Embrace your inner ‘Betty’ at the District

By John Lyle Belden

I always liked the name of Betty Rage Productions, picturing classic pin-up queen Bettie Page in a feminist fury. But from White to Rubble, there are many kinds of Betty, and we experience that variety in “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties,” by Jen Silverman, directed for Betty Rage by Kait Burch at the District Theatre.

With touchstones that include Shakespeare and The Vagina Monologues, in this story we meet five women named Betty who are searching, each in their own way, for something more meaningful.

Our first Betty (Tracy Herring) is very concerned about things in the news, very rich, very restless, very frustrated with her husband, and very rich. 

Betty No. 2 (Courtney McClure-Murray) doesn’t come first on this or any list – in fact, she’s realizing she apparently has no real friends at all, or does she? 

Betty three (Sarah Zimmerman) is street-smart and expanding her horizons. She just discovered “The Thee-ah-tah” by seeing a show that had summertime and a dream or something, and now wants to “devise a play.” 

Betty 4 (Jenni White) seems content to be constantly fixing her truck, but is starting to feel left out of things that involve the other Betties (especially one in particular).

The fifth Betty (Kallen Ruston) is out of rehab and in the gym she owns, helping others find their inner strength. Her present challenge: Betty 1.

Through odd dinner parties and unpredictable rehearsals, these five clash and meld in hilarious scenes. Through their unique personalities, we can see a little of ourselves in at least one Betty – even if we don’t have the same body parts.

Speaking of that, be prepared for a lot of discussions about sex, sexuality, queerness, and calling out the labial-vaginal area by its feline nickname. This is actually essential to the plot, especially when one Betty gets the courage to look at her pussy, and discovers a lion.

Each actor is a badass Betty on her own, as we’ve seen them all in various drama and comic ventures, and Burch has helped them to blend these talents in a way that makes sisterhood, or even becoming lovers, feel natural. I don’t like to pick favorites, but I think the one playing Betty was just awesome.

For a fun and unconventional story of self-discovery and empowerment, engage in “Collective Rage,” this Thursday through Sunday, March 9-12, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indydistricttheatre.org.

This is ‘Happy’

By John Lyle Belden

Decades before the popular “This is Fine” meme showed a cartoon dog smiling through a burning hellscape, famed Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett penned the play, “Happy Days.” If pressed for a quick explanation of this unusual two-person show (completely unrelated to the 1970s TV sitcom), I would say it is as if the unfortunate but contented pooch had two acts to elaborate on how “fine” things are, and were.

Long considered by commenters an excellent example of Theatre of the Absurd, “Happy Days” is presented by Clerical Error Productions this weekend (through Feb. 26) at the District Theatre.

Clerical Error founder Kate Duffy is Winnie, just your typical Irish woman who is buried at least to her waist in a burning desert. A bell sounds to awaken her, and another will signal the end of the day. She awakens with a beaming smile and declaration that this is a happy day – as time passes she will, with optimism that borders on delusion, reiterate that the day is indeed happy. She has her routine. She has her black bag. She has her toothbrush. She has her hat, parasol, tonic, lipstick, Brownie the gun, and her music box. She has her song, but best not to sing it too soon.

She also has her husband. Just over the dirt mound is Willie, played with surly patience by David Mosedale. Where she is endlessly talkative, he is a man of few words, or sometimes none at all. Unable to stand, Willie makes his way in and out of his own tunnel. “What a curse, mobility,” Winnie chides him.

One gets a sense that for this couple, and perhaps the world in general, there is little future, so for our lady there is always the past, with frequent reflections on “the old style.” There is the recent memory of their last visitors, and a long-ago story of a girl and a doll.

Among actors, this play is held in the same esteem as Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and for the same reason: with limited physical action, this becomes the supreme test of a thespian, to engage and hold an audience for two acts with just endless talking. Duffy seems to relish the challenge, and comes through with a performance that draws you in. Directed by Jon Lindley, she accepts and goes with the absurdities in such a way that you come to feel that no matter how odd things get, this is just the way they are. Then, when the next day dawns and things have shifted, you can’t help but feel for her, wish her to have the former weirdness we had grown accustomed to in the first act.  

While observing, it is only natural for us in the audience to try to make sense of it. Beckett’s cleverly vague composition gives room for endless interpretations and metaphors. Hints and clues abound, but resolution? We are left stuck, like Winnie. Perhaps it’s best to just find an answer we are happy with.

For fans of Mr. Beckett, Ms. Duffy, or the curious open to it, this is a fascinating experience. Wendy and I found it quite entertaining – though our tastes do run to the weird, like dogs in hats in ironic webcomics.

The District is at 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. For information and tickets, see ClericalErrorProductions.com or IndyDistrictTheatre.org.

Being in ‘Error’ feels just right

By John Lyle Belden

It’s fascinating to see Clerical Error Productions expand its offerings beyond an annual parody of a popular offbeat British sitcom. Case in point: company Creative Consultant and Vaudeville Coordinator James Benn just brought to the District Theatre cabaret stage, “In the Life: Songs of Gay Harlem.”

Accompanied by longtime local pianist Carl Hines, Benn introduces himself as Dr. Tyrell Leviticus Worthington, our instructor in American History – to be more precise, American Black LGBTQ History.

Moments later he is settled on his seat by the piano, enlightening us about “The Life” (code for LGBTQ culture at the time) in 1920s and ‘30s Harlem neighborhoods of New York. As we quickly discover, many of the jazz, blues and early pop icons are also Gay Icons, some surprisingly out and proud. The names include Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Clara Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ethel Waters, and the legendary Ma Rainey. With his warm earnest delivery, and the perfect beat popping out of his fingers, Benn puts the “easy” in speakeasy, entertaining in a way so everyone in the packed room feels his personal touch.

Also, you come away knowing a bit more than you did going in. An evening with these classics could have you itching to find the records yourself – provided you’ve got something that plays 78s.

Keep an eye and ear out for his next show – follow “James Solomon Benn” on Facebook and LinkedIn – and check out ClericalErrorProductions.com for upcoming productions, including the Beckett play “Happy Days” with CEP founder Kate Duffy, Feb. 23-26 at the District Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

IndyFringe: Gloria Mundi

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Gloria (Kayla Jo Pulliam) is not having a good day. She is an addict, out on parole and living in a halfway house. Last night an angel, Harold (Bryson Kramer), came to give her the news that she is to be the parent of the new child of God. When she tells her ex, Jody (Cameron Pride) this “happy” news, is it any wonder he,* and social worker Harold (Kramer), suspect she is using again?

This sets the plot of “Gloria Mundi,” Pamela Morgan’s tale of recovery, parenting, relationships, and faith presented by Nomad Theater Company under the direction of Ashleigh Rae-Lynn.

Morgan and company have created a story that is full of hilarious moments (“the doughnuts have suffered the consequences”) and heartbreaking emotion (the fate of Lanie, Gloria’s first child).

“Don’t f*** it up this time,” angelic Harold advises, and it’s possible that Gloria already has. Through twists both dramatic and funny, we’re taken on a wild ride that ends in a miracle of hope no one expects.

Witness this blessed event, 5:15 p.m. today (as we post this) and 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the District Theatre.

(*EDIT: Character’s pronouns are he/they, we were informed by Morgan after this initially posted, and pronoun and name spelling have been updated.)

IndyFringe: Dadbod

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Local standup comic Brad Hinshaw has once again managed to escape his wife and kids (and not just by hiding in the bathroom) to come out and spend time with actual adults again, bringing another hour of family-centric comedy (not to be confused with “family-friendly,” some words would be bleeped on TV).

Hinshaw returns to further refine his act, “Dadbod,” in anticipation of filming it. While most of his material is the same as last year’s show – if you haven’t heard about the joy of “lactation cookies,” you really should – the newer stories are hilarious. Who knew the dangers of toddlers and super soakers?

As I said last year, this is a delightfully relatable show for parents and non-parents alike. So, take the chance to escape your own family so you can laugh at yourself as well as Hinshaw’s situations.

Today’s performance (as we post this) is 1:45 p.m., and the last is 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4, both at the cabaret stage of the District Theatre.

IndyFringe: Fret Knot

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

First, I must note that comparisons to the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates are inevitable. Madeline Wilson and Lizzie Kaneicki do seem to have the same schtick, sharing the stage – Wilson with ukulele, Kaneicki with guitar – and perform hilarious songs about life and relationships, but does that other pair of funny women present their shared love of crochet, and literally get tied to and tangled up in their hobby as the show progresses? Afraid not, so “Fret Knot.”

No copycats here – Wilson (originally from Phoenix, according to Facebook) and Kaneicki (from West Virginia) joined forces in Chicago, and with friends perform comedy with music biweekly as “Hahaha Lalala”,* so they are quite capable of bringing the funny as their own entertaining act.

Taking them on their own terms – funny bits, singly or together, about odd taco runs, upset housecats, and all – includes some poetry and storytelling, engaging a range of both emotion and talent. We get the downside of summer birthdays, the peril of intrusive thoughts, and the comforting power of mathematics.

The yarn metaphor is literally all over the place – don’t get too caught up in it. But it does help give the show a “something different” Fringe-y vibe, and at one point the audience does help increase their entanglement.

Having blown in from the Windy City for one weekend, you can see and enjoy “Fret Knot” 8:45 p.m. today (as we post this) and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the cabaret stage of the District Theatre.

For Chicago performances, they are presently at the Bughouse Theater.

(*Find them on Instagram, Google search has a cacophony of unrelated “ha” and “la”s if you hunt there.)

IndyFringe: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The title of the show — “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” — is never said in the 24 tiny plays presented by UIndy Theatre Company at the District Theatre. To be more accurate, it is: “Too Much Time Makes the Audience Get Cookies.”

The series, “neo-futurist plays” by Greg Allen performed by UIndy students Elisabeth Enderle, Nick Finch, Audrey Panyard, and Kelli Thomas, are represented by cards numbered 1-24 at the back of the stage. The audience chooses the order, so the show is different every time.

The topic and form of each vary widely, from funny to absurd to introspective to disturbing to deadly serious. There’s also a bit of audience participation within the action. And remember, “Play 23” does not exist.

For anyone who remembers my write-up on this last year, apologies for the self-plagiarism. This is still one of the hottest tickets at the Fringe, with some new micro-plays in the mix, all excellently executed by this talented foursome. Their comic timing is great, but overall “timing”? Well, it’s hard to get this many scenes done in 48 minutes (an average of 2 minutes per play). The performance I saw this year clocked in at 49:50 — we got cookies!

Remaining performances are 3:30 p.m. Saturday and 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4.

IndyFringe: The Ballad of Blade Stallion

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Matt Kramer and the troupe at Defiance Comedy have brought us another kooky laugh-fest for our enjoyment. From the opening scene of “The Ballad of Blade Stallion” – in which yoga balls are bounced upon to simulate spaceships – you know to expect a silly great time.

Having been hired to retrieve the only copy of some very important secret plans (Who doesn’t make a copy?) as well as a kidnapped girl, Astria (Emily Bohannon), Blade Stallion (*sting* “Blade Stallion!”) sets off to get his paycheck.

Stallion (Zack Joyce) was not aware of the choreography included in his theme song, but manages to make it through that obstacle, only to find that he must also babysit two young children once he gets to his ship.

Cobalt (John Kern) and Skye (Rachelle Martin) are not only familiar with his legend, they feel he might even be “Space Jesus.” As much as Stallion hates telling stories, he manages to control the kids somewhat by telling them his backstory.

We learn he was raised by witches, as well as the origins of his Space Nemesis, The Dandelorian (Clay Mabbitt). This chapter also introduces us to his fellow Space Pirate Academy graduates: cyborg Ann Droid (Meg McLane), with whom he shares a sordid love; and Bando (Kelsey VanVoorst), an anthropomorphic feline who may or may not have his best interests at heart.

Add to this a lot of crazy songs, improbable plot twists, the entire cast milking every bit of humor out of the entire script, and some bizarre characters thrown in, and you have another typically hilarious Defiance show.

Witness the marvel that is “The Ballad of Blade Stallion (Blade Stallion!)” at the District Theatre, 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1 and 3.

IndyFringe: IndyProv Presents ‘Our Favorite Fringe Artists’

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

This year, the minds at IndyProv have decided to amp up their comedic prowess and invite performers from various other IndyFringe shows to join them onstage for their improvised comedy performances.

The visiting guests are different for every performance (the cast of “Ship of Dreams” joined them when I attended) so you can return and see a completely unique show each time. IndyProv has also embraced the modern age by having audience members text in their prompts rather than write them on pieces of paper.

The show consists of various improv games (some of which were new to me) which highlight all of the various acting and comedic chops of the cast. One thing I did find, when giving the players a subject, activity, or item, sometimes the most ordinary things can provide more inspired fun.

So, be sure to catch their next show(s). It’s a fun time for (almost) all of the family.*

“IndyProv Presents: Our Favorite Fringe Artists” takes the District Theatre stage 5:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2-3.

(*Some adult language; you know how actors get.)