Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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Asch’s work rises anew in Phoenix production of Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

 

Indecent kiss
The infamous kiss — Abby Lee (left) and Courtney Spivak in ‘Indecent’ at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre.  (Provided photo by Zach Rosing)

By John Lyle Belden

 

The Phoenix Theatre has never shied from – in fact it embraces – controversial stage works. With its present production of the Tony-winning drama, “Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, it goes another layer by showing how a popular play shocked Broadway nearly a century ago.

Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch wrote just one play, but it became a sensation throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, and even found fame in translation throughout Europe. But when an Americanized “God of Vengeance” went on Broadway (even after playing in New York’s Yiddish theatres with no controversy), the cast and producer were quickly arrested and charged with indecency. Not only was this a Jewish play by a Jew (a troublesome thing in 1923), but it is set in a brothel and features two women falling in love, kissing passionately on stage.

According to program notes, when Vogel was approached about writing this play, she said she immediately pictured a ragged troupe of actors in an attic. That’s who we meet as the lights come up: Lemml the stage manager (played by Nick Jenkins) and his troupe portrayed by Mark Goetzinger, John Goodson, Abby Lee, Jolene Moffatt, Bill Simmons and Courtney Spivak.

Goodson spends most of the narrative as Asch, bringing his surprising new work to a Warsaw writer’s salon, taking it – with Lemml’s help – to the stage, and dealing with the fallout of the indecency trial. He embodies the role well, in all stages from an eager genius to a bitter man focused on the next phase of his writing.

Lee and Spivak are wonderful, portraying women who fall in love both within the play and offstage. Under the direction of Martha Jacobs, their sublime affections bloom beautifully. Phoenix regulars Goetzinger, Moffatt and Simmons are solid, as usual. As for Jenkins, his work is astounding, especially as we come to why we encounter the troupe as they were in the opening scene.

Indecent Lemml-Asch small
Nick Jenkins (left) as tailor-turned-stage manager Lemml and John Goodson as celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. (provided photo by Zach Rosing)

 

The multiple languages involved in telling the story are portrayed in part by easy-to-read projected captions. Often the dialogue is in English but the projected cue will say something like “In Yiddish” to maximize understanding and dramatic flow while keeping everything in context.

In the end, it’s like we’ve seen two great plays – we get a Cliff’s-notes understanding of “God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome)” as well as the full measure of Vogel’s work. But you only need to get one ticket. Performances are through July 8 at the Phoenix, now located at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix: A dream for better women’s lives coming true

By John Lyle Belden

OK, a feminist, a Jew and a Catholic walk into a play…

This is no joke.

In “The Pill,” a drama by Tom Horan in its world premiere run at the new Phoenix Theatre, five women play all the roles – male and female – in the story of the development of the first oral contraceptive.

In the 1950s, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger (Constance Macy) and former suffragette Katherine McCormick (Jan Lucas) discuss the need to find an “off switch” to pregnancy, something biological that can be taken like an aspirin. Society (mostly men) tells them that such an interference with nature is not possible and not needed. Not accepting either notion, Sanger persuades Dr. Gregory Pincus (Adrianne Villareal) to work on developing a birth-control pill. Once the drug proves effective in animals, these three talk to Dr. John Rock (Jan Johansen) – over Sanger’s objections due to his Catholicism – for help in conducting human trials.

Meanwhile, Sanger receives letters from Sadie Sachs (Jenni White) a young woman who hoped for a career as a nurse, but instead goes through multiple births and miscarriages as her husband insists she continue her “wifely duties.” She is literally dying to get the “secret” that Sanger’s associates are working on.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the play is performed in the round, in the intimate space of the Phoenix’s new black-box Basile Stage (the first production performed there). There is a dreamlike aspect to the flow of the scenes and minimal furniture, with a bit of whimsy and situational humor tempered by Sanger’s hard-edged persistence and Sadie’s heartbreaking visits. It’s a factual fantasia, full of feminine energy. Each scene and vignette is accented by the ringing of a bell; it’s meaning unclear – perhaps reminiscent of an old drugstore pharmacist alerting us the prescription is ready. Still, in moment after moment, it never quite is – Ding! Ding! Ding! We need it, can we have it now?

It would be difficult to praise this cast too much – Johansen, Lucas and Macy are local legends, Villareal a savvy Phoenix veteran, and White (previously seen in Phoenix’s “Barbecue” and starring in Buck Creek Players’ “Nuts”) is incredibly talented as well. They take charge of the material, relieving Simmons of any charges of “mansplaining.” As for the male playwright, it is obvious Horan did his homework, and treats the subject and the people affected with utmost respect.

With The Pill being around and available since the 1960s, it’s too easy a half-century later to take it and its influence on society for granted. This play is important to remind us all – men and women – why this pill was needed and how difficult it was to get it even made. If progress stops, it can be rolled back, or as Sanger says, “We haven’t come this far, to only come this far.”

Performances run through June 10. The Phoenix Theatre is now located at 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis, just north of the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown. Call 317-635-7529 or visit http://www.phoenixtheatre.org.

NoExit literally surrounds you with scenes of people barely getting by

By John Lyle Belden

I was left with mixed feelings after seeing “Nickel and Dimed” – which is appropriate for a NoExit Performance show.

The play, by Joan Holden, is based on the book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who spent months at a time taking low-paying jobs to find out first-hand how the working poor in America get by. She hustles for tips as a waitress, risks injury cleaning houses, puts in long hours at a nursing home, and deals with the workplace culture of a big-box store.

But what is shocking and eye-opening for her is old news to many of us in the audience. Friends of the theatre tend to take in shows (or perform in them) between shifts as a barista; or perhaps we have a good career going, but only after some lean years. Still, there are two aspects to this that should give us some pause: First, Barbara’s adventures took place in the late 1990s (the book published in 2001), yet, except for the fact that the minimum wage is marginally higher, the play’s events could be happening today – and for a lot of people, they are.

Secondly, we who have had some college and a few breaks must remember that for many – such as Barbara’s coworkers portrayed – this is as good as it gets. This made me feel a little uncomfortable with the writer just pretending to be a broke divorcee with no prospects – acting like an anthropologist hanging out with the natives until she’s gathered enough data to leave them and return to her comfortable life (to the play’s credit, Barbara’s boyfriend does point this out to her). This seems cruel to those she leaves behind, especially after she tries to run interference in their lives – it is these with no fall-back position who deal with the consequences. One still lives in her vehicle; another still struggles with single motherhood while keeping the terms of her probation; still another trades one unhealthy workplace for another, but the new job pays a little more.

So, while Barbara, played earnestly by Bridget Haight, is the focus of the play, more important are the various people she works with – portrayed excellently by Lynn Burger, Carrie Bennett, Kallen Ruston, Tracy Herring, Latoya Moore, Elysia Rohn and Ryan Ruckman (who also plays the boyfriend). Their stories and struggles should resonate with us, and help us to take notice of all the “invisible” people in our day to day lives – busboys, shelf stockers, cleaning staff, etc.

Director Callie Burk Hartz and set designer Lizz Krull took an inventive approach to “theatre in the round,” placing all the sets around the edge of the large room while the audience sits in the middle in swivel rolling desk chairs. Thus, as the actors and light cues (credit to Christian McKinney) send us around the room, we constantly turn to face them. Little need for crew to move set pieces, and the chairs are kinda fun.

Aside from inventive staging and thought-provoking subject matter, this is also a NoExit show in the fact that the site isn’t one of the city’s theatre spaces, but a vacant office building at 3633 E. Raymond St., Indianapolis, near the intersection of Raymond and Sherman (south of Edwards’ Drive-In, turn in behind the McDonald’s). It works as a roomy space for the play’s set-up, and symbolically as a location where an office temp might toil for whatever she can get before the assignment ends and the job search resumes. However, being on Indy’s Eastside could make it difficult to bring in the folks from the more affluent areas of town who really need to see this show.

So, grab an upper-middle-class friend and see this production that helps put faces and names to the people we only hear vaguely about in government policy debates. After all, we’re all closer to that economic bottom than we think.

Performances are through May 19. Get tickets and info at noexitperformance.org.

The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop – making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Knuze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.