences saw March 18-20.

From Beyond, Ms. Lamarr comes to visit us. She is drawn by our curiosity – not about all the unsavory elements of her biography (though she gives us a bit of those) but about how a part of her came to live in every person’s pocket or purse.

She tells of childhood in Vienna, where her father Emil would interest his “ugly duckling” in the workings of machines and encourage her to think for herself. Of course, doing so resulted in her headstrong insistence in becoming a film actress. After being “tricked” into an infamous movie nude scene, she sticks to stage work, where she is wooed and wed by a rich arms dealer. Her husband’s customers, including Italian and German officials, ignore the beautiful girl in the room as they talk openly about “the torpedo problem,” something she will remember after escaping Austria, just ahead of the Nazi takeover, to Hollywood, with a new name, glamour and fame.

As for glamour, she says all one has to do is “stand still and look stupid.” She definitely does neither as she tells her story.

Massie also channels notables from Hedy’s life including Mayer, Gable, good friend Stewart, and a starstruck G.I. who dances with her in the Hollywood Canteen – all in entertaining fashion.

We get the story of the Secret Communication System, created with composer George Antheil – it uses 88 radio frequencies, a salute to George’s piano – which is awarded a U.S. Patent that she turns over to the U.S. Navy. The military does use the technology – in the 1960s. During World War II, they thought the pretty starlet was better suited to selling War Bonds, which she also did in genius fashion.

This show is gloriously entertaining and inspiring, while presenting a very human woman with her own flaws and setbacks. Even showing this side of Hedy, Massie manages to make endearing. Whether you have never heard of Lamarr, or been a lifetime fan, you will adore “HEDY!”

For more information on the show and upcoming performances, visit www.HeatherMassie.com. In a continuing salute to women in science, Massie is also working on a show on the life of astronaut Sally Ride (the first American woman in space). Given her good relationship with Indianapolis, here’s hoping we will be seeing it soon.

‘Birds’-inspired ‘Fowl’ far more funny than frightening

By Wendy Carson

Ben Asaykwee, the force behind Q Artistry and creator of the perennial favorite “Cabaret Poe,” has tapped his deep comical well to bring us the hilarious musical delight that is “The Fowl.” In this sharp parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, “The Birds,” we are transported to 1960s Bodega Bay, California, where several mysterious bird attacks occur. 

We are reminded that the secondary romantic plot is better suited to a film on the Hallmark channel, though necessary to facilitate the events in which the attacks take place. While the show’s costumes and “wigs” give everything the look of a cartoon, they are quite ingenious and perfectly reflect the quirkiness of the show. The special effects are crude but reinforce the irreverence of the production. 

Though the look is reminiscent of what one would expect from an elementary school show, the cast and crew are genuine in their love of what they are doing and passion to make you laugh. It is also an excellent mentoring opportunity, as local stage veterans work side by side with young actors. 

This show is presented in two acts. The first retells the movie, pulling no punches at some of its more ludicrous portions.

The second act revolves around the stories of the birds themselves (from their point of view) and supposition as to why these attacks were necessary. While I personally take umbrage at the constant disparaging comments regarding the tardiness of the penguins, the birds do make some very valid points.

Asaykwee, as director/choreographer, had cast members each learn more than one set of roles, not only to help gain experience, but also in case a Covid-positive test sidelined any performers. You’ll see at least a different order in the lineup from one show to the next. Therefore this is a true ensemble effort. That flock includes: Matt Anderson, Shelbi Berry, Quincy Carman, Jaddy Ciucci, Ellie Cooper, Finley Eyers, Fiona Eyers, Janice Hibbard, Tiffanie Holifield, Noah Lee, Maria Meschi, Pat Mullen, Himiko Ogawa, Inori Ogawa, Wren Thomas, Diane Tsao, and Noah Winston. 

At our performance, we saw Berry doing her best Tippi Hendren, a scene-stealing turn by Finley Eyers as an over-eager Seagull, and a beautiful interpretive Ostrich dance by Holifield.

With all the current stress in the world and each of our lives, it is good to be able to go out and have a really good laugh. This show will afford you a whole flock of opportunities to do just that. So go out and catch “The Fowl” – Thursday through Sunday (March 3-6) at The District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis – before the opportunity flies past.

A fresh face on a miscast character

By John Lyle Belden

On a recent evening, we had the opportunity to see, live and in person on Indianapolis’ District Theatre stage, film icon and entertainment legend, the one and only, Mickey Rooney! He was charming, suave and still prone to talking and acting like the old-Hollywood character he was. And for someone who has been dead since 2014, he looked so…

Asian.

J. Elijah Cho presents “Mr. Yunioshi,” a one-man Fringe-style show he created in which he gets into the role of the five-foot-two bigshot, entering the mind of the man who played this show’s title character in the 1961 motion picture, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Yunioshi, an ethnic-Japanese photographer, was altered for comic effect from a character in the original Truman Capote book. In a move that even got mixed reviews at the time, director Blake Edwards had the very white Rooney portray the role in heavy makeup, large glasses and buck teeth, with a heavy stereotypical accent. In recent decades this flaw in an otherwise lauded film is held up as an egregious example of Hollywood “Yellowface.”

Cho’s Rooney has no racist intent at all, exhibiting a charming cluelessness that is made easier to swallow by seeing an Asian face giving the excuses. Also, we witness an extraordinary talent that gives us, not a tit-for-tat caricature of the offending actor, but a respectful tribute to the man. Cho also slips into moments of Capote and Edwards, as well as Mickey’s all-time best friend, Judy Garland. Cho (and Rooney) even try on classic Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune in a vain attempt to lend Mr. Y. some authenticity.

This show is both a charming window into 1960s Hollywood and an exploration of how it could get something so embarrassingly wrong. In the end, Cho steps out in front of his character to say that the next non-martial-arts Asian leading man could be standing right in front of us – or at least the next Mickey Rooney.

As no one is making an Andy Hardy reboot anytime soon, Cho, with producers Ari and David Stidham, will continue making appearances in “Mr. Yunioshi.” Having recently performed in Los Angeles and New York, he could pop up anywhere. Get details at mryunioshi.com.

Quiet play has a lot to say

By John Lyle Belden

The stage is so serene, as the actors silently enter one by one, you don’t want to make a noise in the audience, either.

To the delight of American Lives Theatre director Chris Saunders, the rule of silence in this retreat setting of “Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl, seems to permeate the room, as he presents, in his words, “What if you met a stranger and didn’t have the words to immediately assume everything about them?”

Jan (Kevin Caraher), a nicely dressed older man, calmly takes his seat. Ned (Zacharia Stonerock), wide eyes under his stocking cap, comes in looking unsure of himself. When Rodney (Lukas Felix Schooler), whose manner can’t help but project the fact he is a Yoga master, comes in and takes off his sandals, Ned immediately sheds his shoes and from then on, we have an assumed rule in this meeting space. The no-talking rule is also taken for granted, so it is jarring to hear married(?) couple Joan (Nathalie Cruz) and Judy (Jenni White) enter, bickering. But they get the hint, and soon the voice of the Teacher (Ben Rose) fills the space, exotically sounding like an English-speaking African man.

Teacher opens with a cryptic story of talking frogs; warns that the participants will not necessarily encounter him, or even Enlightenment, but “yourselves;” and gives the rules, which include that aside from a structured Q&A with him once a day, no one is to speak. During this, our last camper, Alicia (Morgan Morton) enters; the fact that she missed an important rule will come back on them later in the play.

Through our mind’s eye and the laying out of mats, the stage also becomes their cabin floor, as we get further impressions of these men and women, and the first lack-of-language barrier issue as Jan and Alicia were, it seems, assigned the same space.

Early on in this journey, the campers are instructed to each write their “intention” on a slip of paper, a source of friction when one accidentally reads another’s. As the drama builds, so does the humor, both drawing interesting and startling exchanges and moments from their self-enforced mime-hood.

Note that this play does include brief nudity, forbidden incense, and illicit use of Fritos. We also get Ned’s “life story,” as he accidentally asks the character’s most profound question. We also get a sense of deep loss – past, present, and future – each participant is working through. Even Rodney, acting blithely like a sort of yogic tourist, comes into some hard lessons.

At some point, practically every rule of the retreat is broken, which even brings Teacher – dealing with off-campus issues and finding Enlightenment via cold medicine – to his own self-reckoning.

Performances are sublime. Schooler uses his real-world yoga knowledge to good effect. Stonerock ably gives us a man struggling with his own identity, in more than the philosophical sense. Morton gives us someone about whom we learn so little yet feel for so much. We read volumes between the lines with White and Cruz – the former as a cancer survivor, and the latter recovering in her own way. And I don’t want to say too much about Caraher, but the revelation of his character sticks with you pleasantly.

Now that I’m outside that space, I feel free to speak up: See “Small Mouth Sounds,” in remaining performances Friday through Sunday, Dec. 10-12, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org.

Bradbury’s ‘Fire’ at District

By John Lyle Belden

We have become strangers to death. Even during the present pandemic, we look around at largely clean, safe spaces. In the future, we can take this ideal even further. Perhaps, by the year 2349, we can be rid of all morbidity, the imagining of terrible things, even the media that brings them into our imagination. Everything cleaned away, into the fire.

In legendary author Ray Bradury’s “Pillar of Fire,” one man who died in the 1940s stays in suspended animation through intense passion, spending years absorbing lost incinerated stories of the macabre, until that day in the mid-24th Century when workmen come close to excavating his coffin, and his passion realized, William Lantry rises.

“He came out of the earth, hating,” as the story puts it. 

TV/movie actor and Bradbury superfan Bill Oberst Jr. performed his recitation of this short story at The District Theatre in Indianapolis on October 28-29 (a nice lead-in to Halloween). No stranger to spooky roles (including a notable “unsub” on “Criminal Minds”), he fully embodies our unliving man, moving without feeling, speaking without breathing. You can also feel in his delivery of the text his great respect for the author (Oberst last appeared in Indy portraying Bradbury himself!). 

Lantry could experience nothing in his once-living senses, only rage at his country’s fulfilled future. He sees the city’s central incinerator, where he had been destined to go. He finds people who seem content, afraid of nothing as there is nothing to fear. This seems inhuman to him: “I will make night what it once was!” 

Looking upon his dark deeds, Lantry is approached by a stranger, who seems only amused that he is a walking dead man. This person even offers him a ride into town… 

Oberst developed this performance in Los Angeles, directed by Ezra Buzzington, who provides the voice of Lantry’s companion. The show is presented with the cooperation of the Bradbury estate and, in Indy, the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. 

The story, first published in Planet Stories magazine in 1948, helps develop some of the ideas Bradbury would later incorporate in his classic “Fahrenheit 451.” However, this tale takes a more nuanced view of the incineration of reading material. After the performance, I found myself wondering: Was Lantry the “hero” of the story? His actions to re-introduce terror to what he sees as a numbed population have devastating results. The world he sees negatively as sterile, another might call sanitary. And it seems telling that the stranger is so understanding.

Needless to say, this is an extraordinary theatrical experience, as well as a thought-provoking glimpse into the mind of one of the masters of science fiction.

The theatrical reading of “Pillar of Fire” is available on Audible. For more on Oberst’s work visit billoberst.com.

This review knows it’s a review

By John Lyle Belden

Meta (noun): Of a creative work, referring to itself, or to the conventions of the genre; self referential.

Why am I even doing this? I mean, the play, “Anton in Show Business,” even includes its own review. Just pay attention late in the second act; it’s right there. Nothing I need to add.

If you are in the Indianapolis theatre community, you’ve likely already heard about it, produced by the resurrected Betty Rage Productions and directed by its founder, Callie Burk-Hartz. We all know and love Callie, and she is on her game here. She even put it at the same address as her last Betty show, 627 Massachusetts Ave. – TOTS back then, now the District Theatre – “Outback” on the nice alley stage.

The 2000 play by Jane Martin takes its inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” written 100 years earlier. With more than a dozen roles played by seven women, the plot involves an effort to stage a version of the Russian’s downer drama that is, as one character puts it, “funny, funny, funny, funny, FUNNY, tragic.”

And if you are in the theatre community, you will love this. The cynical backstage dealings, egos, virtue-signaling, politics, etc., make this one of the best send-ups of regional and community theatre culture since “Waiting for Guffman.” If you aren’t on the “inside,” well, you liked “Guffman,” right? And did I mention this is FUNNY?

Devan Mathias plays TV star Holly Seabe (cast as Masha, I’ll note for Chekhov fans) as that actress you hate-watch but with slightly more talent and maybe a hint of humanity. Meg Ellioy McLane is struggling stage veteran Casey Mulgraw (Olga) trying to stay positive despite her lack of a big break, and that lump she just detected… Sarah Zimmerman is impossibly-sweet and eager Lisabette Cartwright (Irina), an elementary teacher in her first professional role, bringing her back to her native Texas, “Pardon me, Jesus.”

Comic chameleon Kelsey Van Voorst gets a workout here in roles including Actors Express of San Antonio Producing Director (and idealistic Chekhov fan) Kate, and country star-turned-actor Ben Shipwright (Lt. Col. Vershinin). She shows her drama chops by handling the comic beats without getting silly. Tracy Herring gives us her wild take on not one, but two different eccentric directors. Jamillah Gonzalez has her run of the stage as the obligatory Stage Manager/Narrator, as well as a prospective play director and the morally bankrupt Corporate Sponsor. And then there is Audrey Stonerock as Joby, who is literally the audience proxy – but she means well, and we like Audrey, who is nice both in and out of character.

All this, in a play about putting on a play, and how we observe that play, so that it knows it’s a play about players in a play putting on a play, and how the players get played. Play on!

Yes, this show is just as sharp, insightful and funny as it says it is. They even slipped in a couple of updated cultural references. Performances run through August 8; get tickets at indydistricttheatre.org.

Another go-round with the ‘Girls’ in LAFF parody

By John Lyle Belden

Here we go again! The gang at Loud and Fast Funny Shows present “The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 2,” Friday and Saturday nights through March 21 at the District Theatre.

It’s been nearly a year since LAFF put on the dresses and thanked us for being their friends. Most of the “girls” return: Dave Ruark as Dorothy, Pat Mullen as Blanche, and Jim Banta as Rose, joined by Frankie Bolda as Sophie. 

As with last year’s show, this is a parody originally by David Cerda and David Lipschutz of Hell in a Handbag Productions of Chicago, complete with mature language and immature behavior. And, to get us in the mood, we’re again treated to old sitcom themes and commercials while we wait for the show to begin. 

For an hour, we are treated to two quick episodes with a Golden Girls trivia game show in between, hosted by Christian Condra, complete with audience participation and prizes.

Condra also returns as sexy Jazzercise Jeff — short-shorts and all — and takes a turn as Rose’s blind sister. Joining the cast in multiple roles are Mark Cashwell (including as Dorothy’s date to the Sadie Hawkins Dance), Kayla Lee (playing Sophie’s rival), Tyler Lyons (roles include Dorothy’s ex-husband) and David Mosedale, whose major part is Jessica Fletcher in a “Murder, She Wrote” crossover.

This heartfelt jab at the old TV hits is hilarious as usual, though there seems to be even more sexual innuendo this time around, so it’s best for those old enough to remember the source material. 

Each night has two performances, 7:30 and 9 p.m., at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at http://www.indyfringe.org.

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.

Wacky wizard world, from a different perspective

By John Lyle Belden

The goofballs of LAFF (Loud and Fast Funny Shows) are back, and they’ve brought some friends.

In “Puffs,” an Off-Broadway show by Matt Cox, this time the parody target is the “Harry Potter” novels. However, the seven-year epic (presented in 100 minutes) is told from the perspective of what trademarked materials would call House Hufflepuff. It should be noted that the more you know about the Potter books and films, the more you will get all the jokes and references. But for fans, no matter what your House, this fun and touching take on the stories is a must-see.

The LAFF regulars — Matt Mullen, Jim Banta, and Olivia Schaperjohn — are our central trio of students, finding themselves sorted into the Puffs (rather than the Braves, Smarts, or Snakes) only to find that it is apparently a House of losers. The one exception is handsome prefect Cedric (Christian Condra), who is a shining leader up until the climax of Book 4. Afterward, Condra portrays He-whose-name-we-shouldn’t-be-talking-about (never mind the irony), with taped-down nose and hilariously dramatic flair. 

Dave Ruark rejoins the company as our Narrator, keeping this complex plot moving along. 

Various roles are ably filled by Mark Cashwell, who plays a lot of the faculty; Gorgi Parks Fulper, parts include Professor Sprouty, and an evil Puff escaped from Wizard Prison; Chelsea Leis Mullen, notably as charming and cheerful Leanne, as well as the Puffs founder; Tyler Lyons; Maddie Deeke; Kayla Lee; Anthony Nathan; Justina Savage; and Frankie Bolda, whose roles include Harry. 

While this is a very funny parody, what might be surprising is the amount of emotional heft this underdog (under-badger?) story carries, as the group that would be happy to rank third out of the four Houses grows to prove they are just as important as any other aspect of the Wizarding world. Since a lot of Potter fans grow up nerdy outsiders, they feel an affinity for the Puffs; this show allows them to not only laugh at themselves and other odd aspects of the epic, but also to affirm their steadfast gold-and-black badger pride.

Performances of “Puffs” are Fridays through Sundays through Jan. 4 on the main stage at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., managed by IndyFringe. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.