Storefront’s ‘Pilgrims’ carrying some heavy baggage across the stars

By John Lyle Belden

In the future, a ship’s cabin still looks like a comfortable hotel room, it’s just that the ship is sailing through space. A man enters, eyeing the layout and smoothing the bed like one conditioned by military service. Everything is in order for the long journey. Suddenly, an annoyingly perky teen girl bursts in and makes herself at home. Something is amiss here.

“Pilgrims,” the drama by Claire Kiechel, directed by Chelsea Anderson on the new Broad Ripple stage of Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is in the tradition of the best science-fiction stories, using a distant fantasy situation to probe questions about our present humanity.

Aboard the aptly named starliner, “Destiny,” Ryan Ruckman portrays a soldier returning as a migrant to the planet where he once fought its natives. Struggling with PTSD, he is haunted by what happened there, but feels compelled to return. Ruckman often gets cast in this kind of rugged role, so is a natural fit, and has honed the skill of showing the human under the he-man facade.

Kelsey Leigh Miller, as the teen roommate, puts her inner child on full display to excellent effect, then lets the girl’s more mature aspects creep in as their journey continues. We easily see her as whatever she presents herself to be at every moment.

Our other character is Jasmine, a 2600B model AI android and the cabin’s personal valet. She appears when called upon to dispense food or supplies — but not much in the way of news, except to say that a quarantine remains in effect, keeping our two humans in close quarters for possibly the entire three-month voyage. Carrie Schlatter is excellent in this difficult role, managing speech that is artificially friendly without robotic cliché flatness, and economy of movement that reflects someone who is programmed rather than engaging in natural human action.

We are along for the long ride, as the play is a single movie-length act. Numerous scenes and little revelations track the passing of time, as the couple’s interactions – and perhaps something else – slowly change them, drawing them closer in unexpected yet inevitable ways.

Apparently among the beings of the “new world” (which the girl naively calls “aliens”) there is no word for the concept of “regret;” yet that is the biggest thing our Pilgrims bring with them. See how they unpack it in the play’s remaining weekend, Thursday through Sunday evenings (Sept. 19-22) at 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Get information and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

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IRT opens ‘Angry’

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a hot summer night, and what will happen in this room will have life and death consequences for someone you’ve never met.

Welcome to “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic American drama by Reginald Rose opening the 2019-2020 season at Indiana Repertory Theatre. Set in 1957, this play is both very much of its time, and timeless. The struggles and society these dozen characters deal with are every bit as real today as they were then.

Our 12-man jury is tasked with deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder. If the verdict is guilty, the death penalty will be applied. The men are all from different backgrounds, working class to rich. Though all white, they have roots in different ethnicities. 

The jury foreman (Seth Andrew Bridges) calls for a preliminary vote. Since the result seemed so obvious during the trial, all vote “Guilty” — except for one (Chris Amos). Why? He doesn’t want a rush to judgement, he says, and besides, he has some questions.

For the next hour-plus (the play is a single movie-length act) we hear the details of the case, presenting the murder mystery in nearly enough detail to give the audience a vote. 

The men arguing are all sharply acted, under the direction of James Still, giving dimension to their archetypes: Scott Greenwell as mousey, yet wanting to see justice done; Craig Spidle as one easily convinced of the evil “kids these days” can do; Henry Woronicz as a rich broker who wants to see the facts as plain and ordered as the newspaper he reads; Demetrios Troy as a man with more in common with the defendant than he’d like to admit; Casey Hoekstra as a laborer whose work ethic informs his judgement; Michael Stewart Allen as a loud Yankees fan (he wants the deliberations done in time to go to a game) who sounds more certain than he actually is; Mark Goetzinger as an older gentleman struggling to bring perspective to the proceedings; Robert Jerardi as a bigot determined to see “one of them” condemned; Patrick Clear as an immigrant excited to exercise his new citizenship; Charles Goad as an ad man who can’t help playing both sides; Bridges’ foreman, whose skills as a high school coach come into play; and Amos’ holdout, the conscience of the play and principal driver of the “reasonable doubt” that can turn the verdict around. Adam O. Crowe plays the Guard stationed outside the jury room door. 

Most people know, or can easily guess, the outcome of this drama. What is important, and makes this engrossingly entertaining, is how they get there. The knife, the steps, the glasses, all the clues and what they suggest, making for an intense 100 minutes. And the title is apt: these men get plenty angry — including at each other.

The stage set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee, is a masterwork, including a washroom to the side that can be made to be seen through screens when needed, as some juror discussions take place privately. The custom-made long wooden jurors’ table sits upon a turntable that slowly moves at times to aid our perspective of the deliberations. And at moments an actor might step away from the churning motion to demonstrate his seeking clarity. 

While the idea seemed gimmicky, the turning table is not constant, and thus works to great effect. Still notes this aspect of the stage was discussed early on in the production. “You mostly just have 12 men sitting around a table,” he said. “We needed something dynamic.”

The deliberations continue through Sept. 29 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, by Circle Centre. Info and tickets at http://www.irtlive.com.

IndyFringe: The Cookie Dough Show

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Fringe shows are often full of half-baked ideas. Emerging Artists Theatre Indy presents several, in various flavors, so you are sure to find at least one you like. 

There’s a Christmas comedy with a misunderstanding around “Santa Clara.” There is a series of quick funny scenes that take jabs at customer service, mansplaining and The Container Store. I even saw a couple of pieces of moving drama. All this is locally written, presented by local talent.

And then, there’s Paige.

No matter what you think of any one scene or sketch, it is more than worth your ticket to see the finale, Paige Scott at a tiny piano singing the praises of an underrated Hollywood superstar. It is so much more funny than you think, even if you know the comic heights Scott is capable of.

In exploiting the function of Fringe to incubate theatre ideas, EAT is on to something with this show. Hopefully they will scoop up more “dough” in future festivals.

Sorry to be vague, but lineups change with each performance. Remaining dates are Thursday and Sunday (Aug. 22&25) at ComedySportz, 721 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: The Last Man

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

This sci-fi drama starts out strong, taking us down a path of eerie possibilities. 

Colin (Craig Kemp) runs into The Party Shop at a local mall, where the cheerful clerk, Delta (Caity Withers) hardly notices that his clothes are torn and he is stained with blood and grime. He insists on having some of the water and snacks from the shop, but, “Sorry sir, that’s for customers, only,” she smiles. So he says he wants to plan a party, Christmas in August, and he tells her a story of advances in Artificial Intelligence and Nanotechnology. And how in the 22nd century, out of nostalgia people built shopping malls that echoed the 20th century. And how there were AI “people” that were so convincing, not even they could recognize they weren’t human.

“That’s silly,” Delta says with a perfectly happy and helpful face.

Back in the 21st century, Erica (Alfton Shepard), a Professor of Advanced Nanotechnology, has recruited a couple of promising students, Charlie (Claire Shutters) and Bill (Manny Casillas) to help her with her next breakthrough. First, she is in need of emergency heart-valve surgery, and Dr. Toowan (Steve Jerk) assures her that the odds of failure are extremely low — but a phone message from the future is insisting she not go through with it, and that the fate of the world is at stake!

Local doctor and author L. Jan Eira panned this little thriller, which features some tech that is only a couple of breakthroughs away, and even temporal tinkering that acknowledges “time travel” has its limits. Hardcore sci-fi fans may recognize the plot beats, but it is kinda fun to play “spot the replicant.”

The acting is great, but this script really needed two full acts to explore its potential. The dynamite opening scene is followed by some good ones; then a rushed climax to a chunk of closing exposition. But it’s an interesting story nonetheless. Don’t let its weakness stop you; Fringe tickets are inexpensive, and you can say you saw it first when this story gets a bigger, better treatment — later in the 21st century.

Performances are today and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 21-22 & 24-25), by the Indiana Firefighters Museum at 748 Massachusetts Ave.

Making Oceania Great Again

By John Lyle Belden

Citizens: Do not look away! You are witnessing a rare insight into Room 101 of the Ministry of Love, where thought-criminal Winston Smith will offer his confession and confront his insanity, his failure to love Big Brother.

This is “1984.” (Your official Ministry of Truth calendar should reflect this.) The plus-good Citizens of Monument Theatre Company are providing you this opportunity, where they expose the troubling writings of George Orwell, as adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan, directed for MTC by David Ian Lee.

Smith, who also purports to be an actor named Nathan Thomas, has written his crimes in a diary which is read and re-enacted by Party Members Riley Leonard, Raven Newbolt, Kim Egan and Deont’a Stark. Thomas naturally embodies a complex patchwork of emotions — broken, yet quietly defiant. Leonard presents the pre-arrest Smith burdened by ennui and desperate for a world that makes sense to him. Newbolt plays Julia, the woman Smith risks all for, so effectively her cohorts start to question her loyalty to the Party. Egan, on the other hand, is a true believer, eager for this trial to move on to condemnation and execution. Stark nicely takes on roles including Party officer O’Brien, who eventually shows up himself, in the body of Michael R. Tingley. Karen Sternberg provides the voice of alerts of victories by Oceania forces and other vital news.

This method of presenting Smith’s criminal activity provides an intense experience in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. The context is made contemporary by the use of hand-held telescreens (smartphones) and the autocratic atmosphere does feel familiar in the world outside. Perhaps the most chilling aspect is the confidence of Tingley’s O’Brien, aware that his role is not player in this game, but the dealer – and the House always wins.

This Citizen rates this drama as double-plus good.

To avoid potential arrest by the Thought Police, it is advisable to make your way to 2611 W. Michigan St. for the remaining weekend. Information and tickets at www.monumenttheatrecompany.com.

Summit: Feel the love of ‘Mary Jane’

By John Lyle Belden

“Mary Jane,” as the name of both central character and the play presented by Summit Performance Indianapolis, refers not to a quasi-legal substance but to an American everywoman – dealing with one of the worst nightmares a mother could face.

In the drama by acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog (staged Off-Broadway in 2017), Mary Jane – played with bold optimism by Bridget Haight – is the primary caretaker for Alex, a nearly three-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and other conditions likely caused by a brain-bleed during premature birth.

Presented on the intimate confines of the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the play is presented without intermission (as intended) but its scenes present the narrative in two acts: In the first, we are in Mary Jane’s apartment, which includes various medical equipment (much of it unseen behind Alex’s door) and a visiting nurse (Nathalie Cruz). In the second, we are in a hospital which becomes for Mary Jane a sort of home – her son still being cared for just off-stage.

The “third act” is the audience’s ride home, reflecting on what they have seen, heard and felt. Yes, it’s that kind of play. Expect no easy answers, or an ending that brings triumph or catharsis. This is a reflection of real struggles, how we find the strength to confront them, and the search for understanding among others in a similar situation, as well as through faith.

Cruz plays a doctor in the latter half; others in the cast take on dual roles as well. Mara Lisabeth Malloy twice plays a mother with a special-needs child – first a new mom receiving an avalanche of advice from Mary Jane on how to cope; later a Jewish mother of seven who, having faith and family for support, takes the mentor role. Kelsey Johnson is a young woman wanting to help but out of her depth, first as a visitor, charmed by the little boy then overwhelmed by the reality of the situation; later as a musical therapist shaken into not becoming yet another part of Mary Jane’s problems. Jan Lucas bookends the story, at first as a helpful apartment Super, and later as a serenely savvy Buddhist nun.

The play is directed by Summit founding artistic director Lauren Briggeman, who – like Herzog – has some understanding of being a caregiver. It’s easy to see the devotion she and all involved had in giving their production genuine heart – including many moments of appropriately uplifting or soothing humor. Haight plays Mary Jane with great strength, even in passing moments when the facade cracks. Castmates all exhibit empathy so convincingly it seems there truly is a sickly toddler residing on the corner of the set.

If you go to theatre for “the feels,” or are open to, I encourage you to visit “Mary Jane,” with performances through Aug. 18 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.summitperformanceindy.com.

CCP: Trial drama revisits USS Indianapolis tragedy

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the USS Indianapolis, a World War II heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering essential parts of the first atomic bomb, is well known to Hoosiers. But less known is the fact that the ship’s captain, Charles McVay III, was court-martialed afterward – the only U.S. commander to ever face charges for losing a vessel in wartime.

This is portrayed in the drama “The Failure to Zig-Zag,” presented by Carmel Community Players. The title is also one of the charges against McVay – a violation of the practice of constantly changing course in good weather to avoid being targeted. The play by John B. Ferzacca (which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre in 1981) examines the trial, as well as the events that led up to it. It combines courtroom drama with flashbacks to the ship and the survivors’ ordeal, lending elements of horror.

Director Susan Rardin brings this powerful story back to central Indiana with a cast of varying experience, including military veterans, but all dedicated to bringing an important part of history to life. They even got to perform scenes for the annual USS Indianapolis survivors’ reunion.

Tim Latimer portrays McVay with constant unshakable dignity, mingled with disbelief that the Navy to which he had devoted his entire life would so crudely abuse him. Powerful performances run through the entire cast, including Kevin Caraher as Cpt. James Harcourt, the defense counsel; Ron May as Cpt. Dwight Effis, the prosecutor; Robert Fimreite as Rear Adm. David Wall, tasked with keeping the Navy’s reputation spotless; Jeremy Teipen as Lewis Greene, a reporter and grieving father; Brad Staggs as Lt. Cmdr. Alan Brett, the USS Indianapolis Executive Officer; and especially Ron Gotanco as Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto (another unprecedented element of the trial was testimony by the enemy). Other roles, including ship’s crew, were played by Kirk Donlan, Drew Hunter, Hank Kratky, Tyler Marx, Nolan Karwoski, Rich Phipps, Pavel Polochanin, Jeremy Ried, Austin Uebelhor and Joe Wagner.

Wendy and I had an opportunity to read the script over a year ago, and this is one of the plays we had most anticipated. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing this unfold in front of and around you, all based on actual events, tragedy compounded by travesty – but with the spirit of a survivor throughout.

The term “must-see” gets thrown around a lot (even by us) but this play definitely qualifies. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, July 25-28, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Tickets are selling fast (Thursday is already sold out) at www.carmelplayers.org.