ALT: ‘Admission’ of difficult truths

By John Lyle Belden

You can tell the play is going to be problematic when you have five white actors talking about race. And if this bugs your liberal sensibilities, buckle in for the ride that is “Admissions,” the drama by Joshua Harmon presented by American Lives Theatre.

Sherri (Bridget Haight) is the head of Admissions at a posh New England prep school. Her mission, over the years since she took the job, has been to increase the diversity of the student body, which was overwhelmingly white even by New Hampshire standards. And she is SO close to her goal of 20 percent People of Color! Her near-retirement assistant, Roberta (Suzanne Fleenor) isn’t making it easy, though, as the photos in the new recruiting catalog are nearly all populated by White people.

But what of the basketball picture, Roberta pleads, frustrated at the countless hours already put in on the book. Next to Sherri’s son Charlie, there’s his half-Black best friend. But Perry doesn’t present as Black in photographs, Sherri replies.

Roberta pleads for clarity on her literally black and white mission, growing tense as Sherri – ever woke – continues to give instructions in euphemisms. Finally, our license-to-be-blunt-because-she’s-old says “more dark-skinned people, got it” and goes on her way.

But this play is about more than an obscure publication being sent to scholarship families in the Bronx. We find later from Perry’s mom, Ginnie (Valerie Nowosielski), that the young man has been accepted to Yale University. Charlie (Matthew Conwell), who also applied to Yale – his dream school, and as his parents insist only an Ivy League school will give him success – did not gain acceptance.

When Charlie finally gathers his wits enough to come home that evening, he is still very, very, very, very, very not good with this. Having already entered his senior year passed over for editor of the school paper for a less-capable girl, this situation has brought him to a breaking point. So, he vents in a paint-peeling rant to his mother and father, Bill (Larry Sommers), the prep school’s headmaster. After the boy storms off to his room, Bill – the kind of middle-aged man who believes he’s scrubbed every bit of racism and privilege from his soul – utters, “that’s it; we’ve raised a Republican.”

But the bitter joke is on Bill and Sherri when Charlie finally sorts through all the contradictions of his life and takes action on his own. Suddenly, a few photos in a magazine are the least of their problems.

Director Chris Saunders and the cast pull no (metaphorical) punches, as Harmon’s drama reveals that “admission” has more than one definition – and both are difficult. This hard look at liberal hypocrisy could raise concerns that conservatives may view it with, “See, I told you so!” However, I don’t see a lot of folks on that side of the spectrum wanting to attend – and what of when their critiques have a valid point? We can’t work our way out of complex situations with the same simple thinking that got us into them.

The strong performances make this worth the challenge to view; and as you wonder if the characters learned anything by the end of the play, consider: did you?

Remaining dates are Jan. 20-30 at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis. Get info at americanlivestheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org.

Uneasy relationships in Southbank production

By John Lyle Belden

Ever have those people in your life who are just awful, yet they’re somehow your best friends? Thanks to shows like TV’s “Seinfeld,” we can see what it’s like when such people are besties with each other. Now imagine if these persons that you love, yet wouldn’t trust to watch your houseplants, had real problems and real feelings.

This, with a healthy dose of father-daughter issues, is the world of Nina Raine’s play, “Rabbit.” Her first produced work, debuting to acclaim in 2006 on London’s West End prior to a hit Off-Broadway run, gets local treatment with director Marcia Eppich-Harris for her Southbank Theatre Company at the Storefront Theatre in Broad Ripple.

Bella (Emily Ann Scott) is trying to help her testy father (Craig Kemp) with his neurological issues. It becomes plain through this play that they have a complex history, arguably abusive but tinged with love and the universal desire for a child to please her parent. She’s trying to help him recover from a stroke – but it’s not a stroke, and he’s not recovering.

From this scene we go to the main setting, a London bar where Bella starts celebrating her 29th birthday with friend Emily (Trick Blanchfield), who launches into a tone-deaf gripe about a hearing-impaired coworker. Changing the subject, they discuss who will join them at the party. An impromptu choice is Tom (Brant Hughes), an ex-lover of Bella’s who doesn’t seem to mind abandoning the women he had been with to join them.

They will also be joined by lawyer (a Barrister, complete with wig in his satchel) and struggling fiction author Richard (Ryan Powell), a long-time friend whom Bella had also slept with. Rounding out the party is American ex-pat, writer, and scratch-offs enthusiast Sandy (Joy Shurn). Prior to her arrival, Richard refers to Sandy as a “sexual kleptomaniac” – which sounds odd, but you come to understand he has a point.

When not appearing in flashbacks as the father, Kemp stays in the background as the quietly smiling bartender, a device which aids in the flow of the play. Raine’s storytelling skills, as well as those of Kemp and Eppich-Harris, come through in his vignettes and dreamlike moments that give context to Bella’s inner struggle, as well as the visible personality flaws that equally not-nice-but-they-try friends just take in stride. Were this a Brit-com like “Coupling” or the UK’s “Men Behaving Badly” (or America’s “Seinfeld”), she’d be seen as a bitch for bitch’s sake, controlling and harsh to others while easily wounded.

Not that the others are angels – Richard goes into a rant that could be described as playfully misogynistic, which seems both earnest and just getting a rise out of the ladies for fun. But this also gives Bella an opportunity to comment harshly on the roles and expectations of women in 21st century feminism, while living in the shadows of past leaders. Emily, a practicing physician, is hard-pressed to agree or refute.

Tom is a cypher with a Scottish accent (he “work(s) in the city”), but that gives Hughes room to work with to make the character interesting. In another setting, perhaps Sandy would be the “ugly American;” here she can be the voice of reason.  

The pace of our better angels quietly spinning out of control is given by a clever visual metaphor, front and center. Even as we might struggle to like, or at least understand, the characters, this whole becomes much better and more poignant than the sum of its parts.

And what of the title? It will eventually become clear. In a personal observation, it occurred to me that while in nature animals are said to respond to danger with “fight or flight,” for a wild rabbit, it’s typically “flight or freeze.” I’ll just leave you with that.

“Rabbit” has remaining performances Thursday through Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9-12, at the Storefront, 717 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis. Entry is by a long stairwell, contact the theater or Southbank if this is an issue. Info and tickets at southbanktheatre.org.

Phoenix: Story of treasure in unexpected place

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time there was a woman, a trailer-park resident, who purchased an interesting abstract painting from a junk shop. Somebody told her it could actually be a long-lost work by a famous artist.

She reportedly replied, “Who the f#@& is Jackson Pollock?”

This true story is the touchstone for the comic drama “Bakersfield Mist,” by Stephen Sachs, on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through Dec. 19.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt is Maude Gutman (not the actual woman’s name, so there is room for dramatic license), hard drinking and filthy mouthed, but refreshingly honest and likable. Her cozy home appears to have been invaded by an antique mall thrift store, but she treasures every trashy trinket and questionable bit of wall art. Given the set decoration and California climate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the decorated Christmas tree indicates whether it’s the holidays or not.

She nervously awaits the arrival of fussy art expert Lionel Percy (Joshua Coomer), who can’t help but have a sour first impression of this situation, even before he gets to see the potential Pollock. 

But gaze upon it he does, and using only the expertise in his brain and the “blink” of his eyes, he confidently declares the painting a clever forgery.

Maude refuses to accept this. “What if you’re wrong?” she demands.

Thus the battle of wits is engaged, though for Maude it began before Lionel even entered her home. And the New York expert who literally wrote the book on this kind of art (more than once!) finds that while she hasn’t been to college, Maude has come to know a lot about Jackson Pollock.

Like all great theatre – or seemingly random color swirls on a white canvas – this play resonates beyond what we first encounter, as with the help of some purloined whiskey these two delve deeply into what art is, what evidence is necessary to confirm its value, and what it truly means. As art reflects life, what is genuine and what is false about the work that is us? Director and Phoenix regular Constance Macy gets a wonderful, gritty, and frequently hilarious performance from this duo, climaxing in a moment that – even if you know how this event actually resolved – has you on the edge of your seat. 

Not your typical December show, but, as I noted, there is a tree, and a bowling pin painted as a snowman, and plenty of spirit. It would be a shame to miss “Bakersfield Mist” at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.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.

Bard Fest: Tragic Egyptian queen still fascinating

By John Lyle Belden

Indy Bard Fest presents the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company production of “Antony and Cleopatra” – which, though I know that’s the way Shakespeare titled it, should give the doomed last Queen of Egypt first billing.

Already an incredible talent, Afton Shepard throws herself fully into her title role, portraying Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” of moods and mental states. But under her demeanor, ranging from stormy to sultry, burns a fierce intelligence. All this and more Mark Antony, well-portrayed by Darin Richart, sees, and dedicates himself to as they rule the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. But confict with fellow triumvir Caesar (the eventual Augustus, played by Thomas Sebald) is inevetable.

This production, directed by Ryan T. Shelton, pares down the cast and puts the focus more squarely on Cleopatra. Having ruled since she was a teen – and still showing fits of immaturity – she is also well traveled and educated. She knows a woman’s typical place in this world (much like ours, in a way) and is not afraid to use seductive charms to camoflauge her true wisdom.

Many characters are placed on the weary shoulders of Craig Kemp, who enters as the Soothsayer and appears as various messengers and soldiers as the story demands. The excellent cast includes Bobbi Bye as Caesar’s advisor Agrippa, Dana Lesh and Barb Weaver as Cleopatra’s servants Charmian and Iras, Duane Leatherman as third triumvir Lepidus, Jamie Devine as Caesar’s sister Octavia, Becca Bartley as Cleopatra’s guard Alexas, and Jet Terry as Antony’s faithful soldier Scarus. Kevin Caraher gets a meaty role in Enorbarbus, steadfast for Antony up to the point that he sees history turning and fearing himself on the wrong side, “when valor preys on reason.”

Gender-blind casting is nothing new in today’s theatre, but I liked that Caesar’s soldier Dolabella, played by Evangeline Bouw, seems to lend an element of feminine empathy in being the last Roman to guard Cleopatra at the end.

Scholars debate the fine points of even the original historical sources, but this powerful play gives a good sense of the era and the essence of the larger than life persons in it. We feel we have met Cleopatra and Antony, and it’s an honor.

Performances are Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 28, 30, 31) at The Cat Theater, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Bard Fest cast brave Albee classic

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by saying the old adage is true: Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.

This is the precise hour in which our tale begins. George (Tony Armstrong) and Martha (Nan Macy) have arrived home from one of her father’s numerous parties just in time to continue the “festivities” by initiating the new professor into the way of life at their provincial college. Since Martha’s father is the President (and ersatz owner) of this establishment, Nick (Matthew Walls) and his wife Honey (Afton Shepard) feel compelled to attend.

What begins as two couples sharing cocktails quickly escalates into a verbal brawl in which no one is safe. At first, Nick and Honey gape in shock as the barbs fly back and forth. but as time passes and alcohol is consumed, their own skeletons explode out of the closet for all to see.

Edward Albee’s classic play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shows the author’s mastery of language and its power. Martha’s tongue is a lethal weapon, which no man, save perhaps George, can survive. However, George can hold his own in this melee.

Watching Martha and George go at each other is akin to seeing different beasts battle for dominance, the saddest thing is that they honestly do love each other, in their own way. Macy is a black belt at this sort of verbal karate, complete with Martha’s sharp tools of wit and psychological warfare. Armstrong presents George as the weathered stone taking on wave after wave of abuse, but with the eerie calm of one who has little left to lose, and one more devastating ace to play.

Walls brings his own cockiness, in which Nick manages for two of the drama’s three acts to feel that he will come out of this skirmish unscathed, and perhaps ready to exploit what he’s heard. But too late he finds he’s way too Kansas for these Ivy League-level head games. Shepard manages a lot with her character, an easy foil for Albee’s humor who, with the help of lots of brandy, devolves from a waif lost in the playground to a girl lost in the woods.

For those unfamiliar with the play, or the Oscar-winning Elizabeth Taylor film, note this production, directed by Matthew Socey, is a wild ride, an emotional roller coaster with no brakes, so engaging you may not notice it runs three hours. No story told or alluded to is without importance (except one bit in the first scene, more on that later) and only at the end do we get a full view of the field of play. However, while the show is very intense, it can be amusing to notice how often various couples in the audience knowingly look at each other after some of the exchanges.

Oh, and to save you a minute or two of Googling during the first intermission, the answer to Martha’s question is, “Beyond the Forest.”

Presented by Indy Bard Fest as part of its Prestige Project of great stage plays not written by Mr. Shakespeare, performances continue Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 14-17, at The Cat theatre 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel (note there are some construction street closures, but it’s possible to reach the building). Get info and tickets at indybardfest.com.

Don’t ‘fiddle’ and miss this one

By John Lyle Belden

“Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is a new play by Southbank Theatre Company artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris, but stands well in style and content with other great historical tragedies. I sense it could have been written at any time between now and the 900s, when the myth that Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned” became popular. 

The premiere Southbank production of the play, at the IndyFringe Basile stage through Oct. 2, resembles a Bardfest event in its excellent handling by director Doug Powers and a cast that includes David Mosedale as Stoic philosopher Seneca and Evren Wilder Elliott as teenage “Princeps” Nero. 

Despite the abundance of written material in the First Century, much of it surviving to today, the true history of Nero is anything but clear, with contemporary accounts often written by those who didn’t like the young tyrant and centuries passing to add myth and legend to his story. The fiddle didn’t even exist at the time, but it was possible to draw a bow across a lyre, an instrument that Nero did enjoy playing — and he embraced music and theatre at a time when its practitioners were in lower regard than prostitutes (never mind an alleged god-king). Just as we don’t mind the words that Shakespeare put into the ancients’ mouths, Eppich-Harris is perfectly entitled to her well-researched dramatic license, especially as she captured the spirit of the era and its abundant lessons for today’s social and political climate. 

Seneca was Nero’s tutor when he ascended to the throne, and the boy, feeling immediately in over his head, smartly kept the philosopher on as principal advisor and speechwriter, as well as trusted military leader Afranius Burrus (David Molloy) to head his guard. Also on the scene were his ever-hovering mother Agrippina (Rachel Snyder), naive half-brother Britannicus (Brant Hughes), and dutiful but suspicious stepsister/wife Octavia (Bra’Jae’ Allen) whom he would ignore in favor of the beautiful and ambitious Sabina (Trick Blanchfield). At Seneca’s side were faithful wife Pompeia Paulina (Jenni White) and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan (Noah Winston).

Elliott brilliantly brings us along on the emperor’s journey, as he grows older and more at ease with power, but no more mature. At first troubled by signing off on the deaths of the justly condemned, Nero comes to find a quick murder is an easy solution to an immediate problem — but then more issues pop up in its place. Each death takes a little more of his soul, power-madness devolving to madness, reducing him until nearly no one is left, and the knife is in his hand.

Mosedale stands ever solid, defending his young charge as long as he can while defending himself against the hypocrisy of living large yet espousing Stoic principles. In the end, he must choose between Nero and Rome. White’s Pompeia leads the greater example, steadfast to her husband but never wavering on their moral stand. 

Snyder embodies the complex Agrippina without slipping into villainous caricature, perhaps even engendering some sympathy as the evil she sows grows out of her control. Molloy exemplifies the “good soldier” completely, bearing his orders until his sense of justice can do no more.

An exceptional look at history and the dynamics and hazards of unfettered power, “Seneca and the Soul of Nero” is worthy to stand among the Classics. We encourage all who can to see it, and to those reading this in the future to consider bringing to your own stages.

Find information at southbanktheatre.org and tickets at indyfringe.org. Note that COVID-19 vaccination and masking are required of all audience members. Home viewing via “on-demand” streaming available Oct. 15-Nov. 14 (see Southbank site for details).

IndyFringe: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

The title of the show was never said in the 24 tiny plays presented by the University of Indianapolis Theatre at the Murat Oasis. To be more accurate, it’s: “Too Much Time Makes the Audience Get Cookies.”

The series, “neo-futurist plays” by Greg Allen performed by UIndy students Refik Dogruyol, Nick French, Kyle Jeanor, Kielynn Tally and Kelli Thomas, is 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.

It’s easy to see how this was one of the hottest tickets the last time it was at the Fringe. Add to this the fact it’s hard to get this many scenes done in 48 minutes (an average of 2 minutes per play). The performance we saw clocked in at 51 minutes — and we did get cookies!

IndyFringe: Copyright/Safe

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson and John L. Belden

Playwright Casey Ross has brought to the Fringe her love letter to the comics industry, particularly Marvel and its X-Men franchise.

In “Copyright/Safe,” the characters are members of a superhero team who are self-aware in a manner much like professional wrestlers — they know their lives are scripted, but it still hurts when they fall.

The show begins with Badger (Dave Pelsue) and Creature (Doug Powers) graveside, mourning the loss of their creator. With his passing, the team’s future seems to be in limbo, adding to the tension among team members. Eyepatch (Zach Stonerock), the ersatz leader, is missing and while their final issue is at the printer, no one seems to know what the future holds.

Badger deals with the situation by drinking heavily and expressing his feelings through music (songs written by Pelsue) at his small club. He also tolerates sharing his apartment with Mask (Taylor Cox) a fan-fiction character who appeared in an episode of the Z-Men cartoon, which makes him an official part of the world.

Whether or not you are familiar with comic books, the very real dynamic of a group of people wondering about their futures is indentifiable to all. Ross is brilliant at tense and relatable dialogue, even in a setting such as this. For fans of “sequential art,” note that atmospherically this play brings the style of a graphic novel to life better than most superhero films.

This touching drama is also comic in the sense of having truly hilarious moments.

One important note, however: though comic books are traditionally for children, the language in this show is quite “Rated M for Mature.”

Performances are in the IndyFringe Theatre.

IndyFringe: Transitory State

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Fledgling theater group Theatre Unchained brings a spooky sort of offering to this year’s Fringe, “Transitory State” by Vic Rodriguez.

Best friends Bee and Hudson meet in a graveyard with sentimental offerings to their dearly departed friend and former roommate, Riley, in order to try to connect with his spirit. Since it is obvious that Bee is not really all that serious about this, their attempt fails but they do spend hours upon end talking and reminiscing about the past.

The next day as Bee and her partner Karla are headed out to Karla’s improv show, they call Hudson to come along and although he reluctantly agrees, he ends up alone at home remembering happier times past. It is also obvious that he has never gotten over Riley’s death.

Later, Hudson is sitting alone in his apartment once again when Riley’s ghost suddenly appears. Needless to say, this is a shock. He tries to convince Bee this is real but even though Karla believes, Bee just won’t accept it.

Bee feels that since she and Karla are moving away to Chicago and Riley’s parents have decided to move his body to their new home in Paris, Hudson is just trying to cope with these changes.

Is Riley really back or just a figment of Hudson’s imagination? You will have to check out the show, playing at the IndyFringe Theatre, to see.