Full ‘Hamlet’ enriches familiar story

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.indybardfest.com.

By Wendy Carson

By now we all know the story of Hamlet. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and you’ve likely seen more than one version of it. However, Doug Powers and the Carmel Theatre Company have chosen to give us a different take by giving us an almost entirely unabridged look at the play.

Before you balk at the 3-plus hour running length (with intermission), note that with these rarely acted scenes returned to the story, it just deepens the richness of the characters. It also brings the secondary plot forward (remember Norway?) bringing more closure and purpose to many of the characters.

Honestly, I had forgotten many of the scenes and speeches performed and was touched by the true beauty of not only their narrative but the language itself.

Also, the starkness of the stage and minimalist set pieces help remind you that this show is about listening to and understanding the characters. In order to fulfill this task, one must have great actors and Powers has outdone himself in procuring them.

Brian G. Hartz sizzles as Hamlet, pulling forth all of the rage and deviousness that the character embodies. Miranda Nehrig turns Ophelia into a young woman who’s confusion and frustrations over Hamlet’s behavior help lead her to her desperate end. Both have skill in communicating beyond saying the lines, especially Nehrig’s talent for adding volumes with a single facial expression.

Eric Bryant as Claudius and Jean Arnold as Gertrude present the quintessential parents who are bewildered as to why their son has so quickly changed his demeanor. Their recent nuptials so soon after the previous King’s untimely death never cross their mind as a possible reason.

While most of the Bard Fest offerings have cast women in several men’s roles, Powers uses his casting choices to their maximum effect. Jo Bennett plays Horatio as a dear friend but in later scenes there seems to be romantic tension, which they pull off with great aplomb.

However, the best example of this is with the character of Guildenstern, played by Gorgi Parks Fulper. Instructed to play upon her history with Hamlet to obtain information, she is asked to use her feminine wiles. Meanwhile, Benjamin Mathis plays Rosencrantz as the perfect second banana who seems to always be left out of the whole scheme.

Alan Cloe is perfect as wise but tragic Polonius. Noah Winston is a fiery force as his son, Laertes.

Casting is also clever in its players with two or more roles: Fulper and Mathis also play palace guards in the opening scene. Janice Hibbard is the messenger to Norway, and later is that country’s warrior princess Fortinbras. The ghost of murdered King Hamlet (the title character’s dad) is portrayed by Tony Armstrong, who also plays an identical character in the play-within-the-play that Hamlet (the younger) sets up to watch his stepfather’s reaction; later Armstrong is the gravedigger who unearths Yorick’s skull.

In addition, kudos to Rachel Snyder and Kyrsten Lyster as members of the traveling troupe of Players.

There is some intense swordplay in this production, so credit is due to Bryant as fight choreographer.

Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 Saturday (with talkback following) and 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-27) at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.org.

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.

Bard Fest: ‘Merchant’ an entertaining comedy with troubling themes

This Show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By Wendy Carson

One of the things I love about Bardfest is that at least one production is more obscure or rarely produced. This year’s offering is “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by First Folio Productions, adapted and directed by Doug Powers.

The play is actually a romantic comedy, but has tragic overtones. It sports an easy-to-follow plotline and is immensely entertaining. Therefore, you may wonder why is it not done more often. I can only guess it is due to the overwhelming Antisemitism rife in the story’s main plot. So let’s address that matter: I believe it exists, not just to justify the character’s level of vengeance, but also because in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation, the Jews were a minority. This opens a dialogue regarding the mistrust, denigration and oppression of minorities. Especially in our turbulent modern times.

That all being said, let’s now get to the actual play.

The crux of the story is that Bassanio desires to woo the lovely Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since he has foolishly squandered his own fortunes, he turns to his beloved friend, Antonio, to loan him the money needed (which will be easily repaid by his new wife’s money). With Antonio’s funds tied up in his own business ventures, they must seek the aid of a local Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Having been slandered and ill-treated my Antonio for years, Shylock is loath to help him, but agrees to the loan provided he is delivered a pound of flesh upon default. Since the gentlemen know that there is no way this would occur, they agree.

Portia’s father passed away, but had devised a method to aid her in the choosing of the correct bridegroom. Three coffers are given, one each of gold, silver and lead, each with a warning regarding the contents – only one granting permission to marry. After other suitors fail, Bassanio chooses correctly.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have all wrecked leaving him unable to repay the debt. Add to this that one of his friends, Lorenzo, not only eloped with Shylock’s only daughter, Jessica, but also converted her to Christianity, and the overwhelmed Shylock resolves to exact his revenge by literally collecting the promised pound of flesh. Bassanio offers to save his friend by paying twice the amount of the debt, but for Shylock, this is not about money, it is about his honor.

A trial commences and Shylock is granted his pound of flesh. However, the visiting lawyer – Portia in disguise – announces that upon taking his due, he not only must take the exact amount (no more, no less) but must also not spill a drop of blood in its collection. What will Shylock do?

Emily Bohn as Portia and Amanda Boldt as her maid, Nerissa, aptly bring forward the cunning that women are scarcely afforded in many of the Bard’s productions. Ryan Ruckman (Antonio) and Zach Taylor (Bassanio) portray not only the determination of each character but their intensely loving friendship. Ryan Reddick beautifully embodies the emotional sorrow and vengeance that drive Shylock to his end.

While John Mortell plays three characters throughout the show, his endearingly comic turn as Portia’s somewhat dimwitted servant, Balthasar, is truly a delight to behold. Bringing much-needed levity to a show that can be fraught with darkness.

The cast also includes Jim Banta, Aaron Cleveland, Ben Mathis, Pat Mullen, Rachel Snyder, Dwuan Watson Jr. and Lexy Weixel – all excellent.

Powers places the play in an Italy resembling the 1930s, as his Director’s Note explains, a time when rampant antisemitism has swept Europe, but its tragic endgame was yet to be revealed.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5-7, at the Indyfringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the College and Mass Ave. intersection.

Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Millicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Review: Ecce ‘Equus’

By John Lyle Belden

The Peter Shaffer play “Equus” is famous for not only its dark subject matter (intertwining themes of bestiality and religion, horse mutilations, etc.) but also for its nudity.

But in the Casey Ross production playing through July 24 at the Grove Haus, though there is a scene with characters fully naked, more striking are the souls laid bare in this drama. Never going beyond loosening his tie, Dr. Dysart (Brian G. Hartz) finds his profession of psychiatry, his personal relationships, and his very life raw and exposed to the audience as well as the probings of his own mind. Frank Strang (Doug Powers), father to disturbed teen Alan (Taylor Cox), tightly bound in vested suit and his own convictions, finds himself exposed and convicted in his son’s eyes. Alan’s mother Dora (Ericka Barker) finds her faith shaken and her own facade sliding away. And young Jill (Sarah McGrath), fascinated by the sight of bare skin, exposes herself to Alan completely, never suspecting the devastation that would follow.

As for Cox, who has admitted to struggling with his role as a boy who comes to deify horses, confusing religious and sexual ecstacy, his dedication to conveying Alan’s pain to the audience – which are seated around the central stage area, the front row inches from the action – has paid off immensely. You can’t help but feel empathy for the plight of Alan, the people in contact with him, and even the steeds he adores, then hurts when his passioned delusion turns violent. Hartz provides a brilliant counterpoint with his compassionate yet driven Dysart.

Excellent support is provided by other members of the cast: Allison Clark Reddick as magistrate Hester Solomon, Tony Armstrong as stablemaster Dalton, Nan Macy as the Nurse, and the horses played by Bowie Foote, Christopher Bell, Beth Clark and Johnny Mullens as Nugget, Alan’s favorite. Ross, who directs with the assistance of David Mosedale, provides an excellent minimalist stage design, and kudos to Davey Pelsue for composing the haunting original score.

Shaffer wrote the play after being inspired by a brief news story of a 17-year-old blinding six horses with a sharpened tool. With this fact, he spun a fictional drama that strikes at the truth of faith and devotion, and our definitions of sanity and normalcy. I couldn’t help but notice that when Alan has nightmares of his equestrian gods judging him, he cries out “Eck!” which is revealed to be the obvious, “Equus,” the word for his godhead and savior. Still, it echoes to me of “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the Man,” Latin for the words of Pilate presenting a broken Jesus to the public.

In “Equus,” we are presented with a broken boy, exposing the cracks in everyone around him until all are shattered. It is truly something to behold.

Find the Grove Haus at 1001 Hosbrook St., near Fountain Square just southeast of downtown Indy. Find info and tickets at http://uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions or the Casey Ross Productions Facebook page.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)