Epilogue presents inspiring ‘Tribute’

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes a man can be a friend or even hero to the people he meets and works with in a career, but still be distant to his own family. This theme is at the heart of “Tribute,” the 1970s comic drama by Bernard Slade (writer of the hit “Same Time Next Year,” who also helped bring “The Flying Nun” and “Partridge Family” to TV), presented through Nov. 19 at Epilogue Players.

Scottie Templeton (played by Greg Howard) has had a varied career – writing plays, producing in Hollywood – while taking none of it seriously. This attitude has made him a friend to everyone, giving him connections that he can link as a consummate man behind the scenes. But he is also long estranged from his ex-wife and a stranger to the grown son who had worshiped him as a child – before the divorce.

Circumstances bring his ex, Maggie (Laura Baltz), and son, Jud (Joshua Brunsting), to his New York apartment. Scottie tries desperately to reconnect – especially with the young man who is as humorlessly serious as he is carefree – because he has discovered he has leukemia and might have only months to live. His close friend and business partner Lou (Dennis Forkel) and doctor, Gladys (Wendy Brown), try to do what’s best for him. Meanwhile, Scottie sets up his young friend, Sally (Lauren McDaniel), with Jud in an attempt to loosen him up. Melissa Cleaver completes the cast as Hillary, a woman who received much-needed aid from unjudgemental Scottie, and returns to town to repay a little of his kindness.

We get the full measure of the man both from these scenes and in testimonials at the “Tribute” thrown in his honor, the dramatic device that enrobes the play. And we get a good measure of the style and charisma of Howard, who never lets up on the charm, yet often allows Scottie to betray the seriousness of the situation.

The women are each charming in their own way – Baltz as a caring realist who has come to terms with the quirks of the men in his life; McDaniel as a pillar of confidence who will not be taken lightly; Brown as a caring soul, both the healer wanting to help and the friend not wanting so see someone she cares for die; and Cleaver as one wacky nurse.

Brunsting’s Jud is such a stick in the mud, but he’s not unlikable. As we, and Scottie, come to understand the lifetime of pain and estrangement, we see through the layers to the boy inside who once enjoyed cracking corny jokes with his dad.

Directed by Catherine Mobley, “Tribute” fits excellently into Epilogue’s mission of finding great roles for young-at-heart actors, including strong woman characters.

In seeing this play, we can’t help but think of the people we need to better connect with, as well as consider how much what we do to help others’ success is really appreciated. The laughs far outnumber the tears here, but there is a heart to this show, worthy of being honored by a full applauding theatre.

Performances are Friday through Sunday, Nov. 17-19, at 1849 N. Alabama Street (corner of 19th and Alabama) in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-3139 or visit www.epilogueplayers.com.

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KCT in interesting Shape

By John Lyle Belden

A hallmark of plays by Neil LaBute is the aspect of seemingly ordinary people doing terrible things.

On the other hand, Khaos Company Theatre strives to give ordinary people a place to do great things in the pursuit of art and performance, becoming a positive resource on Indy’s East Side.

So – cue the irony – a LaBute play, “The Shape of Things,” was KCT’s last production in its former home on Sherman Drive. While it was sad to have had only one weekend of performances in late September, the company did end on a very strong note.

In the 2001 play (and 2003 film), a young man, Adam (played here by Kyle Dorsch), who works at a museum, meets a beautiful woman, Evelyn (Gorgi Parks-Fulper) who takes an interest in him, helping him to improve his looks, wardrobe and physique. At first, this is well received by his best friend, Phillip (Aaron Henze). But then, the plot takes a turn.

Phillip is engaged to Jenny (Kayla Lee), who had secretly been in love with Adam – who had been too shy to make the first move – but settled for his friend, feeling it was as close as she could get. But she can’t help but notice her crush’s improvements, and his improved confidence. They kiss.

With his relationship with Phillip fraying, Adam is persuaded by Evelyn to cut off all contact with both him and Jenny. He is only devoted to her.

But then, the semester ends, and Evelyn reveals her Masters of Fine Arts project: Adam. It wasn’t love, just her “sculpting” him to put on display. He manages to regain a little dignity in an epilogue scene, but we are still left with the central questions of trust and honesty, and even though he was used for another’s gain, isn’t Adam better off in the end?

Director James Banta gets excellent performances from these four actors, especially Parks-Fulper as our smooth manipulator. Dorsch nicely portrays the transition from dweeb-with-potential to a man who appears complete, able to stand on his own – until that rug is ripped out from under his feet. Henze and Lee present a couple who appear to have a perfect relationship, but can stay willfully blind to its cracks for only so long. Kudos also to Case Jacobus for tech and props, including the climactic slide show.

The production of “Shape of Things” is not scheduled to resume, but KCT itself will continue in one form or another. Production director Anthony Logan Nathan says the organization has achieved 501c3 not-for-profit status through Emerging Artist Theatre Inc., and is searching for a new regular home.

Next, KCT, with Emerging Artist, present their scheduled production of the classic tragedy, “The Duchess of Malfi” – with a cast that includes Lee – Friday through Sunday (Nov. 10-12) at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

NoExit ‘1984’ – experience the love of Big Brother

By John Lyle Belden

It was a bright cold day in November, and the clocks had struck nineteen 30 minutes ago. The back door to a facility commandeered by the Party and Ministry of Truth opened, and we were allowed to enter.

After Agents determined our country of origin and loyalty to the Party, we were detained with other participants until 20:00, when the Ministry provided a goodthink show of a man discovering his love for Big Brother. This is all it is and ever was.

I would never be unfaithful to the Party and tell you that this was a clever and insightful production of “1984” – adapted from the George Orwell novel by Matthew Dunster, produced by NoExit Performance (with co-conspirators including AnC Movies, Cat Head Press and iMOCA) and directed by Ryan Mullins – as that would be “fake news.”

But if I were to say such a thing, I would point out that Ryan Ruckman gives an excellent performance as Winston Smith, the conflicted everyman who tires of his duties for the Ministry, constantly “correcting” history and sending obsolete information down the Memory Hole so that it never happened. He wears his depression and ennui like an extra layer of clothing, feeling the weight of the Telescreen eyes upon him. NoExit mainstay Georgeanna Smith Wade wins his heart and ours as secret rebel Julia, who inspires Winston to defy the Party – simultaneously the smartest and stupidest thing he would ever do.

The Party orders that I denounce Dave Ruark for his commanding portrayal of the mysterious O’Brien, Adam Crowe for his deceptively warm turn as Charrington, and Tristan Ross for his appropriately milquetoast presentation of Smith’s co-worker Parsons (extra rations go to Zac Schneider and Elsie McNulty as the Party-faithful children, though Shannon Samson as Mrs. Parsons is still under suspicion). If Syme had not become an unperson, I’d praise Phil Criswell’s double-plus-good performance. I also hallucinated sharp work from Taylor Cox and Ann Marie Elliott in supporting roles.

Where NoExit – I mean the Ministry – most excels is in the way this drama is presented. It is totally immersive: You stand in or right outside the room where each scene occurs; and the actors frequently move from one area to the next, forcing all to turn and/or follow. Ministry agents help guide the audience. There is no climbing stairs, and limited seating is provided at every scene. Compare the amount of movement necessary to an easy tour of a museum gallery with about a half-dozen display areas in three large rooms. Appropriate set design (by Andrew Darr), with occasional video images (by AnC) and haunting sound (by Rob Funkhouser) enveloping the rooms, provide a perfectly tense atmosphere throughout. Big Brother’s red glowing eye is everywhere, watching us all.

I advise all to take time out from news of whatever war we have always been fighting, and observe this double-plus-good entertainment appropriate for whatever year this happens to be. Performances through Nov. 18 at Ministry Headquarters, 1336 E. Washington St., Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit www.noexitperformance.org.

OMGWTFBBQ — Phoenix cooks up another masterpiece

By John Lyle Belden

If you’ve ever joked about being the “white sheep” of the family, then “Barbecue,” the comedy presented through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre, will stir up some memories.

Family members gather at a park for what looks like a cookout, but is actually an intervention for the sister affectionately known as “Zippity Boom.” But, you know the Bible saying that one shouldn’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye before removing the stick out of their own? With this bunch, there’s lumber everywhere.

This play is about more than addiction and the comedy inherent in family dysfunction. It also delves into the fickle issue of honesty vs. “truth,” as well as a critique of today’s pop culture. Most importantly, as director Bryan Fonseca says in a note tucked into the program: “We present a play about race in America where none of the characters are racist.”

Chelsey Stauffer is fabulous as Zippity Boom, a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, LaKesha Lorene shines as the kind of driven diva you might be familiar with if you watch “Extra!” or “Entertainment Tonight.” As for the rest, Dena Toler is in top form, and we also get excellent work from Joanna Bennett, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela Plank, Beverly Roche and Jenni White.

The play’s structure hooks you in with hilarity, then takes a curious twist that becomes clear in Act 2 (so no leaving at intermission!). By the end, the full depth of the satire is revealed in entertaining fashion. Theatre-in-the-round staging helps draw the audience in, and ensures there is no bad seat (though sitting on the side by the entrance ensures the best view of the Epilogue scene). Bernie Killian’s set design is a perfect recreation of a park shelter, providing a realistic environment for the absurdity that ensues.

Like all Phoenix shows, this play – by celebrated writer Robert O’Hara – is thought-provoking, but it’s also side-splittingly funny. Even if, to some degree, we’re laughing at ourselves.

The Phoenix is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. For info and tickets call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

The war for Scotland’s crown has two distinct factions; this is their story — BONG BONG! (Bardfest review)

By John Lyle Belden

The action is already under way, with gunfire, sirens, heavily-armed soldiers. When the hurly-burly is done, the winning officer meets three strange women who greet him with titles he doesn’t have and aren’t likely to get. But when he meets the leader, one of those unlikely titles is granted to him – could he be fated for more? It doesn’t help that the boss named someone else his chief lieutenant. That puts two people between our man and the top of the power structure; but his persuasive and sexy wife has ideas on how to fix the situation – though there will be blood. Lots of blood.

This action movie playing out live at Bard Fest is Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” It’s tightly scripted (about 90 minutes in one act) by First Folio Productions director Carey Shea, and set in an urban battle zone, more Syria than Scotland, with characters from your favorite cop shows (“Law and Order: Inverness” perhaps?).

The story is familiar – death, more witches, death, “out damned spot,” death – and the Bard’s tragedies get the use-guns-for-swords treatment from time to time, but this production also has what Indy’s theatre scene truly needs: more Nan Macy.

Macy, along with Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson play the Wyrd Sisters, who seem to pop up everywhere. Or are we just looking through the eyes of MacBeth (Adam Tran), seeing reassurance that his dark deeds to gain the crown are inevitable and right? Or maybe it’s just a clever, efficient use of talented actors.

Devan Mathias is a hot, nasty Lady MacBeth, Ryan Ruckman a noble doomed king Duncan, and Chelsea Anderson and Nathan Thomas are both worthy of their badges as good-cops Macduff and Malcolm. Craig Kemp as Columbo-esque detective Ross strives to put the clues together. Justin Klein as tragic Banquo is our most sympathetic character – next to Jilayne Kistner as his hard-luck daughter Fleance.

The end result is engaging and entertaining. One can just take it at face value – wild action as an ambitious couple slay their way to the top, then face the consequences – or as a high-caliber examination of the lust for power and the dangers of unaddressed and untreated mental illness, never mind when it’s suffered by people in positions of authority.

Don’t be concerned by the legendary curse (that’s for the cast and crew to contend with), the Indy Eleven stage at the IndyFringe theater, 719 E. St. Clair, still stands. Remaining performances are tonight and Sunday (Oct. 28-29).

For information, see www.indyfringe.org.

Bardfest: ‘Cymbeline’ so much more than a princess-in-peril story

By Wendy Carson

I confess that I was entirely unaware of the story of “Cymbeline” prior to Indy Bardfest. Even though the script has been trimmed greatly, the three-hour running time and complexity of plot is daunting. However, Garfield Shakespeare Company director Anthony Johnson’s decision to place the setting in Civil War-era America helps the audience identify with the motivations behind many of the characters and the plight of their “kingdom.”

Fortunately, Guy Grubbs and Manny Casillas are perfectly engaging in the opening scene, providing the exposition needed to follow the story.

The plot revolves around Cymbeline (John Mortell), a “King” trying to keep the world on track with his ideals, and his daughter, Imogen (Elisabeth Speckman), who secretly married Posthumous (Chris Burton) against her father’s wishes. Cymbeline therefore banishes Posthumous and keeps Imogen a prisoner until he can find her a more suitable husband. Meanwhile, Imogen’s stepmother (Ashley Chase Elliott), only referred to as “Queen,” wants her arrogant son Cloten (Jarrett Yates) to be Imogen’s groom, cementing her power – especially once she dispatches Imogen & Cymbeline.

Posthumous meets a boisterous rake, Iachamo (Jake Peacock), who wagers he can bed the hero’s virtuous bride. But finding Posthumous correct in his assertions of Imogen’s devotion, Iachamo sneaks into the sleeping girl’s bedroom and uses what he finds to win the bet. This throws Posthumous into a state of such sadness that he sends word for his loyal servant, Pisanio (Sabrina Duprey), to kill Imogen.

Having been close to the princess, Pisanio refuses to obey the order and persuades Imogen to escape, disguised as a boy. But Cloten takes her disappearance personally and sets out to take her back. Then we meet local backwoods people, led by Morgan (Matt Anderson) – yes, they become important to the plot as well.

Another complication is that the Republic, represented by Caius Lucius (Abigail Johnson) wants its tribute from this little West-Virginia-esque kingdom so that Cymbeline can keep his throne. But the power-hungry Queen would rather have war.

Mortell does an excellent job of showing the king’s desperation as everything spins out of his control, while Elliott encompasses every Disney villain at their evil plotting best. Speaking of evil, Peacock’s Iachamo is perfectly slimy.

Speckman’s take on Imogene seems slightly stilted at first, but she deftly weaves experience and pure gumption into the role by the end. Burton as noble Posthumous is sheer passion and fire, no matter what mood he is in.

Duprey looks natural in Pisanio’s boots, an excellent supporting player. Anderson, for his part, barely reins in his charisma, channeling it to hint at how important he (a soldier in exile) and his two wards (secretly royal children, played smartly by Elysia Rohn and Tyler Marx) are to the story. Emily Bohn mixes well in dual roles as the bartender/host in Postumous’s exile and as the Queen’s slyly heroic court physician.

Shakespeare based this complex play – having elements of both the Tragedies and the Comedies – on the legend of an ancient king. While it’s not easy for us, in 2017 Indiana, to imagine life in Roman Britain (or to remember that England was even part of the Empire), we can easily conjure up the world of the 1860s, thanks to things such as “Gone With the Wind.” In fact, the play’s Queen comes across as a sort of unscrupulous Scarlett O’Hara. In an environment with the unspoken subtext of people as property, Imogene’s struggle for personal freedom takes on more importance.

Bardfest typically takes on a less-produced play, and once again polishes up a gem worth discovering. Remaining performances are Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28-29, at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For more information, visit www.indyfringe.org.

Bardfest: And now for something completely different

By John Lyle Belden

Yes, the title here is stolen from Monty Python, which has nothing to do with the third annual BardFest, now in Indianapolis – in the IndyFringe building – after a couple of years in Carmel. However, we are dealing with things that are British and unusual.

Shakespeare’s plays – aside from being public domain – tell such good stories that they lend themselves to numerous times and places. Thus the Bard’s three plays in this year’s festival get reinvented in interesting ways.

Thus BardFest 2017 presents:

* “Cymbeline,” presented by Garfield Shakespeare Company, a play with elements of both the Comedies and the Tragedies. Originally based on the legend of a British king during the Roman Empire, this version is in a parallel world right after the American Civil War – as though West Virginia had declared itself a separate kingdom, and the Republic was cool with it, as long as the taxes are paid. Adapted and directed by Anthony Johnson, it stars John Mortell as the title king, Ashley Chase Elliott as his Queen, Elisabeth Speckman as our heroine, Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, and Chris Burton as heroic Posthumous (yes, his actual name in the play).

* “MacBeth,” presented by First Folio Productions, the familiar cursed tragedy adapted to a tense 90 minutes by director Carey Shea. Medieval Scotland is transformed into a modern urban wasteland, where King Duncan (Ryan Ruckman) keeps order like a local sheriff or police chief. He awards a title to faithful MacBeth (Adam Tran), who had just had that promotion prophesied to him by a trio of weird women (Nan Macy, Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson) – didn’t they also say he would become king? Lady MacBeth (Devan Mathias) is just happy her husband is finally in line with her murderous plans to seize the crown. However, Duncan’s lieutenants Macduff (Chelsea Anderson) and Malcolm (Nathan Thomas) quickly become suspicious of the ambitious couple when the king is killed.

* “The Taming of the Shrew,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, freely adapted by Catalyst founder Casey Ross. The famous Shakespeare comedy finds its misogyny mutated into a sassy, outrageous sort of musical, using modern pop songs to help tell the story – this is not “Kiss Me Kate.” At a late-20th-century tropical resort, bawdy innuendoes fly as lusty lounge singer Petruchio (Davey Pelsue) seeks to tame curvy, catty Katherina (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Meanwhile, noble Lucentio (Bradford Reilly) slyly wins the heart of Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Abby Gilster). Will boss Baptista (Tony Armstrong) see his daughters married off in birth order? Did you ever think a rockin’ anthem by The Darkness could be made into a heartfelt ballad?

* And for purists… well, as close as you could get was a manic production of the comedy, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company during the festival’s first weekend. The Reduced Shakespeare hit by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield was taken on by local thespians Ron Richards, Ryan T. Shelton and Adam Workman, under the direction of Christy Clinton with occasional necessary assistance from stage manager Tamara Rulon.

Remaining performances are on both IndyFringe stages at 719 E. St. Clair, Thursday through Sunday (Oct. 26-29). “Cymbeline” is the more family-friendly (though its length could test the patience of younger patrons), while “MacBeth” is very violent and “Shrew” is very not-for-kids. For information and tickets, visit www.indyfringe.org/bard-fest.

Wendy and I will try to get more in-depth reviews of the individual shows up tomorrow, and will link back to here.