Footlite presents who-will-do-it murder mystery musical

By John Lyle Belden

One thing is clear from the beginning of “Murder Ballad,” someone is going to die.

Playing at Footlite Musicals, this intense no-intermission rock opera presents four characters: our Narrator (Miranda Nehrig), who guides the fateful story’s journey while eventually becoming a character in her own right; Tom (Dave Pelsue), a proud bartender with dreams but little to show for them; Sara (Michelle Ludlow), a frustrated poet fiercely in love with Tom, but feeling them drifting apart; and Michael (Daniel Draves), a writer who gives up his verse to make a perfect life for Sara.

After a coy courtship, Michael and Sara marry, have a daughter, make a home – but eventually, feeling restless again, Sara calls Tom at his new, successful bar. Old feelings awaken; this will not end well.

Pelsue, a veteran of shows such as “Rock of Ages” and “Tooth of Crime,” is totally in his element. Nehrig combines singing chops with exceptional acting – her ability to effectively speak volumes with a simple facial expression suits the Narrator role well. Ludlow makes a wonderful, powerful Indy theatre debut. And Draves works well the full range of emotions – his tenderness in apt contrast to his eventual rage.

Audience seating is on the Footlite stage, with actors sometimes moving among the cabaret tables for a more immersive experience. There is also a great on-stage band, with Eddie McLaughlin, Kris Manier, Will Scharfenberger and music director Ainsley Paton.

At the core, this is a story of love, betrayal and consequences, things we can all relate to. The principal mystery – who is killed, at whose hands – is revealed at the end. But then, we get what may be the musical’s best song in the Finale: a commentary on how we in the audience so enjoy murder as entertainment (so long as it’s not us getting hurt).

So, maybe we all got a little blood on our hands. Still, it’s one hell of a show.

“Murder Ballad” has one more weekend of shows, Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 17-20) at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Advertisements

Bring on BOLT, with a ‘sad story’ worthy of the telling

By John Lyle Belden

A new Indianapolis theatre company, Be Out Loud Theatre (BOLT), comes “out” in a big way with the Tennessee Williams rarity “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens.” For one of Williams’ short dramas, this “play in two scenes” is a rich, satisfying gumbo of New Orleans sass and sadness.

As confessed “transvestite” Candy Delaney (Lance Gray) approaches her 35th birthday, she brings home Karl (Chris Saunders), a brooding, conflicted man, in the hopes of making him as close to a husband as she can hope for. The French Quarter provides some shelter to local gays – as does Candy, a landlord of three properties: “Queens make the best tenants,” she purrs – but this is still around 1960 and being “queer” can be dangerous. Candy’s dreams of normalcy are marred by the catty upstairs renters, Alvin (Joe Barsanti) and Jerry (Christian Condra).

Given the title (and that I was unfamiliar with the script), I couldn’t help bracing myself for a fatal moment. But actually the plot is more about the life of queens in that time and place. In Tennessee Williams fashion, the story is so much about wanting not only what one doesn’t have, but what might not be possible. Gray commands the stage as Candy spins her dreams, her plans, somehow believing she can will them to be. Saunders projects danger, even just standing still; he wants things – money, affection, to be comfortable with himself – but the stigma of the queer keeps them just out of reach of his clenched fists.

BOLT founder and director Michael Swinford makes a bold statement with his premiere production. He said he wanted to start with an LGBTQ-focused play that predates Stonewall and the AIDS generation. For a stark reminder of how life used to be – even in carefree New Orleans – this was an excellent story to tell.

“And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens” plays through Jan. 20 on the cabaret second stage at The District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave., now managed by IndyFringe. For info and tickets, visit http://www.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.

We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Harry’s ‘Monsters’ haunting Irvington

By John Lyle Belden

The movie “Halloween” is in theaters, the Dodgers are in the World Series, and there are concerns about the impact of personal video on films and television.

Yes, it’s 1978 in Los Angeles, and the magazine Popular Monsters is about to put out what may be its last issue — a tribute to horror B-movie star Ephraim Knight. Publisher Elsa Creighton is honestly no fan of scary movies — or Knight — but she works to honor her dying father, the magazine’s owner. On the other hand, staff writer Greg is a superfan of all the bumps in the night, a passion he shares with girlfriend Shawna, who through her family is no stranger to the ways of Hollywood.

This sets the scene for “Popular Monsters,” the fully-staged premiere of a comedy-drama script by Lou Harry, produced by another Indy playwright, Casey Ross and her Catalyst Repertory company, at the Irvington Lodge, directed by Zachariah Stonerock.

Jamie McNulty is super suave as Knight, the man who played a beast on the silver screen, whose urbane patter disguises the beast he was when the cameras weren’t rolling. Tom Weingartner as Greg flies in the other direction: manic, uncertain and painfully naive. Alexandria Miles as Shawna faces the world with razor-sharp wit and BS-detector turned to 11. And Miranda Nehrig musters her talent for complex characters by making Elsa bitchy, yet likable; and by lending humor to the scenes when she is extremely drunk without devolving into slapstick.

These bold performances with gentle humor help illuminate the play’s examination of these different characters. Appropriate to a story set in Hollywood, there are themes of what is real and what isn’t — is something a lie, or just “acting”? — the stories we tell and the truths we avoid. As Knight states, “There is always a story.”

The setting of a cultural turning point, with references to old black-and-white monster movies alongside the dawn of the slasher films and the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, fits so neatly, especially with Michael Myers chasing Jamie Lee Curtis in theaters again. But this is also a clever vehicle for Harry, through Stonerock’s vision, to show the ever-present “monsters” within us all.

Remaining performances are Nov. 1-3 at the historic Irvington Lodge (No. 666 — really!), 5515 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. Info at www.facebook.com/catalystrepertory.

IRT drama sees current struggles through prism of famous poem

By John Lyle Belden

Omari is in trouble. He (young black student) lashed out at a (white) teacher, shoving him violently. This is Omari’s “third strike,” and aside from expulsion from his private school, he could face charges. This is a worst nightmare come true for his mother, Nya, an inner-city teacher who sees first-hand the path that young African-Americans too often take from school to prison, known as the “Pipeline” — the name of this play by Dominique Morisseau now on stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

This is a play about issues, but more importantly it is a play about people. Though there is a sense it takes place in New York, Morisseau cautions it is truly set in “any inner city environment where the public school system is under duress.” But this is the only point that is vague. To better show what happens to youths like him, she has crafted Omari, Nya and the others in this drama as specific individuals with real struggles who won’t find an easy answer within 90 minutes on the stage.

Omari, played with sincere charm and and a frantic uncertainty by Cole Taylor, has his reasons for what he did, but no one understands — including, to some extent, him. The question of what happens next bears down on him like Sisyphus’ stone.

Jasmine, Omari’s friend and schoolmate, played with an air of “real”ness by Renika Williams, is frustrated both at what is happening to him and her own experience of being regarded as little more than a token at Fernbrook Academy. She’s smart and ambitious, but misses her old neighborhood — she once muses of running away with Omari and writing a book about it, “Ghetto Love.”

Nya’s friend and fellow educator, Laurie — another excellent performance by Constance Macy — rails against the expectations of being the white woman to “save” the school, like Michelle Pfeifer in “Dangerous Minds.” As she approaches the end of her career, the pressures are becoming too much to bear.

Toussaint JeanLouis is Dun, a school security guard who likes to joke with the staff, but takes his thankless job very seriously.

Nya, “Ms. Joseph” to staff and students — a steely performance by Aime Donna Kelly — finds her educator’s tools for organization and control failing her in what seems a hurricane of circumstances. She is both angered and deeply saddened when others don’t trust her.

One of her lessons, shared with us all, is on the poem “We Real Cool” by Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The verse is printed in the play program, and is frequently repeated — its words projected on the walls. The poem’s meaning starts to hit home for Nya; she hears her son shout its lines in her head. Its last three words — “We – Die soon.” — crash upon her like a collapsing ceiling.

Finally, we meet Omari’s father, Xavier — played by Andre Garner with cocky confidence. He has it all figured out, and just needs Omari to get with the program, even if the boy hates him.

But as Xavier and Nya discover, just because you’re “woke” doesn’t mean you have all the facts.

The projected words are part of many brilliant audiovisual enhancements to the deceptively simple stage set, helping to place this drama in today’s world. Also, the story confronts our Youtube reality in which the mistakes we make are forever online, and going viral. Done in one movie-length act, the play’s flow and use of space help suggest its several settings but never release the tension — until the end, when Omari finally has his say.

And at that point, we are all ready to listen.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, “Pipeline” is thought-provoking drama, solidly delivered, giving current events a human face. Performances are through Nov. 11 on the Upperstage at IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (just west of Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Go west (of downtown) to see ‘Laramie’

By John Lyle Belden

As I suspect it was for many other straight people, I can look back and see a rough point between “before” and “after.” A friend, coworker or family member turns out to be gay, or even officially comes out, and then others you know. You start to see things from the LGBTQ+ perspective. Then, suddenly, some jokes aren’t funny anymore, certain attitudes are absurd, and you feel embarrassed you used to indulge in any of that. Soon, you think of these individuals as friends, family, regular people — then no longer see them as “them.”

For America, one of those points was in the fall of 1998. Before then, to me. Laramie, Wyoming, was just a town where some of my cousins might still live, where I once visited historic Fort Laramie. To the general public, it was known as the home of the University of Wyoming, if they knew of it at all.

But the kidnapping, beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 changed that.

The story of a 20-year-old gay man essentially crucified and left to die rocked the world, and shook the town to its core. The media frenzy and public assumptions about the people there didn’t help. Playwright Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York went to Laramie in the months that followed. Their work, “The Laramie Project,” is not so much a traditional play as a live documentary. Its nonfiction text is all from writings and recordings at the time, including court proceedings, and the feelings of Laramie residents, those who knew Shepard and the perpetrators, and Tectonic company members. The only agenda of this project was the truth, an honest look at the people involved, the Laramie citizens, and ultimately all of us.

“You must tell your story,” one of the clergy interviewed says.

Now, local company No Holds Bard presents the story at Indy Convergence, just west of downtown, with profits going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The cast of Abby Gilster, Clay Mabbitt, Denise Jaeckel, Nathan Thomas and Tristan Ross (who also directs) are talents who make a good play entertaining and a great play unforgettable — this one will stay with you for a while. These men and women portray various friends, relatives, witnesses, officials, reporters and regular people, as well as Tectonic members undertaking this delicate mission.

Ross’s range includes portraying Kaufman, the Judge, infamous minister Fred Phelps, and Shepard’s heartbroken father. Thomas not only plays sympathetic persons including the bartender who unknowingly saw the beginnings of the crime, the man who found Shepard on the fence, and a young theatre student finding himself coming out as an Ally; but also unflinching portrayals of the two men who committed the heinous acts.

I often refer to various works, from Shakespeare tragedies to goofy farces, as “must-see” — this time it is not hyperbole, or just me throwing my stage friends a bone. This is a show every American, teenage and older, should see. Ross, whose work I already love, and friends are even more wonderful in sharing this with Indianapolis now, as the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death was just days ago.

Going back to my starting point about changing attitudes, whether any member of cis-hetero America has transitioned to the “after” phase is up to us individually. It has become painfully plain that some are still stuck in the “before” — or even like it there. Thus, the importance of this work, even after two decades.

Tickets are only $15. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday 2:30 p.m. Sunday at 2611 W. Michigan St. Pay onsite, or get tickets here.